Note: This will be as unbiased a review as possible. This website contains no affiliate links to JapanesePod101.com, and has no association with them other than having used the product.
JapanesePod101.com has lots of mixed opinions from different people. Some say its great, others say its awful. I used to be pretty firmly in the awful (or at least “pretty bad”) camp, but recently decided to give it another try. Having the great fortune of working at a job where I am able to listen to music all day long, I thought it might be a waste if I couldn’t try to find something to help me improve my Japanese a bit during that time. My listening also happens to be one of my weakest skills in Japanese, so I really wanted to focus on trying to improve it.
I have used JapanesePod101.com in the past, when it was still fairly new, maybe around 2006. At the time, my complaints were mostly the same as those of many other people. This Peter guy who hosted the show was really annoying and had horrible pronunciation. The lessons didn’t really seem to follow a very logical or structured order. The difficulty of the dialogs (in my opinion at least) ramped up in difficulty much more quickly than the underlying grammatical topics that they discussed on the show. They spent a lot of time goofing around instead of discussing the Japanese. They spam the heck out of you and have annoying advertising everywhere, including built into the lessons. Possibly most importantly, many of the things discussed in the show or notes contained errors or had the potential to mislead people about things. For instance, in some of the first lessons, they have you practicing using the word “anata” as a translation for the English “you”, with no explanation at all that Japanese people don’t use this word in the same way an English-speaking person would.
Back when I originally started with JapanesePod101.com, I made it until about lesson 40 of the beginner series. It started getting too difficult for me to follow the dialogs, and I found it really boring as well. I felt that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from it, so stopped listening. A few years later, I went back and tried to go through it again, and I believe I got to around lesson 60 before quitting that time.
Recently I decided that I really wanted to improve my listening skill. While I would consider my reading ability at close to an Intermediate (or about N3) level, my listening ability feels closer to a beginner (N5 or N4) level). I have a decent vocabulary, and I know a good chunk of grammar, but when I hear Japanese it just turns to gobbledegook, and I can’t keep up at all. I searched around for various listening resources that have a large amount of high quality audio which is suited for someone around my level. And honestly, I couldn’t really find anything else.
So, here I go again. I got a 1-month premium trial, and determined that I would make the most of it. I spent around 35 hours per week over the course of the trial listening to the lessons and utilizing additional resources on their website, and I have come to understand that there have definitely been some changes to their service over the years, and almost all of them are for the better.
JapanesePod101.com is basically offered as a podcast, with new lessons being released periodically. These new lessons are available for free, along with a few select lessons from their archives. They have a subscription structure in which you can pay to access older lessons and additional materials through their website. By registering a free account, you will get a 1-week free trial of the premium subscription service, during which time you can download all of their lessons if you desire. Thus, technically all of their lessons are available for free. You might wonder why anyone would bother paying for a subscription then, but don’t worry, I will explain that later.
Supplemental materials (many of which are only available to premium members) include dialog-only audio tracks, PDF lesson notes including transcripts of the dialogs, blog-style comment posting on each lesson so you can ask questions (and get answers), line-by-line audio and transcripts, vocabulary lists and grammar explanations, voice recording so you can compare your accent to the native speakers, customizable RSS feeds to easily download any materials you want, a mobile app, and numerous other things which I personally did not use such as flash cards and reference materials.
They also offer video lessons as well, but many of them are available for free on YouTube, and they tend to be things that I don’t find very useful, like “word of the week” lessons and such.
All in all, I would say that they probably have over 1000 audio lessons at this point, for people at every level from beginners to advanced learners.
While the structure has changed slightly over the years, things generally follow this pattern: present a short dialogue or skit, say it again slowly, say it with English translation, and then discuss the vocabulary and grammar points introduced.
An extremely important thing that I noticed though, is that many of the lessons are completely outdated and have been superseded by much better lessons. However, there is absolutely no indication on their website that I can find which attempts to guide you through the correct order. The website is divided into different sections according to difficulty, like “Absolute Beginner”, “Beginner”, “Intermediate”, etc. Within each section, lessons are further divided up into different seasons. One would be extremely tempted to simply proceed through them in order, starting with Season 1, then moving to Season 2, and so on. However, this would be a huge mistake! You see, the seasons simply indicate the order that the lessons were created, and do NOT indicate a logical progression.
When JapanesePod101.com first started out, it was created by a team of people who were experienced in translation, but they really appear to have not had the slightest clue about how to actually teach very well. Thus, many of those earlier lessons contain the problems I mentioned towards the beginning, and are precisely what I used to hate about JapanesePod101.com. However, at some point, they brought on Naomi-sensei, who is an actual teacher. They let her design her own lessons, and as a result, almost everything that she touched became leaps and bounds better than the older lessons. They also got actual voice actors on board somewhere along the way, who do a great job of making the dialogs sound interesting. Even when Peter participates now, his pronunciation has improved a lot and he is much less annoying. The random chatting about irrelevant things mid-lesson also decreased dramatically. Naomi-sensei’s lessons are basically a complete reboot of the show, starting things over from the very beginning, and taking you up through intermediate level in a structured and logical progression. But you wouldn’t know this from simply looking at their website, so you really wouldn’t know what order to go in unless you ask around.
If you would like to know how you should progress through the lessons, I will be immediately following this post with another post containing reviews of each individual season, along with my suggested path of progression. You can read that post here.
How I Used It
So, with all that said, how can you actually use this resource to learn, and is it even worth using? Well, here is exactly what I did.
Upon signing up for my free trial, the emails started rushing in, and I think I got 4 almost right away. They immediately wanted to up-sell me. For just $1, I could get an entire month of premium access, as well as a free audio book from their store. Alright, that’s a reasonable price, so I went for it. The product from the store was basically just repackaged lessons that you can get from their website anyways, so in other words, it was completely worthless. The extended premium access though, was well worth it. Pay the $1 for a month of premium access. One week just isn’t enough time to get started and really see what it’s all about. They do set you up on automatic renewal though, so if you don’t want to keep paying, be sure to disable this in your account settings. Its very easy to do, and only took me about one minute to find and disable it.
To start off with, I wanted to download all the lessons. They have a great feature called “my feed” which you can use to customize exactly what content you want to download. You should then be able to open the feed in iTunes or whatever, and batch download everything. I don’t use iTunes however, and I had a ton of trouble finding an application that would actually let me download the files. I actually spent several days finding a windows program that would work. I finally managed to get them using a program called RSSOwl.
However, the files were almost useless at first, because they have practically random filenames. You might think that’s okay, because you can sort them based on the ID3 tags, right? Well that would work, if the tags weren’t completely riddled with errors! I ended up spending the first week of my trial just trying to download and sort the files so that I could use them. I wrote a small tool to help me rename the files, and you can download that tool and see what else I I did in a separate post.
But anyways, once I actually got everything downloaded and sorted, I copied lessons onto my phone so I could listen at work. For many of the easiest lessons, I sometimes just listened to the dialog first, and if I completely understood it with no trouble at all, I would skip the lesson. I found that I didn’t end up skipping a lot of lessons though, because I found it difficult to keep up even on some of the easier dialogs.
The lessons themselves were basically a one-time listen. Upon completing all the lessons in a season, I made a playlist of just the dialogs from that season, and I would listen to all the dialogs by themselves from time to time. This is a great way to practice my listening skills, I find.
Once the lessons started getting difficult for me, I took to the website, and used the line-by-line audio feature. This is an amazing feature that lets you look at a transcript of the dialog, and then play each line of audio individually. It really makes it easy to get through the tough sections and understand it a lot better. You also have access to all the the vocabulary and grammar points right there. It’s also really easy to copy and paste phrases or words into Anki directly from this section of their website.
The PDF lesson notes contain a lot of helpful information, and typically have detailed explanations of the grammar points that go beyond what is covered in the audio itself. If you wanted to, you could just utilize the dialogs and the PDF notes, while skipping the full audio lessons. I would only recommend this if you just really don’t want to listen to the lessons and would rather focus on the dialogs.
The android app also came in very handy. In addition to letting you listen to and download the audio and PDF notes, you get access to the line-by-line audio feature through the app as well. I frequently used this to review some lessons at night while laying in bed.
To sum that up again in just a few words, the way I used JapanesePod101.com is as follows: Listen to the audio lesson (while checking the pdf notes if necessary), utilize the line-by-line audio feature to get accustomed to difficult parts of the dialogs, add words or phrases I don’t know into Anki for review, and then finally set up a playlist of the dialogs so I can listen to them at any time for listening practice.
What I Don’t Like
Its already been pointed out, but I don’t like most of the original lessons that they produced in the first couple of years. I have tried listening to them again now, and besides the numerous problems that they have, I really can’t even get through them because they bore me to death. (The newer lessons with Naomi-sensei, on the other hand, are fantastic.)
However, when we go beyond the lessons and the dialogs, we run into some problems. I already mentioned that the files have completely screwed up ID3 tags. How hard would it be to actually use standardized tags across the board, seriously? You are completely unable to sort the audio and listen to it in order if they list the album as “Newbie Season 1” in one file, and “Newbie S1” in another. Some lessons even have the wrong series or title or other information. Some of them are missing critical tags altogether. If you download the files to your computer you are going to have a lot of fixing to do. As previously mentioned though, I have another post on how to get everything fixed relatively quickly.
Their inattention to detail doesn’t stop at that. Trying to use the line-by-line audio is frustrating, because frequently the audio will be one line off from the text. This isn’t usually a big deal, because you notice it then just press the button to listen to another line. But in some seasons almost every lesson is screwed up. Some lessons also try to cram several sentences into one “line” of the line-by-line audio, which decreases its usefulness.
We tend to see this type of thing throughout all aspects of the site. Actually, you can even find a few errors in some of the audio tracks themselves, where you can tell they made a mistake editing, like with a random bit of audio repeating itself. They are producing some quality material here, but they are extremely careless with it in making sure all the little bits and pieces work as they should.
Their advertising is annoying. They want to up-sell at every possibility, and send out WAY too many promotional emails. When I signed up, they were sending me around two emails a day on average, sometimes three. After I turned off the email notifications, they mostly stopped, but I have still received 1 promotional email. I assume it may have been some sort of error, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and I submitted an unsubscribe request from the email itself. They are also constantly running different promotions offering various deals. It just seems kinda shady to me that one person might be paying full price for the service, while another person is getting 25% off, and another person is getting 65% off. I mean, some sales every now and then are appreciated, but having them constantly, and having multiple separate promotions at once? Come on.
What I Liked
They have a great series of lessons with Naomi-sensei that will carry you from being an absolute beginner to around intermediate level. From there, some of their advanced lessons with other hosts might still be beneficial, but I can not personally comment on that yet. If you don’t particularly want to hear lessons, then there are enough dialogs that you could probably listen to them nonstop for a full day.
I found what seemed to be an error in the politeness level used in one dialog, and I posted about it in the comments. Someone from JapanesePod101.com responded within 24 hours, and confirmed that I was correct. I don’t think it was a particularly bad error which would mislead people, so I was satisfied with that, and I was impressed that they responded to me so quickly.
The mobile app is very handy, and being able to use line-by-line audio in it makes it almost indispensable.
Line-by-line audio is a killer feature, and this alone makes a premium subscription worth it, in my opinion. In some lessons though, particularly the more advanced ones, they often put multiple lines together, limiting the usefulness of it on those particular lessons.
As something to improve listening ability, I have definitely seen some improvements in my ability in the 1 month that I used the service. You just need to know how to approach it and where to start. If you just want to download the content, grab either the 1-week free trial, of the $1 for 1-month trial, and grab everything you want.
They offer a “basic” subscription service, which just gives you full access to the audio lessons archive and the pdf notes. For the life of me, I can not fathom why anyone would pay money for this, as they already give you that content in your free trial. You don’t even get the dialog-only audio in this tier.
The premium service gives you pretty much everything you could want. The access to the mobile app and the line-by-line audio are really the killer features here, and I believe they are worth the money. And how much money is that? Well, it CAN be as expensive as $25/month. But, you don’t need to pay that. If you use Coupon Code “vip65”, you will get 65% off. You also get further discounts by subscribing for longer periods of time. If you use the coupon code with a 2-year premium subscription, you can get premium access for $3.50 per month. While they say that this coupon never expires, it seems that it may only be used once, so don’t waste it on something like a 1-month subscription.
They also offer “premium+”, which seems to get you some sort of one-on-one tutoring, though I can not comment on whether or not this service might be worth the additional cost.
Level-appropriate audio content is difficult to come by. JapanesePod101 is a huge resource of audio that can really boost your ability to comprehend spoken Japanese. Although they pitch it as a complete Japanese learning program, don’t expect that much out of it. This should make up just a single part of your overall study plan–but it really is a worthwhile part of that plan. If you have some periods throughout your day when you can’t really devote time to studying Japanese, but you could at least listen to something, then JapanesePod101.com is a no-brainer.
After my free trial ran out, I did choose to pay for a subscription. I’m not regretting it.
What do you think of this JapanesePod101.com review and their service as a whole? Let me know your opinions in the comments!