Did you know that in Japan there are websites and television programs made specifically for non-Japanese people?
Typically, they’re to help said people better learn the Japanese language and introduce them to different parts of the culture.
Or, in cases such as NHK’s News Web Easy, they’re to help non-Japanese people living in Japan (as well as Japanese kids) read the news with ease.
Today, I’m going to introduce you to one of these programs in particular.
Due to the nature of the program it’s both easy to follow and totally immersive, delivering all the authentic content a foreign resident of Japan might need, while still breaking things down in a comprehensive way.
Before we get to business, let me just quickly recommend FluentU to you.
The Best Website to Learn Japanese: “Erin’s Challenge! I Can Speak Japanese”
「エリンが挑戦！にほんごできます。」(えりんが ちょうせん！にほんご できます) or, in English, “Erin’s Challenge! I Can Speak Japanese” was a program that ran for 25 episodes on Japanese channel NHK (along with abroad equivalent NHK World).
It was produced by The Japan Foundation, an institution dedicated to cultural exchange. According to Wikipedia (Japanese edition), “Erin’s Challenge” began broadcasting in fall 2006 and continued being shown for several years until late winter/early spring 2011.
Despite being targeted towards people whose first language isn’t Japanese, the entire program is in Japanese. That may sound counterintuitive, right? How’s anyone supposed to learn if they have no idea what anyone’s saying?
Well, although you may not understand all the specific words used, the way the scenes are composed and shot allow for intuitive understanding to take place. Gestures, facial expressions, contextual shots showing important information, signage, environments, objects and more all contribute to a better understanding of the scene. At times, it can make you feel a bit like you’re on exchange in Japan, but virtually!
Oh, yeah, that reminds me. The main story line of the program follows a high school exchange student, Erin, through her and her friends’ daily lives over the course of her time staying in Japan. Not all of the skits (as they call them) revolve around school life, nor do all of them have Erin in them. Several take place outside of school: at home, at a hot spring, at a piano recital, at a convenience store, at a restaurant…all sorts of situations are covered! And while we’re at it, the program isn’t just skits either, it’s got instructional, cultural and other demonstrative segments too.
Interestingly, the program is both live action and CG cartoon. Live action portions generally tend to be for demonstrative purposes such as showing how a phrase is used in context, or showcasing interesting cultural points (such as curious everyday objects and daily life activities). The cartoon portions are generally for instructive purposes, mainly regarding the specific bit of language being discussed in the episode, and for leading into live action segments. In the aforementioned extracurricular culture segments, the cartoon characters tend to narrate over the scenes.
In a lot of ways, it appears that “Erin’s Challenge” is aimed toward a younger audience: teenage girl as the main character, the presence of cartoons, school related topics, etc. However, truly anyone can benefit from the program. Not everything is aimed toward younger people in the show. One of the first cultural points shows non-Japanese adults learning how to properly offer and accept business cards in a formal setting. Other everyday situations are also covered in the program, such as taking a bus, using the train system, finding things in a convenience store, cooking and going on vacation. So, if you’re not entirely sure if this program would work for you based on age level alone, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s got a little bit of everything.
Sound like something you might be interested in? There are DVDs, but they don’t seem to be readily available outside of Japan. Luckily, there is also a website…
The Companion Website
“Erin’s Challenge” has a companion website where the essentials of all 25 episodes are available, for free. With or without registering for an account!
Better yet, it’s not just a website where you can watch the program, it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a whole learning environment with interactive elements for ease of use and further engagement with the learning materials. Or, to use more clinical terms, it’s an online course for learning Japanese.
So what are some of the features? For a start, you can choose what kind of subtitles you want to have playing with your videos. There are multiple choices: one of several non-Japanese languages (including English), Japanese with kanji, Japanese only in kana and Japanese in romaji. Not only that, but you can play all four options at once if you so wish! That may sound chaotic, but the subtitles all show up in a box underneath the video, and are organized into a tidy stack when more than one option is selected. So if you want all the options, and think you can keep up, have at it!
Other interactive elements include text versions of lessons, transcripts of the skits, manga versions of main skits and quizzes to gauge your understanding of the material. There are also appropriately themed mini games included in the cultural sections!
Outside of the content found in the lessons, there are some fun things you can do with an account, if you decide to register:
• Customize a cute little avatar and put it in different outfits.
• Easily keep track of your progress with records of what you’ve completed in the different lessons and when.
• Download the following content exclusive to members of the site: kana charts and calendar pages (set of three months, therefore updated every three months).
• Best of all, play a single player RPG wherein you get to take your avatar on adventures in Erin’s world. (That avatar doesn’t seem so useless now, does it?)
All that said, getting an account really isn’t necessary for everyone. Again, all the episodes, and therefore all the lessons, will still be fully available without an account.
If things like lesson records and kana charts do sound appealing, but you’re still unsure about getting an account, both can easily be fulfilled on one’s own terms. Kana charts are plentiful online if you poke around with a search engine (here are a few to get you started: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and keeping records could be as simple as checking off what you’ve completed on a handwritten or typed up list.
So it sounds great. But what can the site actually do for you long term?
4 Features That Make “Erin’s Challenge” the Best Website to Learn Japanese
I suppose it’s fairly obvious at this point how you might be able to benefit from learning Japanese with Erin, but it doesn’t hurt to list out some reasons, does it?
1. The Structure Is Ideal for Learners
The structure of the website manages to be good for learning without losing any of the lighthearted nature of the original program.
Most of the segments from the show (basically the most relevant ones) have been expanded upon to create a cohesive virtual Japanese course. This expansion, and the move to web, means that numerous interactive materials that wouldn’t have been possible in a passive watch-only format can exist peacefully in their own corners of the site, while also working together in a bigger way.
How about an example? Let’s look at a segment showing how to use 〜ています and the rules of conjugating different verbs in this form. On the original program, the segment would introduce the topic using a relevant clip from the basic skit, explain how to use the verb form, show some examples, play the entire basic skit again, show how the verb form is used in contextual situations, and then (after a brief pause involving a short cultural segment) move onto the advanced skit for another contextual demonstration.
On the website, the spirit of this structure remains, but has been rearranged slightly.
The skit segments are the first two sections of the lesson, and the short cultural segment comes after the segment that teaches grammar points. Otherwise, the videos from the show are still a part of the lesson, along with some new additions: a text version of the explanation with several added example sentences, even more example sentences and several quizzes to test yourself on what you’ve learned so far. (Don’t worry, you can take them as many times as you want if you don’t get all the questions right at first.) All of this adds an extra dash of immersive oomph to the lesson’s teaching power while maintaining a sense of order.
The different sections are arranged in a certain order that maintains a sense of flow and focus quite well. However, since this site isn’t strict about what order in which you do things, you could easily decide on your own order as well!
If you like vocabulary, you could choose to start with the vocabulary section of the lesson, then go onto the others. Or, so you know what you’re getting into, you could start with the “key phrases” section and then watch the skits. You could even decide to complete whole lessons in an entirely different order, if you really wanted to. This is your learning experience, so it’s really up to you!
2. Immersive Learning Possibilities
As mentioned before, the program has no English or other secondary language to guide the viewer. All you have is the Japanese explanations for Japanese words and concepts. Thus, from the outset, the program is an immersive environment. The site then adds another level or two to this environment with the customization options of site navigation language and the subtitle settings we talked about earlier.
Choosing to navigate the website in only Japanese, using only Japanese subtitles, officially puts you in a completely immersive environment. This is more helpful than it may sound at first.
You can test your listening comprehension then check it against the subtitles, or pause the videos to look up words with a handy display of the spoken text right in front of you. It’s also easier to focus on the actual dialogue without the possible distraction of secondary language subtitles. It’s a great exercise for reading Japanese subtitles in real time.
If you get an account, you may be surprised to find out that the single player RPG, entitled “にほんごクエスト” (にほんご くえすと) is also completely in Japanese. There’s no way to change the language settings. The game is a part of the site where one is thrown into a kana-filled world with no safety net. You know how in the wild baby animals will be left to fend for themselves after they’ve reached a certain amount of growth and nurturing? That’s essentially what にほんごクエスト does. So you better brush up on your kana, have a good dictionary close at hand and remember what you learned in your lessons, ’cause you’re going to need that knowledge!
Don’t fear though, you can’t really mess up in the game. Most, possibly all, conversations can be repeated if needed, and the language isn’t too advanced that you’ll be left completely in the dark. It’s also a great, safe way to practice playing games and figuring out things in Japanese without much, if any, consequence.
3. Material for Students of Any Level
The ability to customize your navigation also means absolute beginners and intermediate students alike can take away something valuable from the website.
In the case of beginner students, they’ll likely most benefit from both the main lessons, and the kana charts account holders can download. Knowledge of kana will help a student navigate parts of lessons that are completely without romaji, while the lessons themselves will teach both grammar and vocabulary.
In an overall lesson, the language focused parts of the module will involve roughly 4 sections: 基本スキット (きほん すきっと)/Fundamental Skits, 応用スキット (おうよう すきっと)/Practical Use Skits, 大切な表現 (たいせつな ひょうげん)/Important Expressions and ことばをふやそう/Let’s Increase Vocabulary.
Let’s look over these sections in more detail, shall we?
Under 基本スキット and 応用スキット are the drama-like skits. After watching these you can use quizzes to test your memory of things that happened and things that were said in the skits. For the 基本スキット, you can also read a manga version, which you’ll be tested on too! You’ll be asked about what order the panels go in and what lines of dialogue went where. So it’s helping you with your manga reading capabilities as well!
The 大切な表現 section zooms in on the point of focus for the lesson, which is usually a grammar point used in the skits (as shown above with 〜ています). This is the one part of the site that most resembles your typical educational site, but it’s relatively short and will help learners with any grammar they may not have been familiar with beforehand.
Relatively simple language such as the ever-so-famous demonstratives こ・そ・あ・ど (e.g. これ/this, それ/that, あれ/that over there, どれ/which), and から (in this case meaning “because”) are taught, along with slightly more advanced language such as 〜たことがあります (which helps you explain what you have or have not done, e.g. あそこで食べたことがあります (あそこで たべたことが あります)/I have eaten over there), and casual speech (e.g. あそこ、食べたことある (あそこ、たべたこと ある)/I’ve eaten over there).
As for the ことばをふやそう section, it’s fairly straightforward, and pretty much akin to a virtual picture dictionary. In this particular section under the episode 8 module, we get a look at an illustration of a menu and some “fast food” items. Each individual food is marked with a number and is listed in a box below with the same number, for the sake of keeping order. If you click on a word, an audio clip of the same word will play. Not only does this help build vocabulary, but the audio clips can help with pronunciation and listening comprehension too.
In another example labeled as 動詞 (２) 公園 (どうし (２) こうえん)/Verbs (2) Park, we can see that verbs are also taught. In this illustration, people are hanging out at a park. There are people walking (歩きます (あるきます)), playing (遊びます (あそびます)), resting (休みます (やすみます)) and reading (読みます (よみます)), to name a few actions. Man, there certainly is a lot going on at this park. A poor little girl is even crying because she lost her balloon!
As for more intermediate students, they’ll likely benefit most from using previously mentioned immersion methods, effectively removing any training wheels and throwing them into a native environment! The material the lessons teach only goes so far, and intermediate students may be familiar with most of the material taught already. Far more interesting for intermediate students is to start learning lengthier, more complicated Japanese. This can include instructions, natural conversations at a normal speed and more advanced kanji, all of which can be achieved using immersive methods on the site. Trying to understand the videos without English or other secondary language subtitles, for example, is a great first step.
The fun thing about making the website immersive is that navigating it becomes a series of lessons in itself. Want to play a mini game? Better decode these instructions to figure out what I need to do. Taking a quiz on what you watched in a skit? Hopefully you can understand the descriptions of things that happened! Just trying to log in or change some account information? Better look up all these words I don’t know to make sure I don’t accidentally close my account (luckily I’ve never done it myself).
Finally, I have a recommendation for everyone! Perhaps this is just my bias showing, but I’d actually consider the single player RPG, にほんごクエスト to be beneficial for all learners, although beginners will probably have to use a dictionary more often.
Hmm, that reminds me, I haven’t really gone into enough detail on the fun part of this website yet, have I? (It’s not a stuffy virtual school with cartoon mascots, I swear!)
4. Learning Feels Like Playing
“Erin’s Challenge” seems to be made with fun in mind from beginning to end.
In the original program, while all segments have their own specific teaching purposes, they’re also engaging enough that they could be viewed simply as entertainment. The skits on their own could be released completely separately as a series of shorts and it wouldn’t be obvious in any way that they were made for an educational program. The term “edutainment” is apt here.
As far as the website goes, I personally find it to be just as, if not more engaging. To me, the whole site is a game. Every lesson is a level I can explore, with different difficulty settings, Easter eggs, a variety of stuff to unlock, sweet weapons to upgrade with and real life XP (experience point) increases. Honestly, it’s hard to say whether this view simply comes from the thrill I get from learning Japanese, or if it’s because of how enjoyable the site actually is. Regardless, if I can easily start making video game analogies that aren’t actually that far off from how the lessons actually work, there’s got to be some magic going on.
In some cases, learning happens during play. My beloved にほんごクエスト is a perfect example of what I mean.
First of all, it’s an immersive environment, meaning you have no choice to but learn something while you play, be it vocabulary or the different politeness levels of different people.
Secondly, it incorporates what you’ve learned in every lesson into a broader context; you actually can’t play unless you’ve completed a lesson, because you’ll have no in-game skills with which to talk to NPCs (non-player characters)! The game relies on you having conversations to progress the game (and the story line involving cartoon instructor ホニゴン (ほにごん)), so grammar points and topic themes from the lessons are used in a clever, everyday way to pull this off.
Third, a lot of the game depends on reading and understanding what’s being said in your conversations, so your reading comprehension is bound to increase.
Also helpful can be the mini games. There is a single mini game in every lesson under the やってみよう！/”Let’s Try!” section that typically tie in with whatever extracurricular activity the segment covered. Be it nail art, bamboo leaf boats, traditional sweets or a game that combines rock-paper-scissors with guessing what direction your friend will turn their head in. There’s a wide variety of genres: board game to simulator, battle to rhythm based, memory dependent to coordination dependent. But what can you learn from them, you say? Culture, my dear! Culture! やってみよう！is a cultural segment, after all. Along with that, the games themselves are in Japanese, continuing the theme of immersion.
More Websites and Programs Like “Erin’s Challenge”
Is the wide variety of stuff to do on erin.ne.jp still not enough to satiate your voracious learning appetite? Maybe you’d just like to have more than one place to visit. Maybe you don’t think the website will be able to teach you everything you’d need. Or maybe you’re just curious about what else is out there. If any of those describe you, then here are some other websites and programs that share a little of Erin’s spirit!
Like anime or manga? Good! This site runs on it! Its main objective is to use commonly seen character types, phrases and settings/genres to teach Japanese. Learning materials include manga pages in different genres, character profiles with audio clips, and lots of quizzes to test you on your kanji & vocab knowledge. Turns out The Japan Foundation is behind this one too, so that ought to tell you something.
Just a small warning: This website may load a little slowly when you get to learning material sections, but don’t let that keep you from checking it out!
If you’ve been learning Japanese for a little while, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard about JapanesePod101 by Innovative Language. But does it live up to the hype?
If you’ve got some extra change in your pocket month to month, I’d definitely suggest this option. With a paid subscription, you’ll have access to a wealth of material: the large podcast archive, transcripts, vocabulary lists, text versions of lessons, flashcards, quizzes and more. There is also a community on the website, with a whole forum!
Pinched for cash? Not sure if it’s an investment you’d like to make? Some free options include downloading episodes of their podcast from iTunes, and watching videos on their YouTube channel. And they’ll also let you take it for a spin with a free trial!
- Anything Made By NHK
“Erin’s Challenge” was broadcast by the NHK, so this is kind of a given, eh?
The NHK makes some great stuff. They have years of great material behind them. And this Wikipedia entry is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find tons of free lessons on their site.
There was even another show similar to “Erin’s Challenge” that aired in 2011, but it’s very hard to find these days. If you’re feeling adventurous, the name of the program was 「どうも！にほんご講座です。」(どうも！にほんご こうざです。/ “Hi! This is the Japanese course.”) Unlike “Erin’s Challenge,” it seemed to be aimed toward an older audience, the story line following a family running a ramen shop and a couple of the employees that worked there. It also tried incorporating some different elements like a quiz show segment and a culture corner where the origin and meaning some famous phrases used in the skits were explained. It also had cartoon characters, albeit ninja themed ones. But ultimately, it seems to be a relatively obscure show at present. Sad.
Regardless, NHK is a reputable name for a reason, so definitely be sure to get familiar with them!
- Other Japan Foundation Projects
There’s a whole list of them here including “Japanese in Anime & Manga” and “Erin’s Challenge.”
- 「日本人の知らない日本語 (にほんじんの しらない にほんご) 」/ “The Japanese That Japanese People Don’t Know”
A silly drama where a young woman named Haruko begins teaching at a Japanese language school. It’s based off of a non-fiction comic series of the same name. The reason I’m recommending this drama (and I suppose the books as well, though I haven’t read them) is due to the fact that a viewer could learn from it very much the same way one could learn from watching “Erin’s Challenge.”
In this case, you’ve got a classroom full of (possibly stereotypical) non-Japanese people, a cast of funny language teachers and some high stakes situations Haruko has to help her students overcome. Despite some of the tense situations, the overall tone is very lighthearted, and makes for another great example of edutainment!
“Erin’s Challenge! I Can Speak Japanese” is always one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of great learning tools for Japanese. As you can see, it’s got a lot going for it: audio-visual immersion, an emphasis on having fun while you learn and information learners of all levels can use.
When it comes to the web edition, the site takes everything I loved about the original program and expands it into something even greater. The web lessons are the epitome of going at your own pace, at your own level, with the only pressure being to enjoy yourself while you do so.
It’s true that Erin’s world may not be for everyone, but one thing is for certain, it’s open to everyone willing to visit. Those just starting out, and those looking to ease back in, all the same.
So, what have you got to lose?
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