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5 Mobile Apps to Help Improve Your Japanese Kana and Kanji on the Go

Studying Japanese has an automatic end goal: speaking to a real human being. And it all starts with studying kana.

By 8 min read

With so many mobile Japanese language apps out there, it’s hard to pick a few that really concentrate on kanji and kana practice. Normally, you’ll find apps that like to touch on a little bit of everything. Aside from Sticky Study and WaniKani mentioned in the first post of this series, I’ve included three applications that really set their sights on kanji and kana learning. To supplement everything we’ve gone over so far I’ve also included Japanese dictionaries that double and triple in their usefulness outside of looking up definitions.

By this point you might be brave enough to get outside your comfort zone and show the world what you know. Albeit, humbly so. Not to worry, I’m sending you to a community that welcomes new learners and where everyone can contribute to one another’s goals.

1. KanjiBox

Screens from Kanji Box app for iOS.

Rather than blindly memorizing what a character looks like on sight or the radicals that build it, KanjiBox engages your motor skills and memory recall simultaneously via various exercises tailored for optimum memorization. Categories include kanji, vocabulary, reading, kana and grammar. Within each of these you can decide which JLPT level (or levels) to be tested on. Testing methods include picking the corresponding answer based on definition or missing character. If you’d like to go beyond the JLPT lists, you can search for and create custom sets to learn from.

You may be wondering what sets this application apart from the rest? It seems pretty general so far, right? Well, this application is a true gold mine if you’re just starting out with kana. You have the option to be quizzed in four ways: romaji to kana, kana to romaji, kana listening and kana through vocabulary. If you decide to purchase the category KanaDraw, you can study drawing kana. You’re given hints that eventually go away as your progress advances, and beware stroke order and neatness when you have to manually draw the kanji. If you feel you’re being graded too harshly, you can adjust this under “Show Correction” in the settings. The same applies if you purchase KanjiDraw, but this time you get to draw the kanji based on reading the definition as well as completing the partially finished kanji.

2. Kana/Kanji LS Touch

Screens from Kana and Kanji LS Touch app for iOS.

From the people that brought you Japanese LS Touch, I now introduce Kana LS Touch and Kanji LS Touch. Both applications use the same methodology, but if you’re not confident in your kana yet you may want to begin with Kana LS Touch. As with any LS Touch application, you are expected to draw your answer. Multiple choice is also available, but why settle for that when this app was designed for your touch? Once you’ve mastered all the kana, give Kanji LS Touch a try.

Available study sessions are separated into grade school level, JLPT level, and jouyou kanji. The jouyou are a standard set of 2,136 kanji selected by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 2010 that represent the most commonly used kanji. It may be best to go by grade or JLPT level, rather than bite of such a large chunk initially.

The real magic is found under the testing settings. Here you can select how you want to be tested under, funnily enough — Test Mode. Among the available options you can select being shown the on’yomi (Chinese-derived reading of a kanji), kun’yomi (native Japanese reading of a Chinese character) or both and then draw what you think the correct kanji is. This can get a little hardcore when all you’re given is “ウ.” On the flip side, you can choose to see the kanji and then type in the appropriate reading. Of course, the traditional meaning-followed-by-the-correct-kanji and the fill-in-the-missing-kanji-in-a-word options are available for selection as well. All your progress can be saved by enabling Dropbox, which I highly suggest syncing if you use this application heavily.

3. Pastel Daily Kana Quiz

Screens from Pastel Daily Kana Quiz for iOS.

This application is absolute eye candy. I honestly wish this was out when I was first learning kana because I can’t seem to stop playing with its simple and clean UI. From the kana drills to the settings screen it pops with vivid vaporwave-accompanied pastels. The buttons are the perfect size and snuggle up neatly aligned with one another to give a delicate yet pleasant aesthetic. Switching from hiragana to katakana options creates a quick change in the pastel color scheme to either warm or cool tones corresponding to what is selected. Now, I’ve never been a fan of pastels. My closet can attest to this currently. Yet, there is something pleasurable about using this application from a purely visual standpoint.

I guess it’s time to get into the actual functionality of this app. On the bottom left of the main page you can select a book icon to browse both hiragana and katakana charts. Here, you can view the kana with its appropriate romaji nestled in a box. Additionally, you can decide to view either just the kana or the romaji, and by tapping you can reveal its corresponding equal, depending on your initial selection. Testing is divided into hiragana and katakana. You’re given a choice of four kana to choose from, but you have to race against a quickly sliding progress bar to  make your selection before it goes all the way to the right. There is a paid version but honestly I see no need. Keep it simple — and pastel.

4. Japanese

Screens from the Japanese app for iOS.

This dictionary is my tried and true. It’s been with me since day one of class, and I still depend on it. Call it favoritism, nostalgia or stubbornness but I can’t use any other dictionary app. Countless times I would pick a random English word and scroll through all the results that would come up just to learn interesting kanji compounds or find new and interesting vocabulary words. Favorite, or even practical, finds can be saved to lists that you can study later on with its built in flash card system. A plethora of example sentences are available for most entries and kanji stroke orders are animated so you can follow along.

Now that we’ve covered the boring everyday parts of a dictionary, let’s explore what’s in the reference tab. Exciting stuff, I know. No, really, I’m not kidding. The first three categories are to be expected: kana, kanji and radicals. Following this are the parts of speech — and here it starts to get interesting. Onomatopoeia, counters and interjections are only a few categories you can pick from. A lot can be learned from the expressions, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions categories. Next up comes the classifications tab, where you can get lost in vocabulary relating to everything from anime to mechanical engineering. We’ve discussed applications in this series that pull kanji from the JLPT, but how about the Kanji Kentei? That’s right, it’s a kanji test designed for native speakers — and you can review the material with this app.

5. Lang-8’s HiNative-Language Learning Q&A

Screens from the Lang-8’s HiNative-Language Learning app for iOS.

OK, so you’re studying daily. Really giving it the ol’ college try. You think you’re ready to start communicating with something other than a bundle of algorithms designed to keep you company. It’s time to start talking to actual people. People that are also trying to learn another language and presumably feel your pain. HiNative-Language Learning is a place where native speakers edit entries written by those learning their language. Content can be anything you like and as long or short as you are comfortable with. It’s a community built on reciprocation, so if you’re not stingy you’ll be sure to receive amazing feedback and suggestions. Maybe even some friendships. HiNative is developed by the creators of Lang-8, a highly successful language learning website, so if you’re more comfortable a full keyboard you might want to try the group’s full-browser version as well.

We did it! We went over all the apps worth mentioning that can get you started on achieving your goals with Japanese. The foundation has been laid, the rest of this journey is up to you. If you’re passionate about learning Japanese I recommend setting up a realistic schedule, but not one you’d burn out on quickly. Keep it interesting, play around and dig into the app store monthly for new finds. If something feels difficult, don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, or rather in this scenario: the perfect miso ramen wasn’t developed overnight. I’m certain there is still debate on which is actually the best. Regardless, there is always room for improvement and more ramen.

You got this.

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