Sometimes it feels like Japanese leaners are at a disadvantage compared to students of other languages. Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers. If that weren't hard enough, there aren't as many good resources out there for Japanese like there are for other languages.
Strange to think it's so hard to find resources to learn Japanese when there are over 126 million native speakers around the world!
This is because it's not easy to make courses or apps that teach the language well. It's far removed from English (grammatically speaking), and it's no small feat to break down the Japanese language into bite sized pieces.
There are a number of significant differences between Japanese and English, and their not always accounted for in apps for those who want to learn Japanese
But even though there are less resources, that doesn't mean that there aren't any good ones. In this post we look at our picks for the 5 best apps for learning Japanese.
Before we get into our list though, let's talk about what actually makes a good app for learning Japanese.
What makes a great app for learning Japanese?
It doesn't gloss over grammar
A lot of companies will take their best Spanish course, replace it with Japanese words, and then call it a Japanese course. Unfortunately for them (and you), what works for teaching a language closely related to English isn't going to work for learning Japanese.
Grammatically speaking Japanese has little to nothing in common with English. There's a system of honorifics, different word order, sentence subjects can be implied but not explicitly stated...the list goes on.
The best apps will teach the Japanese on it's own terms. It will recognize the differences in the language and break them down for native English speakers.
It doesn't ignore the writing system (specifically kanji)
There are entire Japanese courses and apps out there that simply don't focus on teaching the Japanese writing system; but if you're serious about learning the language this aspect is crucial to becoming fluent! The best and most effective apps will help you learn and use the writing system in a practical way.
Kana (hiragana and katagana)
Kana is broken up into two scripts: hiragana and katakana. Both hiragana and katakana function much like an alphabet with each symbol representing a syllable/sound (there are 46 symbols in hiragana and 48 in katakana).
Hiragana is almost always used alongside kanji in Japanese writing, as it helps the reader know how to say and pronounce a given word. Outside of language learning textbooks you’re unlikely to find words written exclusively in hiragana, and there are few words written using only kanji.
However words derived from English and other foreign languages are written in katakana. Words like company names, food menu items, and modern technology terms are common examples of words written in katakana.
If you’re committed to learning Japanese you will need to learn both hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The best apps for learning Japanese will expose you to the various parts of written Japanese, and help you practice using each one
Our picks for best Japanese learning apps
1) Pimsleur Japanese
$14.95 per month
30 minutes a day
Up until recently Pimsleur was not available as an app. Pimsleur has a long standing reputation for being an effective way to learn a foreign language in a conversational way.
Pimsleur uses a unique call/response/feedback method to help you practice thinking in Japanese and produce your own answers and sentences. As far as apps go, it's the closest you can get to speaking practice without being face to face to a real life native Japanese speaker.
The real advantage of this kind of approach is that you learn grammar implicitly (via conversation patterns), and not simply explicitly (through rules and grammar charts). It's one thing to know grammar, it's another to use it in a practical way. Pimsleur lets you use Japanese grammar in a conversational context. It's one of the only apps I know of that does this.
The app also includes a hefty reading track woven in the audio lessons. Learners are first taught hiragana by reading texts phonetically (along with native audio). Then users are gradually introduced to Kanji. This is a great way to learn Japanese.
Pimsleur offers five Japanese course levels from beginner up through intermediate. For a monthly subscription of $14.95, users get access to all five course levels. Pimsleur offers 1 week of full access to their Japanese courses for free, so you can test the courses out for yourself and see if they're right for you before you pay for anything.
There is an ios version of the app, as well a version for Andriod in the Google play store.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Japanesepod101 is one of the most popular apps on this list, and there's good reason for it. The site/app is centered around podcast styled audio lessons and features a ton of useful features and resources to go with them (including spaced repetition flashcards for learning kanji).
While it's not as strong on the written aspect of the language, Japanesepod101 is an excellent resource for learning grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and reading.
Each lesson (aka episode), is centered around a Japanese conversation between two native speakers. There are also two English speaking hosts who will breakdown the grammar and Japanese vocabulary found within the dialogue.
One thing I like best about this format is that you learn new words and grammar in the context of a real conversation.
But there's a lot more to Japanesepod101 than just the podcast audio. Each lesson is complete with example sentences, vocabulary lists, grammar guides, audio transcripts (in English, Romanji, and Kanji), as well as review tools for Kanji.
There are literally hundreds of lessons on Japanesepod101 which cover material for absolute beginners all the way up through the advanced level. Not many other apps for learning Japanese provide users with so much useful content.
There are some notable free features on the Japanesepod101 app, but to get full use of it you'll have to sign up for a paid subscription which starts at $4 per month. App is available on ios and in the google play app store.
3) Kanji Study
Free for N5 level (beginners). $12.99 for access to levels N4-N1
15+ minutes a day
Kanji Study is among the best apps for learning to read and write Japanese. The app provides a thorough and comprehensive approach that will take you from a N5 reading level (absolute beginner), all the way through N1 (advanced).
Kanji study is free for beginners. At this level users will learn kana, radicals, and first level Kanji. They will also have access to a full Japanese dictionary.
For a one time purchase of $12.99, users get access to all kanji, which the popular app breaks down into 10 levels. Each level is broken into sets of kanji. The beginner level has eight sets of ten kanji (80 total), while most other levels have as much as two or three hundred individual kanji which are sorted into sets.
The method Study Kanji uses is simple, straight forward, and very effective. The app will show you a set of kanji with their translations and some example phrases or sentences. After this users are given three options for studying the kanji set.
The first is a flashcard style route memorization and the second is a timed multiple choice option. The third option will provide you with the English translation of a word and require you to draw the kanji with correct stroke order.
15+ minutes a day
This popular learning Japanese app, helps students study and master the written aspects of the language. The app also has a notable grammar section, but it's with written Japanese that it truly shines the best. Obenkyo teaches kanji, katakana, as well as hiragana.
Obenkyo isn't structured like a traditional course. It's more for independent learners. You're free to learn Japanese and explore all of the content of the app at once, versus walking through a step by step lesson system.
The real strength of Obenkyo is that it lets you study and practice through multiple choice questions as well as written answers. You can literally practice writing kanji on the app. The app is also free to use which is awesome.
5) Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese
Up to you
Tae Kim's guide to Japanese puts difficult grammar and vocabulary explanations into layman's terms.
The app also provides sentence examples, dialogues, and tips for using what you learn. In addition to grammar and vocabulary, learners are also exposed to hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
Needless to say Tae Kim has made a powerful app, and if you want to learn Japanese it is worth checking out.
$6+ per hour (varies between teachers)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
You can connect with Japanese teachers from Japan and around the world, for real individual Japanese lessons or tutoring sessions.
There are also a lot of free features, such as a forum where you can ask native speakers language related questions, and a public notebook where you can write in Japanese and have your entries corrected by the community.
There's also a free language partner search option which allows you to connect with Japanese speakers who are learning English (so you can help each other in your respective target languages). After all, one of the best ways to practice a language is by speaking it with a native!
*with a purchase of $20 or more. After your first purchased lesson, a credit of $10 will be added to your account
Anki isn't exclusively for language learning. But in my opinion it's the best in a long line of customizable flashcard system apps which use spaced repetition. That being said it is a powerful language learning tool, and is extremely popular in Japanese learning circles.
Anki won't actually teach you Japanese. Rather it helps you remember and retain the Japanese you've already learned. Again, the app is literally a personalized flashcard study system.
Anki is probably the least user friendly app in this article. It does take some leg work to set it up and start creating your own decks and flashcards. but don't let that scare you away. Here's a step by step video to help get you started learning Japanese with Anki.
The app is completely free, and many learners swear by it, especially for memorizing kanji.
Some learners might be turned off by the apps technicality and lack of a seamless user experience, but if you're technically inclined or you don't mind the extra set up process, Anki is an excellent free study tool for your Japanese learning program.
Freemium (paid version starting at $6.67 per month)
5+ minutes per day
Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps, and it offers courses for a plethora of languages, not just ones from Asia.
Duolingo has a long standing reputation for being one of the best learning apps for languages which are more closely related to English, such as the Romance languages and the West Germanic languages.
However many Japanese learners have mixed feelings about Duolingo. Japanese is a world away from English grammatically speaking. Thus a learning program that works well for a language like Spanish or French, won't necessarily carry over well to Japanese.
There's a lot of grammatical nuances that don't get explained well in the app, if at all.
The app does expose the reader to hiragana and then to kanji, but it also starts throwing out kanji a lot faster than most beginners can handle at one time. Learners also complain that it's too easy to guess the app's multiple choice questions for kanji, and because of this the material doesn't stick.
The app uses a freemium model, meaning there's a lot of content you can use for free (with ads), but you will need to pay to use the full features of the app and get rid of the ads.
The app is worth looking at if you're interested in learning Japanese, but it probably shouldn't be your main learning tool, especially if you're a beginner. You can read our indepth Duolingo Japanese Review if you'd like a closer look.
There are a ton Japanese learning apps out there, and you’re certainly able to try them all. Hopefully this post helped you decide which Japanese app might be best for you, so you can dive into Japanese and start leaving right away.
Every app on our list offers some sort of free version or free content. If you're interested in an app or you're on the fence about which one might best suit your learning needs, it's a good idea to try out an app before paying anything.
Language learners tackling Japanese learn in different ways and for different reasons. Which apps are the best often depends the needs of the individual learning the language. Don't be surprised if you favor one app over another.
Apps are awesome and they really can make a difference in your Japanese learning, but don't forget the most crucial element in your language learning: you. It's your commitment and dedication that will ultimately bring you success, regardless of which app you use!