After studying Croatian, Japanese has been a big change. And not for the most obvious reasons. While the languages are very different in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and how far removed they are from my native language, none of these things are what made learning the languages difficult.
With Croatian, one of my biggest challenges was finding resources, while with Japanese, there are plenty of tools to choose from. This meant that my biggest challenge was often figuring out which were the right fit.
In the past, I’ve shared how too much choice can be bad news for language learners. Trying out different resources and never really giving yourself the chance to go deep with those that you use can quickly become a huge time suck.
I want to save you some of that time, so as a part of my Japanese learning project, I want to share the resources that I’ve found value in. In doing so, I hope to help you more quickly discover the best Japanese language resources for you.
The Conversation-Based Approach to Learning Japanese
Japanese is the second language I’ve taken on where my focus is 100% on conversation (Spanish was the first). I plan to eventually dive deep with the language, but in contrast to the other languages I’ve learned, I’ve spent lots of time up front trying to speak and understand. Figuring out how to read and write is second, and so far, I’ve only picked up what I need in order to support my speaking and listening comprehension.
So far, this approach has worked extremely well for me. After only a few months, my Japanese comprehension and speaking are at a much higher level than some of my other languages were after years of study.
This means, that when I choose resources, I look for materials that help me develop my speaking and comprehension skills.
This search led me to Olly Richards’ Conversations course.
I Will Teach You a Language
Olly Richards is the language learner, teacher and podcaster behind I Will Teach You a Language. He started learning languages at the age of nineteen, and has since produced a number of language learning products and articles teach other learners the techniques he’s developed along the way.
Conversations is one of the many results of his experience.
On his blog, Olly has shared his thoughts on how important working with dialogues is when tackling a language. In his words, “dialogues are a staple of language study”. https://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/studying-dialogues/
Unfortunately, most course books bury these highly valuable dialogues in the middle of complex grammar explanations and other unrelated exercises. Not to mention, they’re often built around conversations you’re not likely to have and the language is often unnatural and not at all similar to how the language is used in everyday life.
Conversations is a series of courses for Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and German. There is also a Cantonese Conversations, though this particular course is a little different from the others.
Each of the Conversations courses includes twenty total dialogues, each between two to four minutes in length. Additionally, Olly includes is Listening Skills Masterclass, a detailed video on how to get the most out of the course (and become better at using audio resources).
Each lesson includes a brief summary in English, so you get a bit of context before diving into the dialogue. There is then a vocabulary section, followed by an English translation of the dialogue.
The dialogues within conversations are on a wide range of everyday topics that might come up when living in or traveling to the country where your target language is spoken. The audio is recorded by native speakers and is great quality. Plus, the voice artists speak at a speed that isn’t too fast or too slow. It’s just the right speed to push your listening comprehension.
The attention to detail in this course is top notch. For example, even when you drill down into something like names of the characters, they are unique. Something that’s important so that you don’t confuse them as you’re working through the material.
With Conversations, you really have everything that you need to do some intensive listening comprehension study.
Japanese Conversations Review
The course is definitely geared towards intermediate learners and requires that you have a decent reading ability in the language. It uses kanji + kana, but includes furigana. This can be a challenge to beginning learners, but my personal philosophy is that learning the writing system of a language is important. So this resource certainly challenges you to take that initiative if you haven’t already done so.
When I first opened up the first Conversations dialogue and turned on the audio, I must admit that I was overwhelmed. With just shy of two months of Japanese under my belt, I didn’t understand the majority of the first lesson.
Rather than set it aside until I had truly “arrived” at the intermediate stage, however, I decided to dive in.
With a resource like Conversations, how you use it is pretty open-ended. Olly does suggest following his five step listening process, but with where I was at, I figured I could do more.
I decided to work from the ground up.
First, I went through the vocabulary lists at the end of each lesson, adding the phrases I found useful to my flashcards. I made a commitment to studying them daily so that they would become more and more familiar, breaking down some of the barriers between me and the complete dialogues.
This resource is fantastic and definitely something that I can come back to as I progress in my Japanese studies. It’s definitely not a one-time use resource. As my level in the language improves, I can use this resource in a variety of ways.
For example, I can use the course with the audio and the scripts together, alternating between listening to the Japanese while following along with the English or while following along with the Japanese. Doing these two exercises will boost my reading comprehension as well as listening comprehension.
I can also try out the following practice:
- Shadowing // While listening to the audio, I can read along out loud or just listen and aim to repeat what I hear.
- Audio only // Listening to the audio alone without the aid of the transcriptions to test how much I understand.
- Reading practice // I can use the transcripts alone to work on reading.
- Transcripts + Audio // I can use the course as detailed by Olly in his five step method.
Things That Could Be Better
While the conversations are far more natural and practical when compared with more traditional course book dialogues, the vocabulary, at times, could still be a little more useful.
For example, in the first dialogue, one of the characters (in the Japanese version of the course) is looking for a drill. For me, personally, this isn’t really a word I imagine myself needing to know in any language beyond English, so the character looking for a different item would have been more useful to me.
There is also a lot of discussion about exercise. Tennis, muscle building, and running are covered across several different dialogues. And while I may discuss exercise every so often, having it covered this much seems a bit much for my personal taste.
Things That I Love About Conversations
It saves you from doing some of the “administrative” work. If you’re interested in working with audio, Olly’s saved you a ton of work by putting Conversations together. You no longer have to spend loads of time 1) finding relevant audio material; 2) having to isolate the useful dialogue from the rest of the audio; 3) transcribing it yourself or pay someone to transcribe it; 4) looking up the important words and phrases; and 5) having to have the work double-checked. Instead, you can focus on the important part – studying.
The material will last you a while. If you really dive deep with Conversations, it’s learning material that can grow with you as your comprehension increases and the dialogues become more familiar.
Stories stick with us. In the past, knowledge and lessons were primarily passed down through stories. Stories and poems were as memorable then as they are now. Because the dialogues are based on the stories of these characters in Japan (or wherever depending on the language), the material is more likely to stick with you.
I’d love to see a version of this course built for those who learn languages from home. There is a lot of potential for a version of the course like this, particularly because the vocabulary surrounding language exchanges, Skype conversations, and getting to know someone from another country while at home would be useful to a lot of learners.
That said, overall, Conversations is a solid product. It’s great for intermediate learners and ambitious advanced beginners. There are a lot of different ways you can work with the material, so even with twenty dialogues, you can get a lot of use out of Conversations. Recommended.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.