It’s true that you can survive in Japan by knowing the bare minimum with basic, everyday Japanese greetings. However, if you are planning to stay here long-term, trust me when I say that possessing a stronger grasp of the language will lead to a deeper understanding of the culture. Investing the time to learn Japanese can enrich your life in Japan 10-fold.
The task of learning Japanese and all it’s writing systems that include hiragana, katakana and kanji, can seem like a daunting task, and may intimidate you from even getting started. Luckily, we now live in the digital age and a wealth of knowledge is available, quite literally, at your fingertips, thanks to your smartphone.
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What Is the Best App for Learning Japanese?
There’s no shortage of apps that can help you strengthen your knowledge in different aspects of the Japanese language, from grammar, to writing and proper pronunciation. If you’re looking to accelerate your Japanese speaking ability, these are 5 apps that I have found useful in my personal quest.
If you’re a survivalist who is tired of just getting by, and want to beef up your vocabulary and comprehension, Pimsleur Japanese is tailored to fortifying your proficiency in the basics and building confidence in your conversations with native speakers. The Pimsleur Method has been widely-known for many years, but has only recently been made available in app form.
As Pimsleur Japanese is an audio format language tool, its primary focus is on increasing your Japanese speaking ability, as opposed to reading or writing. However, what sets Pimsleur Japanese apart from other audio lesson apps is in its question/recall/response format, which many users have attested to as a major element to improving their conversational ability.
As someone who has experimented with audio lesson apps myself, I can also say there is a noticeable difference. This method of teaching helps you to more organically absorb grammar rules in a conversational setting, as opposed to the method of hard memorization used just from studying rules charts without any natural context.
One significant drawback of Pimsleur Japanese is in the type of Japanese you will be learning to speak. It will be almost exclusively formal (polite) Japanese. This is completely fine if, like myself, you work in Japan and want to communicate better in your office environment. However, casual conversations with friends may come off a little awkward if you go heavy on the niceties.
Availability: iOS, Android
As one of the more feature-packed Japanese language apps, JA Sensei covers reading comprehension, kanji stroke order practice, and situational Japanese lessons to help conversations go more smoothly. The JA Sensei app breaks down into the following sections:
- Aural comprehension
The app also includes a phrasebook and culture section to help those traveling to Japan for the first time, or just starting their Japanese learning journey. To help students retain their knowledge, JA Sensei employs quizzes that allow you to strengthen lessons you’ve learned, and work extra hard to correct errors you’ve made.
With its paid model, JA Sensei offers a myriad of teaching tools to guide you all the way to N1-level proficiency, with one of its standouts including a kanji section that allows you to practice writing with the proper stroke order directly on your smartphone or tablet screen.
Ask anyone who has studied Japanese, and they will tell just how unique it is in the way the language is intertwined with every aspect of the culture. Human Japanese is an app that incorporates this important aspect of Japan into its curriculum, by using breaks in between lessons to offer cultural insights about Japan that give greater weight and context to the overall instruction.
Human Japanese consistently receives high marks for its pace-focused teaching, personability and well-roundedness. It comes in a beginner version, and also offers an intermediate app for those who want to continue studying.
At $10 for each Human Japanese app, it may seem like a bit of a hefty investment for a smartphone program, but some users have claimed that knowledge retention with this app has been more successful than with more expensive lessons from private tutors and Japanese language schools.
Availability: iOS, Android
Perhaps you gain the most from a one-on-one interaction, but the money for a private tutor is a little out of your budget. This was my exact thinking, and I was happy when I found out there were Japanese people interested in learning English who felt the same way. That’s when I discovered HelloTalk.
This app is language exchange with the added perk of social networking. Just find native speakers of the language you want to learn, who also want to learn your language. This app works best for those who know a little Japanese and want to polish their skills. The brilliance of HelloTalk is sending messages to your friends, who can then edit your message and send it back to you to show you what you’ve missed.
HelloTalk also allows for voice conversations, so you can sharpen your writing and conversational abilities. Thanks to this app, I found friends online that I would later meet and study with in real life!
Availability: iOS, Android
Duolingo is one of the most well-known language apps on the market, and its freemium model makes it easy to dip your toes into learning Japanese. This app offers an incredible amount of lessons, from teaching the various Japanese writing systems, to building a solid vocabulary and sentence structure through flash card-style quizzes.
While the appeal of Duolingo is its ease of use and the relatively low time commitment required for learning, many feel it’s more of an entry-level language study program. I would have to agree that it’s a great first app with a friendly face, but going deeper into serious language study will require you to find an app dedicated solely to Japanese. For better writing system drills, particularly those for learning kanji, you might be better served to invest in JA Sensei as mentioned above.
Availability: iOS, Android
Honorable Mention for Kanji Study: WaniKani
The road to N1 Japanese proficiency is paved with 2,000 kanji. As a native speaker of a language with only 26 letters, the thought of learning a couple thousand Chinese characters on top of hiragana and katakana once seemed like an impossible undertaking. But as many who swear by WaniKani will likely tell you, it may take a little time, but you can get there.
WaniKani has built itself quite a reputation as a solid kanji-learning tool, with the aim of helping you achieve master-status in a majority of the Joyo kanji, which are the kanji approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education for use in official documents, which are required by students to learn by the end of middle school. With the use of these kanji through WaniKani, you will also build a vocabulary of over 6,000 words.
The reason WaniKani isn’t on the official list is because there is no official WaniKani app, as it is a PC-based language learning program, but it’s just too valuable not to mention. However, there are a couple very impressive WaniKani-related supplementary apps that help you practice what you’ve learned from the PC program, but on the go. Check out Tsurukame on iOS, and Flaming Durtles for Android.
You Can Learn Japanese!
Sure, there are language schools, online and offline tutor services, and a plethora of other ways to learn Japanese, but there are also a growing number of focused, well-packaged apps that will help you achieve fluency just as quickly if you put in the time. Native-level could be just one install away!
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