You’ve probably heard that the best thing for you to do when you learn a language is to try to get your hands on as much native material as possible, and expose yourself to it on a regular if not constant basis. But this is easier said than done. Japanese can be especially tricky, because you first have to literally learn to read the language in order to start absorbing printed content. You can probably pick up hiragana and katakana in an intense week or over a month or two, but kanji, that is completely different.
And, because of this limitation it can be often hard to find level appropriate material that has a script with it that you can read well. Now, you can rough it and hunt down content here and there. But, honestly, that takes a lot of time. I’m constantly getting helpful suggestions from people about what to learn and it still takes me some time to find exactly what I want to learn with.
Luckily, there is a relatively new web-app called FluentU that does all that for you. And luckily for us, they are about to release the Japanese version of their web-app. They also have Chinese, Spanish, French, English, and German if you are interested in picking up another language while you are there.
When you first sign up, you have the option of having a student or teacher (that you can use to monitor your students’ progress) account. After that, you choose your level. There are currently six levels – newbie, elementary, intermediate, upper intermediate, advanced, and native. After you select your level, they offer up some videos that you might be interested in to start learning with.
There is currently no content for native, but the advanced level had some pretty good examples of what to expect – things like movie trailers, news clips, music videos, as well as some clips from TV shows and mini-movies. So, there is a little bit of something for everyone. All of it appears to be freely available content on YouTube. I personally found the ‘advanced’ level to suit me pretty well (studying for N1), but some of the clips from the upper intermediate level were pretty interesting and taught me a few things, too.
Watching videos and learning is pretty straightforward. In the video viewer, you can see the video playing at top and the script (in both English and Japanese) flashes at the bottom. If you want to pause the video, all you have to do is roll your mouse over the script and it will pause automatically for you so that you can check what they are saying on screen. They even give you the option to disable things like the English translation or furigana so that you can just see the native Japanese script, which comes in handy once you have gone through the video a few times.
I should note that the translations are ‘true’ translations giving you the exact feel of what is trying to be expressed, as opposed to literal translations. Literal translations would give you a better word for word match up and help you to understand the individual words a little better, but the ‘true’ translations help give you the whole picture of what is being communicated. If you are worried about missing something, you will be learning the vocabulary individually latter when you drill it after the video.
All the videos have word counts that you can see before you choose to study it, so you have an idea of what you are getting yourself into. After you start learning a video, you can also see a progress bar below it in the home screen so that you can get a clear view of how you are progressing through the different videos.
Of course, watching videos with the script would be pretty cool in and of itself, but they also give you the ability to practice vocabulary and build up a practice deck for you to use and review with. Drilling the vocabulary involves, multiple choice, typing it in, as well as unscrambling sentences. They also make use of the video here and there to play back certain parts for you to translate or unscramble.
When you are practicing words, you also have the choice of clicking ‘already know it’ in order to skip the word and have FluentU ignore it when it comes up again in other videos. This is a really handy feature, because FluentU labels everything in a video for you to learn, and if you fairly advanced with Japanese, you will probably only be learning one word out of every sentence and ignoring the rest. This can get a little tedious, but I feel like after you have gone through your first couple of videos, the process gets a lot quicker because the words you already know start to get auto-ignored.
I feel like the definitions that they use for the words are pretty accurate and not just pulled blindly from a dictionary. They have also split apart fine points like the two different ‘はs’ (there is one that acts as a topic marker, and one used as a contrastive marker). This can be a huge help when you are just starting out with Japanese and would like to discover grammar points instead of simply reading about them in a grammar book somewhere.
Currently in Beta
The Japanese section of the FluentU site is currently in beta, but it has enough content to give you a really good idea of what is to come. Some features are currently missing, like for example, there is no audio content, and as mentioned before there are no videos for the native level. I’m sure those things will be added at a later date as they start to flesh out the whole site, so I would keep that in mind as you feel your way around.
All of the core features work, and there is plenty of core content to keep you busy while they build out the rest. The most important and time-consuming part of creating the Japanese side of things was probably fine-tuning the dictionary and getting all the mechanics up and running, so I hope they can start to dish out some good content.
I think this is a really handy system for any level of learner. One of the biggest headaches of trying to learn with native materials is hunting down and curating all of the native material you need to make that happen. FluentU makes that task really easy for you to do and also has a handy built-in vocabulary learning system to help you master the content without having you go out and try to create flashcards yourself.
And although this vocabulary practice system is pretty handy, it might be a little inconvenient if you rely on another system like Memrise or Anki to study your vocabulary. They do have an option, with a pro account, to download the list of words so that you can practice them outside of their system, though.
Try it for Yourself!
FluentU is currently in private beta (soon to be in public beta). But don’t worry! I have some private beta invites for you. All you have to do is enter your email address below, so that I can send you the private beta invite. You are NOT signing up for my newsletter, although you can if you want to. Your email will be kept safe and not sold to anybody for any reason.