Jul
30
2010

Japanese Essential Edition by Living Language

Score:
6 / 10
Pros:
full introductory conversational course; audio CDs let you listen to most every Japanese word, sentence & dialogue in the book; each unit builds up from vocabulary words to phrases to sentences to dialogues; deals with quite a bit of beginner Japanese grammar; appendix includes vocabulary glossary & lengthy grammar summary; extra “dictionary” works as a generous vocabulary supplement to the course book; inexpensive

Cons:
although this course briefly introduces the kana, it’s entirely in romaji (foreigner-friendly transliteration); language explanations are short & terse; although some grammar and language function sections build on previous ones, presentation of topics is haphazard; exercises are simplistic & short – translation, fill-in-the-blank, or matching; lengthy vocabulary lists to memorize; formatting of book is a bit cramped


Complete Japanese: The Basics

Living Language’s older basic Japanese course (Japanese Complete Course: The Basics: Learn in 4 Simple Steps!) proposes a way for you to learn the fundamentals of conversational Japanese, including vocabulary and grammar. The course comes with four hours of spoken Japanese on audio CDs, a 40 lesson, 400 page coursebook (the heart of this basic course), and a “learner’s dictionary” that actually works as an extensive vocabulary list for the main coursebook.

Before I get into this old course, I want to mention the newer Living Language package (link directly above). Despite the package changes, their method still has that structured but approachable text-plus-audio feel to it – right in between a grammar book and a Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone. I’ll explain below.

The entire package is structured around the main book, with audio & dictionary sitting on the sidelines as enhancements. The presentation of each lesson isn’t out of the ordinary, particularly if you’ve learned with Living Language or other conversational program before. There are dialogues, explanations of grammar and language functions, culture notes, vocabulary lists and short practice activities within each unit.

The somewhat unique approach to Japanese here involves splitting each unit into four lessons, with each of the four building on the last, starting with 1) single words, moving onto 2) phrases, 3) sentences and, finally, 4) conversations. This cycle continues for ten units.

This words-phrases-sentences-conversations method comes across clearly in the Japanese vocabulary lists, sentence groups or dialogues that begin each lesson. (Dialogues replace lists of words & sentences in the “conversations” lessons.) Explanations, “nuts & bolts”, “tips” & practice exercises don’t maintain the distinction so clearly, particularly in later chapters.

The course covers a slew of vocabulary and phrases, with believable conversation in the dialogues, and the audio CDs read most of the Japanese in the book! All this makes for good listening comprehension practice.

The coverage of Japanese grammar is solid compared to most basic course books. For example, it teaches most every verb form short of the passive/causative passive. The general supplemental grammar appendix is thorough enough that it shouldn’t go to waste on dedicated students.

Coverage of the Japanese writing system, on the other hand, is very poor. In its focus on conversation, the course lets real written Japanese fall by the wayside. You’ll need to pick up to even start transliterating all this romaji into basic kana, and you’re better off learning some kanji sooner rather than later.

The course’s average, sometimes crowded formatting distracted me more than a few times, and the lack of an index makes it less of a reference resource once you’ve gone through it once. Still, an adequate table of contents gives an overview of the book’s organization. I enjoyed the extras, especially the thorough audio CD for such a low priced product, and even the learner’s dictionary (which you’ll quickly outgrow). The audio has some drawbacks (especially compared to robust programs like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, both of which I’ve reviewed). The pacing isn’t always great for learning, given that it’s entirely a passive listen-repeat-memorize affair.

For all it offers, I’m mostly ambivalent about the long-term value of Japanese: Learn in 4 Simple Steps! There’s not too much here that’s unique, and the course will seem like a blur of instructions and transliterated word lists once you’ve completed it. You’ll need something else to study the Japanese writing system, and active learners will require more student-directed audio or media to learn from. Still, as an introduction to the conversational language, this package is an affordable, surprisingly deep start for a basics-only course.

Jun
9
2010

Oxford Picture Dictionary English/Japanese

Score:
5 / 10
Pros:
loads of Japanese language vocabulary sorted by topic; glossy, colorful pages full of pictures; each picture corresponds immediately to vocab words on the page; thematic arrangement into categories and subcategories works wonderfully; solid, well thought out choice of vocab words; questions & even activities on many pages; index reference page numbers for every Japanese & English vocab word

Cons:
using this as a language learning course book requires careful consideration; not really a dictionary nor a language learning course; all words in full Japanese script (kana & kanji) with no transliteration or pronunciation help, meaning that beginners will need another resource to be able to read the vocabulary; any use requires a lot of memorization; language learning resources in book clearly intended for classroom study; clearly intended for Japanese students learning English


The Oxford Picture Dictionary English/Japanese isn’t so much a dictionary as it is a topicalized, themed vocabulary book with exercises and suggestions for further study. If you’re learning to speak Japanese, its glossy, colorful, picture-driven pages with matching vocabulary words may help you expand and contextualize your understanding of Japanese words.

The book’s content – roughly 200 pages – is broken down into general language categories like people, food, work, means of study and plants & animals. Subcategories take up one to two pages apiece, and tackle more specific topics like daily routines, feelings, a family reunion (people) or a grocery store, a restaurant (food).

Some pages have large illustrations while others have a range of drawings in smaller, thumbnail-like boxes. The pictures are always in full color. In every case, numbers or letters within each picture indicate the concept associated with a particular vocabulary word found below or to the side of the image (so a #20 on a girl’s rain boots is easy to locate below the picture: “20. rain boots”).

This “dictionary” goes a bit beyond vocabulary by including helpful questions to stimulate vocabulary use, practice and further discussion. A few pages even include reading exercises and further activities, although these really show how the book is intended for ESL learners, since all questions and readings are in English only.

Japanese words are written in full script, including kanji and kana, which makes the vocabulary difficult to read for beginners (impossible if you haven’t studied katakana and hiragana, and just plain difficult if you haven’t mastered kanji or, at least, bought a kanji reference dictionary). The book ends with brief tidbits about grammar and pronunciation, along with a most useful vocabulary index (both English and Japanese), giving page numbers for every vocabulary word in the book.

The Oxford Picture Dictionary presents a colorful, sleek, organized and highly visual overview of a good deal of basic Japanese vocabulary. It even crafts questions and activities to help students learn words, and the book is fully searchable through the index. With all this useful material, what are the downsides? It’s not really a dictionary, and requires too much memorization to be used as a lesson coursebook as is.

The Japanese script without any furigana or transliteration makes it a chore at best to decipher each word, especially words in kanji. The text is clearly aimed at ESL learners, and leaves its other potential audience – Japanese learners – in the dark by failing to include the kind of information you would need to read these words. If you’re happy settling for a snazzy, thematic vocabulary reference that requires a bit of work to use, you’ll likely be satisfied with your purchase.

Apr
28
2010

Assimil Japanese with Ease

Score:
9 / 10
Pros:
lots of spoken Japanese dialogue on the audio CD; the CDs & book match each other well; lessons are short & focused on conversational language; good pacing helps smooth the learning curve; pronunciation & grammar are taught in context; strong focus on audio keeps the course colloquial & relevant; practice exercises

Cons:
especially initially, phrases don’t seem as basic or conversationally relevant as other courses; really have to stick with the program to see good results


Japanese with Ease

Assimil: Japanese with Ease is the Japanese version of Assimil’s line of conversation-driven courses. The course comes with a book and audio CDs, and focuses on teaching you to speak Japanese. You will not learn the written language here, although Assimil does offer Writing Japanese With Ease, which you should buy only after you complete these lessons. (As a side note, I recommend other writing guides & workbooks in my page on Japanese writing, pronunciation & grammar.)

I have already reviewed this course for another language, and the remarks I made about this method hold true. Assimil sticks to its language learning formula, tailoring it to Japanese as needed. That formula emphasizes dialogues and bits of conversational language, followed by quick exercises.

In the beginning, the course sets you up as a “passive learner”. In that stage, you learn through a listen-and-repeat strategy, with a strong emphasis on listening. As you listen to the sounds of Japanese words and phrases lesson by lesson, you follow along with every word as you read the transliterated Japanese text in the book. After making sufficient progress, you become an “active” student, working through tougher exercises (including translations) and receiving training in some of the fundamentals of Japanese grammar.

Assimil Japanese with Ease maintains a consistent focus on conversation from beginning to end. The book lessons are many, each one is short, and most of the text is simply a transcription of the audio. Although you won’t fully master Japanese, if you stick with this program, you’ll have a strong conversational cornerstone for travel and future study. Students looking to write Japanese or have an in-depth understanding of Japanese grammar & syntax should supplement this course with other material.

Apr
14
2010

Jimi’s Book of Japanese by Takahashi & Toka

Score:
9 / 10
Pros:
designed for children but useful to adults as well; colorful presentation of all the kana in two small, thin volumes; every character printed large with written strokes counted and stroke direction indicated; strong way to visualize the basic syllabaries of the written language; sample vocabulary words using each character; a cartoon monkey gives each character’s pronunciation; cultural information on each page gives some depth to the vocabulary words; vocab glossary, kana chart & numbers in appendix; low price

Cons:
doesn’t offer the kind of intensive writing practice found in a good kana workbook; must buy two books to learn both hiragana & katakana


Jimi’s Book of Japanese: A Motivating Method to Learn Japanese comes in two small volumes, one for each of the syllable writing systems. The main thrust here is to teach you all the basic Japanese “letters” (syllables) in both hiragana (Jimi’s orange book) and katakana (Jimi’s blue book). Filled with colorful anime illustrations, sample vocabulary words for each character, and paragraphs of cultural information about Japan, this book aims for children, but is readily accessible to anyone starting to learn how to write Japanese. If you’re not yet familiar with the Japanese writing system, you can learn a bit more in my introduction to Japanese writing, pronunciation and grammar

The books’ format is straightforward and simple. On each page, you’ll see one hiragana or katakana symbols printed large in the a white bubble at the center of the page. Arrows and numbers show you how to write each stroke of the symbol. The symbol/character/”letter” is surrounded by 1) a cartoon monkey face showing how to pronounce the symbol, 2) an example word using that letter, with the character in question highlighted, and 3) a few vocabulary words using that same letter in the colored border areas, accompanied by small illustrations of the vocab words.

At the bottom of each page, you’ll also read a short paragraph relating the words you’re learning to Japanese culture. These simple notes span a variety of topics, from travel to language use to TV to getting around town. The cultural notes may distract some readers and prove too tedious for certain students, especially younger kids.

The books don’t depart from that colorful, animated pattern, which makes them ideal for a kind of “show-and-tell” of all the kana symbols. A few extras also appear in the back of the book, including a table summarizing all the kana characters learned, a list of numbers, and a brief vocabulary glossary.

Jimi’s Book of Japanese has a lot to love, and it’s a good small companion that can help you learn to visualize the Japanese kana by reading the symbols in the context of simple words, whatever your age. If you’re looking for a more practical writing manual with drills and exercises, I recommend checking out something like Let’s Learn Hiragana and Let’s Learn Katakana (as you can see, many courses divide katakana and hiragana into two books). You don’t have to forgo Jimi’s, but my recommendation is that you supplement this visual trip through the kana with the kind of real practice you’ll find in those other beginner books.

Mar
15
2010

Human Japanese by Rak Software

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
explains the basics of Japanese the way an engaging teacher might; the explanations have a warm touch to them; lessons include interactive practice exercises; lengthy but insightful cultural notes about Japan & the Japanese; audio files allow you to click on and hear vocabulary words; built-in mini dictionary allows you to search for any vocabulary word as you’re progressing through the lessons; learn to read words in the native Japanese syllabary scripts; these 40 lessons focus on the basics for beginners; provides tips & tricks for learning Japanese along the way; low price

Cons:
not an immersive software experience (perhaps a good thing for those who feel that other software programs bombard them with phrases to memorize); lesson text can be wordy; exercises very simple, involving tasks like clicking on the right translation of a word; to practice pronouncing & speaking requires listening & repeating along with sound files; kana writing system not introduced in the most intuitive of ways


Human Japanese is a program of 40 modular software lessons that help you learn to speak Japanese as well as understand Japan and its culture. You’ll read through lots of linguistic and cultural notes, as well as helpful tips directed at you. The grammar and vocabulary material covered is basic, pushing you to grasp the fundamentals.

This software course focuses on how to go about learning Japanese just as much as it does on the Japanese language. Along the way, you’ll read plenty of explanations, complete matching exercises, and learn to read Japanese syllables in the hiragana and katakana writing system. You’ll also take breaks from the readings. This makes for a wordy but engaging learning experience – the text guides you the way a good teacher might.

The lessons aren’t all reading, though. You’ll be able to listen to words and phrases as you progress, and a search bar allows you to look up and hear words through the built-in vocabulary glossary as you’re completing each lesson.

As a series of multimedia Japanese lessons, Human Japanese isn’t an inexpensive replacement for Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone (both reviewed on this site). This CD doesn’t focus on immersion. Instead, it offers a lot of text that explains the basics of the language, with audio files to help your Japanese pronunciation and kana text to help you read the Japanese script. Weigh the advantages and drawbacks, and decide if this is the right Japanese course for you.

Mar
10
2010

Making Sense of Japanese by Jay Rubin

Score:
8 / 10
Pros:
short & medium-length essays ease your concerns about the toughest aspects of Japanese grammar; puts conversational spoken & colloquial written Japanese in context through numerous insights; filled with the author’s personality and literary touches; makes some very tricky aspects of the language accessible

Cons:
more of a pleasure read than a serious resource for learning Japanese; better for intermediate learners still struggling with things like the difference between particles wa & ga or sentence structure


It takes so much time and involvement just to start to learn Japanese that after a short while, beginners find themselves overwhelmed and confused. The Japanese language is different, to be sure, but Harvard professor and translator Jay Rubin intends to show you just how non-threatening and straightforward the ins and outs of Japanese are. As you read his wordy but thoughtful essays in Making Sense of Japanese, you’ll take a literary and linguistic journey through a variety Japanese language functions.

Each essay sorts out your confusion on one specific piece of language use. For instance, one explains the differences between wa and ga, while another debunks the “myth” of subjectless sentences. This means that you’ll only deal with certain slices of the language selected by the author for their difficulty.

Along the way, you’ll find far more explanations, sidetracked musings and food for thought than actual examples or anything resembling lessons. Don’t be put off – it’s a good, fun read that can complement your study and give you a stronger framework for learning the language.

Of Japanese lesson books and language courses, there are many. But few books offer the chance to spend time with a seasoned Japanese learner, teacher and translator, gathering the kinds of language learning tips you’ll encounter here. It’s not complete, perhaps not even robust, but it’s a good read for those in a position to get something out of it. Recommended especially for intermediate students – put the heavy-duty materials away for a day or two, and take this joy ride through the Japanese language.

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Mar
1
2010

Japanese Street Slang, by Peter Constantine

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
exposés explain the use, context & local meaning of lots of Japanese slang; culturally relevant; slang words put into context with phrases and alternate options; everything flows within author’s informative musings; good introduction & index

Cons:
takes an experienced student or casual reader to get something out of this; some of these expressions are dated or highly impractical; phrases are given in romaji only (rather than kana and kanji, as would be seen in Japan); not really a dictionary, phrasebook or lesson course – simply an instructive pleasure read


Books like Dirty Japanese and Outrageous Japanese show us there’s a market for resources that teach us gaijin the naughty, raunchy, gritty, raw lingo heard throughout urban Japan. Japanese Street Slang takes this study in a new direction by offering a prose exposé of Japanese phrases, with short essays that tie language use to Japan and its unique social scenes.

Over the course of 175 pages, author Peter Constantine takes readers on an alphabetized, explanation-rich ride through scores of phrases. Each phrase gets the spotlight for a page or so, during which the author explains where the phrase comes from, how it’s used (and by whom!), then contextualizes words and phrases with sample sentences and other slang options. All of this material is woven together in a straightforward, readable manner. You’ll doubtless find yourself snickering at quirks or raising and eyebrow at obscenities along the way.

At the end, a Japanese word list with page numbers allows you to find any of the phrases covered in the book. There’s also an index of topics (cities, people & cultural items). Don’t miss the introduction, either. It gives a rundown of Japanese slang, dialects and language functions heard on the street.

It’s a bit unfortunate that the book’s uniqueness works against it for the main audience – Japanese language learners. It’s not really complete enough to count as a dictionary, too verbose for a phrase book, too methodical and linguistic for a guide to Japanese culture, and provides no pacing or practical application to be used as a language course. Additionally, many of these amusing phrases will strike Japanese ears as vulgar, out of date, or both.

All in all, Japanese Street Slang offers readers an enjoyable and informative ride through the world of Japanese slang. Students aiming to speak informal Japanese (rather than read about it) should pair this with a linguistically pertinent resource like Beyond Polite Japanese.

Feb
22
2010

Japanese Kanji Flashcards (White Rabbit Press)

Hodges’ & Okazaki’s Japanese Kanji Flashcards provide a systematic way to learn over 1000 kanji characters by studying hundreds of flashcards. Cards are color coded to three levels of proficiency as measured by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (levels 4 through 2 – it counts down in difficulty). Although I have yet to write a full review of this resource, I compare these cards to the competition in my review of Tuttle’s Kanji Cards.

It’s also worth your while to sneak a peek at some images of one of the flashcards in the link above. If you’re going to spend hours upon hours learning and practicing kanji on the path to reading Japanese, it’s worth considering which product you’d rather work with before you buy.

It’s also worth noting that both this and the Tuttle series sell kana syllabary cards for your hiragana and katakana studies, if you haven’t jumped those hurdles yet.

Feb
22
2010

Kanji Cards, Vol. 1-4 by Tuttle

Score:
9 / 10
Pros:
includes all the basic information about kanji on each card; one card tests your knowledge of one character; composition on one side, meaning and reading on the other; reference numbers for each kanji link this resource to any dictionary or kanji reference guide; over 1000 characters throughout all four sets; great on-hand resource for studying and keeping all these characters fresh in your mind

Cons:
uses romaji for all character readings and examples; some info placed awkwardly on cards; study with index cards helps reading recognition much more than writing


Tuttle offers Kanji Cards in four volumes to help learners as you struggle to memorize the thousands of characters needed to read and write everyday Japanese. As I will mention at the end of this review, you should check out and compare White Rabbit Kanji Flashcards to see which flash card series has the best features for you.

Hundreds of flashcards in each set present a routine way to remember your kanji, then test your memory. Every card deals with one character. On the front, you’ll find the character printed large, some compound words that include the character, the radicals, and multiple reference numbers to help you find that character in any major kanji dictionary or resource.

The second side has the on and kun readings in romaji, along with the romaji readings of the compound words that include that character from the front of the card. You’ll find English translations of the character and compound readings on this side. Also, at the very bottom, the character is written stroke by stroke, giving you stroke count and order.

It’s a simple, effective method for studying the massive number of characters. Cover up one side and quiz your ability to remember what the character sounds like and means. Cover up the other to test your memory of what the character looks like. Combine Kanji Cards with a writing practice workbook for a well-rounded, on-your-own approach to reading and writing kanji.

If you’re a discerning student, you might take issue with the use of romaji transliteration, you won’t like that Tuttle’s Kanji Cards list stroke order on the back of the card (with semantic rather than compositional information), and you may find that you prefer White Rabbit. Also, keep in mind that both series have kana cards.

Feb
15
2010

goJapanese: Speak the goPimsleur Way by Pimsleur

Score:
7 / 10
Pros:
my previous pros about Pimsleur method apply; gives you a taste of how Pimsleur’s lessons work; introduces basic words & phrases; includes MP3 as well as standard audio CD versions of this course

Cons:
cons about Pimsleur Japanese still apply; only includes eight easy, basic lessons; if you learn well with audio CDs, opt for the more robust Pimsleur sets


Pimsleur goJapanese repackages the first eight lessons of its full (“Comprehensive”) program, offering curious learners a sample of its audio-only method. This continues Pimsleur’s familiar trend of offering more affordable selections of its 32-lesson Comprehensive Japanese course in the form of a 16-lesson Conversational Japanese and 10-lesson Basic Japanese. You’ll start with the same lessons in all of these, the only difference is how far you can go.

Of course, this taste of basic Japanese isn’t a bad thing. Students new to the much-lauded Pimsleur method can test the waters, and those looking to learn just a little Japanese can find that here. Plus, you’ll get extra MP3 sound file versions of the lessons, allowing you to study on the go. With its emphasis on learning to speak Japanese, you won’t focus on reading or writing, just audio immersion – read my review of Pimsleur Comprehensive Japanese for more details.