Unless you are studying Japanese full-time at school or university, chances are that your language learning is primarily driven by self-study.
There are many benefits to this, such as having the freedom to create your own study plan, being able to pick and choose what type of study suits you best, and being able to shake things up as frequently (or infrequently) as you like.
But sometimes, it can be difficult to make independent self-study go deep enough.
Most of us need at least some structure, direction and accountability to motivate us to practice with enough consistency to become anywhere near fluent in a foreign language.
One great way to get this structure in self-study (or indeed as an aid to formal lessons) is to use online language learning labs.
A language lab is essentially a virtual classroom—or perhaps it is more accurate to liken it to a one-on-one class. It is essentially a multimedia platform that can inculcate language lessons with text, images, audio, video, quizzes and assignments, creating a structured course of lessons to teach language.
How to Use Japanese Language Labs
Language labs were developed as an aid to traditional classroom environments, to encourage students to actively participate in language practice and independent learning. Now there are several purely online language labs, which can be used completely separate from traditional classroom learning.
They are generally made up of lessons, which can include simple vocab lists, explanations of grammar rules, in-context usage examples and demonstrations of words and phrases, and review segments, which can take the form of quizzes, timed tests and flashcards.
This means that they can be equally helpful for self-study learners and classroom-based students. They can be used to review and reinforce recently learned rules, prompt and revive forgotten lessons or to learn something entirely new.
It pays to have several lessons with a range of difficulty levels going at once in your labs. Some lessons you can use primarily to review old vocabulary and grammar patterns, to ensure that you don’t forget to keep using them. These are the “easy” lessons, to keep for the days when you really don’t feel like using your brain too much.
Of course, you want to be learning new things regularly to keep expanding your knowledge and moving towards that nebulous goal of fluency. Most language labs don’t require you to start with Lesson One, and you can often look at the content of the lessons before starting them. Intermediate and advanced learners can use these programs to tailor labs to their skill levels.
Browse the lessons until you get to something you don’t know and start from there, choose your skill level at the get-go or take a placement test if offered!
5 Outsanding Japanese Language Labs
With so many lessons and a huge range of languages available to learn (even Dothraki!), Living Language Lab is a popular online lab for good reason. The Living Language program combines interactive technology with proven teaching strategies to provide a fun, efficient and effective learning resource.
Their free course is made up of simple flashcards, with the Japanese word and a photograph on one side and the English meaning on the other. Click on any of their lessons to play, and you can choose to see a list of all the vocab that will be covered in that lesson. There is a downloadable PDF file with a summary of the grammar covered in each course.
Living Language Lab has a full online course available for a subscription fee. This includes 46 lessons based on their coursebooks, games and quizzes to make for engaging review and to let you track your progress as you go. You can even interact with a bustling online community of learners and experts along the way.
The thing that sets Living Language Lab apart is the availability of e-tutoring sessions (for an additional fee), which gives independent students the opportunity to practice live with native speakers and work through specific problems.
Living Language Lab has an app version of their free online course available through the iTunes Store.
FluentU is one for the pop culture buffs and fun-loving folks—and everyone else who likes their lessons to really come to life. It is by far the most entertaining, engaging and refreshing language learning lab option out there.
Using real-world videos, FluentU allows you to learn Japanese by immersion—and it is about as close as you can get to walking around Tokyo and getting immersed in local culture. It is constantly being updated with more authentic foreign language resources from around the Web that are entertaining, timely and ideal for language learners.
You can learn Japanese in-context by watching real-world videos that Japanese natives actually watch on the regular—like movie trailers, music videos, news, inspiring talks and more.
Every video has interactive subtitles that makes the content approachable for anyone at any skill level. You can click on any word to see not only a definition of the word in English, but also example sentences of how to use the word in context. This allows you to learn as you watch, without having to pause and look up all the words you don’t recognize.
FluentU also features quizzes, multimedia flashcards, personalized vocabulary lists and thematic playlists in Learn Mode to help you learn, review and reinforce all the vocabulary you’ve learned from your chosen videos, again using those real-world videos to help prompt your memory and create visual associations.
The FluentU Japanese Language and Culture Blog (where you are right now!) is always updated with new articles exploring tricks and techniques for language learning, from the ultimate guides to learning hiragana, katakana and kanji to how to learn Japanese by watching anime or listening to pop songs, you will find something on FluentU’s learner blog to aid your Japanese study.
Featuring over 2,150 audio and video lessons, JapanesePod101 is an extensive and highly popular program.
JapanesePod101 combines podcasts, video lessons, PDF lesson notes and an online forum to create an enormous online classroom.
To create your free account, the homepage will prompt you to choose one of four skill levels: Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Once you have an account you can change your skill level, there are also Bonus Lessons available.
There is little more that you can find out about the course without creating a free account or signing up for a paid membership. On the Dashboard lessons are separated into Learning Paths, which are review-type lessons, audio clips and video lessons. New lessons are added frequently, and can be found easily in the Newest Lessons tab.
JapanesePod101 offers a wide range of resources on top of their basic language lab, some of which are free. However, resources like the Conjugation Chart, Learn Kanji program and quizzes are only available with a paid membership.
This is a great language lab for students looking for a wide range of lessons, resources and learning styles. JapanesePod101 incorporates many of the great features of other language labs (forums and blogs, video lessons, podcasts etc.) and puts them all together in one accessible site.
Learn Japanese on the go with Rocket Languages.
With lessons designed to encourage spoken Japanese in “only minutes a day,” Rocket Languages uses interactive audio lessons (“perfect for learning Japanese in the car”), flashcards, pronunciation practice sessions, more traditional language and culture lessons and review resources to teach Japanese.
Sign up for a free lifetime account to use select lessons from the full course, which is made up of packages covering three levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced.
Lessons are made up of Modules. Each Module is broken up into labs, which are are broken up again into sections to complete (including an audio lesson, writing and speaking practice, and practice tools).
You can check out what is included in each package on their Courses and Pricing page, but the features which stand out to me in particular are the voice recognition, the “My Vocab” vocab builder and 24/7 forum and email support.
Memrise aspires to make learning joyful.
Unlike other paid language labs, Memrise provides most of their learning tools in their free account—with several more advanced options for Premium members.
Users create their own quiz-based courses with “Mems,” personalized prompts to make new vocab stick in your mind. Click on any course to check out what each lesson will entail, so you can easily select courses that suit your proficiency level.
Courses are made up of levels. In each level, a handful of new words will be introduced at a time, supplemented by Mems and simple practice exercises. As your memory grows (animated adorably as a flower growing and sprouting petals) more words are added throughout the level.
Practice exercises include reading, writing and listening, with special listening tools, video lessons and personalized lessons for Difficult Words in Pro. Towards the end of each level you can begin Speed Reviews, where you are given seconds to recognize the word and select its correct meaning. Your progress is recorded as points, firing up your competitive side and turning study into a fun and challenging game.
Technology has become such an integral part of our lives, we tend to take it completely for granted.
We rarely think about ways in which we can use it to aid our lives in new, productive and educational ways.
But smartphones and the Internet have completely revolutionized how we can learn languages, from connecting us with people around the world through social media to globalizing pop culture and bringing the classroom to us via online language labs.
So, don’t be afraid to try out these new and fantastic resources.
You may just find exactly the resource you have been looking for!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.