Smart.fm and the Death of a Free Learning Tool

I haven’t been on it for a while, but smart.fm used to be one of my favorite websites to study Japanese. One I’d been meaning to return to recently. But it looks like that is not to be. Smart.fm is switching over to iKnow.jp (which it already was before, I think) and charging a monthly fee at the door.

Free, the site seemed invaluable, but for ¥1000 a month it seems superfluous. It is an annoying shock to see that the service is just going behind a pay-wall with nearly no warning. More or less it seems they’ve basically abused the goodwill of a community of language learners who’ve spread the word in addition to contributed content and ideas. ¥1000 a month may not seem like a lot, but there are far better ways to spend ¥12000 a year (around $120 USD) on language learning.

The move seems as boneheaded as it is heavy handed. Why not introduce premium services to maintain a large user base? Why not give current users more than a couple months to check out the new site, especially when the site is (by their own admission) buggy? In one stroke they’ve turned a former user and cheerleader into an alienated and upset loudmouth.

Interestingly, smart.fm seems to be keeping & profiting from the user generated content:

Very importantly, the perception of some users is that the majority of content studied in Smart.fm has been created by the user base and that the move to iKnow! is somehow an attempt to take all of this user created content and profit from it…

We appreciate the work that many users have put into creating content and we’re certainly not going to delete it…

Check back for some free sites and methods to study Japanese, along with suggestions where to better spend your $120 USD a year.


How American movies change when they are exported

Translation has always been interesting to me. It is interesting to me how something like a movies are translated. Even before making it to the theater the movie can be changed dramatically through translation. The name of the movie can reshape the expectation and focus of the movie for example. While not lingual, the movie poster can also be “translated” for a different audience.

Meryl Streep’s It’s Complicated is an example of those two things happening at once. The result is that the bakery (which isn’t featured at all in the American marketing) and the character’s family become the focus. While the American version seems to focus on the character’s complicated love life.

It’s really interesting. The big question is how these two marketing campaigns reflect cultural values and whether these reflections are pleasing to witness.

apple, ipod touch, japanese

Japanese in Your iPhone (or iPod Touch)

The Japanese dictionary app called, simply enough, Japanese is being updated. Version 2.0 is coming out soon. The developer, CodeFromTokyo, has said the app will be submitted to Apple this week.

I’ve been studying Japanese seriously for about a year now, I’ve already spent about a week with a beta version of 2.0 and I feel like it is safe to say that this app is an amazingly useful study companion. Why?

Japanese is based on Jim Breen’s freely available EDict, like a pile of other apps. What makes Japanese different from those other apps is what it does with the dictionary and what it adds to it.

Lets take a look at just few of things that I like. Bear in mind these are screenshots of the beta version, so some things might change.

This is the beginning of the entry for for 素晴らしい. As you’d expect you get the furigana, any alternative pronunciations, and the translation. You’ll also get the new example sentences! Example sentences are really important because you can see if it’s the right word and how to use the word.

Tapping on the sentence sends you to a page showing the sentence complete with furigana.

Many, but not all, kanji also have a stroke view where you can see the animated stroke order of kanji. This is really helpful if you want get props for well written kanji. Sadly this seems to be my primary area of praise from Japanese folks…

One of the most useful features is the conjugations, which show not just the formal and informal conjugations, but also also things like the て, ない, and a handful of other forms.

Of course if you are looking at a kanji you can also see a list of popular compounds. You can also search by radical or even grapheme. But even more impressive is that you can search using conjugated words, a feature that I haven’t seen in any iPod/iPhone dictionary.

The dictionary also lets you write notes for a word or kanji and even create lists of words which can then be practiced in a flash card function.

The truth is that a lot of the features in this app, along with it’s speedy search, make it the dictionary in the iTunes store to beat. I don’t think there isn’t room for improvement, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it over any other dictionary. The features, along with a very responsive developer, make this my dictionary of choice, hands down. Down, I say! (….oh man, it’s a little late for me to be blogging)

If you like it you can buy Japanese


My Two Otakus

The other night a friend of mine tipped me off to a second, older, meaning for the word otaku in Japanese. I’ve only heard it applied to geeks. オタク go to Akihabara [1] [2] [3] and live for video games, anime, and figurines… or so the legend goes.
akihabara 1
akihabara 2

Apparently it can also mean “your house.” My guess is that it is a little formal and polite, but I’ll have to run that by my Japanese teacher to be sure.

お宅 – your house
オタク – geek


One of My Favorite Kanji

In English the etymology for poetry is Greek. It comes from “poiesis” meaning maker (kind of boring). Or It comes from the Latin “poeta,” used as a general term for creative literature (amazingly boring).

詩 - shi - poetry
(し – shi) means poem or poetry. Of course I like poetry so automatically I’m a fan of the kanji, but my fondness isn’t as superficial as that. 詩 is 言 and 寺 stuck together. means “say” and means “temple.” It is a beautiful combination.

All things considered, 詩 wins first place in my Best Way to Express the Feeling and Idea of Poetry Prize (also known as the BWEFIPP).


A Brief Explanation of Why People Use Kanji and Not Just Hiragana

Kanji were created long before Hiragana. Kanji come from China. When they were imported the Japanese added their own pronunciation to them, which is one reason why Chinese and Japanese sound different. Japanese Kanji have at least two pronunciations the On-yomi and Kun-yomi. The on-yomi is the Chinese reading and the kun-yomi is the Japanese reading.

Hiragana was used by women because most of them weren’t taught to read Kanji. This was the only way they could write and read. And some women wrote a lot (see Tale of Genji). But for a long while Hiragana was considered to be a sign of being uneducated. Eventually the fellas started using it too and more and more people started mixing it in with Kanji and Katakana.

You need Kanji because lots of words have the same pronunciation and it gets (even more) confusing without them.

Do I love rain or candy?

雨が好きです。(I love rain)
飴が好きです。(I love candy)

Or another example: あれはおおきいくもです。
Is there a big spider or a big cloud?

あれは大きい雲です。 (There is a big cloud)
あれは大きい蜘蛛です。 (There is a big spider)


Tomorrow あした and あす (ashita and asu)

Since I’ve lived in Japan I’ve only every noticed 明日 (tomorrow) pronounced as あした (ashita), but while studying today I came across a new reading, あす (asu). One of the constant painful joys of Japanese is the many ways you can read kanji. The readings can change depending on what way it is being used, who you are using it with, and what kind of shoes you are wearing.* I think of it as revenge for the English language’s arbitrary sound rules (think “read” and “read” or “sight,” “site,” and “opposite”).

So how is あした and あす different? The answer is simple, it’s all about politeness. This tends to be one of the common answers when faced with the problem of different readings. あした is casual while あす is more formal. I’d say that in nine out of ten situations あした is just fine. I’ve lived here for over a year now and it’s all I’ve heard.

*(one of those three is a lie)


A Strange and Hateful Thing to Say

(とうふのかどにあたまをぶつけてしね: Tofu no kado ni atama wo butsuke te shine)

Supposedly this is our equivalent to “take a long walk off a short pier,” but the literal translation is “bash your head against the corner of a block of tofu and die.” I don’t know, it just seems far more mean to wish someone death by tofu-head-bashing. Also, I’ve never really thought of telling someone to walk off a pier as wishing the person to die. You just get wet, right? I always thought it’s like saying “go jump in a lake” or “go fly a kite.”

At any rate, this is one expression I don’t think I’ll be committing to memory.


The Difference Between くれる and もらう

When you look in a dictionary くれる and もらう seem to be the same on the surface. This one had me completely perplexed, it was like a horrible riddle, wrapped in an enigma, swaddled in a punch to the kidney. After looking for a while I finally was able to hunt down an answer about the difference. Today I verified my understanding with my boss. Turns out it’s not so bad.

The main difference is where the emphasis is placed. One places emphasis on the giver, the other places it on the receiver. For example:

I got a shirt from my mother.

My mother gave me a shirt.

Please note that we use が instead of に for くれる. Don’t ask me why. I’m not ready to learn that yet, for now it is enough for me to just know I have to do it that way.

The other big difference is that we can usually only use くれる when talking about things we received. For a more detailed explanation check out nihongojouzu.com