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Nihongo On-the-Go: Japanese Language App Review

By 4 min read 8

A while ago, I wrote about some of the unlikely things you should know before you move to Tokyo, and number one for me was all the time you spend on the train. I spend about ten hours a week on the train, and have dedicated a chunk of my daily commute to learning Japanese on my nifty array of apps.

Here are the handful of the best apps I’ve come across, either through nerdy research on tech blogs or just asking my friends who’ve been here longer than me. I have an iPhone so I can’t test the Android versions, but someone who has one will certainly step up and share in the comments below. Every app has good and bad points, and I’ve yet to find one that covers everything I want perfectly, so having a mix makes a lot of sense and keeps my ADD happy.

iKana

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Step one: anyone starting out in Japanese needs to learn the alphabets. iKana is a simple and effective alpha practice app that uses basic recall methods to check your memorization of Hiragana and Katakana. This is the beginner app to bust out when you feel like you should be studying, but are to lazy to really study.

Rosetta Stone

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I bought the Rosetta Stone Totale subscription when I knew I was moving to Japan, and the app is free when you purchase for the year (about 235.00USD). It’s a robust app full of useful vocabulary and phrases, but isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped it’d be. You can’t really select what aspect of the language you study because RS has decided that its cumulative method is best. Boo.

If you already have the Totale iPhone app then yeah, of course download this. It compliments your current study method and keeps you rolling.

busuu

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All told, I kind of wish I knew about busuu before I bought Rosetta Stone. It’s way more intuitive, has an internal social network, and loads of free lessons to try out before you pay into the premium app. Unlocking a single course cost $4.99, or all of the courses for $16.99. For beginners this is a cheap and easy way to play with the language. The content is really well-chosen for each lesson, which makes the learning process feel natural.

Oh stop.

Downside: The interface is a little cheesy (think Farmville). Seriously- I don’t want to earn berries or open secret mystery surprises- (Dear busuu, please update your experience, KTB). Rosetta Stone has a much sleeker UX, but the price totally reflects that dev work.

Human Japanese

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My co-worker recommended this app and I have to say so far it’s pretty good, but not rocking my world. I’ve only downloaded the Lite/free version (premium for iPhone is 9.99) and it’s basically an e-book with quiz games at the end. The UX is sexy, but isn’t terrifically interactive. What I do like about HJ is the content.

It gives legitimately interesting cultural information and well-written grammar structures. The dictionary is also intuitive and smooth (I know this sounds like a small thing, but downloading a crap dictionary and not being able to use it when you need it is a total drag). Not sure if this is the one I’ll use on the train, but if you’re the kind of student who wants to dig into the cultural underpinnings of the language, you might dig this one.

JLPT Study

If you’re on the JLPT track, or are a Kanji drill masochist, this app series was made for you. Kanji intimidates most beginners (and a few not-so beginners) but this app quizzes you on the most common Kanji and vocabulary found at each level of the exam. The free version is pretty robust and, like iKana, is a great recall tool to whip out on the train. The UX is super simple and the Kanji definitions give you alternate definitions and example use cases. I use the free version of this one almost every day.

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There are about ten billion more language apps on the market, so if you have a favorite, please post it in the comments below.

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  • I says:

    Io uso wanikani e memrise!

  • Ash says:

    My favourite Japanese app is imiwa (http://www.imiwaapp.com)! It’s not necessarily for study, per se, but it’s a very robust Japanese dictionary – and completely free! I find the internal search engine in the app very intuitive, and it’s responsive to English, Romaji and Japanese searches. Well worth the download.

  • Luigi Marciani says:

    Do not forget anki
    https://ankiweb.net/
    Complex, but powerful, for Linux ,Mac ,Win ,Android, ios, it is open source,
    with a common account for all devices

  • Palma San says:

    I have actually tried most all of these apps and I believe the most professional and easiest was probably Human Japanese. Rosetta Stone only woks for some learning styles, but certainly not for me, so I highly recommend trying a demo first! – @Japanrealm

  • Alvin Brinson says:

    I wish duolingo provided Japanese. I’m using it to catch up on my Spanish and it’s very useful for my study style.

    Btw, Busuu is MUCH more expensive than you claim! The app may be only $4.99 but the course itself is monthly priced at $19.99 or $149 for two years. Much more than that $4.99!

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      Alvin. This is a mobile app article, so I only wrote about the app prices, which are in fact, $4.99 and $16.99, just as I wrote.

      And yes. $19.99 and $149 are more than $4.99. You’re totally right. 🙂

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    I can also recommend jFlash, StickyStudy and “imiwa?”

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