We've long been supporters of smart.fm. When moving to a complete online Japanese learning environment, we tirelessly made lists of vocabulary to help users reinforce what they had learned on our site, and some users were even introduced to us through discovering some of our early lists such as the one that accompanied the very popular Japanese colours cheat sheet.
For those who are not familiar with smart.fm, it was in essence an online-only SRS (Spaced Repetition System) application that through audio, text and images systematically introduced new vocabulary items and reminded you of ones that you had previously learned. I found it invaluable when taking my A-Level in Japanese and I used it whenever I found time to reinforce vocabulary from their Japanese Core 2000 lists, which take you from a beginner to a very advanced level of Japanese through structured lists of vocabulary, each with accurate and (mostly) useful example sentences. The software was slick and the results were staggeringly good in terms of vocabulary retention compared to conventional methods of paper flashcards and vocab lists.
Gradually, however, smart.fm lost its focus. The iPhone application was left dormant for months, rendering it useless and I started to get dodgy recommendations as to what to study next. I also gave up trying to create new lists because their online system was ‘improved’ and became a royal pain to use. The site was ‘down for maintenance’ more regularly than I would have liked too. It was still good enough for me to recommend to my Japanese friends trying to study English, but I spoke about it with less and less enthusiasm amongst the Japanese learning community preferring alternatives such as Anki, Read The Kanji, and of course LinguaLift's language learning tools & online quizzes.
It’s now painfully clear why the quality of the service was slowly deteriorating. The parent company Cerego Japan were looking for ways to monetise the site and in doing so focused their energy on creating a new website. The new iKnow! seems to be focused less at learning user-generated lists of words but more a guided process of language learning. You can take a placement test and it will slowly introduce new vocabulary (from the Cerego-created lists) to you from there. It’s added (currently rather gimmicky) listening and speaking practice tools and generally feels like a guided language learning location, rather than a slick SRS web application. The CEO, Paul Greenberk said:
Unfortunately, iKnow! currently doesn’t (and probably never will, if Koichi’s inside knowledge about the engineers is true) live up to the promise of being the ‘best language learning service possible.’ Here’s why I think so:
The community is gone
A massive part of smart.fm was the ability to follow other users, collaborate on lists and motivate each other. I couldn't believe it when I saw a message from somebody who I’d never met or had any contact with before thanking me for taking the time to create lists based on the Basic Kanji Book series and saying that I should take a break as he’s taken over where I left off. It gave me such faith in the Japanese learning community. The free, open smart.fm is no more.
User-generated lists were great.
Although I’m a big fan of the Core 2000 lists—there was something very satisfying about studying a list of vocabulary created by another user. You would find that lists were created by learners with access to different resources and different learning methods to you, and you could tap-in to their bank of vocabulary & sentences and follow a whole new path in Japanese learning. I have a funny feeling that people who pay to access a service are not going to be as willing to give up their time to make lists for a company to profit from them.
No unique selling point.
The ‘technology’ and ‘science’ used at iKnow! is by no means propriety. In fact, something very similar is used in the NihongoUp Kanji Quiz—focusing on weaknesses before moving on to new material. The sentences, although accurate, are not targeted to a specific group of learners, and there is a real mix of quality in their voice recordings. The very best thing about iKnow! is the fact that it’s slick, stable and fulfils one specific purpose. Unfortunately, there are numerous other slick services, and there is not one particular kind of learner that they are targeting, meaning that every user is not necessarily getting the most appropriate kind of language education.
There are no lessons
Whilst there is a growing school of thought to suggest that you can learn a language by just learning sentences, the academic consensus is that explanation of why sentences are formed the way they are is essential to achieve anything near to fluency. Intuition alone can’t tell you that one should use one grammatical construction over another in a second language as mono-linguists (i.e. those that are raised in just one language) had hard wired syntactical and grammatical concepts that must be overcome when learning a new language. Explaining the concept of the copula to an English native speaker is a challenge, for example - are users just expected to pick it up here? It’s far too focused on vocabulary (seemingly without context), which doesn’t reflect how languages should be taught.
It’s still a passive learning experience
Despite the fact that you are interacting with the application, clicking on the right answers and typing in words, you’re still being told what you are to study next. There is no freedom to move in a different direction to the one that the SRS algorithm has determined for you. The learning experience in this sense is very robotic, not organic like learning a language should be. There is no focus on writing (essential if you wish to properly learn kanji), and as previously mentioned, the speaking & listening programs are wanting; certainly no replacement for true interaction with a teacher.
It’s only one piece of the puzzle
Using iKnow! for two years (which is a reasonable amount of time for a beginner to get to JLPT N4 level) will cost $290. Let’s not forget that this is in addition to money that will be spent on other essential resources such as textbooks, exam guidance books, and other JLPT preparation material. It’s just too much to justify spending on a supplementary tool, that isn’t focused or integrated with existing courses. There is no emphasis on actual language learning or any hint at cultural exposure (the images used are stock photos that are largely not Japan-focused).
So, I’m sure that those who have invested a lot of time into smart.fm will feel obliged to cough up the ¥1000 a month to continue to have access to the study lists that they created. Perhaps iKnow! will emulate NihongoUp and have great reviewing tools along side detailed lessons and thorough, engaging cultural content. It’s such as shame as I used to love smart.fm, but currently it’s very difficult to recommend the new site to Japanese learners.
If however you disagree, please do let me know in the comments. And Mr Greenberk, if you’re reading this, please understand that we’re not moving away from smart.fm because we’re not a fan of the service—it’s because the online consensus is that users feel betrayed by this move to charge for content provided by good natured users, with no attempt at a ‘freemium’ model, or at the very least grandfathering of existing accounts.