VOLATS (Vocabulary Learning and Testing System) was invented by the late Archie Barnes, one of our tutors in Durham and formerly of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.
The principle is beautifully simple. VOLATS is a database
that not only stores your personal vocabulary, but also
tests you on each word at pre-determined time intervals.
You enter 5 new words each day. Once you enter a word,
VOLATS does not allow you to forget it.
Isn't that what every language learner needs?
Before the age of the PC, VOLATS was a paper-based system,
each item of vocabulary written on a square of paper.
Groups of these papers were separated by cut-down index
cards; the whole lot was stored in a shoe-box that had been
cut to half-width. Each piece of vocabulary would slowly
move back through the box as you ran your daily tests, and
be tested less frequently as it went - from daily, to
weekly, to monthly, and eventually (about a year after you
first entered the word in the system) yearly.
Here are Archie's original instructions for the card-based
system, dated 1976, for which I'm indebted to Marie. Armed
with these two pages, we all made our own shoe-box
databases. Those were the days...
A VOLATS database on your PC can of course do all that, and
more. Using the 'Find' command, you can look for words that
include the same kanji. With a field that shows the type of
word (noun, verb etc., to whatever degree of detail you
care to go), you can print a list of similar words to
concentrate on. You could create a layout that shows the
conjugation of i-adjectives or na-adjectives, and apply
that automatically to the appropriate words. See the
various files on the 'Files' page of this site, which are
all extracts from my VOLATS.
I've built my VOLATS using Filemaker Pro. Today, it has
nearly 2,000 entries, with about 400 that have gone all the
way through to yearly testing. Outside term-time, it's not
so easy to find 5 new words each day, but if you cast your
net wide enough that's not really a problem.
Anyone who has FileMaker Pro and would like an empty copy
of VOLATS to test and use, it's available at fmforums, or just drop me a line.
The input screen looks like this:-
To create a new item, hit the 'New' button then enter the
data. To run your daily test, hit the 'Run Test' button;
the day's test is compiled and printed, and all records
If you find you're not confident about a word that's been
in the system for some time (especially important if it's
about to move to yearly testing), use one of the 'happy'
buttons to move the item back to more frequent testing.
'70% happy' would move an item from monthly to weekly
testing; '30% happy' from monthly to daily, '0% happy'
would move it right back to the beginning as if it were a
completely new word.
'Container fields' allow you to add a photo, a sound file
or even a video clip to illustrate the word. I've started
using Google Images to find pictures that include the
Japanese word in the caption. Some online dictionaries and
other resources include sound files. You could use a
recording application such as WireTap to record your own
sound clips from anything you listen to on your computer -
language CDs, songs, radio, TV or film.
I found the phrase 愛する時
in the drama series Hana Yori Dango (花より男子),
recorded it as a sound clip with the rest of the sentence,
and illustrated it with an image from Google:-
The pictures and sound files don't of course appear in your
printed test sheets, but they are there as you browse
through entries on screen. The main benefit though, is that
you spend time thinking about the word or phrase at the
time you are entering it. The first time the item features
in a test is not the first time you've worked on it.
The daily test prints out on sheets of A4, your English
prompts in the right-hand column and the Japanese on the
left. Staple the sheets in the top left-hand corner, and
fold down the middle. You can test English-to-Japanese, and
Have a pen with you when you do a test (whether or not you
write the answers), so you can note any items that need to
be brought back for more frequent testing. It's also good
to note down ideas for other words you want to add to your
VOLATS, sources of vocabulary, particular areas you need to
blitz.... whatever comes to you while your mind is doing
Here is an example of a test sheet:-
VOLATS test example