Since my kids are now in college and I’m left with a nice, clean empty nest, I thought I would take this opportunity to pursue some interests I’ve left on the back burner for too long. One of these pursuits is to learn enough Japanese to be able to go to Japan to visit with distant relatives. I am half-Japanese, and there was a point where I knew some of the language. This is what I learned as a toddler, but any knowledge from forty-plus years ago escaped my mind soon after I started school. That was coupled with the fact that my mother so embraced her new country, she rarely spoke Japanese at all in the home.
In my quest to learn Japanese, I found that I had a few options. One, get some audio tapes or CDs. These are somewhat helpful, in that many of the phrases are ones commonly used by tourists or visitors. However, the quality of some of the CDs is rather poor, and it is difficult to discern the differences between certain letters, especially between “R” and “L.” Even turning up the volume didn’t help. In addition, there aren’t any written workbooks that go along with many of the language programs I tried, such as the Pimsleur program. I think I need to know enough of the alphabet as well as the language in order to find my way around.
Another option was to sign up for Japanese classes at the local college. Wayne State University offers Japanese, but getting to either the downtown Detroit campus or the Oakland County location is problematic. In essence, I don’t want to drive that far, especially for one class. In addition, my business takes up a lot of time, and I am unable to commit to standard classes that run twice a week.
My son turned me onto a Facebook application called “Kanji Box.” Kanji Box is a quick drill in learning Kanji, but it basically covers only the Kanji characters and there is no application for actually learning the language.
After investigating various do-it-yourself programs, I decided to purchase the Rosetta Stone software for Japanese (this was before Michael Phelps’ commercial claiming that is how he learned Chinese for the Olympics). It’s rather pricey (each level is about $197 but you can purchase Level 1, 2 and 3 for right around $500), but I felt that at least this way I could learn the characters as well as the language, and could do so at my own pace. The complete program comes with three CDs, an installation CD, and a headset.
I should preface this review by stating that Japanese is an extremely difficult language to learn, maybe the hardest on the planet. I’ve taken college French, high school Latin, and even learned some Greek and German when I lived in Europe. I know enough Spanish to be able to figure out what my two Spanish-speaking employees are saying when they talk to each other. Even though I already knew a few words and phrases, nothing could prepare me for diving into the Japanese Rosetta Stone Level 1 head first.
For the uninitiated, Rosetta Stone is a full immersion program. That means there is no English on the program and no workbook is included to guide the way. I’ve been in a French full immersion program before and it is murder! At least with French, we share a common alphabet. For an adult to learn a completely foreign writing style is a daunting task at best. In addition, the Japanese sentence structure is such that it takes many hours of ciphering just to figure out what is going on. For example, the object of the predicate often starts a sentence, followed by the noun and verb. So the phrase “I speak English” would be worded “English, I speak” in Japanese. “Thank you very much” would be worded “very much thank you.” Very confusing.
The Japanese program gives the Kanji characters, Katakana, Hiragana and Romanji. In addition, there are pronunciations written out using the traditional alphabet so that slow listeners like me can take the words apart syllable by syllable and sound them out. The student is introduced to a variety of phrases and words, relating to photographs depicting various items or activities. The student chooses a response, and is immediately graded. A total grade is given at the end of each lesson, and if the student does poorly, the program goes over the same lesson, although the user can jump ahead. In addition, the program comes with a review feature that automatically gives a pop quiz every couple of weeks.
At first, Rosetta Stone Japanese Level 1 starts out nice and easy, almost too easy. Instead of learning simple words like “cat” and “dog” and basic colors, I wanted to forge ahead to more complex stuff like asking for help. But, as I found out later, there is a reason for this slow and sometimes tedious approach. Every time I “graduated” to a new level, the lesson difficulty increased by double, leaving me to wonder what the heck happened. In fact, I am still on the first level, and just about halfway through. At this point, the lessons are peppered with lots of sentences, and while I am not able to adequately dissect them, I have more than an inkling of what is going on. In my case, I find it helpful to go over the lessons at least a couple of times before forging ahead.
Another feature of the program is learning individual characters and their sounds, both in Kanji (the characters) and Katakana (the characters broken down into sounds). Here it would be helpful if a student could purchase a special writing workbook to go along with the program. This is unnecessary for languages that use our alphabet, but is paramount for learning Japanese. I am using my own notebook, but my written Japanese is barely legible. Some hints on attaining the proper penmanship would be appreciated as well (A tip: I do find it is easier to write the characters using a wide-tip Sharpie pen instead of ball point or pencil).
As an aside, there is no way to pause the lesson in order to write down a character or to look one up from a previous lesson. I have gotten around that by not going to the final question on a page and using the time to take notes.
The headset comes in handy for the pronunciation lessons. During these lessons, the program can pick up your pronunciation and will grade it for accuracy accordingly.
For those contemplating getting Rosetta Stone for Japanese, I would strongly encourage the purchase of a Japanese-English dictionary. Since there aren’t any corresponding English guideposts to light the way, a translating dictionary is an essential tool. As soon as I had one and started looking up troublesome words, the light bulb started turning on above my head. “OH! So that’s what that means!”
Set up of the program is extremely easy. Users can set up many different students on the same program. I sometimes have experienced some glitches, where the program would freeze and I would have to back out and come back in to get past the point of the freeze. But for the most part, the program is easy and fun to use. The photographs used are a mélange of stock photos, and the only complaint I would have about them is that sometimes you can’t determine what the activity is or who is doing what in order to answer the question correctly the first time.
Rosetta Stone automatically searches online for any updates, but be prepared for a long wait in getting the updates. It sometimes takes up to an hour to download them.
As for Michael Phelps, if he truly used Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese, good for him. I doubt that his command of Chinese was instantaneously the result of Rosetta Stone. Anyone interested in trying the program should realize that learning a new language will take commitment, perseverance, and many hours of hard work. After two months of Rosetta Stone Level 1, I would say my comprehension of the Japanese language went from absolutely ignorant to a drop in the bucket.
Of course, I’ve only just begun.