Popular Japanese Language Apps Review

There’s a ton of Japanese language applications on the market today. Are any of them any good? It’s hard to tell without downloading, installing and signing up for some kind of account. I took a look at a few of them and give you some thoughts here today. With minimal time for study, I’ve been looking for something I can open up from time to time when waiting in line, or elsewhere with a spare moment, and learn a few new words. So I judged these apps with a rather specific search criteria.

  1. I want to be able to be able to jump ahead to my current level (intermediate somewhere?)
  2. I want to get a full idea of the application from the FREE trial, without paying up-front
  3. I want the application to be interesting actually work – making it worth my time investment

The applications which I took out for a test drive were:

DUOLINGO

At first glance Duolingo didn’t allow me to do much of anything. But by providing them my email address and registering (free) it unlocked some decent trial ability. It quizzes you using a variety of grammar, reading, matching and translating exercises. It does let you “placement test” in the beginning, and skips (apparently) a number of activities if you do well. The graphics and interface feel friendly and logical. They occasionally ask you to sign up for a 7 day free trial, and hit you with ad’s but it doesn’t prevent a nice trial experience. It’s all around a solid little app. It does feel a little bit like they are trying too hard to “gamify” the experience. To me, I don’t want to play a game. I just want to learn. But I get it – everyone is different, and some kids want that stuff I guess. The only downside for me is that it still felt rather basic to me in the beginning. Lots of “match the hiragana to the romanji” or “match the word to sound” kind of activities. I was pleased to see that there is a learning TIPS/GOALS button for each lesson, and that you can TEST UP/OUT of each category. This is big for me because I don’t want to waste time rehashing things I’ve already worked hard to learn. I also found it nice that their website interface was just as clean and simple (if not better) than the mobile App. I give it a 3.5 out of 5 stars.

LINGODEER

Are these apps related? Because they seem rather similar to me. I do like the somewhat cleaner, less gamified look of LingoDeer. LingoDeer provides a variety of grammar exercises and reading challenges, reinforced by stories that use audio/recording and pleasant graphics. The topics they offer you are all very relevant to daily life. In the App I ran into some problems. They seem to block you from anything more than an introductory lesson. The lessons appear as if you can open them – then it hits you with a road block saying you must sign up. When I logged in on the website it was much clearer, and I saw that I could “TEST OUT” of the first sections which I promptly did ! But this didn’t really open up anything new to explore, it still only gave me a glimpse of the App.  I’ll give it 2.5 out of 5 stars because I feel like I’ve invested too much time in something that isn’t giving me a full idea of the App’s ability. Maybe I’ll come back to it again someday. But why would I when other Apps are less restrictive?

LINGQ

LingQ works very different than the previous apps. It offers you various stories to read and listen to, allowing you to highlight words you don’t know (LingQ’s) and assign the definition which most like. These words you can be quizzed on and study later. As the words become more familiar you can assign a degree of understanding to them and eventually remove them from your LinQ’s. The learning experience here seems much more narrow or focused, but that’s not a bad thing. The App’s trial experience is a bit of a tease, but gives you a basic idea. The website, like the others seems to allow more exploring. He fact that you can select readings that match your current ability is highly appealing to me. So for me this is my top pick. 4 out of 5 stars.

CONCLUSION:

I haven’t found that addictive learning App which has captured my love yet. Oh well. The search continues. And I did find at least one worth further examination. As always, whatever works for you – is in fact the best.

A NOTE ABOUT BUGS:

It should be noted that I found problems with multiple Apps when it came to accessing my account on the website, versus mobile. SO I would highly recommend confirming that you have the same account working on both your phone app and computer website interface before you begin your learning. Why use the website version at all you ask? I found that it was actually a bit easier/more fun to use the website when actually sitting in front of a computer anyway.

BONUS APP MENTION:

And just because it has saved me on so many occasions, I should probably throw in a mention for the best FREE Japanese Language Dictionary out there – “Imiwa?” (not a sponsor). www.imiwaapp.com While this app takes up a chunk of space on your phone, the instant access to translations, word definitions, examples, kanji and even stroke order have been indispensable! While not technically a learning App – I can’t recommend it enough.

Thank you for reading and following this blog. Check out my post about the recent harvest of the rice fields.

Keep the Kids Cool in the Summer in Japan

Summer winds down to a close in the Japanese countryside. Summer felt short but it didn’t arrive without providing a number of intense, potentially deadly, days of heat. The Earth is heating up. And Japan appears to be no exception to this trend. To add fuel to the fire, the humidity in Japan makes it feel far worse.

When you are accustomed to US cities like Phoenix or Sacramento – Air Conditioning is found almost universally. Not the case in Japan! Many homes (especially in the countryside) may have as a single room with AC or none at all.

Beating the heat feels great, but it also becomes downright necessary for mental and physical health.

Here’s a few ways that our family found to stay cool in the summertime:

Play In The River

 

Just remember, the rivers can be dangerous in the rainy seasons and claim lives every year. But they can also be a huge source of enjoyment and pleasure if precautions are taken. Find a shallow and kid friendly location, use flotation devices and plenty of supervision. Have a picnic and soak up the nature.

Water Parks

Water parks are abundant throughout Japan, and often quite affordable. While some may be a little on the older side, they are a great way to stay cool and enjoy a nice family day. Don’t forget drinks, sunblock, big hats, sunglasses, floatation devices, some kind of shade (like a portable tent), water shoes/slippers and towels.

Nagashi Somen 流しそうめん

I guess this one qualifies as a food, but really ends up being more of an event – especially with kids. Cold somen noodles are the perfect summertime food. Nagashi Somen flow past you on a bamboo slide and you need you catch them with chopsticks if you want to eat. No bamboo? The plastic version will be available at a nearby supermarket. Fair warning, there is no way to do this with kids and have them not get soaking wet. But I guess that’s the point.

Catch Fish with Your Bare Hands

You read that right. There are several places in the countryside with small creeks set up and separated into areas where fish can be placed. Typically these places will sell you the live fish in a bucket. You release them into your pool of water, and let the kids go crazy trying to catch them. After they are captured, the same person who sold you the fish is likely to grill them up for you to eat on the spot. This makes for a fun day trip and picnic.

Cool Off Areas in Parks

In Japan you will find parks just about everywhere, and it’s summertime that an additional feature is often put into place. Many parks have areas specifically for kids (or adults I guess?) to get wet and cool off. If you plan to take your child to a park with a water-play area, there is almost 0% chance you can keep them from getting wet. Cooling off is just too irresistible.

Drinks and Deserts

Kakigori - Shaved IceThere’s no shortage of beverage options in Japan. And a wide range of summertime deserts will keep you busy. Many farms that produce their own milk will offer flavors of soft-serve ice cream. I highly recommend this. Another option might be Kakigori かき氷 , a Japanese shaved ice desert. But don’t brush-off Kakigori as a Japanese snow-cone. While there are many cheap versions for kids, high quality Kakigori deserts featuring condensed milk and various toppings will cool you off in a completely unique way.

 

An Outlook on Teaching English in Japan

Before moving to Japan, there was a lot to think about. Money was near the top of that list. While I was fortunate enough to maintain a part-time relationship with my employer overseas, it wouldn’t be enough to live on.

With a background and lengthy history in Marketing, Media (Audio/Video), and Communications… I figured it couldn’t hurt to pick up an English teaching certification prior to moving (just in case). After all, this is probably the most common route that foreigners take to generating income. As it turns out, that was a good idea.

Flash Forward 2-Years

While it wasn’t my initial goal to be an English teacher, living in the countryside has meant that the interest is relatively strong and the competition little. What started as a temporary position with the city, quickly turned into multiple projects and opportunities, my own private classes and running classes at a local center.

How long did it take to get good? I’ll let you know when it happens!
My opinion is that teaching, along with many trades, is best improved through many hours of experience. While I do feel some improvement in comfort-level and the flow of classes, it’s a long road ahead. A road that likely never ends.

Kids VS. Adults – Beginning VS. Advanced

One thing that took me some time to get my head around is the approach to different types of students. Not only their different levels of speaking and understanding, but also different ages and personality types. For that matter, the expectations and desires of students at the same level can be entirely different. While some may hope to just enjoy some casual conversation, others expect to be challenged, follow a steady curriculum and even receive homework.

They won’t always tell you what they want.

Rack it up to cultural differences, or whatever you like – but don’t expect the student to be able to tell you exactly what’s on their mind. You must develop Spiderman-like senses to gauge the student’s level of comfort, enthusiasm and willingness to engage in what you have prepared. Until you’ve developed this, there’s only one sure fire way to overcome the painful awkwardness of a class-gone-bad: Over-preparation. Instead of preparing one lesson, prepare 3. Consider how you can ramp up the difficulty as well as reduce it “in the moment”. Trust me – no lessons go to waste, they all get used eventually.

Numbers and Scalability

Take into account whether your lessons work just was well for 1-student as for many. Will you be able to adapt to the moment when you class size changes? What about if a parent suddenly decides to join the class and observe at the last minute? If you are not already a skilled and flexible teacher – then your lessons must be scalable, or you must have a “Plan-B” on the back burner.

Teaching the Experts

You may at times find yourself at the head of class where the students far exceed your level of grammar skills or level of education! Don’t worry. As a native speaker you bring an insight to the language that is hard to achieve as a second language. The question is, will you be able to articulate it? If teachers are taking your classes it’s because they want to sound like a native. Don’t be afraid to correct their small mistakes and point out the misuse of words. As with all students, it depends on the students goal – but the value you wield is your native tongue. Quotes, idioms and proverbs are your friend.

The High’s and Low’s

As you start the journey of teaching English, you will probably find the path filled with Ego-boosting and Ego-crushing moments. Your reputation is important in Japan, and how you handle these moments says a lot about your personality and professionalism.
Expectations vary widely, and some students and parents (of young students) will love you, while rest assured the dissatisfied will move one. Leaving you to evaluate how to do better next time.

Don’t dwell on the lows – aim high and forward. With experience, and personal analysis comes wisdom.

 

Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs (Part 2)

My original post about Costco items that foreigners (living in Japan) love – was popular! But I did get a few comments saying “This list is only for American’s”, or that it was otherwise incomplete. So I brought the question to you… the masses (on Twitter) and received a great response! Many of your guilty pleasures matched up with my own. Other expats (mainly in bigger cities) never found a need for Costco, or found that it wasn’t worth the time/expense. Fair enough. Others recommended alternative foreign-foods stores including the Foreign Buyers Club or The Meat Guy. Let’s have a look at what you all said.

Things we all agreed with:

Costco ToyamaTortilla chips, salsa, tequila, taco seasoning, frozen quesadillas and tortillas were all mentioned multiple times. So it’s good to see expats keeping the Mexican fiesta alive even in the land of the rising sun!

Home, Kitchen and Personal Care

We completely neglected this important category, and expats suggested some great items! Some expats necessities include:
Kirkland brand Batteries
Socks
Deodorant
Kleenex tissues
OralB Glide floss
Paper Towels
Plastic Wrap
Toilet Paper
Tide (Laundry Detergent)
Downy or Bounce fabric softener

These items seem popular, not just due to their high quality but also due to the generous amount you get for the cost.

Important Snacks

I mentioned some snacks, but other beloved items expats love are:
Kettle Chips
Mixed Nuts
Chia & Pumpkin seeds
Popcorn
and the ever elusive Peanut Butter.
But your spreadable desires didn’t stop there, as Nutella was also mentioned multiple times.
New Zealand Meat Pies were also mentioned – something I’ve never tried, but now I need to!

Spices

A few hard to find spices like smoked paprika, and others were also mentioned. A new favorite for me is Costco’s No Salt Seasoning, which adds a lot of flavor to about anything, even tastes mildly salty to me, without adding any sodium to your diet. Give it a try!

Baked Goods

While I mentioned bread rolls…  other baked goods such as the Organic Wheat Bread (with seeds), Croissants and Bagels remain very popular.

Coffee

Did you know that Kirkland coffee is roasted by Starbucks? I guess it’s no big secret, but this fact escaped me. It couldn’t hurt to pick up a bag. Buying beans at local markets is quite pricey for me out in the Japanese countryside.

All the Cheeses, Please

We mentioned it and you confirmed it – Japan (in general) isn’t big on cheese. Fortunately Costco carries a wide variety for those of us who need to get our fix. The expensive cheese is out in the high-traffic area, while the blocks of Kirkland brand affordable cheese (yet quite delicious) is in the refrigerated area near the butter and yogurt.

Pet Supplies

Not having a pet – I would have never thought of this! Dog bones and (Vet recommended) Dog Food were also sited by pet owners due to their lack of additives.

Kids

While books can be found anywhere, I’m always pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of English language books at Costco Japan – always a good thing for those of us raising our little bilingual monsters.


See the original post for more ideas – Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs (Part 1).

Did we leave out something? Let us know in the comments below.

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 3 of 3

Thinking about visiting Japan?
This is the final part in our 3-Part series about visiting Japan without speaking Japanese. Watch Part-1 and Part-2 before watching this final episode.

Today we finish out chat with Rob Dyer at TheRealJapan.com about the prospect of visiting Japan without speaking Japanese. Is lack of fluency a show-stopper?

Few would argue that as a foreigner, putting a little effort into communication by memorizing basic phrases and understanding the fundamentals of the culture is important. But for the average traveler who delights at the prospect of traveling through Japan, becoming fluent in the language may not be realistic.

In this final, Part 3 of our Video Series we conclude our discussion and touch upon topics including:

  • Exploring the city
  • Interacting with the locals
  • Body language

View Video Transcript
Click the Follow button at right to be notified about future posts and videos from this Blog.

And make sure to check out TheRealJapan.com to see what Rob is working on. His new E-Book, “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

 

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 2 of 3

Thinking about visiting Japan?
Watch Part-1, before watching this Part-2 in our 3-Part series.

Today we continue our discussion with Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com on the topic of visiting Japan without speaking Japanese.

It’s advisable to have at minimum, basic Japanese phrases memorized and a sense of the cultural differences. But lack of language fluency should not be a barrier to your adventure. There are a number tasks you can perform in advance to help make your experience as smooth as possible. These preparations are discussed in these videos as well as in Rob’s new book, “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese”.

In this Part 2 of a 3 Part Video Series we talk about some of the amusing things that can occur while traveling, as well as topics including:

  • Mental and Logistical Preparation
  • Transportation
  • Getting Lost

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Now check out PART-3 for the conclusion. Be sure to click the Follow button at right for future updates. View Video Transcript

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 1 of 3

A discussion on the challenges of travelling to Japan without speaking the language.

Visiting Japan for the first time can be a daunting experience. Add in potential language challenges and cultural differences – it might give you some cause for concern before your big adventure.

Rob Dyer

Fear not! Today we sit down for a chat with someone with a wealth of knowledge about traveling through Japan – Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com.

In this Part 1 of a 3 Part Video Series we learn a little about each other and discuss the apprehension that some people feel about visiting Japan, including such topics as:

  • The Language Barrier
  • Japanese Hospitality (Omotenashi)
  • Trip Preparation

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Next check out PART-2 as our discussion continues. Be sure to click the Follow button at right for future updates. View Video Transcript

5 Common Traits of the Uncommon Foreigner in Japan

Are we all a bunch of weirdos? Not those just passing through – but those who choose to live here indefinitely. It’s a question I’ve asked myself before, and I include myself in that mix. Living in a small town in the countryside, it means the number of “Westerner” residents are few and far between. So few in fact, that I’ve had the chance to interact with a good percentage of them. To answer the question; No. I guess were not all weirdos. But there are a few characteristics I’ve noticed that seem to “pop out” across our tiny cross-section of the population.

    1. Non-Conformist
      By this I mean that many of us have not guided our lives along the typical success path laid out for us by our home country. Perhaps we didn’t enter college right out of high school, attempted unusual jobs, or have otherwise met with curves in the directions of our lives. However you’d like to define it, Expats tend to have unique personality traits which set them apart from the average Joe.
    2. Problem-Solver
      Setting up camp indefinitely in a foreign environment brings challenges. You are destined to encounter pleasant surprises, and strange problems that you never could have imagined. You don’t have to be a problem-solver to be an Expat, but you have to be one in order to become a successful Expat.
    3. Able to Read Personalities
      When you are not an expert at a language, you must be able to pick up on subtle social clues in order to make decisions. This is further complicated by cultural differences which may leave people being socially-kind to you even when you are making rather large mistakes. Highly sensitive people hold an advantage here at determining the best course of action.
    4. Comfort with Being Alone
      Let’s face it, being an Expat could be a lonely business for some. But it’s really not too bad for those who are comfortable with spending lengths of time on their own. Social people will no doubt make friends, and relationships over time, but a willingness to battle loneliness is almost a required skill when living thousands of miles from home.
    5. Able to Handle Attention
      Loneliness is often interrupted with bursts of the exact opposite – unsolicited attention. People are naturally curious, and will often lavish attention upon you as if you were a D-List celebrity. Usually it’s all in fun, but it can also be obnoxious. The hardened expat has the class to deal with both wanted and unwanted attention in the most prudent way possible.

    Am I providing a gross stereotype here? Maybe. It’s just one man’s observation. Whether you agree with me, have more to add, or think I’m crazy – let me know in the comments. Also, check out my blog post about 6 Striking Cultural Personality  Differences. Thanks as always, for following my observations.

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 2

Can two years away from your home country make you feel like an outsider when you return? To some degree, yes. It makes me re-question;
“What kind of person volunteers themselves to be dropped into a foreign land indefinitely?”

Waterfall
Beauty of the countryside.

I suppose you have different types; the adventurous who will take on anything, and those who are willing to exile themselves from their current world. Which am I? I’d like to think the former, but more likely the latter. Hopefully at least a combination of the two.

The outgoing, very social nature of Americans reminded me that small-town Japan is generally rather reserved, at least socially. It felt good to experience the “chit chat” once again that doesn’t really take place in Japan.

As for the American chaos… I think some chaos is good. In fact I needed my kids to experience a bit of chaos. A little USA-vaccination so to speak, to let them feel that the world is much bigger than what they currently understand.

On the Topic of Raising (half American/half Japanese) Children

IMG_3214Of course I could never think of my children as half of anything, only able to experience both worlds. But let’s be honest, they will have benefits and disadvantages. As kids there are instance where they will benefit from the novelty of having a foreign (American) father. Of course my fear is that there will also be exclusion – as being different often creates when you are a child. As adults we value our uniqueness, but a kid just wants to be like their friends.

Then again, “exclusion” is not exclusive to where I live. Kids can be mean, anywhere. And often are. And as much as we’d like to protect them from the realities of life, sheltering them is no solution.

As a father, it’s my job to prepare them. Should they choose to live in Japan, they must have the patience, demeanor and sense of order as a Japanese citizen. Should they choose to live in America they must be able to speak-out and let themselves be heard, to be creative and take risks when called for.

These personalities seem almost at odds. At 180 degrees. Yet, some fascination exists within each culture for the other. Maybe we both wish our own cultures had a little bit more of the character we idealize in each other – to balance ourselves out.

Ultimately I come to the conclusion that there is no one better to exhibit of striking a balance between both cultures, than the example of me and my wife. An imperfect example that we must continue to improve upon. They will need to seek the balance within themselves.

(Read Part 1 of this article)

 

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 1

I recently returned from my first trip back to the USA, after 2 Years of life in Japan. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a mixed bag of emotions. The concept of reverse culture shock, of returning to your home country after spending just a couple years away – is a real thing. I suppose in my case there is also a Big City VS. Small City contrast which plays a part.

LA - The Belly of the Beast
Although it was only two years away I think it was the closest that I had ever come to seeing America, specifically Southern California, from the eyes of an outsider. It had me thinking about my identity a bit.

Some of the Things That Popped Out;

Disorder:
The chaos of American is both good and bad. It feels quite liberating and free, while the lack of process can be frustrating at times. It’s good for my kids to see that this world (and life) is more than any one country or culture. A person needs to have the skill set to thrive in both an environment of chaos, or an an environment of order.

Volume:
LA is a big city, noise pollution and people are loud. But beyond the number of people, they are also unconcerned about others. Whether it’s someone speaking loudly on their cell phone, or bumping music from their car – it’s simply a louder environment.

Korea Town Los AngelesThe Food:
It’s no secret that I like to eat. The city holds a range of ethnic foods that is simply unavailable in small town Japan. It was great to eat all of the things I had been missing for the last couple years, and I definitely gained a few pounds. How many tacos did I eat? I lost count! But the almost universally unhealthy food as you walk through the average grocery store (American snacks) – that’s another story.

Friendliness:
While LA is not especially known as a friendly city, it sure felt welcoming to me. I imagine this was just due to being around English and feeling at-ease. Also, all those tiny conversations you have throughout the course of a day, you usually take for granted. But as a foreigner in small-town Japan, people are far more hesitant to strike up a conversation for multiple reasons.

Cleanliness:
Never underestimate the convenience of being able to walk into a clean bathroom anywhere you go. This is not the case in Los Angeles. One of the big reasons for moving to a smaller town, I got sick of telling my kids not to touch things. The pure unspoiled nature of the Japanese countryside is hard to compare with anything else. The grim of the city, I don’t miss.

Traffic:
Oh boy, the traffic. When I lived in Los Angeles I hated it, but I was used to it and tolerated it because… what choice is there? But visiting it again after getting used to a small town made me scream むり, impossible, and that I could never deal with that again.

Anxiety:
While living in Japan, the local supermarket we used to shop at was in the news recently. The police had chased a suspect into the store and gunfire was exchanged. One of the employees was caught in the crossfire and unfortunately killed – by police. While crime exists everywhere, theres no denying the number of guns and crime levels in big American cities. It’s nice to worry about my kids less in a small, relatively safe town.

Relationships:
To have my children get to know my family and bond was/is priceless, and our time together was too short. This is a huge downside to living abroad. Seeing old friends reminded us of all the things that we have in common with them, and the close relationships we had there. We miss them. Starting over in a new country, with new priorities means that new, deep friendships come very slowly.

There’s more of course, but these are the things that most jumped out at me. But what I realized more than before, is that Japan is now my home, at least for now. I need to do a better job of making my home a place that I cherish by creating deeper bonds, reaching out to people and embracing my experience to its fullest.
Strive for fearlessness.

In my next blog post I speak more about having children caught between two cultures – Japanese and American.