I’ve completed all of the current content for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of NativShark, so I think I’m qualified enough to provide a preliminary opinion on the content and the platform as a whole.
To correct and clarify my earlier comment, there are currently 167 lessons in Phase 1 spread across 166 units, and currently 13 lessons in Phase 2 spread across 7 units. I would have preferred to wait until a more significant portion of Phase 2 has been released, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen for a while yet, as NativShark wants to focus on getting the Phase 1 content right, and I don’t want to wait that long.
As far as the content goes, there aren’t many good benchmarks to compare it to. Phase 1 content covers far beyond all of the N5 content without exhausting N4 grammar and vocabulary, and occasionally goes beyond that into N3. There is a heavy focus on casual and colloquial Japanese with dialogues spoken at a brisk clip (natural speed) that greatly assists listening comprehension from the very beginning. I was happy when the content dissected Japanese grammar and the structure of the language in detail beyond what most textbooks and online grammar guides would cover. Unit 30 contains a lengthy explanation on the subzero pronoun that comes early in the curriculum that attempts to explain the difference between は and が. I feel it succeeds at this, for the most part, too.
However, much of the better and deeper content does come after a slew of travel lessons, which do offer a number of interesting and uncommonly-seen insights into the language this early. I remember a specific early travel lesson that explained the difference between ～ください and ～お願いします in good detail. And so, while the first 25 or so lessons are very travel-oriented, there are explanations there that every beginner (and beyond) will find worthwhile. I do think that the focus on travel dilutes those important insights more than it should, but it is a comfortable introduction to the language that doesn’t shy away from introducing more complicated expressions early on.
For the absolute beginner, NativShark is a challenging but friendly resource that focuses on instilling the student with important foundational knowledge about how Japanese grammar works without going into as much exhaustive depth as IMABI would. Depending on who you are, this is either a boon or a disappointment, but I believe the Extra Credit lessons which are soon to be released will rectify this to some degree. But on the bright side, NativShark is more than a strong alternative to Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide for its depth of explanations, variety of example sentences, currently thousands of those sentences with natural audio from natives, and its built-in SRS flashcard system. It is also a strong alternative to IMABI for being more friendly to absolute beginners and being integrated with Kanji and Vocabulary learning and reviewing tools (although imperfect). IMABI, at the moment, has a lot more content, of course, and I’m using it regularly while more content is developed for NativShark.
I’ve found that some of the content between Units 90~130 of Phase 1 start to become sparser on grammatical and cultural insight, and some of them are a basic breakdown of a grammar point and nothing more. The conjugation lessons from Units 99-105 for example, are quite basic, although they do well to mention the Japanese names for the conjugations. Unit 100, on the other hand, focuses on 四字熟語, just to break up these units and keep things interesting, and I thought it was a great addition.
Some other great lessons are Unit 89’s 相槌 lesson, Unit 82’s Vてんの? and other morphing sounds, Unit 73’s じゃん and other shortened phrases, Unit 67’s Morphing sounds to show emphasis, and Units 57-59 on the particle の’s function of asking questions and providing explanations. Unit 165 is also a brief introduction to Pitch Accent.
In Phase 1, all of the essential and foundational aspects of Japanese grammar are covered, along with some more interesting lessons that introduce aspects of the language that aren’t even mentioned in your traditional textbook series like Genki or Tae Kim’s guide. Most beginners would feel quite confident after completing the first phase of NativShark, and be more than ready to start reading native material with the ability to recognise over 700 kanji and having a 1,100+ word vocabulary. The ability to do lessons at your own pace or let the system schedule it for you is nice, and you could complete the entirety of phase 1 within a month this way and only pay $7USD for it, but it seems they are removing this feature soon and making the “2-year pace” option the highest speed at which you can complete units (a maximum of 2 units per day) and removing the ability to turn the pace slider off altogether. Although, if you are currently on the 1-year pace (4 units per day) or have turned it off, it will remain that way until you change it.
Phase 2, though much of it has not been released, has a marked increase in difficulty. The first lesson introduces the Kansai dialect with a small amount of information, though no detail on what some of the specific sound changes are. It just introduces a few very common phrases that even Standard Japanese speakers know. But I do think it’s a good idea to introduce this stuff fairly early on, so it’s not a bad introduction. The voice actors for the example sentences have also changed to 関西 dialect speakers, which I thought was a great way to start Phase 2 and breathe some new life into it. There are probably 10 or so voice actors for example sentences on the platform currently. Most of the Phase 2 lessons are either quite simple, or introduce a fairly difficult concept without giving quite enough detail to explain it properly, I found.
In summary, NativShark’s lesson content is much improved from NihongoShark, and has removed much of the repetitive and redundant example sentences that bogged down those lessons. It has also greatly expanded on that content with more detail and insight, more unique example sentences, and integrated them with its own SRS flashcard system, which I’m going to talk about now.
The SRS flashcard system itself is currently somewhat flawed, but works well enough. One issue is that it is not clear what button you should select, amongst “No Effort”, “Difficult”, “Remembered”, and “No Effort”. There is no instruction in this regard, though I think I’m using it correctly. Additionally, the SRS intervals are hidden unlike Anki, and I’m not sure whether they’re going to make them public. I can see the reasoning behind it, but I’m against the idea. It would, for one thing, help users to figure out what they should mark the card. On the positive side, you can archive cards that you already know. I ended up archiving ~50% of all the lesson, vocabulary, and kanji flashcards, and considering that I get 100+ reviews every day even after having completed all of the available lessons for over a month, I’m grateful for the function.
There are three types of flashcards in NativShark: vocabulary, lesson, and kanji. The kanji, as Sorrymasen mentions, are undoubtedly the worst aspect of the platform. These cards are very confused at the moment. It’s not uncommon to run across a kanji that uses a radical that you have not been (and will not be) introduced to yet in a mnemonic to remember the kanji. The radicals/elements are also listed below the kanji on the back of the card, but you are not actually shown what they look like (this will be introduced in a later update, I have heard), nor are they in any order, so you can’t tell which radical is what except by process of elimination. The readings themselves are not provided, and it instead provides words that kanji is used in and the furigana for that word for the on-yomi and kun-yomi reading. I don’t really know how to feel about this, and I’m not really sure if this is meant to be taken into account when marking kanji flashcards. Annoyingly, this part of the flashcard has to be clicked on, and once it’s clicked on, of course, the number keys (1-4) no longer work, so you need to click “Remembered”, “No Effort”, etc. It breaks the review flow and slows things down. This is a noted issue, however, so I’m sure it’ll be addressed in the future. On the plus side, the kanji is shown in handwriting form (not a standard font) with stroke order; I believe these are vector images drawn by Chie, who does all of the excellent art for the site, so it’s good exposure to seeing kanji in a non-standard format early on. Every unit after Unit 21 in Phase 1 introduces 5 (and sometimes 6) kanji, and in Phase 2, this number has increased to 6 (and sometimes 7).
The lesson flashcards will sometimes contain vocabulary words that have not been introduced, and are not introduced for many lessons. I see that as a positive, and I also like IMABI’s practice of introducing a wealth of vocabulary in its example sentence (although I think it goes a bit too far in this regard, but this might just be due to the sheer number of example sentences in IMABI). But I can also see how it can be an issue for a more novice learner. The purpose of lesson flashcards is to reinforce grammar taught in lessons, of which there are usually about 7-8 or so per lesson, depending on the length (lesson length can greatly vary). These are generally pretty easy and are good at reinforcing grammar, though not entirely. There isn’t much wrong with them aside from the potential vocabulary issue, though I think more exposure is a good thing.
Finally, you also have the vocabulary flashcards. The sentences are not trivial, which is good. They may reinforce grammar from earlier lessons, and occasionally, they also introduce a new aspect of the language. These are good at reinforcing grammar and expanding your vocabulary (obviously). There are some interesting words taught in Phase 1, but 99% of them are high frequency and useful for a beginner to know. As I’m not advanced enough to say otherwise, I’ll just say that I came across them often in native material, and while there is some overlap with iKnow’s core vocabulary, a good portion of it is not, and more useful because it isn’t from a 20-year-old newspaper frequency analysis.
An annoying part of the flashcard system, both on mobile and on desktop, is that you usually have to scroll to get to the buttons, For every single card. Unless you turn on “Less” for desktop. “Less” gets rid of everything except the most important parts of the flashcard, though what it considers important may not necessarily be what you consider important. It also only makes the distance you have to scroll on mobile shorter; it doesn’t eliminate it. I believe there are some fixes coming for this soon.
I’ve found the SRS system fairly good at reinforcing what I learned in Phase 1 and 2, but I’ve also realised that I will need to review the lessons in my own time for the nuances that I’m missing. The way the interface is designed currently, there isn’t an easy way to get to the lesson you want to review, as you have to hover over every unit to get the tooltip that tells you the name of the lesson. On mobile, you have to click every unit to figure this out. It is cumbersome, annoying, and incredibly inefficient. However, the NativShark team has said they are working on developing bookmarks for lessons you want to revisit in the future, and are even planning on developing an archive that manages your review process. No estimates as to when that’s coming, however.
I do like being able to create my own custom flashcards, which is a great alternative to paying $25USD for anki on my iPhone. It’s easy enough, though you can’t add images, video or audio content currently. You’re also not able to share custom decks. But it does look a lot nicer than Anki, even if the usability needs some work.
I’ve heard the Kana review tool is effective. I wouldn’t have a clue. I’ve never tried it. The conjugation drills seem interesting, but I’m not interested in production, so I also haven’t tried it. The pitch visualizer tool looks like a great addition to flashcards, so you can visualise the pitch of sentences as you review, but it’s still basically in beta and hasn’t been fully released or implemented in the site. What is there looks neat. Shadow Loops are currently useless because you have to start every session from the beginning and click >| endlessly to get back to where you were, which takes too much time for me to bother with, and you can’t shuffle them, which would solve the problem. It’ll be nice when Quizzes & Tests become a thing.
The last thing to talk about is the community, and the NativShark team. The community is managed on discord…which is an interesting choice, but I suppose I prefer it to spending more time developing a community on the platform than on developing language-learning content. It’s quite active, the team members are very responsive, and yes, it’s a pretty friendly community overall, minus the comment earlier this year about “WaniKani [being] a cesspool of hate.” I’ve asked a number of questions, to which Caleb or Ty has responded to in a timely and detailed manner. They are very communicative about upcoming changes, and open about giving the reasons for them. They’re transparent, friendly, and fairly professional. But frankly, I would prefer the former two over the latter. They’ve also uploaded a few videos to their youtube platform, have a bunch of Instagram stories about Japanese (bizarrely, none of that is on the platform itself), and are now streaming regularly on Twitch.
The NativShark team has been very responsive to feedback, and they encourage it on their https://feedback.nativshark.com/ site. You can also see all of the content that they’re planning in the future, which is great. This one thing makes the biggest difference for me.
Overall, I would say that it’s a fantastic resource for absolute beginners, upper beginners, and lower-intermediate students. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops in the future to accommodate more advanced learners, and hoping that it does get that far. It does seem to be doing pretty well financially, though I’ve heard nothing about it on /r/learnjapanese, WaniKani, and the like (except for this thread, of course). They’ve also expressed interest in creating a “Specialisation” for Japanese -> English translation, which I’m interested in. It’s a great crash course, if nothing else, on getting you up and running and confident enough to read native material. I’m hopinng it’s going to go beyond that and become my main source of learning Japanese for years into the future.
I’m happy with my experience overall this past month, though I obviously wish they had adhered to their original roadmap more closely. Much more closely. Thankfully, the NativShark team has shown me that they are competent enough to deliver on their basic promises eventually, and I can respect the ambition and the way they’re going about building their platform and community.
I guess I’ll check back in 6 months, if anybody cares.