Developer: Sensory Sweep Studios
Release Date: 14/10/08
It doesn't take too long for an intrepid westerner to discover that Japanese can sometimes seem the most illogical of languages to understand. Indeed, some serious cognitive re-wiring is in order, not to mention attempting to grasp all manner of peculiar grammatical structures such as verb and adjective conjugations, particles and even politeness levels. And that's just for a kick off.
So here's Ubisoft's My Japanese Coach, one from a long conveyor-belt line of language-proficiency software designed to help students keep on top of their adopted language of choice. Whereas others in the series could be accused of indistinguishable laziness, there are a few good reasons why My Japanese Coach is pretty much perfectly suited to the Nintendo DS. With our old friend the stylus, it's possible to practice the delicate art of the brush stroke and the beautiful intricacies of hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Although aimed at English-speaking beginners and newcomers, an aptitude test at the start helps to determine your current skill level, which basically involves prodding away at a multiple choice quiz until you're considered incompetent enough to start the tuition proper. Do well and it's possible to skip ahead several lessons into the main game that would have otherwise not been possible to begin with. It's a good, albeit flawed, way of determining your skills: fluke your way through and you could find yourself in too deep; breeze through and you risk skipping over a few lessons that might have proved useful reminders. Such was this oversight, Ubisoft thankfully saw it necessary to include a cheat to allow access to all later lessons.
After becoming accustomed to the menu system and the rather dreadful overall presentation, its time to meet your guide: Haruka-sensei. Clothed in Kimono getup and always courteous, she jumps up and down with glee when you do well in a test, and gives you a stern look should you mess up. She even does the ubiquitous peace sign, just to be kawaii, probably. She's a tough woman to please though, and charges through the lessons at a baffling pace, consistently reminding the player to practice and try again if things are becoming a little hazy. Her explanations of words and sentence structure can also be too superficial and assuming at times, but in her defence this does mean the user is exposed to the language at a faster pace.
My Japanese Coach's 10,000 words and 1,500 phrase lessons are split over 1000 lessons, punctuated with interactive games that test memory, brush strokes and grammatical comprehension. The software essentially aims to teach conversational, written and reading basics through a series of tutorials, gradually increasing in difficulty whilst decreasing romaji assistance as user proficiency improves. They all make use of the stylus in one way or another, and even the microphone is brought in for latter tests. These games include rudimentary word searches; reaction tests; writing cards; and a bizarre, but crude game in which you're encouraged to whack gophers in the face, all in the name of learning. It's fair to say that the majority of them are rather dull, though. "Mastery Points" are awarded for correct answers in these games, and successfully mastering every word or phrase in the lesson awards more of them, which are, of course, just used to unlock the next tutorial.
It's a grueling process sometimes, because it's necessary to tackle tests multiple times in a row for enough Mastery Points to move on (though it is possible to increase the difficulty to be awarded more points per question), but ultimately this repetition proves to be an essential learning mechanism, as sentences gradually fill themselves in, and words can be anticipated before the choice of answers appear on the screen. The initially odd bridge-building game, where words have to be slotted into order to make a series of sentence-forming bridges demonstrates this well, providing a helpful understanding of sentence structure. What's good is that once a game is unlocked, the player is free to then play them at leisure, and there's no reason why Haruka's words and phrases cannot be mastered using a game of your choice if the one within the lesson is proving tricky. Again, any criticisms levelled at the repetitiveness and somewhat simplistic nature of these games ultimately cannot be applied to their effectiveness. As the tired cliché goes: practice makes perfect; or somewhere thereabouts.
The technology used to recognise strokes does seem a little hit and miss, it has to be said. In fact it can be exploited to a large degree because accuracy and legibility is not always important with some characters. Stroke order usually is penalised if wrong, and in this sense it does seem somewhat contradictory in handing out punishments. There are even some instances where stroke order is incorrectly demonstrated to begin with, in fact. The ability to record your pronunciation of anything in the game and compare it with Haruka's is a pleasant, if ultimately pointless, inclusion.
Travellers will be pleased with the inclusion of a comprehensive dictionary and phrasebook for those commonly needed expressions such as "I lost my ticket", "What is the fare please?" and of course, "I am going to have soup and crackers". It's possible to search for phrases by typing them out on the touch screen, save favourite ones for future reference and even have them spoken aloud by Haruka, if all else fails. A basic sketchpad is also included, and this would be useful for storing words or map directions, presumably.
Naturally, this sort of thing is going to be targeted at a very specific audience, and can't be recommended and enjoyed in the same way as something like Dr Kawashima's Brain Training could be. You're either going to be looking to pick this up with wisdom in mind or you're not. My Japanese Coach isn't the finest piece of language software you're ever likely to see, and other Japanese equivalents such as Nazotte Oboeru Otona no Kanji Renshuu Kanzenhan and the like offer more challenging and thorough kanji schooling than is on offer here. As the only English equivalent currently on the market, though, it's a worthy consideration, provided you're prepared to put the necessary work in.