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6 Great Mobile Apps for Learning Basic Japanese

If you’re learning, picking a mobile application that will let you study anytime, anywhere can accelerate your progress. Here are six of our favorites to keep in your pocket.

By 7 min read

Looking for the right application to learn Japanese can be a daunting experience. How can we tell which applications are better than others when they all seem so similar? When I studied Japanese in university I didn’t need to look outside of the classroom for guidance, but after graduating with a degree in Japanese in an English speaking country, I found myself struggling to retain everything I worked so hard to learn. There’s always room to grow in both vocabulary and confidence when learning a new language, and because of this I started testing various Japanese language apps to see what best suited my learning style.

Five years — and many apps — later, I moved to Japan and realized I could read much more than my last visit three years prior. Much of this progress is owed to the apps that allowed me to study grammar and reading, while also expanding my vocabulary with real world examples.

In this post — the first in a three-part series about learning Japanese on the go — I’ve included six applications that each have their own creative take on studying Japanese so you can focus less on the search and more on your path to fluency.

DuoLingo

Translating Japanese to English sentences via the word bank in DuoLingo.

Lessons can begin without any previous knowledge of hiragana or katakana with DuoLingo and testing past beginner levels is available. All the lessons are grouped into fun categories that range anywhere from food and family to subculture. There’s even an Olympics category in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 games. Once a category is completed, a power bar appears beneath it. After a while the bar will start to recede, prompting you to review that lesson.

Along with focusing on vocabulary, DuoLingo puts emphasis on sentence structure. When it comes time to be quizzed, the app likes to keeps things interesting and will test you in various ways. Eventually, you’ll find yourself translating English sentences into Japanese or selecting English terms from a word bank to recreate Japanese sentences. For extra motivation, you can find help in the DuoLingo community.

Human Japanese

Human Japanese textbook-style interface.

Human Japanese may have debuted earlier than most applications reviewed here, but this in no way negates how beautiful and powerful it is. Designed for beginners, it feels as if you’re working your way through an interactive textbook. Lessons are divided into chapters, complete with gorgeous images, audio and quizzes at the end. Cultural notes have even been added, convincing me even more that this is truly a textbook in mobile form.

If you’re already well-versed in kana there is an intermediate application that is just as wonderful. Having learned hiragana and katakana in the first application, kanji is introduced accompanied with furigana (kana over or beside kanji to indicate pronunciation). If you’re looking for a well-balanced and graceful way of studying, this is absolutely for you.

iKnow

Study to-dos in iKnow.

Regardless of how you learn best, iKnow exposes you to audio, text and images simultaneously as you study. If you want to start studying Japanese but don’t know the hiragana or katakana characters yet, it’s not an issue. iKnow has a course to teach you and from there you can start the core lesson series. Each series will walk you through 10 steps, all building on what was previously introduced.

The length of the lessons are can be customized and if a series isn’t challenging enough you’re free to jump around and change what you’re currently studying. iKnow is all about organization and giving you access to various metrics that reflect your study pace, desired study schedule and overall progress. iKnow has the most calendar and scheduling features I’ve ever seen for a Japanese language application.

Japanese LS Touch

Kanji stroke order screen interface in LS Touch.

Japanese LS Touch differs from the others in that it focuses on memorizing vocabulary by writing out the words during practice mode. Test mode allows you to either directly input the word by hand or select via multiple choice. There’s even an option to choose the correct missing word from a sentence or the missing character from a word.

Categories are divided into the five Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) vocabulary levels. If you’d like to add your own vocabulary, there are instructions on how to create and upload your own study set. Additionally,  Japanese LS Touch uses Dropbox to backup your progress. The expectation is that you already know hiragana and katakana, but if not don’t worry because the creators of Japanese LS also offer Kana LS Touch for download.

StickyStudy

Seeing kanji for the first time in StickyStudy.

If you can imagine customizing a learning plan to suit the best way for you to study Japanese, then StickyStudy can make it happen. One such customization: on first seeing a word using kanji, a simple tap will reveal the furigana. The second tap reveals the answer, complete with an animated stroke order, example sentences, a breakdown of which kanji are used and a list of kanji similar to what you just were tested on.

In addition to excellent quizzing methods, StickyStudy also lets you decide how you want to learn Japanese. If you’re aiming to take the JLPT, you can study kanji and vocabulary by level. Other categories include studying the joyo (regular use) kanji, hiragana, katakana or even by the same progression that children in Japan study at school. Much like WaniKani, the material is generated via the spaced repetition.

WaniKani

Introducing kanji components in WaniKani.

WaniKani has over 2,000 kanji and 6,000 words that are sourced from the official joyo kanji guide established by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Through spaced repetition, you learn to depend on memory recall as you ascend through the various levels. Before starting, it’s recommended that you have a solid grasp of reading both hiragana and katakana, and while this isn’t a service designated to teach grammar, there are example sentences for everything you learn that are useful for syntactical exposure or review.

If life happens and you become busy, you can freeze your progress. If enough time has passed that you forget or feel overwhelmed, you can also reset your level — but this change is permanent. Mastering, or “burning,” all of the items can happen within a year, but the average completion rate is two years. WaniKani is free to try for the first three levels and after that, there’s a monthly fee equivalent to the price of a bowl of ramen. If you’re willing to drop that cash on a bowl of noodles, why not drop it on a service that will help you read the menu?

(NB: the iOS and Android apps are developed by third-party fans of the platform, not Tofugu the original creator of WaniKani.)

Be on the lookout for the next installment, when we cover learning Japanese through mobile gaming.

Have we missed your go-to mobile Japanese language learning app? Let us know in the comments!

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