Review by GipFace

Reviewed: 10/22/08 | Updated: 11/17/08

This product fails to be a proper teaching tool at any skill level.

My Japanese Coach is arguably the most anticipated version of the "My Coach" series because the language connects with many gamers. As a former anime fansubber with a decent degree of Japanese proficiency, I picked this up to see if it could act as a portable review tool on the go. My expectations weren't high, but I was hoping to be surprised.

When the product first boots up, the student is given a placement test consisting of fifty multiple choice questions in order of increasing difficulty. I smiled and wondered if the final questions would be ones that only native high school graduates could answer. Surely I would only be able to answer about half of them, right? I soon found out that the placement test is a complete farce. Anyone who has studied Japanese for two weeks will be able to ace the test. By answering all fifty questions, the student skips to lesson 11 out of 100, which is at a point where the product is still teaching hiragana and katakana. There is no way to skip ahead any further.

Intermediate and advanced students will be turned off at this point, but what about beginners? Much to my dismay, the starting lessons had problems that would make any instructor shake his or her head in disgust. While teaching hiragana and katakana, the product will ask the student to copy the written character. Unfortunately, the product stumbles over this learning block. Hiragana "sa" and "ki" are normally written with disconnected strokes, but the product forces the student to draw them in printed typographical form. Take a look at the letter "a" in this review. No one actually writes the letter "a" as you see it now in double-story lowercase form. All preschool teachers teach children to write the letter "a" in single-story lowercase form because it's more practical.

The product also has an obsession with romaji and does not display kanji (with one exception listed below) until the lessons are almost halfway over. Contrast this to real Japanese textbooks: Genki starts displaying kanji as early as lesson 3, while Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar displays kanji on the very first page! The student should be exposed to kanji as early as possible because seeing them often will cause them to be memorized faster.

The editing is shoddy for many of the beginning lessons. Every lesson only has two example sentences per point, which is hardly enough for the user to digest. Some of the vocabulary chosen is questionable for beginners, such as "kamikaze" and "okonau" (to perform). Kanji mysteriously appears in the middle of lesson 12 (page 12/20) but does not appear again until much later. Lesson 21 supposedly teaches informal verb patterns, but every example is in -masu form! Lesson 27 has a particularly cringe-worthy error on page 8/25, where the text uses hiragana to describe an English preposition. Verb bases may be the most sloppy lesson in the product. They are taught before telling the student what each base actually means!

Each vocabulary word is accompanied by a voice sample. This is by far the best feature of the product, since the student may pronounce things incorrectly without a formal teacher to correct him or her. It truly shines when the speaker is speaking complete sentences, which demonstrates inflection. My only quibble is that the speaker is too slow at times. Native Japanese speakers normally speak much faster, so it would have been nice for beginners to hear the language spoken at its regular speed.

The minigames seem like a good idea until you realize that most of them are copied from other products in the series. Spelltastic is pointless because spelling in Japanese is much easier than other languages. It forces the student to spell each word on a virtual QWERTY keyboard. Whack-a-Mole (Hit-a-Word) is a waste of time in any language. Word Search is completely in romaji, but that didn't stop the programmers from including it. Memory at hard difficulty is more of a test of luck than anything, since it's almost impossible to match ten pairs in 45 seconds. The best minigame is Flash Cards, which may very well be the only saving grace of this product. At hard difficulty, the user hears audio for the question and gets only two seconds to pick an answer from four choices. I kept coming back to this minigame because it was the only one that got my brain working. It would have been great as a portable review tool in commuter areas where a book is suboptimal, but the product limits the student to ten questions per run. It's like doing one sit-up at a time with a pause in between, so the student never really gets focused and in the groove.

Vocabulary in the minigames is either mastered (learned) or open (unlearned). Mastering a word simply involves playing a minigame, seeing the word in a question, and answering it multiple times. Higher difficulties award more mastery points, so the student will want to set difficulty to hard in order to get the minigames over with and advance to the next lesson. Once a word is mastered, it cannot be unlearned. If the product had a spaced repetition system (SRS) similar to Anki, it would have been an instant recommendation for that feature alone. Without SRS, all minigames using mastered vocabulary are entirely random. There are three problems with this approach as the student builds up vocabulary. First, ten questions will not be enough, and second, the difficulty level will be all over the map. Vocabulary from lesson 2 may be mixed in with vocabulary from lesson 20. Lastly, the product makes no effort to reteach any vocabulary that is forgotten by the student.

How about non-minigame activities? Zero! Zilch! Nada! There are no passages to read, and no activities where you make up your own sentences for the program to evaluate. There are also no Japanese to Japanese questions to test your comprehension, making this product ill-suited for JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) preparation. Sentence building is the most important part about learning a language, yet the product mostly confines the student to vocabulary minigames. Instead, the lessons only tell you to practice them on your own, presumably on pencil and paper. If that's the case, then why not just learn from a textbook in the first place? Shoehorning all vocabulary into minigames and failing to provide specific problems for each lesson makes the product feel incomplete and rushed.

All of this makes you wonder why the developers did not integrate the calendar date into this product. Other educational games such as Brain Age take advantage of the DS' built-in clock in order to reinforce daily training. This product simply begged for this feature, yet it was not included. Players are left to practice by themselves, and if they have that amount of self-control, then they are able to learn from a textbook.

Commuters may find the limited flash card minigame to be a useful portable review tool. However, as a teaching tool, it contains too many flaws to recommend. Instead, pick up a real textbook like Genki, then supplement it with the excellent books from Kodansha International. It's more expensive, but you'll learn Japanese faster and better than this product could ever hope to teach. My Japanese Coach gets a disappointing 2 out of 10.

Rating: 2

Product Release: My Japanese Coach (US, 10/15/08)

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