Dec 14

JQ Magazine: JQ&A with James Rogers on Smart Smart Language Apps

"Some in government suggest that the path to citizenship includes learning English. What we intend to do is provide all of our apps to these learners, but entirely for free.  It is a big dream of mine to give back to society in such a way." (Courtesy of James Rogers)

“Some in government suggest that the path to citizenship includes learning English. What we intend to do is provide all of our apps to these learners, but entirely for free. It is a big dream of mine to give back to society in such a way.” (Courtesy of James Rogers)

By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at

For many of us, our time teaching Japanese people the finer aspects of English was limited to…well, the JET Program. But that hasn’t been the case for James Rogers (Aichi-ken, 2003-06).

As the president of Kyoto JALT and the founder and editor of the Kyoto JALT Review, Rogers has utilized his comprehensive knowledge of English-language education to develop Smart Smart, a series of apps containing materials geared towards Japanese learners of English and vice versa (as well as other language learners). Among their features, the apps contain more than 100,000 words of content, a textbook using modern music to study English, and pronunciation exercises for native Chinese, Korean and Japanese speakers.

To learn more about how Smart Smart has thrived and what’s ahead, JQ caught up with Rogers, who also happens to be a Ph.D. candidate doing corpus linguistics research.

How did your experience as a JET inspire you to launch Smart Smart?

The JET Program certainly was my first foot in the door in regards to English education in Japan—without it, I do not think any of this would have been possible. So, in that regard, I view my experience on JET as an essential aspect to my current successes with Smart Smart and my career teaching English at the university level. I think the JET Program is a wonderful opportunity for foreign teachers and Japanese students.

What inspired you to create Smart Smart?

Well, we really are still just in the beginning stages of really taking advantage of technology in education, and I just looked at what is currently available and realized that I could totally improve upon it drastically.  Also, since I am a real teacher/researcher and do not depend on this to make a living, I could provide it for nearly ten times cheaper than some technology that is currently available. For example, over 30 volunteer researchers and translators helped me to create the content for over five years. Just the apps existing and the papers we’ve all published together helps all of our careers, so that is the benefit for the team. In addition, some team members already have tenure and Ph.D.s and just wanted to be part of something that truly had the potential to improve upon English education. Since I didn’t need to pay anyone to create the resources, the price we can sell them at can be kept at the bare minimum. Originally, I intended to actually release everything for free, but then I had the opportunity to collaborate with Ernie Thomason, the creator of the best-selling Flashcards Deluxe, and realized that not only can I provide the best quality content, but also the most cutting edge technology as well for mere pocket change. Without Ernie, none of this could have been possible.

Your apps contain well over 150,000 words of content. How often is the content updated?

We update the apps themselves—in fact, just last week we added a great new feature to the quiz function in the app. But the content, other than finding typos, is fixed. For example, the app 英語マスター1万/English Master 10,000 itself has over 100,000 words of example sentences. Each sentence highlights how to use one of the chunks it teaches (all chunks and sentences have translations as well). My Ph.D. research looked at years’ worth of corpus data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English to identify these chunks. So, basically, these are the high-frequency chunks of English according to the corpus. That’s a fact that doesn’t change, and thus no updating of content is really necessary. You know, chunks like “along those lines,” or “to make a statement,” or “a big deal”…these chunks aren’t going anywhere.

What challenges have found that young people, especially Japanese, Korean and Chinese, experience in learning English?

Let’s see, in regards to Japanese students, I’ve found that everyone has interest in improving their English, but they don’t really have the drive to do what it takes to really become fluent. Also, years of too much focus on grammar translation hinders Japanese learners’ progress. Furthermore, getting people to be open to this very new approach to learning language can sometimes be tough. Well, actually, it’s not really new at all. We’ve known for a very long time that the Leitner method that our apps employ is the most efficient way to study, but only recently have we been able to take advantage of that knowledge through implementing it via apps.

We’ve also known for some time that formulaic language, multi-word units, collocations, chunks, or whatever you want to call them are key to fluency, but there never has been a comprehensive list available to study, or for textbooks to source from. The kind of language I am talking about is how a native speaker has no problem whatsoever completing the following:

  1. I’m tired. Let’s take a b________.
  2. My lawyer said they are going to drop the c________.

The lack of a resource stems from the extreme difficulty in identifying high-frequency multi-word units, which was my Ph.D. thesis’ research question. Such a list did not exist until I released it last year. The type of software that was needed to accomplish this task didn’t even exist, either, so I had to get help from Waseda University’s Laurence Anthony (the creator of AntConc, the most downloaded concordance software in the world) to create custom software just for my goal. Moreover, we needed serious manpower. Thus, I had to assemble my 30-member research team. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and native English speaker team members devoted countless hours over years to create these materials (英語マスター1万/English Master 10,000 is the app that took the majority of the work to create).

To get back to my main point, this is a new way to study. If you know a chunk, then you know vocabulary, collocation, and grammar. A typical native speaker doesn’t know all the grammar translation points that Japanese students know, but they speak grammatically every time. Japanese learners know a lot of grammar points, but speak ungrammatically quite often. So, what’s going on? Native speakers know the chunks, and they subconsciously learned the grammar via these chunks. If you put a few chunks together, you’ve got a sentence. Put a few sentences together, and you have a paragraph. And put a few paragraphs together, and you have a story. You see, chunks are the key to fluency. They kill multiple birds (vocabulary, collocation, and grammar) with one stone.

So, basically, I hope that the ESL community can move beyond the idea of using simple word lists for teaching high-frequency vocabulary, which really is yesteryear’s methodology, and have students, teachers and textbooks writers be more open to the idea of utilizing my resource to help students master general English, along with my other resources as well that are geared toward more advanced learners.

What challenges have you found in developing Smart Smart?

Well, there were some extremely complex problems that I had to solve to create our materials, and Ernie and I worked for a few years designing our apps and many of the new features in them that are additions to his Flashcards Deluxe underlying architecture. This is actually quite complex as well. However, all of this was quite fun—I enjoy such challenges. For example, we added some really unique features that Flashcards Deluxe doesn’t have, such as the ability to take quizzes and email the entire graded quiz to your teacher. We set it up in a way that teachers can easily put results from entire classes into one Excel file, and sort by question to determine which questions in particular students are getting wrong.

Also, I found that after studying over 1,000 Japanese kanji myself with Flashcards Deluxe that in each set of 50 words, there are always three or four tough items. However, after you study so many, it’s quite time consuming to go back into each set of 50 to find and review them. So we developed this unique “difficult items” set that automatically updates itself with any item the user continues to mark “I don’t know it.” You see, as you study, you can either swipe “I know it and it’s easy,” “I know it,” or “I don’t know it.” The ones you don’t know come back more often. Basically, this is the Leitner method. But with the difficult items folder, any items you mark “I don’t know it” very often will automatically go there and be waiting for you.  So, after you study 1,000 items, there will probably be around 50 of those tough items waiting for you in that folder for you to review. And then once you master them, they’ll start to leave the folder as their percentage goes up. We also wanted to add audio for every word and sentence for pronunciation practice. Previously, you had to pay for such a service every month, but we figured out a way to do it for free, and thus we could get the cost of the apps even lower. Those were a few of new features that Ernie and I spent considerable time working on.

Currently, I think the biggest challenge is simply getting the word out and getting people to realize that these apps truly have the potential to revolutionize English-language education. That we are still chipping away at.

You include modern music as a way to make learning fun. How has music improved the learning experience for learners?

Well, I’ve always found that the contents of many English textbooks are quite boring, and that the one thing that most students have in common is an appreciation for music. However, most foreign students do not know much about modern Western music. Learning a language isn’t just about learning words and grammar, but it is also about learning culture. For a Westerner, it’s kind of silly if someone doesn’t know who Jimi Hendrix is or what kind of music would actually be considered as hip-hop. However, you’d be surprised at the lack of knowledge outside English-speaking countries. So, my idea was to make learning language fun and interesting by teaching it via a topic that students may actually have real interest in.

How do you choose which idioms to include in Smart Smart?

There aren’t actually very many idioms in a language, and in reality, such language is quite high level and should be learned very late in one’s language education. In one of my research papers, my study revealed that the intuition of a native English speaker with a significant amount of experience teaching the language can be relied upon quite well for the selection of items to study. So, instead of going the corpus linguistics route (the approach we took for英語マスター1万/English Master 10,000 and 上級英単語/Advanced English Vocabulary), we simply found that if we relied on intuition we could get very good results. We examined a list of over 1,000 idioms and chose the top 500 because after looking at the items, it was clear that only around half of them could be considered useful and worth learning. For example, in daily life you will hear “batting a thousand” or “under the gun.” You’re not going to hear them every day, but you will hear them. Conversely, it might not be worth a learner’s time to study “dead men tell no tales” at that point in their education. So, practically speaking we just chose an amount which seemed to best suit learners’ needs.

What innovations would you like to add to Smart Smart?

It isn’t an innovation per se, but we plan to eventually expand to cater to learners from a Latino background. For example, in America, we have millions of English learners from Latino backgrounds that need support. Some in government suggest that the path to citizenship for such people includes learning English. But how should they learn it?  What support does the country really provide them to accomplish such a difficult task? What we intend to do is provide all of our apps to these learners, but entirely for free.  It is a big dream of mine to give back to society in such a way.

You stated your research team has made some major breakthroughs during the last few years. What Smart Smart accomplishments are you most proud of?

As I already mentioned, the creation of a list of high-frequency chunks of English is a major accomplishment. Nothing else exists like it in the world, and the complexity involved in achieving that task, well, there really isn’t enough time to explain that in this interview. That is basically my entire Ph.D. thesis.

I’m also proud of the fact that I’m nearly finished mapping out a person’s entire English as a second language learning schedule, from birth to age 18. My apps aren’t just for adults. I have a really innovative children’s app that actually teaches seven languages called Multilingual First Words, among others as well for young people.

But basically, I wanted to fix a particular problem originally. You see, in Japan many students go off to college or abroad to master English. Even though they study it for so many years, by the time they graduate high school, the average student’s fluency is still quite elementary. With my schedule and resources, a parent can start off their child around age three, and continue on until they’re 18 with a pretty light workload of only a couple hours a week. In fact, students are already doing this at cram schools, but with inefficient methods and poor quality materials. So, if you simply replace that with my methodology, Japan could produce extremely fluent speaking of English by the time they graduate high school. I mean, we provide 18 years’ worth of materials for under 2,000 yen ($20), so cost is not a barrier. So, now that these resources are available there really aren’t any excuses—it’s all just about students putting the hard work in, and parents, teachers, boards of education, and universities encouraging such hard work because, well, all good things take effort, right?

Smart Smart apps are available for iOS and Android. For more information, visit or on Facebook. Contact James at

For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.

Comments are closed.

Page Rank