It’ll be awhile before I’m happy with the tutorial for learning kana. Thankfully, the current scope of this blog is more than just touting some miracle system for mastering syllabaries. That said, we will now examine something with which I’m sure many of you are familiar: language learning applications on smartphones.
On the quest for knowledge, in this modern age, it becomes painfully evident that useful resources are rare. On top of this, most textbooks and classes are designed so rigidly that the student is often left in the dark about the “bigger picture.” Pages, chapters, and even semesters pass yet the student hasn’t begun to conceptualize the art of linguistics itself. Being so tied up in grammar and vocab, many often lose sight of language’s true nature. That is a big problem; a problem that is only being amplified by many language resources today. Here, I’ll discuss some of my experiences, suggestions, and so on.
About four days ago, a co-worker of mine suggested the app “Memrise” during a discussion we had about studying Japanese. He is still very new to Japanese and has practically no skill in it, but he’s head over heels for the app. So, I decided to try it. For reference, I’ve only practiced light, independent study of Japanese for about two years. I’m not even close to fluent, but I can read all kana, have a good understanding of kanji, and know enough grammar to wield a textbook. I would consider myself an amateur, but I do have intermediate skill.
I will say that, once you get past the kana courses, Memrise is pretty addicting. However, it is not suitable for a beginner. I doubt anyone will ever successfully master kana with Memrise because they explain absolutely nothing about diphthongs (i.e. ちゃ), lengthened vowels (i.e. どう) or any feature of the writing system for that matter. They seem to target only the most sagacious users, I suppose, by throwing it all in at once; flashcard style. To no one’s surprise, my co-worker isn’t doing very well with kana and has been repeating lessons on the app endlessly.
Another app that is comparable to Memrise is Mondly. They have several language apps and the name in the Google Play Store is a bit strange: Learn Japanese. Speak Japanese by ATi Studios. Once again, don’t even bother if you can’t read kana because this one has absolutely no lessons on it. Unfortunately, the app does permit the sole use of romaji, but it makes up for that by allowing Japanese keyboard input. It’s the best of both worlds, I guess. Memrise and Mondly have very different user interfaces, but the learning strategies are quite similar. Both applications are free with options of a paid membership (Mondly is MUCH cheaper). I haven’t used either of them very extensively, but I would suggest either one.
Human Japanese by Brak Software is certainly a step above the rest. I will say, if you don’t like to read, this app is not for you. The beginner course consists of over 40 chapters many of which contain over 30 slides of raw text and grammar tables. It really is a digital textbook. For once, they do make a fine attempt to teach the user kana even going as far as to explain diphthongs and so on. Ultimately, this app is grammar intensive and introduces a lot of vocab. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever taken a foreign language class, you know how boring learning all the words for traveling (airport, luggage, check in, reservation, etc.) can be, but hey; you have to start somewhere. I completely finished the beginner course and got about halfway through the intermediate before I gave it a break to study kanji. I must say, it’s awesome, but it’s a lot to take in.
Memrise, Mondly, and Human Japanese are a class of language apps that I would call Adventure Learning Apps. That is to say, they take you on a “journey” through different parts of the culture or otherwise teach you the language in story-like approach. I must admit that they are very engaging, but only advanced users can really get the most out of them. In the end, nothing beats a good old dictionary and textbook. Nowadays, nothing beats Microsoft Office either.
I learned, and continue to learn, most of my Japanese using textbooks; physical and digital kanji dictionaries; and Microsoft Office (Google Docs/Sheets/Slides on my phone). It’s nothing really special that I do. Actually, it’s just taking and reiterating notes trying to come up with new questions that might not get answered for months or even years. The idea, however, is that I’m doing it; even if only for a few minutes.
It would probably help if I told you which textbooks and dictionaries I use, huh?
- First of all, https://www.wiktionary.org/ is a lifesaver. If it wasn’t for that lovely website… just trust me.
- The Google Play Store has a Japanese dictionary app simply titled Japanese made by developer Spacehamster. I love this app.
- Hanping Chinese Dictionary by embermitre in the Play Store. Lets face it, sometimes you look for a kanji for hours and it turns out it’s only in Chinese. This is a nice app for that.
- The Google Translate app. Take a picture of a kanji and convert it to text? Yes, please!
- http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/ owner Tae Kim has his complete course in app form in the Play Store called Learning Japanese by developer Ignatius Reza.
- The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course by Andrew Scott Conning and Japanese Kanji and Kana by Wolfgang Hadamitzky & Mark Spahn are both physical kanji dictionaries. I highly recommend them not only for their usefulness, but for the additional content they provide. It’s not much, but they serve as great resources for learning things like stroke count and understanding the subtleties behind the writing system.
- Japanese From Zero‘s George Trombley. Wow… I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of this guy. I’ve never tried his books, but his YouTube channel is off the hook; free, well made video lectures from a fluent speaker.
- http://maggiesensei.com/ is quite well done. She does a fantastic job at explaining things.
Other than that, once you can read kana, it’s pretty much an open road. I’ve used books and websites that I’ll never remember. Where did I learn the different positions of radicals within a kanji? Probably Wikipedia, but I know I looked elsewhere, too. The same goes for just about any concept in any field of study – you just have to start looking. I stand firm, however, in the fact that all of this begins only after learning how to read kana.