The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

« Previous Post | Technology Home | Next Post »

13 apps in 30 days: An update on apps that teach Japanese

March 26, 2010 |  6:37 pm

I didn’t expect to have an update on learning Japanese through iPhone apps in just a few days, but I’ve already had a few good and bad experiences with specific apps that I thought I should share.

I’m also realizing that Japanese isn’t exactly a walk in the park, and apparently the State Department agrees with me. The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department has a list of 63 languages that it ranks in terms of difficulty. According to the institute, the five most difficult languages to learn for English speakers are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Can you guess which one the Foreign Service Institute considers to be the most difficult from that group? Yep, it’s Japanese.

So far I’ve taken a look at Start Japanese! and Japanese Free.

Start Japanese: Start Japanese is extremely worthwhile. In fact it’s so good that after trying it for a while, you probably wouldn’t expect Japanese to be a hard language to learn. The free version of the app features Tutorthree different lessons. The great thing is, you can just listen to the tutorial part of the app; reading the text that pops up along with the audio isn’t essential. I listened to the tutorial lesson called “introducing verbs” and the app was incredibly clear and went at the perfect pace for a beginner. It introduces two verbs, explains that almost all verbs in their polite form end in “masu” and brings attention to the pronunciation of the “u” sound at the end of the word. It also goes over verb-noun sequence and placement of the marker “o” in Japanese. There was also a writing section as well and a quiz section toward the end.

After testing the app: I went into work pretty excited to tell David Lazarus (a business columnist, formerly a reporter in Japan) the new sentences I could construct. My sentence “I eat sushi” didn’t come out perfectly, but he figured out what I was trying to say.

Japanese Free: I took a look at Japanese Free, which simply has the alphabet set up in a slide show fashion. I wanted to be able to remember all the characters in just one or two sessions, so I tried coming up with creative ways to memorize the characters. For example, the character for “sa” looks like a “d” with a line through it. So if I can remember the English word “sad” when I think about the sound “sa,” I’m able to easily remember the character it represents. For the character “so,” I imagined the numeral 7 on top of the letter “C” and tried thinking of 7 kids in a class shrugging their shoulders and saying “so?” when they received a “C” So grade on their Japanese test. Some characters are impossible to remember, like “fu,” for example. “Fu” looks like the number 3 with sparks flying out of it.

After testing the app:After trying to memorize a lot of the alphabet, I realized that Japanese doesn’t have just one writing system – it has four. Fantastic. I started realizing why Japanese isn’t considered as easy as I initially thought. The frustrating thing for me was that Japanese Free didn’t shed light on the fact that it is actually showing you only the hiragana characters, and that katakana, kanji and romaji are three alternate alphabet sets you can learn. It turns out that for my purposes, the most essential ones to learn are hiragana and katakana (kanji are the Chinese characters used for modern Japanese and if you can already read English, romaji will come naturally). Through additional Googling, I found something that was significantly more helpful than the Japanese Free app – the Japanese alphabet song on Youtubethat simultaneously showed the hiragana, katakana and romaji characters that correspond to each sound. It's an addictive alphabet video, and I can pretty much guarantee you'll memorize the Japanese alphabet song after watching it two or three times.

I’ll be blogging about the remaining 11 apps in the next few weeks.

--Zohreen Adamjee