Putting “Human Japanese” through its paces

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Diego’s iPod Touch app review corner is back with a look at another handy companion for the Japanese language learner: Brian Rak’s Human Japanese (version 2.0.0 A).

INTRODUCTION

Human Japanese is an iPod Touch/iPhone app that relies on a mix of text and audio to help users learn the basics of the Japanese language. This is NOT a dictionary or phrasebook: it’s a complete, self-contained beginner’s course that covers vocabulary, pronunciation, writing (hiragana/katakana) and grammar in forty chapters. Extra chapters – labelled “Culture Notes” – also provide information on various aspects of life in Japan.

The app requires 31.2MB of space and costs US$9.99 to download. There’s also a free “lite” version available for those who wish to try it out before purchasing. The “lite” version contains just the first eight chapters (out of forty), but is otherwise fully functional.

As for system requirements, Human Japanese is compatible with both the iPhone and the iPod Touch, in both cases requiring the iPhone 2.2.1 Software Update. All of the information in this post is derived from the app’s performance on my device, which is a first-generation 16GB iPod Touch loaded with software version 2.2.1 (the latest update rolled out by Apple).

After installation, all of the app’s features will reside on your iPod Touch/iPhone; no internet connection is required for it to function properly.

FEATURES WALKTHROUGH

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The app has a very simple interface. To get started, just tap on “Chapters” in the main menu to bring up a complete list of contents (above). Scroll through the list and tap on the desired chapter. Once inside a chapter . . .

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. . . scroll up and down in the usual fashion, and tap on the arrows at the bottom to flick between pages. That’s all there is to it.

Now for some of the app’s special features. See those Japanese words in the screencap above? Tap on each entry and you’ll hear a recording. This feature isn’t restricted to vocabulary lists – even sample sentences are given full audio equivalents. There are a few exceptions, but the general rule is that if it’s written in hiragana, you can tap on it to hear it spoken.

Some chapters have unique features of their own. For example, let’s look at the chapters that teach hiragana and katakana. When you’re on a page similar to this one . . .

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. . . tap on each of the boxed kana to start an animated illustration of how it should be written, observing the proper stroke order. Each set of five kana is accompanied by a page that gives great tips on how to draw them correctly (below).

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The chapter on numbers has a useful self-study feature . . .

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. . . that allows users to generate the Japanese equivalents of Western numbers and hear the Japanese equivalents pronounced.

Quizzes are provided to reinforce the information learned in each chapter. Various formats are used, including simple multiple-choice tests for grammar and vocabulary . . .

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. . . and memory games for kana (below).

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On the iTunes Store product page of Human Japanese, the creator is keen to stress its “warm, engaging tone”. It’s hard to convey a full sense of the app’s refreshingly casual (and remarkably effective) style without quoting large portions of text, so my recommendation is for prospective users to go ahead and try out the free “lite” version for themselves. I’d specifically recommend going through Chapter 3, “The Writing System”. (Great stuff.)

Every few chapters or so, one encounters an extra section called “Cultural Notes”. There are six of them in all, covering a diverse assortment of topics ranging from the cost of living to Japanese baths, and each is sprinkled with small colour images illustrating the topic being discussed. In addition to supplying interesting snippets of information about life in Japan, the “Cultural Notes” provide welcome breaks between blocks of lessons.

The course doesn’t cover kanji in detail, but the last “Cultural Notes” chapter discusses the critical role they play in the Japanese language. It’s an excellent introduction to how kanji work – one of the best I’ve seen anywhere, in fact – which makes me regret the lack of in-depth kanji coverage even more.

OFF-APP FEATURES

For news, updates, support, a place to sing praises/air grievances etc. etc., head for the Human Japanese Forum. There’s an ongoing shiritori game there as well if you’re looking to flex your vocabulary muscles.

MY TWO CENTS

Human Japanese promises to draw the student “into the real mechanics of the language, all the while maintaining a warm tone and a sense of humour”. I certainly think it delivers on that promise. The app eases beginners into the nuts and bolts of Japanese by spreading the basic elements of the language across forty easily digestible lessons, each presented in an engaging manner and shorn of linguistic jargon. The author’s frequent references to comparable features of the English language serve as a useful aid for students to better appreciate various points of grammar.

The app’s multimedia features give it a clear advantage over paper textbooks. It’s one thing to see the stroke orders of kana reproduced on printed material, in static and disjointed fragments. It’s another thing to see them traced out, with the start and end points perfectly evident, in an animated diagram that clearly mimics how they would be written by a practised human hand. Hearing the pronunciation of words and sentences with a single tap beats fumbling around with a companion CD (which some textbooks don’t even have).

Portability is another fine selling point. Forget the bulky textbooks and stacks of audio CDs. All you need is an iPod Touch or an iPhone with a set of earphones and you’re ready to learn on the go.

Students who have already mastered the fundamentals of Japanese (say, JLPT Level 4 or higher) probably won’t learn anything new from this app. I’m an intermediate-level learner and Human Japanese hasn’t broken any fresh ground for me, but the way the author explains various elements of the language enables one to view old lessons in a new light and, for some, may help settle any lingering confusion or reinforce whatever weaknesses might exist in one’s existing store of knowledge. In any case, I wouldn’t count the lack of advanced lessons against the app since it’s clearly geared towards meeting the needs of beginners, not veterans.

(Incidentally, the app creator said in a forum post that new installments of Human Japanese lessons are in the works.)

Beyond correcting the occasional typo, the only major improvement I can recommend at this point is expanding the app’s coverage of kanji. The author’s exclusion of kanji from the course is well founded and is by no means a critical flaw, but the introduction of just a dozen or so basic characters probably won’t overwhelm a student with enough patience to tackle learning a new language in the first place. As I wrote earlier, the “Cultural Notes” chapter on kanji easily qualifies as one of the best introductions to the subject I’ve read anywhere. I would suggest building on this excellent foothold by moving it to an earlier part of the text and then feeding the user some of the most basic kanji bit by bit in subsequent chapters, one or two at a time.

FINAL VERDICT

While this app may be of limited use to intermediate and advanced students, as a course for beginners Human Japanese gets a well-deserved HIGHLY RECOMMENDED rating.

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