Japanese educational site review: ReadNihon (“Learn Japanese By Reading It”)

By | January 9, 2019

(Note: As of April 2021, it was confirmed with ReadNihon’s creator that the site has been shut down. This article will be left for some time for historical reasons.)

Recently the creator of the new website ReadNihon, designed to help you learn grammar and vocabulary by reading Japanese text, contacted me and requested I check out his site and write a review, and I agreed. Having created my own set of web tools to assist with learning Japanese (Language on Track, still in beta), I have a special interest in sites like this.

(Note: some of this is already out of date, please see note at the bottom regarding this)

He told me that ReadNihon was still in Beta, so I’ve tried to keep that in mind. However, as with all my reviews I won’t be holding back much, though I will try to give suggestions for how the site can be improved. After all, I know how difficult it can be to create language-learning sites (and how hard it is to build up a significant user base).

Here I’ll give my first bit of feedback. The site doesn’t appear to specify anywhere it is in a Beta stage. That’s pretty important, since it will effect people’s expectations, and make them more likely to come back if they have difficulties.

The initial page of ReadNihon is pretty well made. It’s graphically simple, yet pleasing to the eye, and gives just enough information to get you interested in trying. Having said that, I wish it would explain the “simplification” process a little more before you become a user (like how it adds Furigana to texts) at this point, since some people may not understand that given the brief description. There is a section on the first page that says ‘Features’, but it doesn’t seem to actually talk about the features.

The process of making a free account was really easy and I was able to quickly get started. As part of that I got an email which contained a link to a getting started video. While I appreciate the sentiment, the production value of the video was pretty low. First of all, the title on the top said something like “screenshot”––and users don’t really care how it was captured. More importantly, there didn’t seem to be any sound, only visuals, which were basically just showing someone using the site. While I guess I could have looked at the visuals I was frustrated by the lack of a helpful voice-over, and stopped after less than a minute through. My sound was working only minutes before I tried it, so I don’t think it was my computer.

As I started going through the site, I liked how popup windows came up at key points giving brief, wizard-like explanations. Generally (except for what I’ll mention below) the English text was well written and error-free.

The site has a few core features. One of them is the ability to take a text and ‘simplify’ it, which seems to mostly involve adding furigana, and also generating a list of words used in the text. You can also make vocab lists to help practice those words. The text can come from cut-and-paste or from a series of prepared lessons and sample texts. Finally, there are statistics to track how many words you learned in ReadNihon (and apparently other sites as well, but I’m not sure how that works). I think there may be a few other minor features but I didn’t try everything, and I will focus on the core features in this review. (One of these was a browser plugin, which I didn’t try out)

One of my (minor) annoyances about this site is how it says you need “10,000 words to fluency”, and knowing that vocab does not equal fluency I wish that part would be removed. Also the text actually says “10,000 Japanese left to fluency”, which is not the best wording.

So really the two main features of this site are the prepared lessons/texts, and the “simplification” tools. I’ll address the former first.

The lessons are grouped into categories: basics, grammar, JLPT (coming soon), and keigo (polite language) lessons. There are a good number of lessons (over 60) but I had a few issues with them. First, the titles are short, and only written in kanji or hiragana. For example, the first lesson is “だ・です” and a later one is titled “以上”. Unfortunately I could only view the first few lessons (the rest require a paid account which I didn’t get), but from what I saw the lessons were generally pretty short (only a few sentences of description), followed by a practice sentence or two.

To take a step back here, grammar is to me the most important thing about any language, or at least a key ingredient required for true fluency. I generally recommend reading one or more books just on grammar alone, in addition to one good comprehensive textbook (something like Genki).

While there is some good information to be learned from the lessons on ReadNihon, they are so short and so far from comprehensive––in some cases missing important things (for example, there is a brief discussion about これ、それ、あれ but no mention of どれ). While they could be good review tools, I would hope nobody would be learning these topics for the first time in such an abbreviated form.

To the author of ReadNihon, I would suggest either removing these lessons completely, or making a smaller number of more comprehensive lessons, possibly with quizzes at the end of each. Another idea is to make lessons that work in parallel with some popular textbook.

Besides the lessons, there are a series of JLPT brief sample texts from N1 to N5. I read through the N5, and while I feel it may help with those studying for the test, I found at least one obvious error: the phrase “収所群島” should have been “収所群島” (bold mine). Doing a search on Google for the former phrase shows this website, which is apparently where the text was taken from. There’s nothing wrong with using sample text from somebody’s website (as long as proper permission was acquired), but obvious errors like this detract from the learning and can outright confuse students. I didn’t check the other texts in detail.

Now we come to the real core of the side, the “simplification” process. This works by selecting (or inputting) a text and then choosing a level: Starter through Master (there are 5). When you do this, there is a spinner (this can take a while, sometimes over five seconds) and then you eventually see a screen with the text annotated with furigana. At first, it was not clear to me how the “level” mattered, but it seems that it will only add furigana to words that are considered “hard” for that level, which in itself is a useful thing. I tried this for N1 text and set the level to “Starter”.

There are a few options at this point. One is to hide the furigana, and that worked. The option to hide the English text didn’t make sense to me, since there was no English text. There was a speech button, but pressing that just made some gibberish come out of my speakers. (It sounded like a robot voice speaking the text in 5x of normal speed).

In general, the Furigana worked somewhat well, though I found a few inconsistencies. For example, sometimes verb endings were included in the furigana, and sometimes not. Some words were green, and hovering over them showed a brief definition in English, but it seemed random which words were enabled for this.

After doing some more comparison I found something weird was going on. Some of the words were actually changed in the ‘simplified’ text. I guess this is the real meaning of the ‘simplification’ that wasn’t spelled out anywhere (or I missed it). To give an example: what was “20世紀” in the original text changed to “20センチュリー” in the simplified text.

To be blantly honest, I doubt whether this is really a good idea. In this case, I am not sure if there is much value to the student learning the word “センチュリー”, which I think is relatively uncommon in Japanese. Furthermore, the student doesn’t know what words were ‘transformed’. And from the text I used, only a few words were actually ‘transformed’.

Conceptually, I think the idea of making a simplified text––a way that less-experienced students can still understand the same content––is a good idea. However, replacing one word for another “simpler” one, while maintaining the grammar (and especially nuances) of the original word, seems something that requires pretty advanced AI. Having a human handpicking simpler words would probably work, but would not be scalable to arbitrary documents which is what the site tries to handle.

There was another serious problem with this simplification, this time more of a bug than a design flow, which is that in at least one case it butchered the grammar of the sentence. “思い浮かべるのは” became “思い浮かべるの理由は” (bold added by me). Not only is 理由 (reason) not what the の represents in the original sentence, but the grammar of “verb + の+noun” is incorrect. (思い浮かべる理由 would be correct, though that is not what the original text says).

Therefore, I would consider really rethinking the word simplification, especially whether it is feasible for arbitrary documents. I would suggest the creator of ReadNihon to consider changing to only a prescribed list of texts, and then manually (= with a human) “simplify” those to different levels. That way, not just individual words but also grammar can also be simplified, yielding an easily understandable result.

One nice feature here is that you can switch to a vocab list view that shows each word with its type and meaning in English, which is pretty useful. I should point out that my site Language on Track that I alluded to earlier actually does almost the same thing, and has been around for a few years. Having said that, even if the creator of ReadNihon got inspiration from my site, I don’t mind (frankly I would be honored). It may just be a coincidence though––after all, making a list of vocab words from a passage isn’t that creative of an idea.

There is also an option to make a test to check your knowledge of readings and meanings. However, that seemed buggy, and the first question asked me for the reading of the word “0”, with options “バシャル・アサド, 家, 残虐, and 今日”.

Shortly after I received the initial email from the creator of this site, he told me that a new feature just came in––the ability to make add furigana and make a vocab list from Youtube videos in Japanese (they must already have Japanese captions, however). This is a pretty cool idea and I could see some people getting a lot of use out of this, but I was frustrated again by the fact the introductory video had no sound. Also, the issues I mentioned above that applied to written text would likely apply to Youtube video subtitles as well.

I think this is enough comments for now. Clearly, ReadNihon has some good ideas to help students learn Japanese words, grammar, and assist with reading in general. But I think the site needs some more testing (keep in mind, it’s still in Beta) and should try to flesh out of some of these ideas better. While there are two paid account options that unlock more content, besides the extra lessons it is not clear to me what is included. I would recommend that the site be made 100% free for now, build a user base, and then eventually switch to a paid model once it is out of Beta mode. The initial set of users can be grandfathered into all the content, and only new users can have to pay for the extra content.

I know the author is actively working on improving the site, so perhaps many of these things will get fixed in the short term. If so, I may either update the article, put updates as comments, or if there are many changes I may make a second review (once the site is done with Beta).

In closing, despite some of the quirks I found with it, I highly recommend you to try ReadNihon. It has a lot of promise and I know the author has a passion for what he is doing and would really appreciate the users as well as the feedback.

(Note: the above observations are from using the site on January 7 and 8 of 2019)

Update: the author has contacted me and already fixed or improved many of the points I mentioned in this review. He is working on addressing some of the remaining ones. While I am not going to list every single change, these are just a few more reasons to check out the site. Once it gets a little more mature I will consider writing another review.

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