It's hard to consider oneself a card-carrying member of the geek community these days without showing at least a passing interest in Japanese culture. Fact is, to most westerners Japan represents about as foreign a culture as can be imagined, with a language and alphabet that, while often admired from a stylistic standpoint, often seems beyond the grasp of the average mortal.
It's no surprise that the über-geek Internet underground often refers to Japanese as "Moonspeak." While Japanese design, media and movies have made steady inroads into Western culture over the last two decades, a grasp of the language is still relatively rare even amongst those who like to consider themselves Otaku.
The problem is simple: while we'd all like to be able to watch Kōkaku Kidōtai without subtitles, few of us have the time, commitment or dedication to listen to endless hours of language lessons. Life has a certain way of, well, getting in the way.
What if you could learn a language the same way you check your Twitter feed? What if you could apply the concepts of information-snacking and ubiquitous access that form the basis for most good mobile applications to learning a (very) foreign language?
Think about it for just a second. Your iPhone is always with you. During your average day you have a multitude of one-, three- and five-minute intervals of boredom. Those small time-bites, currently used to tweet, play Rolando, or catch up on this blog's RSS feed (hint!), are just the perfect amount of time to learn a new bit of information about a new language.
As luck would have it, there is a wide choice of Japanese learning apps for the iPhone, ranging from flash cards to full-fledged study books. I am currently experimenting with Human Japanese 2.0, a very well written, approachable book-style application which aims to teach the actual inner workings of the language rather than just a number of useful phrases.
After less than two weeks of small, occasional interactions ranging from five to ten minutes, I am now able to read the entire Hiragana syllabary (one of the three key Japanese 'alphabets') with confidence, and have picked up a number of useful phrases in the process. There is a great feeling of satisfaction in being able to read a sentence in its native alphabet and having one's correct pronunciation confirmed by the matching audio clip. It's all the more satisfying knowing that I have achieved this during some of the the times I would otherwise have been boredly scrolling through my RSS feeds.
Interestingly, it's not Human Japanese's design or clever interaction that makes it so effective: when looked at closely, the application is little more than a book with a few strategically placed animations and audio clips. What makes the application special is its casual, paced approach to learning, and a writing style that makes the learning process both fun and relaxing — you won't find many learning aids that make good use of Star Trek references to make a point on the Japanese use of set phrases.
Regardless of your choice of learning application, you'll find that the iPhone's constant presence on your person, coupled with its large screen and touchscreen controls, make it into the ideal interactive learning tool. Pair that with the App Store's vast collection of related-learning apps, and you could be well on your way to impressing your friends on your next trip abroad — on your own terms, and in your own time.