Ubisoft's newest edition to their series of language education programs for the Nintendo DS is 'My Japanese Coach'. A recurrent topic on the Samurai Archives is people wondering how to begin learning Japanese without actually having to attend classes. While there's no software or reading program developed that can take the place of a classroom, My Japanese Coach is a surprisingly involved and well done effort that will give beginners a solid grounding in grammar, sentence structure, writing, and vocabulary. The game claims to have been 'created in association with Japanese teachers' (just who isn't specified), and uses the Kevin Atkinson 2000 Dictionary and the 1997 Word.Net 1.6 by Princeton University.
The program starts you off with a placement test-50 multiple choice questions with three minutes to answer them. Miss two in a row and you're out. Based on your results, the program will skip you forward several lessons (a maximum of 10 if you answer all 50 correctly). There are over 1,000 lessons, all with a minimum of 10 new vocabularly words to master. Each word in the list can be listened to for pronunciation, recorded and played back to hear your efforts (and played along with the correct version for comparison), and there's also an onscreen stylus pad for practicing writing in kana or kanji. The first 100 lessons contain instruction from an animated teacher, Haruka, and do a good job of developing and building upon your skills as you progress in the program (the remainder of the 900+ lessons are open lessons with 10 words each-meaning that you'll know over 10,000 Japanese words if you finish them all). For example, lessons 17-21 are Kana 5, Greetings, Verbs In Sentences, Kana 6, and Informal Verbs. It teaches the basics of kana early on and encourages the reader to scrap the use of romaji as quickly as possible. After lesson 43, kanji is introduced. Proper sentence structure and grammar is emphasized, as is mastering each lesson before you move on to the next one. In fact, the program requires you to 'master' each word in the lesson before it unlocks the next lesson.
Words are mastered by playing through several types of games, many of which seem silly at first (but have an underlying rationale). There's Multiple Choice, Hit-A-Word, Word Search, Flash Cards, Memory, Bridge Builder (sentence construction), Spelltastic, Fill-In-The-Blank, Write Cards, Fading Characters, Scrolls, and Yomi. I found the write cards and flash cards to be very helpful, as each flash card has a time limit and the write cards (where it gives you a Japanese word in English or kana to write out in kana or kanji) give good timed practice as well. The games can be set from easy to difficult as well. The stylus recognition is surprisingly good-almost generous-but brutal on insisting on proper stroke order (occasionally getting the stroke order wrong). Overall it's much better than the stylus pad on my $300 Canon V90 Wordtank. The games can be (and HAVE to be, in order to master words) played apart from the lessons as often as desired, and add points to your mastery skill for individual words. The game ranks you (by showing what age level of native speaker you could talk to effectively) and also keeps track of your stats for each game, letting you see a graph of your progress on each.
In addition, the program serves as a pretty decent basic wordtank as well. All of the over 10,000 words available are in a dictionary with their kanji renderings and a simple English translation (sometimes a little too simple for English words with multiple meanings). You can also get an animated display of proper stroke order and sound for proper pronunciation. If it's a verb, you can bring up a list of conjugations. You can search with an on screen QWERTY keyboard. There's also a phrasebook that lets you search by category or key words. Finally, there's a sketchpad that allows you to 'draw what you need', so they say, if you're in Japan and the proper words escape you.
My Japanese Coach isn't without its shortcomings, however. Simple but vital things such as combining kana to form new sounds or using the character for 'ha' for the subject marker 'wa' (or 'wo' for 'o' on an object) are glossed over quickly or not mentioned. It tells you to see if you can figure out how verbs are conjugated without confirming this information (until a lesson that comes along much later). Sometimes the context is confusing to a beginner (like the particle に is introduced-the program correctly ID's it as 'to', but for some reason they have the particle と next to it as well). Some of the vocabulary words seem a bit advanced for beginners as well, and not all that useful in everyday speech. It also would have been nice to have a more involved placement test, so intermediate speakers could skip straight to the later lessons.
All in all, My Japanese Coach is an excellent low cost program (at about $29) for beginners. It's a no-brainer if you already have a DS (a very small unit, easily carried around in a pocket, purse, or briefcase) and want to learn Japanese, and I'd even say it's worth buying a DS just to have this program. Don't be fooled by the claim on the box that you can "learn Japanese in only 15 minutes a day". Sure, you'll learn a few odd words, but like everything else in life, you'll get out of it what you put into it. Practice hard and often (just like the program encourages you to do). It's no substitute for the feedback and individualized instruction a live teacher can give you, but it's the next best thing.