Progressive acquisition of foreign characters

I love YesJapan!

This website, designed to teach you “Japanese from Zero”, has a lot going for it. It has a simple, clean design, five courses of increasing complexity, and a free 7-day trial period (after which the monthly subscription fee is $14.95). But beyond the mechanics, I really like the pedagogy. One of the things I find most challenging about learning written Japanese is the kana (and kanji). If a book is written purely in Japanese script, I find it tiring and tedious to slog through; I’m just not fast enough at decoding the symbols (yet). But if it’s all in romaji (“our” characters), then it’s easy to be lazy and not learn how to read actual Japanese. Given my upcoming trip to Japan, I’m guessing that being able to read signs will come in particularly handy.

YesJapan to the rescue! They use a “progressive” solution to this problem in which they teach you a handful of new kana at a time, and from then on, the new ones are replaced in all subsequent lessons. For example, by lesson two you’ll encounter words like “あre” (“are”, “over there”) because you’ve already learned the hiragana for “a” (あ). You end up being able to read the kana without exerting much incremental effort at all, since there are only a few new foreign things to remember at each time. Brilliant!

Another great thing about the site is the copious use of pronunciation links. There’s nothing like being able to play (and re-play) native speakers’ versions of what you’re trying to say, so that you can emulate your way to perfection.

There are quizzes to test your retention, vocabulary lists for writing practice (using only the kana you’ve learned to date, of course), and interactive games like Kana Attack to let you “fire” at incoming kana by correctly guessing their romaji — flash cards on steroids!

Course 1 has this motivational phrase at the top of the page:

Chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru

Piled up specks of dust become a mountain

So here I am, piling up specks of Japanese dust to build a my own little mountain. Yesterday, after four hours of teaching and five hours of work on my thesis, it was great fun to indulge in a couple of hours working through the first two lessons in Course 1.