Choose Your Language

The Wall Street Journal

March 14, 2012

An upcoming trip to Japan recently motivated us to buff up our rusty Japanese. Though it wasn't our native language, we were far more fluent in it when we lived in Japan years ago.

We decided to test mobile apps that help people improve their skill in a foreign language beyond the spoken word. Though many language apps cater to beginners, we found a few exceptions with more advanced content. We looked at two apps, one focused on Japanese reading and writing skills as well as spoken Japanese, and another dedicated more narrowly to reading and writing. We also tried two educational apps for another language we have some proficiency in: French.

Many of the language apps we found were travel-oriented vocabulary or phrase-book programs. We found many Japanese flashcard apps, which help users memorize the three syllabaries used in Japanese writing: the simpler hiragana and katakana or the more complex kanji characters. One of the few comprehensive programs that focus on conversation, grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing was the introductory-level Human Japanese. We were drawn to its attractive photos and clean interface and liked its conversational tone. ("If you're a grammar-phobe, don't worry. I'm right there with you.")

Other pluses were quizzes, the option of clicking on every Japanese phrase to hear it read by a native speaker and a dictionary function that had about 660 words. The eight chapters in the free version included an introduction to hiragana, chapters on greetings and a cultural interlude on the geography of Japan. We were impressed by the detailed animations and meticulous explanations for writing hiragana characters: "To keep mu looking sharp, give it a nice wide base, like a travel coffee mug."

The $14.99 full version for iPad offers a 40-chapter mix on parts of speech, subjects such as food, school, times and seasons, and more cultural side notes. Chapter reviews consisted of vocabulary and grammar quizzes, and a well-designed tool for learning numbers.

Our only issue: Quizzes didn't end but repeated questions endlessly, without giving a final score. Human Japanese app designer Brian Rak says he'll be improving the quizzes so users can select the continuous "freestyle mode" of quizzes or a version that awards points toward an overall score.

To zero in on our kanji skills, we chose iKanji Touch. Although its minimal text is drier in tone than Human Japanese, we loved the app's thoroughness (it covers 2,230 characters) and flexibility, allowing us to use it either as a kanji tutor or as a reference tool.

The "teach me" mode guided us through the different meanings and readings of each character and over 700 animated demonstrations of stroke order. Considered key to proper learning and crucial to looking up kanji in electronic dictionaries, stroke order can be especially difficult to remember.

A series of multiple-choice quizzes tested our knowledge of the meanings, pronunciations and stroke order of each character. The writing test, in which we had to write the kanji with a finger on the iPad screen, was the most challenging. Other smart features include the ability to create our own practice sets and the automatic generation of "revision sets" to help us learn kanji we hadn't mastered.

One drawback was that in the teach-me mode, we didn't see all of the examples of compound kanji words that the reference mode gave us. (A kanji can have different readings and, depending on the character or characters it is combined with, different meanings.) App creator Rory Prior says he is considering adding a vocabulary-training feature to the teach-me mode to address that.

An app that included basic French grammar was Advanced French for iPad, described as an "audio e-book." The course consists of 25 audio blogs, each less than two minutes long. They included blogs from a French narrator, who goes by just by the name Christophe, on his country's health-care system, rappers, telethons and foods.

The content is breezy and fun, though the brief, au courant English introductions from a young American woman in Paris can be silly. We liked the function that let us hear just one line at a time, allowing for pauses for speaking practice and to go over vocabulary lists and sample sentences.

Somewhat annoying was a message embedded in each audio track and a pop-up urging us to go to sign up for a "free lifetime account" to a much more content-rich Internet course.

Company co-founder Eran Dekel says a new mobile app due out later this year will "tightly bridge the gap between website and mobile, offering a fully integrated experience."

Living Language French, by Random House Digital, is divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced sections. A free version gave us access to 11 lessons across beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

We liked its straightforward tone and well-organized format of vocabulary, grammar and conversation. The app had fun matching and fill-in-the-blanks games, as well as a reward system of badges.

For $19.99, we had access to the full iPad program of 46 lessons, which had grammar lessons through the irregular subjunctive, an advanced verb conjugation. In addition to a much stronger grammar component, the site was more content-rich, intuitive and pleasant to use than Advanced French.

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