Finding the ways to fill the time
Japanese is one of the best resourced languages to learn. There is so much interest in the country and culture that fantastically talented groups and individuals have created a variety of effective and often free learning materials.
The trouble is, for a beginner, finding the best stuff amongst the mediocre, so as not to waste time in the search, and end up (as many of us do) with a bookshelf full of expensive Japan related gear that never gets used.
Here are the 11 best resources I have used and appreciated while studying Japanese
Made by one talented programmer, this is an incredibly versatile dictionary. To find verbs in a traditional, or paper dictionary, students need to learn their ‘dictionary form’, whereas in Zkanji you can enter them in negative, causative, past, present, ANYTHING and get a result.
For learning how to write kanji, there is an excellent stroke order animation feature, and an option to draw in unknown characters along with using the normal search function. By separating the kanji using the ‘groups’ feature, users can view all the words that use that character, which can be handy for those who want to reinforce their knowledge of the ‘onyomi’ and ‘kunyomi’ readings.
Best of all, Zkanji is FREE and frequently updated.
This flashcard program is another free study gem that recycles cards at different frequencies depending on the users’ mastery of it, and the time passed between reviews. Apart from making personal decks, those with vocabulary and grammar corresponding to the N-level (JLPT) tests can be freely download. Renaissance people can find cards for almost any subject from biology to guitar tabs, some with included audio or video clips. To whatever extent you use it, Anki is a very handy review tool.
Though not as recently updated as Anki or Zkanji, Kanjilab is a useful drill program and surprisingly addictive. The “Reading” function reveals each kanji and quizzes the user on all of their ‘onyomi’ and ‘kunyomi’. Whether or not this is the most effective way to learn how to read kanji is debatable, however it is fun to rise up the mastery levels unlocking 10 new kanji each time. Clicking the ‘sentences’ option gives the words in context, and the “Fill In” game is a good way to solidify the drilled knowledge.
This Firefox add-on is incredibly handy when reading Japanese in the browser. For example, when reading this story from Asahi.com, Rikaichan deciphers words that can be entered into Anki for later revision.
There are lots of great communities online, and though learners must always be wary of the distracting pull of the internet, there are some sites too good to avoid.
Full of clearly explained, grammatical information as well as exercises, tutorials and a forum for tricky questions.
Mic-J: Users should take time to explore this site, as there is a variety of content for sharpening up listening skills. There include: interactive quizzes graded to the different N-Level tests (JLPT), as well as interviews, and grammar explanations.
A comprehensive bank of online tests that give you a score and direct you to ‘refresher lessons’ for those questions you fail at. On the main homepage there are a lot of other JLPT related resources too, which I haven’t had the chance to fully explore yet.
One on one conversations with native, or other non-native learners can not only stretch those practiced skills, but reaffirm the reason many of us are studying Japanese in the first place: cross cultural communication.
Lang-8 demonstrates the power of both crowdsourcing and paying it forward. The basic idea is to write something in the language being learned. This can be anything: a blog, a diary, sentences for Japanese homework… Native speakers will correct them for you, and you, being a good community member, will return the favour, or help someone else out. Response time is fast and, in my experience, unfailingly positive.
SharedTalk by Rosetta Stone:
Sharedtalk is a chat-site linking speakers of different languages together to email, text, or even voice chat. The conversation quality is usually pretty good, generally free of trolls or other cyber-harrassers. The main problem is in maintaining the balance between languages, as some want to speak only in English, and others rather not at all. Asking chat partners explicitly to correct mistakes is necessary for any feedback, and users should expect, and decide how to respond, to requests for their Skype or Facebook information.
I’ve tried using RWorld (see bottom left big, blue button) which is meant to connect users in various language learning games, but no one is ever on.
Off the computer has the benefits of removing the browsing temptation, as well as a huge variety of material. The downsides is the expense and the tendency of some books to look interesting and helpful on the cover than they really are. These are some texts that I’ve not only opened, but completed.
While expensive, necessitating the separate purchase of the main text in Japanese, plus the translation if you need it, the listening CDs and the workbook, this is a series that works. The content includes: explanations, reading exercises, and continual revision of grammar from earlier chapters. This might be the only textbook series that many beginner to intermediate learners ever need.
The Nintendo DS
From beginner to advanced, the DS has software for learning and using Japanese. Having a stylus for writing in kanji in the dictionary or quiz games gives a deeper learning experience while no region lock means that games released in Japan can be played on consoles in other coutries.
The link above goes to the Youtube video which explains this great program more thoroughly. Basically it’s an electronic English/Japanese dictionary, utilising the stylus for easy writing in of unknown kanji.
This is a game aimed squarely at the domestic Japanese market, for those embarrassed by their less than beautiful kanji writing, however it can also support non-Japanese learners looking to improve their stroke order and precision.
The top, blue outlined menu button is a lite-version of the game with an explanation and aptitude test.
The next button is “Everyday Training”. You make your profile, click on the big red button marked トレーニング and get a go at drawing some kanji.
You may not understand the detailed explanation of what you did wrong, but it’s good practice for correct stroke order. Once you’re through the Daily Exercise, you can access a function I really like: Personal practise. (自由に練習 Small, dark green button at the bottom.) In this section you can add the kanji you want to review.
The above is a link to an explanation of earlier version, 200 Mannin no Kanken, but as far as I can tell, there is no difference.
The reasons I love this game are numerous. The level system, from beginner level 10 to special level 1 which challenges even native speakers, gives quizzes in both kanji writing and reading. Each session is only 5 questions (or 2 minutes) long, allowing study in quick bursts.
The word is in context: On the left (or right if you’re left handed) is a bit of flavour-text, with the red highlighting the word you have to write. There is more than one sentence for the kanji, so you don’t get too comfortable just learning how to recognise a certain phrase.
Other great features are the Hints, Revision and Testing Only of Weak Kanji. As you can see in the bottom left corner of the image, the game eventually will give you a hint (or the whole kanji) when you’re struggling. At the end of each quiz there is the option to go through and revise each kanji, maybe take some time to enter the tricky ones into Anki. There’s also an option to only quiz the kanji you got wrong, which is great for the beginning of a new, higher level when you want to take things slow, absorb and not continually experience the sting of failure.
Get enough questions right, in a short enough time, and receive a bronze, silver, gold or rainbow orb for the level. Getting a rainbow orb is a huge rush, and difficult enough to achieve that I feel comfortable ascending to the next level after attainment.