For anyone wanting to learn Japanese, chances are you’ve heard of JapanesePod101; how could you not? Searching for any term with ‘Japanese’ in the title on YouTube will often inundate you with a number of their videos — of which there are a ridiculous number, however, these are but one small part of the service that is available. Their main site Japanesepod101.com is where it really begins. I decided to sign up for a year to try it out, and write a JapanesePod101 review to give you and idea of whether it’s a useful Japanese learning resource.
Read on to find out.
JapanesePod101.com is a resource that tries to target all four areas of language learning: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Not all areas are easy to achieve with an online service and, as such, there is a varying degree of success as to how it achieves this. Nevertheless, it’s a site that can be useful even if you’re taking your very first steps into learning Japanese.
What you’ll find is hundreds upon hundreds of lessons separated by topics, situations, and difficulty levels. Within each lesson you will typically encounter the following:
- A podcast of the entire lesson
- A fictional dialogue
- Vocabulary lists
- Lesson notes on the primary topic
- A breakdown of used Kanji (if any)
- Comments, questions, and answers
The main lesson audio or podcast involves the varying hosts discussing the main focus of the lesson which are casual and often fun, (these are real people not robots) and the real meat of a lesson. While the dialogue and vocabulary points are there to be read on screen, they will always be discussed further whilst listening to the podcast.
You can listen to each vocab word, voiced by a native Japanese speaker, at full or half speed as well as being able to record your voice so you can compare pronunciation. The lesson notes are a more detailed breakdown and explanation of the main points. There are usually plenty of examples and are well organised and informative. The comments section is often encouraged to both show your understanding of the lesson but also practice your writing.
Quizzes, word banks, and flashcards are also everywhere on this site along with almost everything being downloadable. There’s a lot on offer here but it’s not necessary to use everything, in fact, not everything is entirely useful; for various activities there are better resources to use. (More on that later.)
With so much content, when first logging in to JapanesePod101.com it can be incredibly daunting as to where you begin. It’s all up to how much you already know and what you want to learn but the introduction of curated pathways for absolute beginner, beginner, intermediate etc. is where I recommend starting. These are a series of around 100 lessons that build upon each the previous.
The usefulness of JapanesePod101
So now you have an idea of what to expect, lets get into the details of what really works well. The phrase ‘wanna speak real Japanese from your first lesson?’ is used extensively to promote their site; despite companies normally making these outlandish claims, I can say there is some truth to it in this case.
As previously mentioned there is a fictional dialogue in most lessons that can be read and listened to, these are all very believable stories that at times have you invested in what is occurring. Even from the very early stages when your vocabulary knowledge is incredibly low, a real attempt is made to provide engaging conversations that would not seem out of place in the real world.
As an example, the ‘level 2’ course introduces an intertwining story involving the fictional characters Ozora Haruya, Tendo Miu and Shin Shimoyama, we follow their lives in a vast array of scenarios that span around 100 lessons and become completely invested in their story; all the while being taught Japanese that can be used in the same situations these characters find themselves in. What’s more, creating captivating scenarios like this helps users really want to improve to better understand what is happening.
Before you know it, you’ve vastly improved your listening comprehension from when you began without realising.
All the voice lines are recorded by professional Japanese voice actors and as such are being spoken naturally. We can tell that this is the case by how words sound when spoken individually versus how they are spoken in conversation — of which they can be a real difference. They are often contracted or the sounds merged into the surrounding words.
While at first it will be a challenge to overcome, this is how native Japanese is spoken and is already training your ear to recognise it.
There’s plenty of opportunity to improve your reading skills with JapanesePod101 too. The dialogue sections of the lesson are not just audio tracks by themselves but come fully scripted. Almost every word in the dialogue and the rest of the page can be toggled to be read in English, along with Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, or Romanji depending on your knowledge, it’s these kinds of options that are incredibly useful no matter what stage you’re at.
Being able to read along in this fashion whilst listening is essential. You may not be as proficient at listening as you are reading or vice versa, allowing you to use the script to make sense of what is being said. It can be used in this way to also decipher the common pronunciations of new Kanji.
What you won’t find is a problem many other Japanese resources suffer from — a lack of material. With so many lessons available there will never be a shortage to practice on. Which leads me on to another point.
Huge lesson and vocabulary library
Having an immense selection of lessons and vocabulary to choose from is not in itself very useful, what is useful however is whatever you want to learn more about, chances are there are at least a few lessons for it.
Say you want to learn some vocab for visiting someone in hospital; there’s vocab lists and lessons that cover it; what about something for business? You can find both for that as well. See my point? You can even find lessons on Japanese children’s songs.
As much as I’ve focused on written content up till now, there are also plenty of video lessons too, albeit not as many as the audio lessons but they are there for those who prefer it.
Other available tools
Across the JapanesePod101 site there are a variety of other tools that can benefit Japanese language learners.
There are a couple that will come in handy above others, such as the grammar bank. This is quite a unique dictionary of grammar related particles, conjunctions, suffixes, technical vocabulary and other essential terms to know that would otherwise be difficult to find in such an organised manner. It is used to specifically narrow down grammatical terms that you want to improve upon from a whole host of categories or those that you need to learn for the notorious JLPT tests for example.
Word banks and flashcards also make an appearance, while these kinds of tools don’t usually appeal to me they integrate well. Whilst on a lesson a complicated word or one of importance may catch your attention and can be immediately added to your personal word bank for further revision at a later date; what’s more, the contents of your word bank can be transformed into your own flashcard deck.
These flashcards will come in the form of voice lines or written Japanese and will swap between them as you practice. The downside is that it is up to the user to judge whether they got the correct answer and so is open to ‘close enough’ opinions ect; of course doing so is also to the detriment of the user.
Parts that are not so useful
During my review I found areas where JapanesePod101.com let itself down and where other resources are better suited.
The first prime example of this is one of the fundamentals of learning Japanese — the infamous Kanji. I mentioned earlier in the reading portion of the site’s usefulness, that together with listening you can determine the pronunciations of some unknown Kanji, this is still true, however, it is really not the optimal way of learning Kanji and I would not recommend trying to do so as Kanji can have multiple meanings and multiple pronunciations.
There is a ‘Kanji dictionary’ tool that is supposedly used to find a specific Kanji using a search box. The problem with this is unless you already know the meaning or pronunciation in Japanese you can’t look it up, and even then it will present you with a whole list to sift through. (never mind the fact you shouldn’t need to if that’s the case.)
You can use English to search for the kanji of a specific word, sure, but it still presents you with countless options. If you’re a beginner this will be incredibly confusing. For example, the Kanji for flower is 花 which is a very early kanji where the only meaning is flower; yet JapanesePod101.com will present to you a whole host of other options that are barely related.
Oh and the actual Kanji for flower is way down the list. This is not useful in any sense for someone starting out in Kanji.
We already know that JapanesePod101.com has a lot of content and features which is not a bad thing, if we are talking about usefulness however, there is a small problem.
A lot of this content is for beginner or lower intermediate learners.
This is a problem for anyone who already has a moderate grasp of Japanese. Tools such as the 100 and 2000 most common words, Japanese key phrases, and a lot of the video content will simply become obsolete immediately upon signing up; even the flashcards and word bank — which is useful early on — becomes tedious and unproductive.
When you have a certain level of knowledge in Japanese you begin to understand the rules of the language, how words are constructed, identifying characteristics etc. If you understand how Kanji works, learning and understanding new words becomes easier, making a lot of the above tools irrelevant.
This is also the case for those who have started as a beginner as you may use the tools early on into your language learning journey but quickly surpass their usage and never use them again.
There is certainly content that will appeal towards advanced users, however there is a lot more for beginners.
Price is of course an important factor when deciding whether something is worth trying, or not. JapanesePod101.com technically has plans you can choose from, each unlocking more features and usability. This are:
- Premium plus
Each of these plans have different price plans depending on how long you sign up for; to fairly compare what each offers, I will base everything on the one year deal.
The ‘free lifetime account’ is, as expected, very restricted; however, it acts more as a trial service and grants some basic tools to help start you off.
From the word go you are able to access the entire library of vocabulary lists as well as the 100 most common words and key phrases. If you are just looking to learn some words this is surprisingly comprehensive.
You are also able to listen to the podcast/audio of the first two lessons of any series — this is how it acts as a trial. In reality you’re not going to learn much about how to use Japanese with a free account but at least it gives an idea of what to expect.
The next step up is the basic plan and where you have to start paying to access more content.
For one year basic is $5.00 a month which is currently about £3.70. For that you get access to every lesson on the site; although it is limited to just listening to the main audio for the lesson as well as reading the lesson notes. You don’t have access to the dialogue script or the line-by-line playable audio of the dialogue or vocabulary for the lesson — it will be blurry so you cannot see it.
It is entirely possible to learn Japanese to a competent level with ‘basic’ as the main lesson audio covers everything for that lesson, but it will require a lot of concentration to process what you are hearing. Maybe this could be of benefit by truly harnessing your listening skills, however, if you struggle to understand what you’re hearing it could be an uphill battle.
The lesson notes will be a lifesaver here as they will allow you to comprehend the main focus of the lesson in written form with basic examples.
Let’s be honest for a second, if you are serious about learning Japanese you are going to want to see, hear, read, and comprehend as much as you can; Premium offers that experience and is the plan I have been using for the last year in order to write this JapanesePod101 review.
A one year premium plan is going to cost $15.00 a month or about £11.00. With this you get access to every part of the lesson, line-by-line audio which you can single out and listen to separately, able to read the dialogue script and all the new vocabulary words for the lesson, both of which have proven invaluable for myself trying to master what taught.
Outside of the lessons, you gain access to a lot of the other useful tools as mentioned previously; the grammar bank, flashcards, voice recording, the 2000 most common words, and Kanji access (should you want to try it).
Certainly as a beginner to give yourself the best possible start to learning Japanese, the premium plan will help tremendously over the others. Many of the features I have used throughout most of my subscription (until the last few months due to outleveling content) and honestly feel helped get me to where I currently am. If you fully commit for a year on premium you will see results.
This is the next step up from premium. Although I have not personally experienced this plan I have seen what I have missed out on (or not) and what it offers above and beyond premium for the price.
A one year plan here will set you back $26.33 a month or about £17.50. The main attraction here is that of a personalised plan and access to 1-on-1 with a Japanese teacher. You would be able to get direct help from Japanese language teachers should you find yourself struggling with certain aspects with the language as well as guidance on what to focus on.
There are also assessments along the way to help measure your progress and further narrow down what needs improving. These could be invaluable in showing you what you need to work on, as they will cover all four areas of learning a language for a truly comprehensive approach.
For me, personally, I feel this would be a little overkill. However this is a very personalised touch which could be great for the right type of learner, someone who has the ability to focus entirely on what needs to be done and is active daily in their language learning journey.
There is a lot to unpack here in this review but I can say for certain that, for me, JapanesePod101.com has been a great resource in helping me advance my Japanese to another level. With so much to offer, you can pick and choose what you want to learn, and how you want to learn it.
The amount of audio that has been recorded and Japanese conversations that has been produced amounts to thousands of hours which is utterly staggering; of this, 100% is usable and most importantly real world knowledge that will not leave you scratching your head should you finish learning and get to using it.
There are a few flaws in what is otherwise a brilliant resource for learning Japanese, but unless you are already at a point where you are comfortable in using your current Japanese to learn in Japanese rather than English; I believe there is a lot that JapanesePod101 can offer.