July 13, 2007

Mind-blasting Japanese language learning tools

Author: Nicholas Tripp

Knowledge of a secondary language has long been a coveted skill, whether it be for academics, business, or travel, but learning another language can be a challenging task. While many Western languages at least offer a level of familiarity by sharing the Roman alphabet, Japanese and other Eastern languages offer no such comfort. Here are three applications that can help you overcome some learning roadblocks.

Japanese in particular utilizes three character systems: kanji or Chinese characters, hiragana, and katakana. The last two are Japanese syllabery used when there is no kanji for a word or for pronunciation. Kanji tends to make up the bulk of written Japanese, with hiragana being used for grammar such as verb tenses, leaving katakana reserved for foreign words. Hiragana and katakana can be tricky to learn, as each has 64 syllabic characters, but many of these are only slight variations.

While there are quite a few books on learning Japanese, books can be cumbersome to lug around, along with flashcards and other study materials. But if you have a notebook computer, you can get some learning done anytime by utilizing Kanatest 0.4.2, TangoBlaster 0.7.2, and Langdrill.

All of these programs require Japanese fonts, and obtaining these and configuring them to display properly can be problematic. There are some links on the TangoBlaster Web site to free Ricoh fonts, and TangoBlaster itself has some options to configure which font to use, but it requires that you already have the font.

Kanatest, which derives its name from kana, a word that refers to katakana and hiragana, is a simple flashcard program that works by displaying a katakana or hiragana character and requiring you to input the common Roman character representation, called romaji. Kana are syllable-based, so answers comprise at least one vowel and no more than two consonants. These representations are defined under the Hepburn and Kunrei-shiki systems. When you enter the correct answer, the program removes the virtual flashcard from the current sessions cycle; if you're wrong, the program briefly displays the correct answer with a red background and keeps the flashcard in the cycle. The characters are displayed randomly, which prevents you from memorizing a sequence. Kanatest also keeps track statistics about the number of correct answers and the number of attempts the user needed for each kana tested. You can focus on particularly troublesome characters by altering the preferences. Kanatest is a solid and productive study tool.

Mastering kanji

Mastering kanji is more difficult than learning katakana and hiragana. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which has four levels, requires students to know 103 kanji characters at the basic Level 4. For Level 2, which many companies require for business-level Japanese communication, students must be familiar with an additional 1,307 kanji characters.

TangoBlaster provides a kanji study tool similar to Kanatest for hiragana and katakana. The Java application requires Java 1.6. Since there are thousands of possible kanji and kanji combinations, TangoBlaster gives you several ways to get a usable list of kanji to work with. You can make lists from the EDICT free English-Japanese dictionary, or you can import kanji characters from a CSV file that includes the kanji, the reading written in hiragana, and the English meaning. You can further break the lists down into more manageable pieces that TangoBlaster refers to as chunks. Once you finish a chunk, TangoBlaster loads a new chunk from the list.

Included in the package are files named L1-L4, presumably corresponding to JLPT levels. Unfortunately, the developer included little documentation, so the origin of the files is not clear. What is clear from trying the different files is that L4 is the easiest while L1 is the most difficult, and the number of kanji included approximately corresponds to each test level.

Users can customize more than just the list of kanji to study; you can also choose what to be tested on. For kanji characters you will see three fields of information -- the kanji character, the reading or syllabic representation in hiragana, and the English definition. You can choose to be shown one of these values, and supply the rest. Unlike Kanatest, however, TangoBlaster relies on the user to determine that a supplied answer is correct. For example, when you choose kanji to be shown, the program displays the character and two blank fields. You must think of the answer, then select Show, and the program then displays the two remaining fields. This method approximates the style used on the JLPT. Progress is displayed at the top of the test screen, showing which number kanji character you're viewing out of the number left in the chunk, and how many more are available from the entire list that you're working from.

Studying kanji is useful, but it can be difficult to use it as a way to produce written or spoken Japanese for communication. Another option is to use Langdrill. It focuses on basic vocabulary written using hiragana. Lessons are divided into categories like "Days of the week," though there are also some vague names like "Lesson 15." Langdrill includes phrases but no grammar forms. To use it, you choose the lesson and whether the program will display the English or the Japanese. Typically users answer questions in multiple choice fashion, but there is an option to type the answer instead of choosing it from a list. Using the last method is problematic, as a word must be typed exactly the same as the answer. For example, a word for the first day of the week must be typed "Sunday" and not "sunday." This is fine for days of the week, but for some phrases it can be a real pain. Overall Langdrill is a decent tool for simple phrases and everyday vocabulary.

These tools are convenient basic flashcard systems, and can save students from carrying around a lot of extra materials and buying premade flashcard materials. There is still quite a bit the tools don't do. Langdrill in particular could benefit from some grammar practice lessons, but development appears to have ceased; there has been no new version since 2001. Japanese and similar character-based languages are very visual, so a popular study style is to associate characters with images, as in James W. Heisig's method called "Remembering the Kanji." This is also done commonly with kana. Kanatest, TangoBlaster, and Langdrill are best used to complement other studying techniques and are not comprehensive tools in themselves. However, all these programs serve their specific purposes well.

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