AI is here. Well it’s always been here, but now it really feels here.
There’s a lot of fun to be had playing around with ChatGPT. But I’m finding it to also be a new and powerful learning tool. The question remains though…
Can ChatGPT be used to learn Japanese?
YES. Well I want to shout YES. Not just because everyone else is screaming NO. But because I feel extreme potential.
The General First Impression
From looking online in various Japanese learning communities, the consensus seems to be that using ChatGPT for learning Japanese is a bad idea – at least for now. That makes sense due to a giant problem you can’t overlook. ChatGPT makes mistakes. More than you’d like. No one wants to learn mistakes. If you use it to:
1. Explain a sentence
2. Give you sample sentences
3. Have a casual Japanese chat with you
4. Explain a concept
5. Correct your Japanese
6. Translate a sentence from J > E or E > J
Then you’ll probably get back some incorrect information. It may be close, but would you want a Japanese teacher that is only 85% correct?
The conclusion: Use ChatGPT to learn Japanese and you will be humiliated, banned from Japan, and be given an allergy to ramen.
My First Impression
I don’t think we need to wait until ChatGPT is fully accurate. I think you can use it now, and it will give you a major edge over everyone else who is giving it an ugly eye. I’ve been using it frequently for programming lately, and believe the same implications carry over to Japanese.
I’ve found that for it to work well, it needs to be:
1. Self-verifying (you generally know whether it is incorrect or not) and/or
2. Useful even if incorrect
For example, when using it for programming, you can use it to:
• Translate syntax between 2 programming languages
• Check if a small piece of code you wrote has an error in it
• Gain some clarity on what the error is in a piece of code is
• Explain something complex in a simpler way
The above often works because software engineers use a tool (called a compiler) that tells you if your answer was right or wrong. Or your program just crashes. If ChatGPT is incorrect when it comes to programming, which 15% of the time it definitely is, you tried a solution and it didn’t work. Programming is all about trying incorrect solutions until you find the right one. It feels natural.
But that’s programming! Japanese is entirely different… or is it? So far, I’ve found 2 examples where the same principle carries over.
How many times have you read an explanation about something Japanese, and your head felt like it was exploding. It might not even be that the explanation was bad, but your brain, your way of thinking, just didn’t allow the connection.
In ChatGPT, just ask them to explain it again like you were 5.
Google Search: “What is the difference between wa and ga in Japanese?” First result.
Hey Chat GPT – go!
The result: you have a hopefully simpler explanation, that may be slightly incorrect. But paired together with the original explanation, it feels self-verifying. If it conflicts with the complicated explanation (which should now be clearer), you can fact check against the original.
J-J Power Up?
Not convinced by the above? Okay, round 2 – the real power.
I think that ChatGPT can be a guide in the J-J world. It allows you to analyze a word/definition in different ways, without ever touching English. 85% correct is okay, because the goal is to understand the original word.
In the Jalup J-J decks, I had to create a lot of the definitions on my own early on. Not because I was a masochist. But because I was limited in the amount of words I could use that you already knew. This required creativity, and definitions that you would never see in a normal dictionary. It was justified because it got you to understanding the word with 0 English.
Let’s test this. You come across an unknown word 優柔不断. Here are 3 definitions, all extremely close in nature, from Google, goo.jp, and Kotobank
Kotobank: ぐずぐずして物事の決断の鈍いこと。 Google: ぐずぐずしていて物事の決断ができないこと。 Goo.jp: ぐずぐずして、物事の決断がにぶいこと。また、そのさま。
What if you don’t know what 決断 means? Normally you would have to start branching off the unknowns until you could work your way back up.
The definition still uses the 決断 word, adds some information, and you remember that it might not fully be accurate. But, what if we did this:
Much simpler and more likely to help you get the meaning of the word. And that’s what you care about.
You aren’t going to try to memorize this definition, or put it as a flash card, or anything else. It is solely to get you to understand. Like me trying to define what an antonym is, just by using opposing adjectives in the definition.
Worried about the mere exposure to possibly incorrect Japanese causing you to self-destruct? Then you should never search the internet. And you should definitely not ever have other friends who are learning Japanese who you like to practice with.
Let’s go further:
Some awkwardness in those sample sentences. But do you finally get 優柔不断? You win. And you never touched a J-E dictionary. Pretend that your friend that has an intermediate level of Japanese, just tried to explain it to you in Japanese.
And maybe you can’t stand seeing the word 決断力 in the definition anymore. Get rid of it!
Goodbye dictionary loop.
Time to AI-ize your Japanese studying?
Everything here is theory. I’ve never studied Japanese like this. It’s based on the positive things I’ve seen from the programming world, and the importance I think of trying out new methods as technology evolves.
AI is here to stay. A long long time ago, people used to say that the internet was not the place to learn Japanese. You needed to go to classes, learn from teachers, and use textbooks. All of that as a requirement for mastering Japanese is nonsense now.
It’s an exciting time. While various trial and error attempts at using new tech might not work, what happens when you come across one that does?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.