I’ve already written many tens of thousands of words about how to learn Japanese using modern online tools, so it’s time to let someone else share their point of view on the subject. In this guest post, Saravanaa Vijay from Lang-8 (which happens to be one of my favorite online language learning tools!) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of learning languages online, and why Lang-8 should part of any language learner’s online arsenal.

Take it away Saravanaa.

With the abundance of online tools available to assist you in learning a language, I’d like to share my experiences in learning Japanese online. To start off with, I’ll go ahead and say that after a period of roughly a year of learning Japanese, along with traveling through Japan, I am now not quit fluent but at least conversational in Japanese.  That is to say I have enough Japanese to get around. I may still draw a few perplexed looks occasionally, but I can make myself understood.

I have pretty much self-taught myself Japanese. I haven’t really signed up for any formal taught courses, with the one exception being a Japanese course back at University (which I dropped out of after 3 lessons, so I’m not counting that!) I have instead learnt Japanese mainly through the use of various online tools; this piece consists of my thoughts on the tools and websites that I have come across and the ones that have worked for me.

First of all, I am a big believer in context. You instinctively know what sounds right in your native language and if you can get close to that in the language you’re learning, you’re pretty much there. But to get to that point, context is key. This is particularly the case when it comes to vocabulary: there is barely any point in sitting down and learning a list of words; you need to learn words in context. If a word has several meanings, you need to learn it multiple times, once for each way the word can be used – that it is to say, with the word in an example sentence and its translated form so you can see how the word is used. At first, most of these sentences will mean nothing to you, but as you progress, you will turn from only understanding one word in a sentence to understanding every word in the sentence.

Flashcards and other similar software seem to be quite popular for this and I’ve found websites such as Memrise can be great for learning vocabulary; not only do you get words in context with example sentences, but you also get tips on how to memorise words. In learning French, I found Memrise great, but when it came to Japanese, I found Memrise lacking in places.

First of all, I made the decision early on that I wanted to learn Japanese words along with their Kanji at the same time. The logic being that I could learn all the Japanese words I wanted to with the romanized spelling but it would be useless when it came to actually using it in practice: no Japanese newspapers print in rōmaji and nowhere in Japan except maybe for Station signs and Place names will you find anything written in rōmaji.

But back to Memrise, the way that you were introduced to the Kanji versions of Japanese words for me, was incomplete. It was fine for French as I was still using an alphabet and writing system I already knew, but with Japanese, I would go through a section and find that I had not actually remembered any of the Kanji that had been put in front of me. It was at this point I went looking for something else and found iKnow.jp, a website is similar to Memrise but geared towards Japanese and Mandarin (and at the time a little over a year ago, it was definitely more polished than Memrise).

Unlike Memrise where you can pick and choose the courses you follow, iKnow was slightly more rigid – there was one overall list of words to learn and this was split into smaller modules. For someone starting from scratch like myself, I suggest just going through the course in order. But there was also a placement test for those who already had some ability in Japanese. This was quite different to the multitude of different courses available on Memrise; whilst it was good to get that choice, working out which course to pick quickly turned into an excuse to while away time browsing the courses and getting myself confused with the choices on offer rather than actually getting on with learning any words.

So for me, iKnow.jp had me covered for vocabulary, and to a surprising extent grammar as well. As I mentioned above, context for me is key and iKnow excelled at this: you would get at least one new sentence for every word you learnt. This may not sound like a lot, but after 1,000 words this really adds up. And hearing these sentences repeated every time you learn these words, things really start to sink in after a while. Japanese particles are a good example of this. Although I had flicked through an About.com article on particles and used a few Google searches to clear up any issues I had, nearly all my understanding of Japanese particles such as no (の), na (な), ga (が), wa (は), and ni (に), and most importantly, how to use them, all came from seeing how they were used in these example sentences and all the other Japanese media I was exposed to. iKnow ended up being the only tool I paid for – I know there are a lot of free flashcard apps out there, but I ended up paying for the course based on the structure, especially the order and way words were introduced, and the availability audio clips for every sentence. After trying the trial version I was convinced it would be worth it and a year on – I would still say it was definitely worth it.

For Japanese speaking and listening practice, there was no one tool I found that could really help me much, but with the abundance of Japanese media available online, it isn’t too hard to get started with this. Developing my listening skills was based most on a steady accumulation of Japanese media seeping into my head over the course of a year. I watched probably an absurd number Japanese TV shows, films, and YouTube videos, all with subtitles on – and it paid off.  I would recognise words I learnt by rote using iKnow, and other words I picked up through the subtitles.

Speaking Japanese was (and is) quite hard. I don’t think I will ever lose the London twang no matter what language I speak, but in the end, practice makes perfect, and when you are trying learn a language, or in fact trying to do anything, practice is everything. I found MyLanguageExchange.com to be a good site for meeting others trying to learn a language, but unfortunately, you either had be approached by a premium member or get premium membership yourself to even begin talking to others. Due to this drawback, I probably ended making more friends through Lang-8.com to practice with by displaying my Skype name on my profile even though Lang-8 is primarily useful for reading and writing.

At this stage, I probably should post a disclaimer. I now work for Lang-8, so I may be a bit biased! But I found this site long before I started working there, and I do really believe it’s a very useful site. I only wish I had found them during my University or School days, as it would have made my homework assignments a lot easier. In essence, Lang-8.com is a site to improve your writing and reading abilities with and it does it quite simply, instead of relying on algorithms or automated translators Lang-8 connects native speakers with each other, making it a social network geared towards language education.

Lang-8 works through a system of reciprocal corrections. For example, Jim could be learning Japanese, so he posts an entry in Japanese that is corrected by Misaki, who in turn is learning French, so she then posts an entry in French that is corrected by Anne, and so on. Users are encouraged to correct others journal entries through a points based system, which awards points on the number of corrections provided and the helpfulness of the corrections. More points means that your own posts will be displayed more prominently for others to correct.

One drawback of Lang-8, however, is that the corrections will only be as good as the person making them. But for someone learning a language, in almost all cases a native speaker will be more than able to help you out. The system of points and thanks points also help to maintain quality. And of course, you can always pose questions, such as which word sounds more natural in a particular in context in your posts to clear up any issues you come across.

But Lang-8 is more than just a language correction website; it is a social language platform that allows you to add friends, join any of hundreds of interest groups, meet native speakers, and chat with others looking to learn a language. This social aspect in particular is one of the main reasons I really liked Lang-8. The lack of social interaction is where most tools normally fall down in my opinion, especially considering that all of us are learning a language to discover and communicate with other people and cultures.

It was this basic idea of connecting native speakers that Lang-8 that drove founder Yang Yang when he first started the website in Tokyo in 2007.  As a bilingual Chinese and Japanese speaker, he took the idea of connecting native speakers learning a different language and his own experiences in languages and programming to start and grow Lang-8 into a global community with over 750,000 users in 190 countries.

However, it has to be said that Lang-8’s focus on journal and diary entries means that it is suitable only for writing and reading practice. Such practice by itself will obviously not get you fluent in a language, but at least the free online tool will help you practice writing without having to pay for corrections.

In the end, no one tool will teach you a language by itself, at least not cheaply. Instead, you can mix and match tools and websites to get yourself fluent. After you have figured out what works best for you, it is surprising how much you can learn in a relatively short period of time. Provided, that is, you put in the hours and have the motivation to keeping going.

To finish up, I’ll share a piece of advice that helped get me started in Japanese:

Stop procrastinating!

Sign up right now for one of the above tools and see if it works for you. If none of them fit the bill, figure out what’s lacking and search for something that will fill the gap. There is a huge choice of online language learning tools out there today; at least one of them should come close to what you need. But remember tools are an aid in learning a language; you still need to put in the work, practice the language, and meet actual people!

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