Over a decade ago, when I started the NihongoShark website, I mainly did so because I was so frustrated with my Japanese learning experience so far.
I wasted thousands of hours.
I wasted thousands of dollars.
Perhaps “wasted” is too strong of a word, but let’s just say that I used thousands of hours and dollars in a highly inefficient manner while trying to learn Japanese.
You can sum up the cause of my struggles with two observations about the historical* state of Japanese language education:
- Natural spoken language is not taught, but educators pretend that it is.
- Most of the advice on study methods is terrible.
*I say “historical” because we’re trying to change this at NativShark, and I’m hoping that other educators will join us in rectifying these problems.
These two problems can be illustrated nicely by looking at the most popular Japanese learning material in Japanese language schools, courses, and university programs: The Genki textbook series.
Since I don’t want to only point out the negatives of a competitor in the space — after all, they are making an effort to help people learn Japanese, which is great — I’ll list some of pros and cons of this material while explaining how it is a poster child of the problems with Japanese language education.
What Genki does well
The physical book itself.
I love the feel of the pages in these books. It’s simply fun to flip through the pages and think about learning the language. The book feels good in your hands.
If you attend a school or an online lesson with a tutor, they’ll know what Genki is, and they may be accustomed to using it, which is convenient. If you switch tutors, for example, you can still pick up on the next chapter.
The books are designed to be used in a classroom, so they contain drills and activities that can be completed with a language partner. Although the sentences students are encouraged to use in these activities can be a bit strange and don’t match up well with real-world spoken Japanese, as they prioritize textbook "accuracy" over naturalness, it’s nice to be able to practice with another human like this.
Where Genki fails
In short, I would not recommend Genki as a primary learning material to virtually any learner of the language, and while I don’t have the space to write every reason why, if you dig into the content below, I suspect it will begin to become apparent why that is the case.
🔎 A “primary learning material” is the main material that you use when you sit down and try to improve your functional ability in the language. Ideally, this should be a single material that goes from an absolute beginner level to a very high level of proficiency, as you want to limit the frequency with which you jump between learning materials, change your approach, etc.
Your time is valuable.
We’re not on this little planet for very long, so we want to make the most of our time here. One way we can do that is by avoiding unnecessarily inefficient study methods.
In other words, we want to avoid activities that take additional study time without providing an additional boost to your functional ability in the language.
- Learning sentences that a native speaker would be very unlikely to use in the real world
- Matching up downloadable audio files to a paper book when trying to improve pronunciation
- Doing matching and fill-in-the-blank activities
- Quizzing ourselves on grammar “rules” that you can’t not learn if you expose yourself to the language as it is actually used
- Studying lists of vocab that are not inside of sentences, and sentences that are not inside of specific contexts (this is especially important with a high-context language like Japanese)
From this perspective of logistics, Genki fails on almost every metric. It’s simply a highly inefficient learning material.
Above, I mentioned that the language in Genki is unnatural or doesn’t match up with how Japanese speakers actually… well, speak.
I should explain.
Let’s open the Genki I textbook to a random page. I’ve landed on page 258. Let’s use this sentence:
anata no shourai no yume wa nan desu ka.*
What is your dream for the future?
*I added the romanized version.
Japanese is a “high-context language” relative to other major languages. As a result, the exact thing you say differs widely depending on the situation in which you say it.
Try to guess when you might say or write the above sentence:
A) When asking your Japanese teacher about their dreams
B) In a blog post on goal-setting
C) When talking to your spouse about the future
D) When addressing a classroom of elementary school students
E) In a late-night text message to someone you’ve been on a few dates with
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
💀💀 Thinking Space 💀💀
The answer is B because the sentence is very stiff-sounding, and it fits to use the word あなた (anata) for “you” when you don’t know the name or title of the person being addressed.
A is wrong because it’s rude to call your teacher “you”.
You might be able to argue that C is right because some wives call their husbands あなた (anata), although the sentence is so stiff and formal that for most couples this would sound like a joke.
D is wrong because it would be more natural to say みんな (minna), “everyone”, to a group of children.
E is wrong because presumably you know the person’s name, so you would either use their name or just let them infer from context that you’re asking about them. Also, most native speakers would use a question mark in casual writing when asking a question instead of the Japanese period.
If you learn a Japanese sentence from a book or app and it doesn’t point out the specific context in which it is being used, then you’re probably going to use it incorrectly, even if you memorize it perfectly.
I have to mention that some learning materials — ＊cough＊ NativShark ＊cough＊ — provide the context when teaching sentences, in addition to filtering concepts so that you can stack comprehensible input.
Another good method to avoid context deficiency is to avoid learning materials and instead study content in which the context is built-in — for example, learning a sentence on a page of your favorite manga (Japanese comic book). The challenging part with this approach is that it’s extremely time-consuming and can be quite frustrating if you’re still a beginner. It’s also an imperfect approach because many fictional characters speak much differently from real native speakers.
As you might have guessed, I trusted a lot of materials like Genki to be teaching me natural Japanese for my first several years trying to learn this language. And I was pretty annoyed that it took several years of living in Japan and only using Japanese with friends and family members to uncover the majority of unnatural things I had been taught to say and write.
Why not just teach natural language?!
Teach the accurate grammar stuff, too. And explain the context in which each would be used. (Thus, the creation of NativShark.)
Content-wise, if Genki gets a passing grade on anything, it is teaching the basics of grammar — parts of speech, sentence structure, conjugation patterns, and so on.
It was designed first and foremost to be used in classrooms. In other words, it was designed to teach quizzable content, and grammar "rules" are perfect for that, especially if you are willing to disregard the rule-breaking conventions used in natural speech.
Closing comments regarding Genki
I can’t go so far as to say the book is a waste of time or money.
If you like flipping through the paper pages and doing the exercises, I think it’s a perfectly good study material to use, especially as a supplement to one’s core studies.
I just wish that they also mentioned how the language is actually used when people talk. Because it is so lacking in this area, I cannot recommend it as a primary learning material.
Obviously I think a platform like NativShark is a better option for that. But I'm biased, so I recommend talking to the many people using and not using NativShark in our community if you want a second or third opinion.
And remember that, even if something isn't efficient, good value, etc., doing anything is better than doing nothing. Showing up consistently over time will always be the most important metric.
Is language education an unethical industry?
About a year ago, I downloaded the app Busuu to research how their language education products were developing.
I do this every so often for every language learning app. Almost invariably, I come away from the experience with some things we can emulate on the user experience side, with yet more things to avoid on the actual teaching side.
Anyway, I was testing the app with their German learning path, and a few days ago, I got an email containing this graphic:
“9% fluency in German”. From 155 words.
Which would mean that 100% fluency in German requires under 1,723 words — a number that will not get you anywhere near most people’s definition of “fluency”.
This doesn’t take into account the fact that the word “fluency” tends to be used in relation to one’s productive ability — how well they can maintain a dialogue with a native speaker, for example — something this app will not train you to do to any significant degree.
But you can’t say that this is “fraud”, since the word “fluency” is completely subjective, and maybe from their perspective it is entirely true. I don’t know.
And yet, it seems unethical to me.
Why not be more clear about the service you’re actually providing?
We try to avoid using the words “fluent” or “fluency” in our marketing materials at NativShark, as it seems misleading. (But I have to admit, it would make things a lot more simple if we did!)
Yet I’m sure that, even with our efforts to deliver 100% on what we promise, we’ve gotten it wrong before, too. It’s hard not to mess up when you’re promising something as vague as “learning a language”.
Misleading statements you may encounter when searching for a language-learning product:
“Backed by scientific studies”
Just because a method has scientific evidence supporting it, that doesn’t mean it will lead you to achieving your personal study goal. Take this paragraph from Babbel’s (one of the largest language-learning app’s) Why Choose Babbel? page:
"Researchers at Yale found that after three months of using Babbel, 100% of study participants improved their oral proficiency."
If you actually read into the Yale study, the person who conducted it writes: “We found that to get people to a very basic level of competency and proficiency, it works. After that, you need to go out and meet other speakers.”
“Equivalent to a college semester”
You see the same thing in these studies comparing an app to a college programs. That same page for Babbel writes:
"Meanwhile, researchers at the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina determined that beginners learning Spanish needed just 15 hours of study to meet the requirements for one college semester class."
Busuu tries to brag about something similar on their current homepage:
15 or 22 hours being the equivalent of one college semester class ignores the fact that most college semester classes are very bad at teaching people languages, especially Japanese.
Just because hand-washing dishes for 5 minutes burns as many calories as chewing gum for 1 hour doesn't mean that either are a good form of exercise.
“Just X minutes a day”
You can achieve progress with as little as 5 minutes per day, I agree. But that progress might be so slow that it is essentially meaningless. If you want to use Japanese professionally, for example, you’ll probably need upwards of 2,000 hours of comprehensible language input. At 5 minutes a day, that would take over 65 years to hit.
But maybe your goal is something as simple as knowing a handful of phrases, making someone smile by greeting them in their native language, etc. Then maybe a simple app done a few minutes a day is enough.
It depends on your goal.
“Created by a team of experts”
It’s simply to easy to qualify as an expert in this field. This term can be used to describe pretty much any moderately educated native speaker, or any person who has a measure of experience in attempting to teach the language in a professional setting, regardless of the results they produced.
All that aside, marketing a language learning product without using phrases like these is quite hard. It’s possible that something is still good even if they are making promises such as these.
Other bad advice
I could rename this section “10 mistakes Niko made trying to learn Japanese”. T_T
Most of these will require their own articles in order to explain just why they are poor approaches to learning Japanese. Without getting into details, avoid:
- Making kanji the main focus of your studies
- Relying too much on SRS flashcards
- Trying to learn kanji by rote (e.g. writing them over and over)
- Learning kanji readings in isolation (i.e. outside of words)
- Learning words out of sentences and sentences out of specific contexts
- Writing Japanese by hand (unless it’s for fun or you’re learning to write your name and address)
- Audio that is unnaturally slow (i.e. 99.99% of audio in learning materials)
- Using JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) prep materials as your primary learning material (unless you’re at an advanced level and specifically want to be sure you’ll pass N2 or N1 to help you get a job or something like that… although even then you could just use NativShark or another comprehensive primary learning material)
- Studying anything (e.g. flashcards) that gives you “English → Japanese” prompts
- Studying only/primarily “Japanese → Japanese” flashcards
So what should I do?
One option is to go into a Japanese-learning community (like our Discord community, for example), state your goals, then ask for advice on how to proceed. Then you can get recommendations tailored to you specifically.
This is the general process to follow in choosing a learning path:
1) Get a clear understanding of what your specific goal is. What level do you want to reach? Does it only involve high comprehension (e.g. watching shows) or does it also include high productive ability (e.g. speaking and writing)?
2) Understand the requirements for hitting that goal. Which learning materials contain enough content to take you to your desired level? Do you need audio at natural speed, including the messy ways syllables get strung together, devoiced, etc. by a native speaker? Do you need activities that will make you better at creating your own sentences in speech and writing? (Activities that actually achieve this, as opposed to, say, fill-in-the-blank or matching exercises.)
3) Pick a primary learning material, then supplement with everything else. Just because a product or service isn’t ideal that doesn’t mean it is useless. For example, if you find Duolingo fun, then go ahead and use it as a supplement. Even if your primary learning material has a ton of content, similar to NativShark, you should still expose yourself to the language in other contexts and mediums. This helps your brain fill in the gaps and make sense of things. One primary material studied daily. Lots of supplemental material studied whenever.
4) Commit once, then do your best to show up consistently. And embrace the frustrations and the days it feels impossible.
“True learning (as opposed to education) is a voluntary experience that requires tension and discomfort (the persistent feeling of incompetence as we get better at a skill).”― Seth Godin, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work
Best of luck with whatever path you choose.
In the meantime, we’ll be working hard to create ever more compelling promises to potential users of NativShark while also working hard to deliver on those promises 110%.
It’s a work in progress. But if we show up consistently and put in the effort, the results should speak for themselves. Just like learning a language.
Showing up consistently and making an effort will pay off in the long-term, even if you do choose a path that doesn’t efficiently utilize your precious time and money.
I still learned Japanese, after all.
I just made it more difficult than it needed to be. ^_^