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The Key Word is 'Coach'

So - My Japanese Coach.  I've been meaning to talk about it on here for a while, since so many of you classy folks on the f-list are studying the language.  It's a nifty little Ubisoft-published game for the Nintendo DS which, as you might have guessed, attempts to teach you Japanese.  I probably wouldn't suggest it to anybody as their sole study guide, but if you already have a basic grasp of Japanese and maybe want to brush up on it, I recommend tracking down a copy and then impressing the pants off your Japanese teacher after the Summer break.
Okay, now that I've finished endorsing it, allow me to list its faults. :P

To start off, the game gives you a quiz to determine what level you're at.  My first issue is that even if you ace the quiz in an incredibly short time frame, it plonks you down at Lesson 11.  No higher.  So you still have to trudge through a whole heap of hiragana and katakana and words like 'what', 'how' and 'go', all the while shackled to romaji until the option to convert to full-time hiragana is unlocked around Lesson 30.  Aside from the romaji part, this isn't so bad - I often find this sort of revision necessary, as it's pretty easy to forget things like counting different objects and days of the month, especially if you're not practicing conversation with someone regularly.  But it's still slightly nauseating when you consider that this game advertises 1000+ lessons.  Which is actually only 100 plus a glorified dictionary.  More on that soon – the pleasant surprise is that Ubisoft has finally released a cheat that lets you skip and unlock lessons, rendering this complaint invalid. It can be found here.
The reason why I suggest you should know at least a bit of Japanese first is that the game teaches you the typographical means of writing kana such as 'き' and 'さ'.  The strokes are disconnected in these normally, and it's a bit weird that they chose to teach them that way.  There are also a couple of awkward issues with stroke order that might teach you some bad habits. The stroke order occasionally being wrong on the kanji isn't such a huge deal, but I take pretty big exception to the stroke order being incorrect on the hiragana and katakana as that's a hard habit to unlearn. Though I’m sure people write English letters weird too (anyone conscious of this?), so maybe my righteous indignation is misplaced?  It probably only shows up if you're doing calligraphy.
There are also some oddities in the lessons that would trip you up but are easy enough to hop over if you've got the basics. The manner in which they teach is the different verb types is a bit confusing, and they only seem to dedicate a very small number of lessons to what is actually probably one of the most difficult aspects for a non-native Japanese speaker to get a handle on. I still struggle with intransitive verbs, and it took a long time to get the hang of converting to ‘て’ form as well. Still, this is where we must remember that it is called a Japanese Coach.  
So it teaches you some basic grammar and a set of words per lesson, and before you move on to the next lesson you need to master all of the words.  Personally, the only games I use are Multiple Choice, Flash Cards, Fading Characters, Write Cards, Yomi (Kanji readings) and Memory (which is just like the matching card game, only you have to match the red Japanese with the blue English words).  Hit-a-word (more or less whack-a-mole) isn't too bad for pummelling a word into your brain, but there's a length limit on the words it can handle, so it doesn't get used very often either.
Scrolls - a game where you have to write the characters based on the reading in romaji - might have been okay if it wasn't as buggy as hell. Spelltastic and Fill-in-the-Black are a waste of time, as they require you to write out the words in romaji, which is something every Japanese teacher I've ever encountered would throw a fit over, and rightly so.  Word search and Bridge builder are similarly ruined by the use of romaji.  It's a real shame with Bridge Builder, because that's pretty much the only game to test your grammar with.  The game itself is sort of clunky and unintuitive, though.
The writing games have their bugs too - for a lot of the characters, just having the right number of strokes in roughly the right places is enough.  Only for a few of characters does it actually catch you out on stroke order (which, as previously mentioned, is often wrong anyway).  But it's pretty hard to fudge if you don't already have a good idea of what the hiragana/katakana looks like, so it does a decent enough job at recognising your handwriting. Later on with some of the kanji however (楽 and 京 for example), there’s a bug where the number of strokes are incorrect, but pressing ‘a’ can circumvent this and the game will then accept it.
That all sounds kind of terrible, but it really isn't, because I've stuck with it up to Lesson 156 so far (granted I completely flew through the first 60 or so).  The big problems come when you complete the 100th lesson, and the game goes into what I call 'cold robot mode'.  The game calls it 'Open Plan', and what it basically means is that it stops teaching you grammar and instead now just dumps ten unrelated words per lesson in your lap to learn, and every five lessons you'll get ten more kanji as it works its way through the standard Jouyou kanji list. 
This isn't such a big deal, as I wasn't really relying on the game to teach me grammar - it's much better as a vocabulary and kanji builder.  But once you go past Lesson 100, some rather serious bugs start turning up, the very least of them being the aforementioned stroke counter bug.
First of all, you lose the lesson map, which means your pretty geography lesson is at an end, but even worse, it means you can't navigate to any lesson after 100.  So if you want to revisit the lesson to practice the speaking or the writing on a particular word without having to navigate the perilous dictionary... well, tough luck.  Open up that dictionary. Using a book would probably be faster. -___-
Also, the randomisation in the games when you choose the option for 'mastered words only' is no longer random at all.  For most games, it will only go 2-3 lessons back, whereas previous to cold robot mode it would range somewhere between 4-6 lessons back with the odd wildcard from even further in the past.  For the kanji, it's normally only the most recent 10 you mastered.  Scrolls in particular becomes utterly worthless at this point as it presents you with the same four sentences every time, no matter the difficulty you select.
There's also a rather serious bug where it will occasionally present you with some phrases to memorise in this mode.  This part isn't such a problem, but after presenting these phrases it gives you the random game option... only no matter what game comes up, every answer you give will be marked as incorrect.  Even if it IS correct.  

And these are the just the bugs found at Lesson 156.  There's supposed to be at least another 800+!  I'm thinking Ubisoft QA gave up at 100 (and when you look at the credits, it's no real surprise because the game has a staff list about five people long.)  But I'm still amazed something like that made it past internal QA and the Nintendo certification.  It's not even a hidden problem - I did nothing special to find it.  I strongly suspect that the programmers didn't think anybody would stick with the game past Lesson 100.
That said, the game has proven a boon to my vocabulary, and has helped me with kanji practice in particular.  And the voice system is fantastic – you can record yourself saying the phrases using the DS microphone and compare them with the in-game version, as well as adjusting the speed of the voice playback (useful when you consider how fast most Japanese people speak). Just wanted to record down some of these issues.  Maybe I'll write an e-mail to Ubisoft and they'll release a second-edition!  One with an option to substitute kanji for hiragana at later levels (it sometimes does it randomly on its own, but I haven’t figured out a way to make this permanent), more advanced grammar, and maybe a more navigable menu too kthxbai.
Some exercises with tenses, advanced sentence structure, a couple of extra music tracks for some variety, and an option for an unlimited flash cards session would be big improvement too. Only ten cards a go for flash cards? That’s barely enough time to get into it!
Has anybody else used this app and have any thoughts to contribute? 



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
One irrelevant and arbitrary thing:

That is all. *cough* ^-^;;
Apr. 13th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)
Never picked up the Japanese one.

I have messed around with 'My Spanish Coach' though. Never made it too far as I was sick of doing review of what I was already learning at school. (Though I did manage to learn a very important word: drunk. They don't teach you that at school.)

I'd have to play with it again to see how I like it. I do know there's a sort of second game for Spanish that's just vocab and entirely in Spanish. I don't know if maybe there's one for Japanese.
Apr. 14th, 2009 10:41 am (UTC)
It's the only Japanese learning tool I've found for the DS. :( French and Spanish do seem to get the better treatment - perhaps I should tackle them next!

From what I hear, though, all of the Coach games are quite similar in terms of the layout and mini-games.
Apr. 13th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
Hm, I tried the one on my friend's DS but I found it too easy? But I didn't know about the quiz at the beginning and her level is lower than mine... that could've been why. I'll definitely try downloading it for myself!
Apr. 14th, 2009 10:43 am (UTC)
Level 11 is still absolute beginner. If you do check it out, definitely take advantage of the cheat! If you've completed JLPT Level 4, you can probably skip the first fifty levels without blinking. ;)
Apr. 13th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
I've really been wanting to learn Japanese for a while, so this game looks interesting enough, especially since my current Japanese is very, very mada mada dane. One question though, what is the difference between kanji and hiragana? I've heard of kanji and romaji, but never hiragana...
Apr. 14th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)
Romaji - a i u e o - Japanese written in English letters. It's okay for training wheels, or if you only ever intend to learn a couple of generic phrases or maybe read song lyrics, but if you ever want to make a proper try of learning the language, should be abandoned immediately.

Hiragana - あいうえお - this is the standard Japanese syllabary, comprising of 45 characters. Your ABCs, pretty much.

Katakana - アイウエオ - a second alphabet that mirrors hiragana, only these characters are typically used for words that are not Japanese in origin.

Kanji - 思い出 (in hiragana would read おもいで, which incidentally is the word for memories). You said you already know about kanji, so I won't bother explaining that, but in case you come across the term, okurigana is what the hiragana attached to a word containing kanji is called. Ofurigana is the name of the hiragana reading that sometimes appear next to kanji - usually in children's book or comics like shonen jump, so that younger readers can still guess the meaning of words they might not yet know the kanji for.

The game actually probably describes it better than I can. :) It's a great language to learn, I heartily recommend it! Do it while you're young and your brain is flexible! ;)
Apr. 14th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
O.O I'm confused...but I'm usually confused so, yeah...

Thanks for the explanation though! I guess since I do seriously want to learn Japanese, I'll abandon romaji since that's pretty much the only Japanese I know...

I'm so getting this game. It sounds fun even with all the bugs.
Apr. 14th, 2009 03:54 am (UTC)
Sounds dang useful, too bad I'm stuck with an SP. ._. But hearing of all those bugs is kind of off-putting... but still........

Meh, I'm going in-country, hopefully that will prove to be a much better coach for me. ^^;
Apr. 14th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC)
Get a DS already! You can probably pick up a Lite cheap in Japan now that the DSi is out. :P Then you can play The World Ends With You and Phoenix Wright and all the other cool games. ;)

I make it sound terrible with the bugs, but it's really more that the program is not yet all it could be. Definitely, not a substitute for immersion! And you actually go to proper classes, which is way better. I am not so fortunate, so this keeps me from growing TOO rusty. ;)

*sighs* If only we had as many awesome Learn Japanese games as the Japanese do Learn English games. :(
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )