Learning to write your address in Japanese

September 7th, 2011

Today, a detailed walkthrough on using KanjiBox‘s Learning Sets and KanjiDraw features together to make your life in Japan much easier. This tip focusses on learning to write your own address in Japanese, but work just the same for any other particular set of kanji.

If you are anything like me (and the vast majority of Japanese students out there), your reading skills are vastly superior to your writing skills. Which is just OK most of the time, since we live in the 21st century and nobody handwrites anymore.

Well, beside the fact that you should definitely reconsider (I know I have) and spend some time learning to write (yay: KanjiDraw!) in order to better read… There are also these pesky occasions where (hand)writing is mandatory. Usually, that’s when you are standing at the Kuyakusho/Shiyakusho, sweating bullets in front of a standard form asking to know who you are and where you live. Of course, you could always try filling it in romaji but 1) that’s not always an option 2) it would be no fun.

Fear not: with the tip below and a couple spare minutes during your morning train commute, you will soon be able to impress any bored local government employee with your amazing kanji-writing skills.

Note: click on any of the picture to see a slideshow with full-size versions.

New Features in KanjiBox 2.0

June 3rd, 2011

KanjiBox 2.0 for iPhone has finally been approved by Apple and is hitting the App Store today.

First and foremost, this new version should bring more stability, with a few major (and many minor) annoying bugs fixed!

Feature-wise, here are some of the main additions to KanjiBox 2.0:

  • Sync: KB can now sync to your online KB account (creating one if necessary), allowing you to share stats and learning data between as many devices (and the online version) as you please. Also giving allowing you to recover your data in case your application gets mistakenly removed from the device.
  • MultiPlayer: is finally up and usable (previous release mistakenly included it, long before it was ready). Working notification system makes it easier to be informed when other users are joining.
  • Learning Sets for Kanji: Learning Sets can now be either Vocab or Kanji. Kanji learning sets can be used with Kanji Def and Missing Kanji drills, as well as KanjiDraw.
  • Customisable Menu: main menu can be re-ordered (and items moved from/to the main menu) using the Edit Menu button. That way you can keep all the items important to you, easily accessible from the front menu.
  • VoiceOver support: makes KanjiBox partly accessible to blind and visually-impaired users. This feature can also be used by sighted users to have their device read Japanese text on the screen (see more info here).
  • UI improvements: nicer controls and improved graphics. Say hi to KanjiBox’s new mascots: キツネちゃん & タヌキくん! (check out Quiz mode).
  • Automated Crash report: lets you automatically send me useful info when you experience a crash (using the QuincyKit lib for iPhone).

This covers all the main stuff for this release… Many more exciting features are in the pipeline for next version (I will soon post here a tentative roadmap for next version).


Built-in Japanese Screen Reader in iOS

May 24th, 2011

While working on implementing accessibility features for the upcoming release of KanjiBox (more on that soon), I realised that iOS’s built-in VoiceOver feature made an incredibly useful tool for reading Japanese text.

I could kick myself for not finding it earlier (it’s been in iOS for nearly a year).

Detailed instructions, complete with screenshots, on enabling and using iOS’s VoiceOver feature.

In slightly related news: upcoming version of KB (ETA: early June 2011) brings advanced support for VoiceOver which should make some of the drills and screens playable by blind and visually impaired users (please get in touch if you are interested in beta-testing it and giving me first-hand feedback on accessibility).

KanjiBox goes Universal…

March 22nd, 2011

When the iPad first came out, it was in theory possible to produce “universal” applications: apps that ran natively on both iPhone/iPod and iPad devices. However, Apple made it quite difficult to do so, by keeping versions of iOS between the two devices out of sync for over a year (3.2 on the iPad, 4.x on the iPhone): this meant a lot more work to support a universal application, in addition to the initial work of optimising iPhone layouts and code for iPad screens. Furthermore, iTunes Store’s slowass approval process made it a scary thought imposing yet another string of initial bug-fixing releases for both iPad and legacy iPhone users.

For all these reasons and the usual lack of time, I originally decided to develop and release the iPad version of KanjiBox separately. Although less than ideal, this choice allowed me to release an iPad-optimised version reasonably early instead of waiting for better development conditions.

A year later, Apple has finally cleaned up its line-up and brought iPad’s OS version up to speed with the iPhone. It was time to finally put in the time and effort necessary to merge the two versions.

The merge is finally over! You can now download a version of KanjiBox that will run natively on all iOS devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad, iToilet…)

This version replaces the formerly iPhone/iPod-only version in the Apple store, meaning it is a transparent upgrade for users of this version.

If you previously purchased the iPad version, things are unfortunately a little more complicated… Please: Read the rest of this entry »

Coming up: Multiplayer!

February 27th, 2011

I am currently beta-testing the next breakthrough feature for KanjiBox: online multiplayer mode!

Once thoroughly debugged and polished, this new addition to the KanjiBox toolbox will allow all iPhone/iPod/iPad users to play against each other in real time, through a centralised server. I have already had a couple test matches with friends and let me tell you: it quickly pulls you in.

In other news, iPhone/iPod and iPad versions are in the process of being merged. Meaning that instead of two separate applications on the App Store, there should soon be only one, running natively on both types of device.

If you are a user of the iPhone user, nothing will change (except for the fact that you will be able to run the app natively on an iPad). If you have the iPad version: next release will be the last update and you will need to purchase the iPhone version to get newer features. Because of the way the App Store works, there is no way to smoothly upgrade iPad users to the “universal” (iPhone/iPad) version. In order to make up for having to re-purchase the app, there will be a free unlocking of all in-app purchases for all iPad users. Unfortunately, this is all I can do…

In the meantime, I highly recommend iPad users either hold off, or purchase the iPhone version instead (it will run non-natively until the merged version arrives in a couple weeks).

KanjiDraw and KanaDraw

November 9th, 2010

Version 1.4 of KanjiBox brought KanjiDraw, version 1.5 is bringing KanaDraw (among many other cool and exciting features).

These two features add a completely new dimension to KanjiBox, allowing you to improve something at the heart of Japanese studies (and, until now, extremely hard to practice without a real teacher): handwriting!

Like most Japanese students (me included), you probably barely ever need to write Japanese by hand. The ubiquitous use of phones/computers/etc. makes it nearly redundant. And yet, knowing how to properly write by hand is much more important than it may originally seem:

  • A perfect master of kana is obviously crucial. Without it, you are functionally illiterate in Japan, unable to properly fill-in any form or other piece of administrative paper that fills your daily life.
  • Aside from the obvious direct use of knowing how to write kanji and kana, knowing how to write them, having paid attention to ever single stroke, will dramatically improve your ability to read and remember them. You cannot hope to go beyond a certain level of Japanese without a working knowledge of stroke order (useful for lookups) and kanji sub-radicals: it is all too easy to learn a few hundred kanji by memorising their overall aspect (and not really paying attention to their radicals), but it will come and bite you in the arse when you start learning more and more complex variations.

Both KanjiBox and KanjiDraw use even more complex algorithms than the original Drill&Quiz methods to analyse your strokes and propose custom corrections. They are extremely strict on the stroke order (no way around that), but allow a fair bit of leeway on the shapes etc., in order to make up for the difficulty of tracing the characters with a finger on a touchscreen. The difficulty (including the level of strictness) goes increasing with your performance.

Of course, these new modes use the same adaptive learning algorithm used by all other parts of KanjiBox, meaning that entries are automatically selected on the basis of how well your past performances have been.

Have fun with these new features and don’t hesitate to leave your impressions here or contact me directly…

A Brief Taxonomy of App Reviews

November 4th, 2010

KanjiBox 1.5 is currently going through beta-testing and, while I wait for feedbacks and bug reports (fingers crossed for a public release by mid-november), I thought I’d mention something funny I noticed about KanjiBox App Store reviews (but that probably applies equally well to most other app reviews out there). Absolutely nothing of substance regarding KB dev or upcoming features in the present post (that stuff is coming in another post, when release is impending).

In theory, app store reviews are a great way to promote your app through word of mouth and for users to avoid paying for sleek-looking crappy apps. Human nature being what it is, things rarely work out like that. Leaving review is not only optional, but even slightly difficult for most casual users. People with specific grievances are much more likely to make the extra effort to gripe on the review page than regular happy users.

This would not be such a problem, if all users were equally thoughtful rational people who read the doc before complaining about missing features (that are in fact there) or random lack of compatibility (despite warnings in big bold letters)… I have in the past downloaded perfectly fine apps, with horrendous rating average which, upon closer inspection, were due to a handful ultra-negative reviews bemoaning the lack of feature X or Y (when usually feature X or Y would be either useless or already implemented).

But back to KanjiBox. Over time, I have noticed something interesting about negative/mediocre reviews… Every single one of them can be put in one of three categories: regular, kindergarten blackmailer and… French!

Let me explain… Read the rest of this entry »

Supporting New JLPT Levels

September 28th, 2010

As you probably know if you are planning to take JLPT in the near future, the test has received a massive overhaul this year. Among other major changes (along with new passing requirements etc), was the introduction of a new level breakdown, replacing the old 4級-1級 (“4-kyuu” etc., henceforth referred to as J4-J1, for simplicity’s sake):

N1: the same passing level as the original level 1, but able to gauge slightly more advanced skills, possibly through equating of test scores.
N2: the same as the original level 2
N3: in between the original level 2 and level 3
N4: the same as the original level 3
N5: the same as the original level 4
Source: official guidelines, via Wikipedia

As you can see, the only real change is the addition of a new intermediate N3 level, between former J2 and J3 levels.

Unfortunately, another feature was introduced in the revised JLPT: there are no official content specification, “so as to discourage people from studying exclusively from lists of words of kanji”1. This means there is absolutely no way to know what words and kanji belong to level N3 (for our sake, we will pretend that the lists inherited from former levels, wouldn’t change all that much, since the required proficiency level remains the same).

What about all these webpages/applications that have “N3 Vocabulary/Kanji Lists” etc.?

They are all 100% based on guesswork. How sound a guesswork, depends a lot on the site/application (some lists out there are particularly wonky), as well as the section concerned: kanji can be reasonably broken down from the original J2 set (about 750 kanji) into two sets of approximately equal size using native Japanese school levels (grade 3 and 4 make N3, while grade 5 and 6 belong to N2). For vocabulary lists, however, there is no easy way to separate: most sites use newspaper word frequency to make their guess, a criterion that is anything but reliable, if past levels are any indication.

What about those textbooks that offer preparation for N3?

It is very *cough* unclear how publishers know what words and kanji to include in their N3 textbooks. On the off chance that they know what they are doing, we (the KanjiBox community at large) have started compiling lists of kanji and words spotted in N3 textbooks (as well as official exams and mock exams). But as you can imagine, it will be some time before such lists can reach sufficient maturity to be used in KanjiBox (feel free to contribute, though!).

So, what about KanjiBox, then?

Here is the plan for future versions of KanjiBox, with regard to revised JLPT levels:

1. In a near future, KanjiBox will start using new JLPT level names. Meaning that J4, J3, J2, J1 will become N5, N4, N2 and N1 respectively. Absolutely nothing about each level content will change.

2. Within a few months, KanjiBox will start offering an “experimental” N3 level, with lists based on a mix of guesswork and textbook curation (see above).

In the meantime, I would recommend people planning to take N3 to first set their goal at J3 and later update their settings to J2 (keeping in mind that N3 should cover considerably content than former J2, but since there are no clear lists, it cannot hurt to extend your knowledge a little).

PS: since we are on the topic of levels: many people have contacted me to request the possibility of setting separate levels for each mode (kanji, vocab etc). This is coming! (most likely in the next upgrade, sometime in October).

  1. A laudable goal, really… made ever so slightly suspicious by the fact that it hasn’t stopped publishers from putting out revised JLPT textbooks that mysteriously seem to know exactly what content belongs to what level. But only the most cynical minds would suggest some collusion between JLPT people and their publisher buddies, with lists changing hands over sake and dinner. So we won’t. []

New iPhone Beta: 1.3.3

June 8th, 2010

A new beta is available to beta-testers at the usual download location.

This new version includes support for horizontal mode and the possibility to resize the “hint” area by dragging it up/down.

Please let me know if you run into any problem using it.

Android Version

June 1st, 2010

Many people have inquired on the chances of a version of KanjiBox for Android. Indeed, not everybody out there wants to rely on the whims of Apple for their content and Android devices have come a long way: I completely hear you.

Unfortunately, the short answer is that KanjiBox for Android won’t be happening anytime soon. As in: not happening in the next 3-to-6 months, which is generally about as far as I can see in my life (feel free to keep your hopes up for after that, but the chances of my forfeiting all ties to the material world and joining a Zen monastery are at least on par).

As for a more detailed answer and overview of the reasons behind this regrettable decision, feel free to read on if you have some time to kill:
Read the rest of this entry »