Studying Japanese can be a drag. Literally, it can sometimes require a ton of books. But let’s be real here, studying with textbooks is so over. Why lug around 5 pounds of dead trees when you have a palm-sized computer right in your pocket? Now, you practically don’t even need books to study because there are a ton of apps you can use instead.
There are thousands of apps available, so choosing the right study aid might seem a bit daunting at first. But don’t worry, we’re here to help. In this guide we’ll go over a few key things to look for when choosing an app to help you study Japanese. And once you’ve got that figured out, we also have a list of our ten favorite apps to help you get started.
How to Choose a Japanese Learning App – Buying Guide
There are hundreds of apps aimed at teaching you Japanese, and not all of them are great. Here’s a guide to help you figure out what to download and what to skip.
Choose an App Based on Your Goals
By narrowing your search to apps that meet your needs, you can save yourself hours of time and energy.
Going on Vacation? Look for an App That Teaches Useful Phrases
If your main goal is to be able to get around during a trip to Japan, you want to focus on useful phrases rather than a more in-depth study of the language. Look for an app that specifically caters to tourists or one that has a section for tourist-friendly phrases.
It might also be helpful for you to learn to recognize hiragana and katakana. While many signs in Japan are written in the English alphabet, it’ll be extra insurance to learn the Japanese phonetic alphabet–as many place names and station stops out in the boonies are written in kanji and hiragana but not in Roman letters.
Studying for the JLPT? Choose an App That Covers Test-Specific Material
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is seen as the gold standard in Japanese language testing for foreigners. So it’s not surprising that many (if not most) Japanese learning apps at least give you the option to break things down by JLPT level.
Look for apps that focus on the same kinds of questions and material that you’d find on the test–focusing on reading, grammar, vocabulary, and listening rather than writing, for example. And because the JLPT is set up as a multiple-choice test, the best way to practice is by using an app that mimics that sort of quizzing style.
Just Want to Make Japanese Friends? Pick an App That’ll Help You Find Penpals
Aside from just flashcards and drills, there are also apps that connect you with people around the world. Some allow you to video chat with each other, while others are focused more on written message exchange.
Since many of these apps aren’t only for finding Japanese language partners, look for one that has a relatively large Japanese user base.
Make Sure the App Suits Your Level
While most apps do cater to a wide range of levels, there are apps that are suited for specific levels. For example, general language learning apps, as good as they might be, really only take you through the lower intermediate levels of language.
It might also be helpful to look for an app that can accommodate your needs as they evolve. It may switch from asking you questions in hiragana to kanji as you improve, for example, present problems to you in more difficult language, or offer different sets of activities suited for different levels.
Find an App That Will Help You Practice Your Weak Points
It’s easy to study things that you’re good at, but in order to round out your knowledge, it’s important to also study the things that are a little harder for you. That being said, there are different factors to look for to make sure that your study is as effective as possible.
To Practice Vocabulary, Look for Spaced Repetition Flashcard Apps
Spaced repetition is a technique that ensures you’re reviewing vocabulary as often as you need to in order to commit it to memory. When a flashcard shows up, instead of just flipping it around, you’ll let the app know if you got it correct or incorrect. The more you get a certain card right, the less it’ll show up.
If you have problems remembering a card, it’ll come up more often. This way you’re not studying things you already know well and are instead focusing on the words or points that are harder for you.
To Practice Kanji, Look for Apps That Will Teach You Word Combinations
If you’ve studied Japanese enough, then you’ll know that when it comes to kanji, just knowing the character isn’t enough–you need to know how to use it with other characters. Knowing just the meaning of a single character is almost useless if you can’t affix it to other characters or hiragana to make different words and constructions.
So, instead of apps that just have you match the character to the meaning, look for apps that force you to place characters within words, figure out how each character changes depending on how it’s combined, and choose between similar characters to find the correct answer.
To Practice Speaking and Pronunciation, Look for Apps with Audio Content
Did you know that, in Japanese, the intonation for a word changes depending on whether you’re pronouncing it by itself or in a phrase? That’s why the best way to practice pronunciation is to listen to native speakers as much as possible—and listen to them speak in sentences, not single words.
Look for an app with lots of audio content meant for shadowing—repeating and continuing to repeat just a heartbeat after the audio so you’re basically a sound shadow.
To Practice Reading, Look for Apps That Can Adjust to Your Level
If you’re an intermediate learner, it might be more detrimental than helpful to try to read a paragraph full of kanji you don’t know. So, when looking for a reading-focused app, look for one that can provide you with the furigana or definitions for the vocabulary above your level.
This way, you’ll save yourself the frustration of constantly having to stop reading to look things up in the dictionary, which is a huge demotivator and may turn you off learning a foreign language forever. You’ll also know exactly what you’re supposed to know and not get them confused with the things you needn’t have learned yet.
Make Sure the App Caters to Your Learning Style
Smartphones are interactive in a way textbooks are not, and developers have taken advantage of this to help you learn Japanese in a variety of unconventional ways.
Some utilize Japanese videos and articles taken from the internet to help you learn Japanese as it’s spoken in the real world, in different contexts. Some turn their quizzes into a bunch of different games, which is great if you get bored quickly. So whether or not you think you’re good at languages, it should be easy to find an app that appeals to your learning style.
Top 10 Japanese Learning Apps to Find Online
So now that you know what to look for in a Japanese learning app, here’s a list of our ten favorites to get you started on your search.
10. Pocketglow – SpeakEasy Japanese
For Travelers Who Just Need Phrases
This app is ideal for travelers who need to know helpful phrases but don’t necessarily want to learn the intricacies of the Japanese language. It won’t teach you how to conjugate verbs. It won’t help you memorize kanji. But it will help you get around. Hundreds of phrases are sorted into categories to help you find them when you need them. You can search for specific phrases, star them for later, and even practice them as flashcards.
Each phrase comes with the Japanese and English meanings, a pronunciation guide, as well as native pronunciation to practice with. If the speaking is too fast for you, you can even slow it down to hear better.
The Original Spaced Repetition App
If you’ve ever looked up “Japanese study apps,” you’re bound to have stumbled across Anki and its legion of loyal fans. This app allows you to flip through flashcard decks (made by you or downloaded), marking how well you know each card and prompting you to review cards only as often as you need to.
However, at $24.99 for the iPhone version of the app, it isn’t cheap, and there are free apps that fulfill many of the same functions. The one thing that really makes Anki stand out, though, is the sheer number of decks available for you to download and study from.
Price: Free ($4.99 monthly/$32.99 yearly/ $74.99 lifetime for extra features)
Chat with Native Speakers
The main goal of learning any language is to communicate with other people who speak it, so of course you’re going to want some hands-on practice! And this app allows you to do just that. You can exchange text messages as well as video chat. The text messaging interface even allows for seamless correction.
As it is a social app, remember that your partners will likely also want to practice their English with you. So don’t expect to only get Japanese practice out of it. You should also keep in mind that these are just average people and not teachers, so you might take a while to find someone you really want to practice with.
7. Learning Japanese with Tae Kim
A Grammar Text in App Form
This app is basically just a more convenient version of a popular Japanese grammar website. It gives in-depth explanations for grammar points that cover anything from beginner to upper-intermediate levels and allows you to have all of the lessons available offline.
Although there are some quiz features (which function more like flashcards), and you have the ability to bookmark tricky points for future reference, it’s mostly just a book in app form. That being said, it’s free and more convenient, so even if you already use the website, this app can still be beneficial.
6. Javier Artiles – Tangoristo
Practice Reading for Your Level
This app allows you to read at exactly the right level for you. It pulls reading material from various real sources like NHK, Japanese folk tales, and travel magazines and presents it with furigana and definitions appropriate for your selected JLPT reading level.
Defining words is as easy as clicking on them, and you can make vocabulary lists to study later based on what you pick out from the articles. This app also allows you to see what JLPT level every word is as well as how each verb has been conjugated. All in all, it’s a fantastic resource to practice your reading.
5. ThinkMac Software – iKanji
Kanji Practice Great for JLPT Prep
A lot of kanji apps focus too much on single kanji flashcards, but not this one. While it does offer you the ability to study kanji as flashcards, it also provides you with spaced repetition drills based on on-yomi and kun-yomi, characters’ use in compounds, and English meanings in various combinations.
Aside from splitting kanji by JLPT levels, it also allows you to study kanji by Japanese school grade level. This app also works as a kanji dictionary. It does fall a bit short on the teaching side, but as a review tool, this app can definitely help you memorize kanji.
Price: Free ($8.99 monthly/$18.99 quarterly for full features)
Spaced Repetition with Great Quiz Options
Like the previously mentioned Anki, this app works by using spaced repetition to ensure you’re studying what you need to be studying. Unlike Anki, though, there are a variety of different quiz input options which force you to really think and recall what you’ve learned.
You can create your own “courses” or choose to study from various courses that are already in the system. There are a number of courses that correspond with textbooks, so if you’re learning with a popular Japanese textbook, this could be the perfect review option for you.
Price: Free ($9.99 for extra features)
Comprehensive Learning for Beginners and Intermediate Learners
Duolingo is a popular language learning app for a number of different languages. It’s gotten extremely popular recently, and for good reason–it works! Each lesson is based on a theme, and after introducing you to the new material, it quizzes you in a number of different ways including translating between Japanese and English and listening.
This app allows you to study Japanese reading and listening from the very beginning and takes you through about the upper intermediate level or roughly N3. In order to make sure you’re learning what you need to be, this app will first test you to place you in the right level.
Price: Free ($4.99 monthly/$9.99 quarterly/$19.99 yearly for full version)
Well-Rounded Study and Pronunciation Practice
This app takes you through all facets of basic through intermediate Japanese. It has detailed grammar notes and offers ten different types of quiz questions to help you best remember what you’ve learned. You can even take it on the go–the app offers silent mode, which won’t ask you to speak, as well as full offline functionality.
While most apps will help you hone your Japanese through learning how to read and listen, this app takes it a bit further by also helping you with pronunciation. Alongside the recordings of native speakers, you can record yourself speaking so that you can compare and adjust.
1. Renzo Inc. – Japanese
The Dictionary That Does It All
This app is basically a dictionary app. You can search for words by typing, by radical, or even by drawing the character with your finger. Aside from the definition, this app also provides a number of example sentences so that you know exactly how to use each word.
On top of that, you can copy and paste any Japanese text, and the app will provide you with not only a translation but also the furigana for it. This app also allows you to save words and has a powerful spaced repetition review function with detailed statistics on what you’ve learned and studied.
There are many facets to learning a language–vocabulary, grammar, reading, speaking, listening, and communication. Communication, of course, isn’t the same as speaking; it involves everything we’ve mentioned, as well as cultural knowledge and a willingness to understand.
We’ve introduced many apps to you, each of which helps you hone in on a specific method of learning. Hopefully, one of them will help you patch up your most obvious weaknesses quickly. But, as with learning every foreign language, remember that open-mindedness, respect, and a willingness to be wrong and be corrected, is perhaps the most important learning tool of all.
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