Human Japanese is a resource for learning Japanese that takes a thorough approach, delivering in-depth explanations and great attention to detail. The course is well-designed, builds on itself in a logical way, and offers quality instruction at a very reasonable price. It functions much like an interactive textbook, meaning users will progress at their own pace and may need to implement their own study techniques. It’s available for download on Mac, Windows, Android and iOS.
The program is easy to use, and the presentation of information is well-executed, but the practice activities could be better.
There’s almost nothing missing in the way of instruction and explanations, but you’ll need to find additional practice methods.
You get a lot for the price, and there are some complementary resources that are free.
Really great explanations.
The overall tone of the written material is engaging.
The material builds on itself in a logical way.
I DON’T LIKE…
There aren’t many practice opportunities.
You may need supplemental materials for extended study sessions.
There isn’t much in the way of communication practice.
$18.99 for PC or Mac, $14.99 for iPad, $9.99 for Android or iOS
There are plenty of ways to go about learning a new language. Some believe that learning too much grammar is a waste of time, that it’s all about exposure and practice. Others consider it essential to form a more comprehensive understanding of a language, including its grammar concepts and the reasons it works the way it does.
I mostly fall into the second camp, and that may have something to do with why I liked this resource so much.
In the words of its creators, “Human Japanese was lovingly crafted by a small group of people,” and it shows. The word ‘boutique’ comes to mind when describing this program. It’s focused on Japanese and Japanese only, and the written instruction maintains a personal feel while delivering extremely thorough language information.
Unlike some other language resources that feel like a game or like they’re trying to force language acquisition through osmosis, Human Japanese is more like an interactive textbook. Instead of relying on videos or frequent games, the casual conversational tone of the writing keeps it from ever becoming too dull.
The textbook vibe means it isn’t the resource for someone looking to quickly grab a handful of phrases for an upcoming vacation; it’s for the serious learner that wants to develop a well-rounded understanding of Japanese language and culture.
Aside from a few Miyazaki films, more episodes of Terrace House than I’m comfortable admitting, and a brief Duolingo endeavor, my experience with Japanese was limited before starting this review — after using Human Japanese for a just few days I could read Hiragana confidently and string together a few sentences.
The Human Japanese platform is available to download on your computer or phone, Mac, Windows, iOS, or Android. For this review, I tested the Windows computer version as well as the Android mobile app.
Downloading and installing Human Japanese on your computer is very easy. The set-up might not be quite as fast as a browser-based resource, but I like that it’s available offline. I also find it less likely that I’ll get distracted by the web if I’m studying in a standalone program.
You’re first greeted by some slick visuals and the chance to set your username and avatar. This is just so multiple people can use the resource and save their progress, it otherwise doesn’t have any importance.
Next, you’ll jump right into the first chapter, which happens to be a nine-page introduction.
Nine pages of introduction may sound like a lot, and it kind of is. It’s a bold move that, in the era of apps designed to keep your attention at all costs, could turn some less-motivated learners off before they even get started.
Luckily, the tone of the writing never becomes overly academic. It’s casual, does a good job of anticipating potential confusion, and full of information that the truly motivated learner will find invaluable.
The content here touches on some of the fundamental differences between English and Japanese (especially with regard to grammar and phonetics), and does a good job of setting the stage for the beginning learner. This kind of information is available in each chapter.
I found reading this much text to be noticeably less natural on the mobile app. It involves more scrolling and occasionally made me feel lost while navigating the chapter pages.
It’s certainly still usable, and how bothersome it is will depend on the device you use, but it’s worth considering when deciding which device to purchase the program for. I ended up favoring the PC version quite heavily.
I found the Human Japanese course to actually feel quite a bit like a university language course. The material in the program is presented in chapters, much like a textbook, and there are review quizzes at the end of each chapter that test your understanding of the content.
Also similar to a university course, there’s a fair amount of self-direction involved. While the course is full of information and thorough explanations, it doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to sufficient practice. You’ll likely need to take your own notes and introduce some additional study methods to commit things to memory.
As mentioned, the Human Japanese material is divided into chapters. There are 45 of these in the first course.
Progressing through these chapters involves reading a lot of text, similar to the introduction chapter. The majority of the chapters are between 10 and 20 pages long, and the longer chapters can take a fair amount of time to read.
Naturally, more than just English explanations in the chapters, you’ll also come across Japanese. Each instance of Japanese comes with corresponding linguistic information that’s very helpful. Namely, a recording of correct pronunciation by a native speaker, the romanization of the text, a translation, and a breakdown of the different elements in a phrase.
In the example above, I’ve clicked to reveal the romanization and translation of the second sentence. It is nice to have the option to see these things and to also be able to test yourself without them. You can also listen to an audio recording of the sentence by clicking on it.
The audio in this program is high quality and done by native speaker, which is great, but it would be nice to have the option to listen to both a male and female speaker.
Clicking on the yellow notepad icon to the right of the sentence brings up the “ingredients” representation of the sentence.
Here you can see a complete breakdown of the sentence. This is useful in cases in which the translation doesn’t clear up all of your confusion.
New words are presented in a simple list at the beginning of a chapter, with corresponding audio recordings and the equivalent roman spelling (up until chapter 18, when the romanization is no longer provided).
The amount of new vocabulary that’s presented all at once can be pretty daunting. It functions much more like a textbook in this way; you’re shown the words you need to memorize, but the memorizing bit is up to you. This makes reading straight through a chapter unrealistic.
In chapter eight, for example, you’re introduced to 37 new vocabulary words and 10 new Katakana characters. You’ll need to spend some serious time dedicated to memorizing these if you want to proceed with confidence. Sure, you could read through the entire chapter in ten minutes or so, but you won’t be ready to take the chapter review quiz or move on.
All of this means that you’ll need to use some self-direction in your study with this program. Taking notes is probably a good idea, as is using additional resources. Fortunately, there are some really good options for doing this that work nicely with Human Japanese. I’ll talk more about them in the ‘Alternatives’ section of this review.
These chapters are a bit different than the others and are significantly shorter. The aim of the Cultural Notes chapters is to deliver interesting information related to Japanese life, history and culture. It also serves to break up the pace of the chapters in a refreshing way.
The cultural information is provided with high-res photos like the one below.
These chapters and their photos do a nice job of keeping the learning experience from getting too sterile and of reminding the learner that Japan is a real place with a fascinating history and culture. This is good for motivation and helping the learner to develop a deeper connection with the material.
I think these chapters play a necessary role in the resource, but I wish they were expanded upon slightly. Videos in these chapters would do a great deal to enrich the experience.
At the end of each chapter (except Cultural Notes chapters), there is a chapter review quiz. Passing this quiz is how users can unlock the next chapter. I like that you also have the option to override this and move freely about the lessons if you aren’t a total beginner. As a total beginner myself, though, I was never tempted to skip anything.
The reviews are all multiple-choice, consist of 10 questions, and test you on the material covered in the chapter.
This is one of a few ways you’re able to assess yourself within the program. As a function to assess whether you understand the material covered in the chapter, it works pretty well. As an opportunity to practice the material and get better, it’s limited.
For additional practice options, you can take a “freestyle” vocab quiz any time you like. It will quiz you on the vocab covered in a chapter you’ve already completed.
These quizzes function in exactly the same way as the chapter reviews — there are 10 multiple-choice questions.
It’s good that a review option exists, but it’s quite limited. As mentioned earlier, you’ll likely need to find another way to study the material to really master it.
It’s especially daunting learning another language that uses a different writing system, especially one that uses three! My previous experience trying to learn Hiragana was with Duolingo, and I strongly prefer the Human Japanese approach.
Instead of simply throwing a bunch of characters and their sounds at you repeatedly until they stick, Human Japanese presents them in a logical order, introducing them in sets. It also teaches you how to physically write them.
By clicking on a character, you’re able to see the correct stroke order for creating that character. In addition to giving you the ability to physically write them, it’s an effective way to develop a better understanding of each character and to use kinesthetic learning to help you commit them to memory.
Each time new characters are introduced, you’ll get to see animations of the proper stroke order, extra useful information, and more specific notes for making each character look good.
I really liked this extra information. It gives the feeling that the creators of this app really didn’t skip out on anything — it’s pretty comprehensive instruction. I also found these tips to be genuinely helpful in helping me make the characters look better as well as helping me remember each one.
While the introduction to the writing system is done really well and the instructions are thorough, there’s much less practice opportunity than I would have liked. One of the ways you practice is through a reading exercise — trying to pronounce different groups of characters you’ve just learned and then checking it against the correct audio of each.
This is a good way to practice a lot of characters at once and to get used to seeing them next to each other, but if you haven’t already spent some time practicing on your own, you might find this activity too difficult right away.
The other type of practice is a matching activity that comes at the end of each chapter in which new characters are introduced.
You can also do this anytime via the review section of the program, and practice any of the characters you like.
I’m glad the resource has this activity, and I enjoyed using it, but it didn’t feel like the most efficient way to commit the characters to memory.
In order to progress at a satisfying pace, I think it’s necessary to look to additional outside study methods.
Human Japanese offers a free trial which gives access to the first eight chapters of the course. This is enough to get a good feel for what it’s like to use the resource (and to learn some basic Japanese!). For access to all of the material, you can purchase access for a one-time price.
To download the program on your Mac or Windows PC, it costs $18.99.
To use it on an iPad, the price is $14.99.
For your iOS or Android device, the app is $9.99.
Human Japanese excels at offering thorough, in-depth instruction. Its biggest weak spot is with its ability to get you to commit the things you learn to memory. Fortunately, there are some really good supplementary resources you can use to fill out your study plan.
One major advantage this resource has going for it is that others have already created practice material for it in other apps. There are free materials in both Memrise and Anki that take content from the Human Japanese course and make it easy to study.
Both apps have native speaker audio, and the Memrise course also includes romanization of the Kana. They’re both well done, but I found the Memrise course especially enjoyable to use.
The creator of the Memrise course got permission from the Human Japanese creators and did a great job. You can study the material from any chapter, you’re able to listen to multiple native speakers, and you actually get to practice typing out the correct words in Hiragana and Katakana.
The beauty of both of these additional study options is that they are free (Anki is free everywhere but the itunes store). The fact that they were intentionally created to complement the Human Japanese course almost makes them feel like part of the course itself.
Another resource for practicing your writing in Japanese is Skritter. With this one, you can actually practice drawing the character on your phone. It also uses handwriting recognition with SRS to ensure your practice time is efficient.
Of course, there are also a lot of other ways one can learn Japanese. We’ve tried out online courses, found some great podcasts for learning Japanese, and compiled a list of Youtube channels to suit learners at any level.
Human Japanese is aptly named. It’s a resource created by humans for humans, meaning that explanations are clear and detailed and care has obviously been put into each chapter.
I really enjoyed using this resource, and if I ever need to get serious about learning Japanese, I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to it.
The textbook-like layout may not appeal to everyone, but I think it’s still worth a try for most. The writing and presentation of material is interesting enough that it never feels too dry. It’s also important to remember that you’ll probably need to use additional study methods to get enough practice of the material in, but there are plenty of options like this.
For the serious beginning Japanese learner, this one’s definitely worth looking at.
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