Friday, May 08, 2009

A Review of the Japanese Learning Tool Nihongoup

I am usually apprehensive about downloading applications off the internet that I don't know much about. It's important for me that the recommendation comes from a trusted source. So I'm glad today to introduce you to something that comes from a friend, in the hope that you'll find it useful in your study.

Phillip Seyfi, a student in one of my eduFire classes, has been working on a tool to help with his Japanese study. I always wondered why he was often the first with the translations of words I was writing in the session notes. Then just over a week ago, he shared his secret weapon with the class.

Philip Seyfi: launched! Feel free to try it out and please leave feedback if you have any ideas or find a bug :)
Philip Seyfi:thnx ^^

Learn Japanese the fun way | Nihongoup
Nihongoup - A fun Japanese reviewing tool for foreign learners and native speakers alike

Nihongoup is a Japanese review tool that aims to improve your Input Method Editor (IME) typing speed, kanji recognition and particle usage.

Download and Installation

Nihongoup works on Windows Mac OSX and Linux via Adobe AIR. The AIR platform makes it a breeze to install (pun intended) and keeps you up-to-date with the latest versions as they become available. Because it's a desktop application you can play off-line, and I'm told that future versions may take advantage of access to the file system or system tray notifications in ways that web applications can't.

When I installed it I ignored the warning message that told me the AIR application needed unrestricted system access, felt the fear, and did it anyway. Apparently this issue is common across all AIR applications and the flash developer community has asked Adobe many times to remove it.

The trial version runs for 15 days, which is more than enough time to get a good feel for the program.

The full version, which gives you free access to all future updates and other goodies is a bargain at only $4.99 US, payments processed via PayPal.

Game Play

On launch I was a little unprepared for music to come blaring out of the speakers, but happy to listen to it once I got in to the rhythym of Manolo Camp's electronic music, knocking kana balloons from the sky. I would have liked the option to start with music 'off', and a selection of tracks to choose from.

The program is broken up in four panels katakana, hiragana, kanji and particles. Kanji is broken up again into the first three levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), although at the moment only JLPT 4 sentence lists are available.

The sentences at the bottom of the screen in the kanji and particle tests are a little too light too read, and I found myself scanning quickly from the top to the bottom of the screen. I was challenged by the speed at which the characters came down the screen, particularly towards the end of each session.

The placement of keys to select each of the four characters in the kanji and particle test screens could have been more game-like. On my laptop keyboard my fingers were bunched in the top left hand corner of the key board to get at the numbers 1 through 4. I'm told that support for the number pad on the keyboard is included in the latest version, but I doubt it would make much difference on a laptop keyboard.

For the beginner to intermediate learner of Japanese, the repetition that comes with the practice of typing IME hiragana and katakana on the keyboard is really important, especially if you never intend to write the kana by hand. Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) like ANKI and Read The Kanji don't really address this aspect of getting to know hiragana and katakana through typing at speed. Perhaps IME input could be extended to the kanji screens as well? This would reinforce knowledge of the kanji readings (On-yomi and Kun-yomi), and give the learner practice at keying kanji.

Nihongoup isn't Spaced Repetition Software per se, but Philip tells me there are plans to implement a new SRS algorithm soon.

The Verdict

Nihongoup matches the demands of parts of the JLPT well, in that you are forced to choose the correct kana, kanji or particles quickly. It makes learning Japanese a game of speed and skill. If you were dedicated to using it every day you could quite easily master the hiragana and katakana within the trial period.

Part of my philosophy of learning is that if you keep it fun and always maintain the mind of a beginner then learning is never a chore. Nihongoup suits my playful and inquisitive nature. I always want to see if I can improve upon my top score.

There are a few good options for software to help you remember and use kana and kanji, but it is by no means a crowded market. There is certainly room for improvement in this application, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops.

The Future

I asked Philip what plans he had for the future of this Japanese language game and this is what he had to say;

"In my opinion it's the synchronization between different computers, community interaction and similar features that can make Japanese learning a much more streamlined and enjoyable experience... It's a fairly ambitious project..."

Ambitious indeed, sometimes I feel privileged to be surrounded by so many talented people.

I know some of my friends are already using Nihongoup, are you? If you've tried it, what do you think? If you haven't, what are you waiting for?

divita Nihongoup was designed and developed by Philip Seyfi. You can find more about Philip and his work at divita, follow him on Twitter, or contact him by mail.
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