Duolingo: Japanese

Duolingo: Japanese

Difficulty: ☠☠ (There is a catch though)
Rating: ✫✫✫ (I would give it 4 stars if your proficiency is higher_

So about a week or two ago, Duolingo (finally) released a Japanese module. Seeing as today I received an e-mail announcing it’s official release, I figured it was only fair that I write review on it now.

For those who don’t know, Duolingo is a free app which attempts to teach users a language through repetition of vocabulary and basic sentence structure. Each subject (sports, weather, family, etc) are a different module. Each module has several lessons. Each lesson has about a dozen questions (I believe some are shorter or longer than others). As you complete modules you unlock the ability to study further modules. You also gain XP and occasionally gems which can be used to buy convenience and aesthetic options from the shop. Once you complete a module, it is “At full strength” with five full bars. As the days pass, the bars begin to go down, encouraging you to redo the lessons before you forget what you learned. The speed at which the bars degrade is to some extent determined by how many mistakes you made while doing the tests.

At the time of writing this review, I am on a 12 day streak, have completed 23.8 modules and am about level 8 or 9 (not really certain where to check that…)

Pros:

  • The Repetition is Surprisingly Effective
  • The Module Subject Matter is Very Useful
  • The Lessons Never Feel Arduous or Painfully Long
  • It is Relatively Addicting
  • The 6 Types of Questions Helps With Memorization
  • I Have Noticed Dramatic Improvement in my Japanese Since Using
  • You get to practice writing, reading, AND listening skills which not many apps force you to do

Cons

  • Some Audio Cues Are Missing or Wrong in Certain Circumstances
  • It Uses a lot of Textbook Japanese, Not Natural Japanese
  • It Can be a Little TOO Picky Sometimes (You can’t say ‘a hospital’, you must say ‘THE hospital!'”
  • The amount of adds have upset some users (though honestly it is less obnoxious than some apps I’ve used)

Conclusion:

I want to point out, that at the time of writing this review, Duolingo Japanese is still VERY new and as such it would be unfair to act like this is all the app will ever be. However, AT THIS POINT, I would say that Duolingo Japanese is effective, but only if you have a decent grasp on the Japanese language already and DEFINITELY not to be used on it’s own.

While the app is INCREDIBLY simple and honestly you learn things without realizing you are learning it, I worry that the numerous false pronunciations, and more importantly, textbook case Japanese will create some bad habits for new Japanese learners which will be hard for them to break later on.

Again I hope that they polish these bugs out as time goes on as this IS an app I think holds a lot of potential, though maybe not quite ready for a language as complicated as Japanese yet. If you are a new user and still really want to use it, the more power to you! I think it’s great for seeing how sentence structure works in practice. BUT I really strongly suggest getting another Japanese grammar textbook to read on the side. It will save you a lot of pain in the future. (Read through this blog to find a number of textbooks and resources I recommend!)

HelloTalk

HelloTalk

Difficulty: ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

HelloTalk is an app which lets you chat directly with native speakers of whatever language you want to learn. The translate tools are surprisingly useful having both translate and transpose in case you still want to attempt the Japanese but are stuck on the kanji.

Much like Lang8, HelloTalk allows users to correct each others’ messages line for line, though it can be a touch glitchy.

If you are a basic member you will have a daily translate limit, but that disappears if you become premium. On top of this, they have recently added a section similar to twitter where you can write posts which will be shown by everyone who speaks the language you want to learn. This is a far more effective method for finding people than the original search feature and also lets you have some casual chats with strangers.

With the ability to chat, leave messages, leave audio messages, send pictures, and audio call each other, it is an app with many useful tools. I cannot speak for the English community, but almost everyone I have met on that app so far has been helpful and fun to talk to. I will leave a slight warning though NOT to talk to anyone who says hi but isn’t from the language you have selected as what you are interested in. They pop up from time to time somehow and in my case at least, have almost always ended badly making me think they are probably troll accounts.

My main complaint about the app would have to be the way chat history is saved. Instead of saving your chat history to a cloud network such as what facebook messenger would do, it instead saves your chats directly to your device. This is a bad idea for two reasons.

1) this means that you can only be logged in to one device at a time, which is hard for people like me who use their phones for notifications and tablet for messaging. It also means that if you are not near your commonly used device, you cannot simply switch over to continue your conversation as your past messages are only on one device

2) It fills up your device’s memory after a while!

Tofugu

Tofugu

Difficulty:  ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

Tofugu is a (relatively tongue in cheek) blog which covers a variety of topics for people interested in Japanese or Japan. Run by some enjoyably geeky people, you can enjoy reading posts, resources, or my personal favourite, get a weekly message from them with a list of their top Japanese-y things they’ve enjoyed this week.

They’re enjoyable, informational, and well written. Not much else to say other than look them up!

Erin’s Challenge: Japan Foundation

Erin’s Challenge: Japan Foundation

Difficulty:  ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫

Erin’s Challenge is a short video series describing the adventures of a high school transfer student who comes to Japan. The acting is okay. Ironically I find the side characters to be my favourites. It is also interesting how while the basic lessons follow Erin, the advanced lesson’s follow Erin’s Japanese friends during the same time line. (AKA Lesson 1 basic happens at the same time as Lesson 1 Advanced though with different people)

There is also a pretty advanced subtitle version so you follow along with subtitles in Romaji, English, Kana, or Kanji. Reading while listening does help a lot so I highly suggest it!

Finally there is a cute feature added on where for the basic lessons there is an animated manga version of each episode that I had to admit was pretty enjoyable to read. I kind of wish they had it for the Advanced version as well!

There is not really much else to say about the site. It has flashcards, and a few other standard features. But at the same time I found it pretty enjoyable! Give it a shot if you have an afternoon!

Kakehashi Japan

Kakehashi Japan

Difficulty:  ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

This one is a tricky one to give on accurate rating on as it’s not so much a learning site as much as a resource tutors can use to teach other people.

The concept is simple: Tutors in Japan set what times they have available to teach students Japanese, and people wanting to learn Japanese book those time slots for themselves. Then when the allotted time comes, you both do a lesson over skype video chat, and your payment for the lesson gets transferred over the site.

I will confess I have only done the one free lesson that comes with the account, but it was a VERY pleasant experience that I wish was more in my budget zone! Lessons are about $26 per lesson, so the price adds up quickly!

The site itself lets you see the tutors’ profiles, schedule, focuses, as well as reviews from past students. This lets you get a good idea if you both would be a good match or not, and I can say (at least in my case) I had a very friendly tutor!

Japanesepod101

Japanesepod101

Difficulty:  ☠ –  ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

I have been with Japanesepod101.com for about 2-3 years now and have had basic and premium membership both. I am going to state my one qualm with the site up front so we can get it over with…. you are going to get a TON of e-mails from these guys and they will seem very spammy… but if you can get passed that it’s worth it!

Japanesepod101 has been going for quite a few years now and as such it has a TON of videos and podcasts for various levels of Japanese proficiency. I mean a TON! I have been here 3 years and I’m still not done! (though I have relistened to a ton as well… If you are unsure about joining, I suggest checking out their channel on youtube which they have been getting a lot better at keeping updated as of late. My favourite lessons are still the original ones with Peter and his team as I really found the three of them had the most natural chemistry, but their new host Risa is also equally enjoyable to listen to.

They have a variety of lessons, from grammar, to writing, to Japanese culture, and my favourite part is that they tend to have fun with it. There are times when acting seems forced or such, but there is rarely a time when you can’t tell the actors are enjoyably bouncing off of each other!

Their top level membership will let you have access to a teacher who will give you weekly assignments, and while that in itself is a fairly nice concept, I would appreciate it if it was more a tutor relationship where you felt more open to discuss issues and questions vs simply “Do the assignment. Okay here’s what was wrong” Because of this I can’t QUITE suggest the premium plus membership unless you have the time or desire to do more assignments, but anything below that is more than worth the annual fee!

Spark Charts Japanese Vocabulary

Spark Charts Japanese Vocabulary

Difficulty:

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

This is a chart I always keep close by! The Sparkcharts chart is a binder sized insert which contains a number of cheat notes useful to the beginning Japanese learner. From pronunciation, to numbers, to dates and times, weather, greetings, colours, directions, body parts, relationships, clothing, health, adjectives, adverbs, and more, this chart is chock full of useful vocab that is incredibly easy to forget. My personal favourite is the “Verb” section which I do wish was about twice the size that it is. I cannot tell you how many times I have paused a conversation with someone to quickly and subtly flip through this insert. It has saved my butt countless times, and I hope it will for you as well!

Japanese the Manga Way (Wayne P Lammers)

Japanese the Manga Way (Wayne P Lammers)

Difficulty:  ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

This is one of my most recent textbooks I have gotten my hands on and it… is… brilliant! Let’s admit it, a good 80-90% of people who will be reading a post like this probably have SOME ties at least to manga and anime. IT IS TIME TO CHANNEL YOUR INNER NERDOM…. TO HELP YOUR BIGGER INNER NERDOM!!!

As for what I like about this book. The concept is actually incredibly simple… It simply will explain one example, then show a scene from some famous manga using said example. It will write out the scene in kanji, kana, romaji, direct translation, and complete translation, then it will explain what was said and why. It then takes the things you’ve learned from that lesson and build on that for the next lesson.

Ultimately it is simple. Each chapter has multiple examples which are each about half a page long, yet because it is so broken up and instantly tied to an example, it is by far one of the easiest textbooks to follow.

The book starts you from zero and works it’s way up, however I would suggest at least getting the basics of Japanese sentences down before taking this book on. A) it will make the textbook more enjoyable to you and B) this book focuses a lot more on casual sentences than polite sentences. It does explain this fact and does a very good job tracking with what politeness level is being used in what sentences, but I do still feel you would get a lot more out of it once you have some basics of Japanese culture and sentence structure down. Plus it will be more fun!

The JLPT N5-N1 Study Guides

The JLPT N5-N1 Study Guides

Difficulty:  ☠ ☠ – ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

Rating:  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

This one is sort of cheating as it’s not really a textbook as much as a study guide for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) But honestly… if you are taking studying Japanese seriously, I HIGHLY recommend looking at these sooner or later. You won’t really be taught anything by them, but it’s useful to keep them nearby as a metric for how far you are progressing in your studies! Currently my end goal is N3-N2…. though I’m probably closer to N5.

PS: Just make sure to remember N5 is the EASIEST test and N1 is the HARDEST test… REMEMBER THIS! Lest you face the trauma of feeling your 2 years studying was completely wasted as you don’t even understand the questions on the easiest test let alone the answers! (somewhat experienced)

A Guide to Japanese Grammar (Tae Kim)

A Guide to Japanese Grammar (Tae Kim)

Difficulty  ☠ ☠ ☠

Rating  ✫ ✫ ✫ ✫

Every now and then I get a nice, cheap text book on my kindle that makes me feel “This should have cost me a lot more than it did. And this book is DEFINITELY one of them!

I will warn you up front lest the skulls and crossbones above not perform their job… this book will NOT hold your hand going through it… in fact the author makes certain to point out that this book won’t, because he considers holding your hand to be problematic to your learning.

What does this mean exactly? Well for starters you’ll be learning the kanji from page 1… yep! We dive in full force here! He does take the time to explain the Japanese writing system and such so it is not too extreme a dive, but it is still a bit daunting compared to other books I have read. But I won’t lie… it works.. I am a slow learner, but there are definitely some kanji I recognize now right away such as 食べる (taberu/to eat) which in my opinion is the most important verb you can know! 😉

Why does this work? I think a large reason for this, is that the author takes the extra effort to write out every word that will be used in the chapter at the beginning of the chapter. This means that when you do get stuck on a word (in my case at least once a sentence) you can easily flip back and check to see what it was. This does make me wish I bought the physical copy instead of the kindle version but…. if I did that there was no way I could afford all the books in this review 😛

Other than that, it is basically a book describing why Japanese grammar works the way it does. If you have worked in languages before it is very interesting learning the history and logic behind Japanese grammar and I found it very useful, however I would only suggest this book once you have a good grasp of the very basics of Japanese. Otherwise it is very easy to get cold feet and run