When you're learning a new language, you're going to run into times where you have questions about said language and culture. Assuming you don't have a willing native speaker sitting next to you at that moment, you have a few less-than-ideal options.
- Ask on a forum / Reddit / etc.
- Use an online translator.
- Try to find someone who knows someone who can help answer your question.
- Search for it (sometimes works!)
- Wait a long time while you do those things.
It's for times like these that HiNative was birthed (presumably out of the loins of their mascot flying squirrel). HiNative is a mobile service that connects you with native speakers of a language, so you can get your questions answered. When you fire up the app and tap the ASK button, here are the prompts currently provided:
- How do you say this? Probably the most common thing you'll be asking. Maybe you want to write something but can't quite figure out the right words or grammar. Maybe you have zero clue at all. Somebody can help you out.
- Does this sound natural? Maybe you wrote something but you want to make sure you don't sound weird (or like an online translator). Someone can fix your sentence and make it sound better.
- What's the difference? With all the synonyms that Japanese has, not to mention all the similar seeming words that have subtle differences, this seems like a useful one.
- Free question: Lots of potential here. Ask literally anything! I'll throw out some ideas later in the review.
The interface itself is simple and easy to use, with the bottom bar simply consisting of Home, Notifications, Profile, Settings, and a big "Ask" button smack dab in the middle. I like how they don't try to overcomplicate things.
A lot of your time is going to be spent in the Home, Notifications, and Ask sections, so let's go through each of those really quickly.
- Home: This is where you can find questions posed to you (and other native speakers of your language). Just like Lang-8 (the parent company), it's expected that you give back to the community that gave so much to you. It's a language exchange, after all. So, if people are helping you out, you should check in and help them out too! Also, you can use the home section to look at questions that other people like you are asking. This is a good way to pick up tidbits of information, as well as to see if you would have answered a question the same way. There's a lot of knowledge to be gained from what others ask.
- Notifications: Of course, you want to know when people answer your questions!
- Ask: Ask, ask away! That's the whole point.
What kinds of questions are people asking on HiNative? Just swiping through them, I found quite a variety, and most of them were getting answered well too. You don't have to wait a really long time for someone to get back to you. Here are some real questions I found while swiping through.
In this question, someone wrote something (it looks like on their homework), and they want to see if it sounds natural. Because they chose the "Does this sound natural?" question format, it automatically added multiple choice in there, making it easy for someone to answer, quickly.
This person wanted to know the difference between two words. They specified they only wanted example sentences, so that's what she got. You can see there's a thumbs-up counter there too. Instead of answering a question again, the same way, you can simply agree with it by giving it points. This adds to the reliability of answers as well. If you're feeling iffy on someone's answer, this is a good way to confirm or disconfirm your suspicions. The "Native Language: ___" next to their name helps as well.
Right here someone wanted to know how to use the word めっちゃ. They got some examples as a response, as well as an explanation. For little things like this question HiNative is really useful! You don't want to waste question points for things like this on any single real life person. After a while they'll get tired of all your questions. With the internet, you can spread out your incessant question asking so that no sinple person gets irritated at you.
Here somebody found some text. They took a picture of it and asked a question about it. I could see this being useful especially if you're in Japan. Take a picture of a sign, product, or whatever else and figure out what it means.
Taking HiNative For A Whirl
I went ahead and created a fake account to play with (and also so I wouldn't sully my personal account with dumb questions). First I answered questions for people learning English. It was a pleasant experience and very easy to do. Some answers simply required me to choose how natural or unnatural something sounded. For others I did a short, one-sentence explanation. The nice thing about questions like these is that the answers are very short, so they don't take up much of your time. This way you can learn a little many times throughout the day. It seems like some people do this by focusing on the "does this sound natural?" question format. They treat it like mini Lang-8 entries, where they put up one sentence and find out how to fix it. People tell them how natural it sounds (or doesn't sound) and then write up a better version of it. If you do this ten times a day, you're learning quite a bit, actually. I can see how it would be a good study method. Feel free to steal it and use it for your own.
One thing that surprised me was that questions for English came in from non-Japanese English languages as well. When the question is in English, about English, it doesn't matter who the asker is. They can be Chinese, Russian, or Brazilian. I was expecting to only see Japanese people asking about English (because that's how Lang-8 works). Instead I saw Japanese as well as Chinese native speakers joining the fray. I'm not sure why I didn't expect this, but it's actually kind of nice because you aren't as limited to who can help you.
Aside from answering questions, I asked some questions too. Three of them to be exact. Here's my results:
Question #1: 俺は滅法眠い。does this sound natural?
This was a simple one. I just wanted to see how quickly people would respond to an "is it natural?" question. I asked 俺は滅法眠い, which means "I'm super sleepy." But, the word 滅法 is pretty weird / uncommon, so I wanted to see how people reacted to that.
I got my first answer within 15 minutes, which seems pretty good to me, though it was just a vote for "A little unnatural." Soon after a vote for "unnatural" appeared. Now I want to know why people think this! Hopefully someone answers it soon. Oh! Looks like they did.
All within a half an hour I got an answer to my question, though it was in Japanese. That's fine for some (and I think I set my fake account to be beginner/intermediate level), though the answer language is going to depend on who's answering. At least you could always copy the answer and put it into a question asking what it says, if you need to (just kidding, that will cause an infinite loop and break the universe!). It turns out I got another answer while I was typing this too, and this one is easier on my beginner/intermediate level fake self.
Then soon after that, I got:
So, plenty of useful information to help me to figure out that 滅法 probably isn't the word I'm looking for. This isn't something that I'd be able to figure out easily on my own, if I didn't know it! You certainly won't see a lot of discussion about the word 滅法, in English, on the internet.
Question #2: Does this contain meat/fish?
I thought this would be a good type of question. I took a picture of the back of a CalorieMate to ask if it contained meat. I could see someone doing this if they're a vegetarian visiting Japan. Within 15 minutes of posting this, I got my first answer, with another arriving a couple hours later.
Once again, more information than necessary. I like! It's easy to imagine yourself taking pictures of things in Japan that you need more information about and uploading it to HiNative.
Question #3: I will live in Japan for 2 years. What is the best overall mobile phone plan / service?
This was an open question. Not about language at all. I wanted to see if people would answer this kind of thing for me. These kind of questions are nice to get answered, because it's hard to know what service is good and what's not. Same goes for internet and other subscription based services. I was hoping to get some opinions here, and I wasn't disappointed.
This one took a little longer to get a first answer for, but one appeared within a couple hours. Not bad at all. I was hoping for some more decisive answers, but I also understand why people trended towards "it depends on your situation / location." I probably should have asked about Tokyo or something more specific.
The Real Question: Is HiNative Any Good?
I was hoping my test would reveal some flaws, but all three questions passed with flying colors. They were answered quickly, accurately, and it was really easy to ask the questions too. Although this was a very small sample, I have used HiNative in the past on a personal account, to similar results. I'm sure that not all questions are answered in an accurate and timely fashion, but that's to be expected. Nothing is instantaneous… yet. As the service grows and more users sign up, the quality and speed should go up as well. If there's one thing the people of the internet love doing, it's correcting people's mistakes.
There are also a couple of shortcomings, though nothing too serious. In fact, many of the issues I had before have been addressed since I wrote this review. You can use HiNative on your computer browser. It's available on Android (as well as iOS). Plus, the app has gotten many improvements. The best new addition is the ability to upload audio.
You can ask if your recording sounds natural or not. Great for pronunciation practice.
Or, you can ask how you'd say something in another language. A native speaker will then record the answer for you so you can practice. In my tests, audio-related questions were answered quickly just like my text ones.
Also, there's now a premium version. For people who use HiNative a lot, I think it's a good option. If you subscribe, you will be able to:
- Browse your bookmarks
- Listen to other users' voice playbacks
- Prioritize questions so it displays above the others (so you get your question answered quicker!)
- Plus more features that are in development.
- For me, it's the prioritization that's important, just because I don't like waiting. That being said, HiNative is already pretty speedy, so for now premium status is going to be reserved for power users or those who want to support HiNative's development.
All in all, HiNative does exactly what it sets out to do. You can get your answers about a language / culture answered quickly and accurately. I can imagine two types of users already: One who actively asks lots of questions and uses HiNative as a study tool, and another who just occasionally asks questions when they need something answered. Whoever you are, HiNative does work well and is a pleasure to use. And, because it's mobile-first, you'll be able to use it on the go.
We really like HiNative at Tofugu, which is why we've added it to our recommended Resources To Learn Japanese page. There are some (very) minor shortcomings, but with the constant updates and improvements, we look forward to seeing what they do next.