But rather than waxing poetically about the difficulties in studying a language, and particularly one that takes such a wildly different written form, let's discuss the specifics of My Japanese Coach. As with the previous entries in the series, the title is built from lessons designed to slowly impart the basics of vocabulary and sentence structure, and upon creating a profile, you take a placement test to determine where to start. Even if you ace the initial test, you can't expect to skip half the game; the highest level we found that you could start at was Lesson 11, which focuses on desu.
Lesson 11, however, will come later. I started far lower, at Lesson 3, and from the words available at that time, it seems Lessons 1-2 concerned themselves with such vocabulary gems as karaoke and karate, so I wasn't missing much. Lesson 3 was simple: numbers through fifteen.
With a language like Spanish or French, early numbers are cake. They're a break from real learning, because they're just memorization, and numbers look the same all over. But when you move to a language like Japanese, with such an alien written language, even the simplest items become infinitely more complicated. And unlike some other very expensive programs for study, My Japanese Coach does not stick solely to speech or otherwise avoid the written language. Right off the top, you're seeing kana, and drawing the characters on the touchscreen as well. It's very overwhelming for someone like me, who hardly sees those symbols as the building blocks of words, but the more you see the hiragana for juu (ten), say, and san (three), the more likely you are to be able to recognize that thirteen, juusan, is also built from those same characters.
At this early stage, however, you don't have to do anything with the characters at all. You see them, and they're around for you to practice, but you are not yet required to know them. Not required does not mean not encouraged, though, because that break does not last long. By Lesson Six, you have to be paying attention to kana, because you can't move on without memorizing ten characters (with another five thrown in to demonstrate the dakuten, a symbol that indicates a different pronunciation for the same character).
At this point, you will probably also surprise yourself with how much you have learned. While teaching these basic kana (vowels and k-sounds), the game throws in a few words built from those kana that you have not yet learned. When I realized I could sound them out, using the kana, I was so excited! Such little things really feel like an accomplishment, at least to me, because the language is so unlike any other that I've studied.
My Japanese Coach doesn't focus on kana with every lesson, though, so you are going to have to challenge yourself and use the writing function, as well as the speaking practice, with every lesson. Every time the title offers up a new set of words, you can go through the list in various ways, and you always have the opportunity to record your pronunciation (and compare it to the game's), or practice writing the characters.
But I don't want to focus too much (for now) on the personal experience. While it's interesting, at least to me, I'm sure the curious are wondering more about how the game is set up beyond the basic idea of lessons and mini-games. If you have toyed with one of Ubisoft's other language coaches, or read our series on My French Coach, this will sound familiar. If not, here's the rundown.
Each lesson focuses on a specific idea or set of words, with mini-games used to reinforce the topic. In order to prove your mastery of the words, you have to rack up a set number of points for each word or character in the mini-games. The lessons each incorporate mini-games, but you will almost always finish the lessons before you've "mastered" the words, and then you can choose your own games freely (or, if you wish, repeat only the two featured in the lesson, but that's boring). When going directly to the games, you can set a number of options, as shown below.
"Open" limits the games to only those words in the current lesson that are not yet mastered. "Mastered" opens the mini-game up to everything you've studied and passed so far. If you're on the open setting and have fewer than ten words left to master in the current lesson, the game will start pulling in from the mastered list, which is nice, since it reinforces past lessons.
Sometimes, the number of points you must accumulate to master a particular item seems rather onerous, particularly if it's an easy lesson (like the early numbers), but repeating those drills really does help to cement the words in your memory, particularly when you start working aggressively with the writing mini-games.