What’s The Deal with Babbel Japanese?

Updated November 6th, 2023

So you decided to embark on the epic quest that is learning Japanese. You're probably super excited to learn a new foreign language (I always am), but you're not sure where to start. There's a lot of courses and tools out there to choose from.

You heard about Babbel. You heard that they have over a million users around the world and offer courses that teach core grammar and vocabulary. You also may have heard that their courses are great for beginner to intermediate students.

There's only one problem....

Babbel doesn't offer a Japanese course.

Why doesn't Babbel have a course for learning Japanese? 

Japanese is hard to learn and teach

The truth is that Japanese is far removed from the English language. The two languages don't share many (if any) similarities in grammar or vocabulary. In fact Japanese is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers. 

Many language learning companies cut corners teaching Japanese

Many brands have slapped some Japanese words and phrases onto what used to be a Spanish course and called it "The best way to learn Japanese now!", just to sell a few extra language courses. Thankfully Babbel hasn't done that.

Linguistically speaking Japanese is its own beast, and to learn it you need a course that takes into account that differences and difficulties for native speakers. Anything less is a poor substitute.

3 Alternatives to Babbel Japanese

Hopefully Babbel takes the time to develop a great Japanese course. The demand is definitely there. Until then here are some other comparable Japanese courses that you might want to check out in the mean time:

Rocket Japanese

Rocket Japanese is built around recorded audio in the form of dialogues. The dialogues have English explanations and usually teach the language in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for conversational Japanese). 

Overall Rocket Japanese is a comprehensive course that does a good job of incorporating speaking and listening, as well as reading and writing. You can check out our full review of the course here.

You can access three levels of the Japanese course via the Rocket app, totaling 277 lessons. Pricing plans vary, but you will almost always find discounts available. The full three courses can cost $295 on a discount, or up to the full price of $495. You also have the option to purchase just one or two levels for a lower price point.

As you can see, this makes Rocket one of the more expensive Japanese courses out there, even with a discount! However, the company promises to deliver true fluency in conversational Japanese through its audio-bassed program.

Each of the three levels in the Japanese course is divided into modules, and every module consists of lessons on five topics: writing, culture & language, survival kit, interactive audio, and flashcards. 

The culture and language lessons tend to focus mainly on grammar but do include some cultural facts and points of interest about Japan as well. It is worth noting that Rocket Languages intends for you to mostly learn grammar through the audio lessons and interactive exercises, though, rather than teaching it in a textbook style.

You can download the audio portions of the lessons to listen to on the go, or just to save for later.

A couple of things set Rocket Japanese apart. First, it offers a lot of literacy training in Japanese Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Second, it focuses on natural-sounding Japanese on everyday topics. Even good programs like Pimsleur have a reputation for using stilted dialogue that doesn’t sound super lifelike, so this is a huge advantage.

If you have a goal-orientated learning style, you will also appreciate Rocket’s leaderboard, which lets you challenge yourself, track your progress, and even save a list of learned vocabulary.

You can check out our full review the course here.

The Japanesepod101 course is one of the most popular Japanese apps on the web. It's lessons are audio based and come in the form of podcasts. While not quite as structured as other courses lessons are effective and engaging. It's also cheaper than Babbel with a basic monthly subscription for $8. 

JapanesePod101 is like a vast library of almost 7,000 podcast-style audio and video lessons, paired with a variety of written and downloadable resources. You can actually access a good portion of the lessons for free, though you can pay a small monthly subscription to access all the lessons and to get the additional materials like downloads.

This course offers a ton of information but often works best for a self-guided learner who likes to explore or learn things in a non-structured manner. Unlike many courses, you do not need to watch or listen to lessons in a particular order in this program. 

If you focus best when presented with short bite-sized lessons, you may find that JapanesePod101 helps you learn more easily than a more intensive program like Pimsleur. You will find lessons as short as 2 minutes, with a max length of around 20 minutes.

Plus, lesson topics can cover everything from the more serious--like Japanese for medical emergencies--to the extremely playful, like Pokemon Go in Japan. Despite the literally thousands of videos and lessons available, they all come from tutors and have a professional recording style.

Another great thing about this program is that you will see a lot more English used in the lessons at the beginner level, but the lessons become more immersive and use less English as you advance. 

The lessons also use natural-sounding dialogue, featuring both male and female native speakers. This is important because, in everyday Japanese, men and women sometimes use quite different words and phrases.

As with all programs, JapanesePod101 does feature some drawbacks. It does not have a mechanism for speaking practice, though you will often have reactive listening response moments in audio lessons. Depending on your learning style, you may also find it hard to learn the basics of grammar without a firmly structured course to guide you.

Even if you do not choose to use this course as the core of your learning program, you should check it out as an addition to your core program--it has a ton to offer!

Italki is an online market place that connects language learners and language teachers. The site allows you to book individual langauge lessons with a teacher over Skype. There are over 200 professional teachers and informal tutors for Japanese on Italki

Italki is an online marketplace that connects language learners and language teachers. The site allows you to book individual virtual language lessons with a teacher. There are over 200 professional teachers and informal tutors for Japanese on Italki

In a nutshell, this website and app allows you to easily find and book tutors who match your schedule and your price point. You can sort available tutors by language, by price, by availability, or by experience. 

The huge, obvious benefit to going with italki is that you get an in-person connection and a chance to converse in Japanese with a real human being during your lessons. This is miles ahead of using even the best direct-speech software in an app-based course!

The other big benefit of italki is that, ideally, your tutor can create a personalized lesson plan that meets your specific learning needs. 

That said, the downside of italki is that teacher quality can vary, and teacher prices also vary a lot, from around $20 per hour to as high as $60 per hour. Often the most popular and experienced tutors will charge more, as they have a greater demand for their services. This is not always the case, though--sometimes you can find amazing beginner teachers, too.

Often the best way to find a really good teacher is to check how many lessons that person has taught (listed in their profile) and check their reviews. You can also look deeper into a teacher profile to learn things like how many returning students that teacher has. This will tell you if people really like the teacher enough to keep coming back.

You can also take trial lessons with a potential teacher, and pay attention to whether the tutor offers to tailor lessons for you or simply seems willing to chat without much structure or intention.

You may want to consider signing up for just a handful of tutoring sessions through italki to focus on something you find particularly challenging and use another program as the core of your learning experience. Or you may decide that you work best with the accountability of reporting to a real-life teacher--you will certainly feel guilty if you don’t finish your homework in time!

While booking a teacher on italki can come with a hefty price tag, the app does offer some free resources as well. You can connect with fellow learners through community forums and possibly even find conversation partners there as well.

If you want to find the perfect Japanese tutor for you, check out italki’s array of Japanese teachers here.

*Use this link to purchase a minimum of $20 (US) of Italki credits and receive an extra $10 free! (Bonus added after completion of 1st lesson)

Pimsleur offers one of the most comprehensive app-based Japanese courses out there, featuring five levels with 30 jam-packed lessons in each level. The lessons have a heavy audio focus to help you build listening comprehension skills, plus many active listening components to encourage you to practice speaking.

The basic theory behind the Pimsleur method is called Spaced Repetition Theory, which means that if you circle back to key concepts on a regular basis, you will eventually store them in your permanent memory. This may sound repetitive and dull, but you will find plenty of different activities and quizzes in each lesson to keep things interesting!

While Pimsleur does tailor content to each language, every lesson begins with a 30-minute audio component, where you listen to native speakers engage in a dialogue, and then interact with a narrator who asks you to repeat words and phrases or poses the same question to you that the actors used in the dialogue. 

The narrator explaining grammar and other linguistic elements in English is one of the essential reasons Pimsleur works so well. It is great to listen to native speakers and train your ear, but you need the explanation part of the lesson to understand the building blocks of the language.

The audio segment at the start of each lesson does feel a bit long, though the narrator keeps you engaged throughout. But you will not get the fast, instant gratification of completing a five-minute gamified lesson as you would in Duolingo. 

On the other hand, demanding your attention for an extended time like this is one of the reasons Pimsleur works--you truly do have to focus and actively engage in these lessons. Plus, you can easily listen to the lesson while going on a morning walk or while doing chores around the house. 

After this, you dive into drills and exercises with a more visual element, like matching words and pictures or playing speed games. Pimsleur also now features pronunciation practice due to the recent addition of a Voice Coach speech recognition software that allows you to speak into your phone’s mic and get feedback on how you say words and phrases. 

If there is a downside to Pimsleur’s Japanese course, it is the fairly high subscription rate of $20/month. 

Another potential downside is that Pimsleur has a less in-depth focus on literacy. The course does have a reading component, which was added quite recently. This teaches you hiragana, katakana, and some kanji. 

You will learn the essentials of how to read and a little bit about how to write in the three Japanese writing systems by the time you finish the course, but don’t expect to walk away able to read the daily newspaper in Japanese!

Completing Pimsleur’s full Japanese course will take roughly 150 hours of work, between listening to the audio lessons and completing all the activities. By the end, you should feel confident in your ability to converse on many basic topics and understand what a native speaker says to you. 

You will have a good introductory grasp of Japanese grammar and literacy. After that, the best way to gain more fluency is to try out your Japanese in real life!

If you struggle to focus during traditional or textbook-style lessons, you may want to branch out and try a more unique approach to learning Japanese, like Storylearing’s Japanese Uncovered course. This online course does not have an app, and it also doesn’t take a gamified approach to learning. Instead, it uses a story to help you learn a new language.

The theory behind Storylearning is that humans communicate primarily through stories. Think about meeting up with a friend and telling them about your night at the bar, or sitting down with your mom to catch up on life. Since our primary communication tool is narrative, it makes sense that you can learn a new language through the lens of a story, too.

Storylearning’s Japanese Uncovered takes you from total beginner Japanese through the A1 and A2 CEFR levels of the language (basically, you go from beginner to intermediate once you complete the course). The course includes roughly 100 hours of dedicated coursework, plus suggested extra practice materials.

The course is broken down into a series of 20 chapters, and every chapter includes a section of the ongoing story, which you listen to, try to read, and then read in English.

Next, you progress through a series of lessons that connect to the material in that section of the story. These include lessons on grammar, culture, speaking practice, and explanations of Japanese honorifics in speech. Every chapter also features lessons on reading and writing, covering both romaji (romanized Japanese words) and kanji characters. 

The lessons vary in length, sometimes featuring videos as long as 20 minutes, and sometimes featuring interactive activities for you to complete. 

The video lessons feature either Olly Richards, the program creator, or a certified Japanese tutor (which is great, as it allows you to hear correct pronunciation from a native speaker). You will find a lot of in-depth grammar content, especially in the video lessons. In fact, aside from hiring a personal tutor, this resource is one of the best ways to learn about Japanese grammar.

Like all programs, Storylearning does have some weaknesses. First, as a strictly online course with no app, it does not look as sleek as some more established programs like Pimsleur. 

Second, it has no speech response software, so your “speaking practice” is just you saying words out loud and hoping they sound right. If you like the grammar-heavy, narrative approach of Storylearning, you will likely want to pair it with a tool like HelloTalk to give you a chance for real conversation as you develop your Japanese abilities.

Plus, Japanese Uncovered has a very high one-time price tag of $297.

That said, if you really want to learn the bones of Japanese and develop a natural ability to communicate through the story method, check out Japanese Uncovered here!

Do you learn best visually? If you go to YouTube whenever you need to learn a new skill, you may find that FluentU offers exactly what you need to boost your Japanese learning speed. This program offers hundreds of videos in natural settings, like on the streets in a Japanese city, to give you real-life conversations to watch and mimic.

So, how does FleuntU work? The app provides over 1,000 Japanese videos as well as comprehension quizzes, personalized spaced repetition flashcards to help you review vocabulary and lots of fun goal-setting options like tracking your daily learning streaks.

It has an intuitive interface that operates much like YouTube. It tracks all your progress and lets you know what skills and words you have learned as you go.

But the most important element of the app is the way you can watch each video. You have the option to slow down videos to pinpoint pronunciation. You also get a lot of options for subtitles on the videos. You can watch with English subtitles, or in English and Japanese (with the option for Kanji or Katakana). You can also tap on a word or character to get a translation and more info as you watch!

FluentU curates the videos but does not always create them--they come from YouTube, TV shows, commercials, and more.

As you can imagine, this is a fun and useful way to rapidly build your vocabulary and listening comprehension. However, the program does not offer structured lessons, a focus on grammar, or much opportunity to develop literacy aside from reading subtitles. 

This means that while FluentU makes a wonderful auxiliary tool as you learn Japanese you will want to pair with with a more comprehensive program to make sure you focus on all the key aspects of the language.

Also, while you can learn a lot by pausing and repeating phrases you hear in FluentU videos, you won’t find any direct speech software to provide feedback on your pronunciation. You will need to find another tool to use to help you practice conversation to gain true fluency in Japanese.

You can try out FluentU for free for two weeks by clicking here. After that, the program has a $ 29.99 monthly fee, or $8/month if you pay for a year at a time.

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