Sunday, May 13 2007

Context is everything

The feature set of the Nintendo DS makes it very attractive for educational software that’s actually useful. The one drawback is that it’s all intended for local audiences, much like the Canon Wordtank and other portable electronic dictionaries.

A lot of it is intended for kids, so the language barrier isn’t too high, and over the past few weeks I’ve picked up three useful cartridges for my new DS Lite, all of which make excellent use of the touch-screen:

The first one is excellent for reviewing kanji you already know and can read and write quickly and reliably. If you’re relatively confident in your ability, you’ve been learning kanji in the standard school order, and you have a decent vocabulary, it’s quite useful. The one downside is that the kanji recognizer is very forgiving, allowing you to use both common abbreviations and incorrect stroke orders. In some cases, it’s a little too forgiving: I can’t write 言 correctly and have it accepted; I either have to write it on the left as if it were the radical, or abbreviate strokes two through four into a “Z”.

Kanji Sonomama has a less comprehensive dictionary than a WordTank, but the kanji recognizer is both good and patient, allowing you to look up unfamiliar words that you come across while reading. With a WordTank, I often can’t look up an unfamiliar word unless it has furigana. I know there are some high-end models that support direct kanji input now, but they cost a lot more than a DS and a copy of Kanji Sonomama.

The third one is the best kanji training software I’ve found so far. Reading and writing are in separate modules, so you don’t have the correct readings in front of you while you’re practicing shape and stroke order, but it has traceable sample characters and stroke-order animations,and will even animate your most recent attempt side-by-side with the correct version.

The only downside so far is that a few of the sample sentences require cultural context that stumps me. Here’s a simple example:

このには、こある。
  五円玉   文字 九    

Since this was a first-grade drill, I knew what all of the characters had to be, but I couldn’t figure out what the sentence was supposed to mean. The grammar was simple, but what in the hell was a five-yen ball, and why would it have nine characters in it?

[pause for laughter]

This would have made a lot more sense if I’d ever been to Japan and seen a five-yen coin, which does in fact have nine kanji written on one side. If it weren’t for Google, I’d still be wondering about that one.

[note for people in the San Francisco Bay Area: all three of these cartridges are available at the San Jose User’s Side store.]