Checking Up on Apps

Checking Up on Apps post image

I’ve been making my studying a lot more natural these days, mostly because it has to be.  I am doing a lot more correspondence in Japanese.  I have tried to switch away from simply learning Japanese and moving toward using Japanese in order to get what I want.  Let me try to explain.

When you first start studying a language, you are kind of just going through the motions of learning the basics.  At the moment, I’m very casually studying Spanish in an attempt to resurrect what I know of that language.  I decided to start at the bottom with Duolingo, which means learning stuff like hello, good morning, I drink milk, etc…

At this first point, you are learning a language like you learn any other subject.  You digest stuff, try to memorize stuff, take a quiz, and get some points for your efforts.  It is a lot of fun at first.  But after a few months or a year or so, it can get quite tiresome.  You might be wondering why you are studying all this stuff.

So, it is good at some point to switch to something native.  Some language gurus will recommend mixing in native materials from day one, which I agree with it.  Unfortunately, native Japanese materials can be tough to read from day one, so you might have to wait a little while, or get some kind of aid like rikai-chan/kun for browsers.

I’ve gotten to the point that I can read most material with only minor difficulties.  Especially if it is something prepared like a newspaper article.  Other things like casual messages sent back and forth among a team can sometimes prove a little challenging due to lack of context, but I’ve been slowly improving in that department lately.

Luckily, I’ve been doing a lot of reading for work lately.  This is a good thing, because now I’m not studying Japanese just to study, I’m learning words that are relevant to me, and help me do a better job.  I’ve had to do a lot of typing in Japanese lately too.  I’m not always well-understood, but again, I’m slowly getting better at it.

More Freelance Work

About a year ago, I got a promotion at my main job that used a lot of Japanese.  It was an interesting job, and I learned a lot about working at a Japanese company.  Fortunately or not, I learned that working at a traditional Japanese company is not my cup of tea.  The slavish devotion of large chunks of time to going over numbers didn’t seem like an effective use of my time or anyone’s time for that matter.

So, I stepped down from that position and I’m focusing more on freelancing now.  I’ve noticed that people tend to make use of their time a lot more efficiently when doing freelance work in Japan.  This is especially true if it is in a new industry like programming.

A million years ago, before I set sail for Japan, I was a programmer in the States.  I’ve recently decided to take the craft back up again and see what programming in Japanese is like.  Although I haven’t made huge headway into the industry, I’m being mentored through the process by a few people.

It has been a bit intimidating at first, sorting through all the new terms and ways of doing things in a different language.  There is a lot of weird jargon that surrounds the industry of course.  And picking that up in a different language has been a fun challenge.

Needless to say I’ve been getting a lot of good natural practice.  And the most important thing is that this is communication that I’m motivated to learn.  It’s exciting to learn about new programming skills in Japanese (to me).  It is far more entertaining than sitting through someone barfing out numbers, which could have just as easily been conveyed with a sheet of paper.

And I think this is where a lot of people get bogged down with language learning.  They go through the study books, buy more study books, go through those, and then wonder why it is not all that fun.  You really need to attach to something you like to do.  Does this mean it might take a little longer to pass a certain level of the test?  Maybe.  But, that is far better than simply giving up out of exhaustion.

Checking in on Some Apps

Busuu, a very popular language learning app, has recently added Japanese.  If you are not familiar with Busuu, they take a very conversational and interactive approach to learning a language.  They have managed to create a great little system that makes it quite easy and fun for you to learn.  It provides a healthy amount of variety and feedback to keep you studying.

And at first I thought it’s new Japanese courses were great.  There are a lot of useful conversations that put the phrases and vocabulary into context.  There are handy little quizzes to show you have mastered a level.  I would say what they call B2 is enough to get you to around the N4 level in terms of grammar, and approximately the N2 level in terms of vocabulary.   And this is all fine and good.

However, all the courses, including the intermediate ones, are all in kana.  And to make matters worse, there are no courses that specifically teach you kana to begin with.  I guess you are suppose to either pick that up somewhere else on your own or just glean it from what they provide you.  Either way this is not a very good user experience.

I’m really disappointed by the utter lack of kanji.  I can understand that they want to make the course as approachable as possible, but a sentence of any real length in Japanese is quite difficult to read if it is all in kana.  This alienates people who have any experience with Japanese kanji, and does a disservice to those learning the language.

When I emailed the company to express my concern, I was met with a stock answer of “We are due to review our Japanese course soon and we take our users suggestions on board to implement kanji.”

Whatever that poorly constructed sentence is suppose to mean, I’m a bit disappointed that Busuu tried to apply their cookie cutter formula on to Japanese without really considering any of the complications of learning the language entails.

I mean I do understand the problems.  It is quite difficult to build a sound Japanese course.  People have been trying to build one for awhile.  Duolingo has been working on implementing one for quite some time, but struggling to fit it into their system.  To the best of my knowledge it is the only language in the world that uses 4 different writing systems on a fairly regular basis (romaji, hiragana, katakana, and kanji), so a lot of the teaching techniques other languages use tend to break down.

However, Busuu’s offering is disappointing.  I hope to see Duolingo do something better.

How about you?

How are your studies coming along?  Have you stumbled on any good apps recently?  Let me know in the comments below.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Michael Vogt September 13, 2016, 11:31 pm


    It’s been a while that I used busuu, so I din’t remember the details anymore. But I remember well that I had some trouble using is, and the support also completely useless.

    But one thing is really good in busuu: speaking and writing some text, and let it review by native speakers. With this alone, my japanese improved a lot. And, at that time, the community was quite good, having had good conversations with native speakers through their in app messaging system.

    So in the end, using this app was a good experience.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 19, 2016, 1:54 pm

      Yeah, it sounds like it could be really good if they invest a little more time and energy into it.

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