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Finding a good program to learn Japanese is hard...
Many language learning companies take their best Spanish and French program and more or less copy and paste Japanese words into it. Then they slap a "best way to learn Japanese" sticker on and sell it to new learners.
Converting a Spanish course into a French or Italian course wouldn't be that hard. The languages are in the same family and aren't too far from English. But the truth is that, in terms of language learning, Japanese is its own language when compared to English.
Differences in grammar, no shared vocabulary with English, and a complex writing system all mean that if you're going to make a program for learning Japanese you really have to go the extra mile.
In this post we'll share our top 5 recommendations for Japanese learning programs, but first we'll talk about a few features of the Japanese language that a good Japanese course should cover...
What makes a good Japanese program?
Here's a quick list of the 3 features that we think make for a good Japanese learning program or course:
1) Good explanation of Japanese grammar
Japanese grammar is markedly different from English grammar. Some of the difficulties English speakers encounter with Japanese grammar include: a different word order (subject, verb, object, etc), implied words that are omitted, and the absence of auxiliary verbs.
Here's a quick intro to some of the grammatical differences between English and Japanese
Many Japanese programs jump straight into the language without clueing the student into these not so subtle differences. A good program will take time to walk a new learner through the grammar and give adequate explanations as to what is going on.
2) It recognizes the levels of honorific language
The Japanese language has many levels of formality that affect which word forms you use and when. Words may change based on your relationship with the person you're talking to, or the context of the situation you're in.
While you can't pick up all the cultural nuances of the language directly from a program, a good one will at least introduce you to the different forms and give you a general idea of how to use them
Some Japanese programs completely ignore the levels of formality and only teach you the most formal level of Japanese. You can attain a functional level of speaking this way, but if you go to Japan and strictly use the most polite language you will come off as a bit strange.
3) It teaches the Japanese writing system
The Japanese writing system is very complex, in fact it's one of the most complex in the world. Japanese writing combines two character systems: one that represents words (kanji) and one that represents syllables (kana).
A brief intro to the Japanese writing system
Kana is broken into to the forms katakana and hiragana. Both essentially work as a Japanese phonetic alphabet with katakana being used for foreign loan words and hiragana used for native Japanese words.
Theoretically you could spell out any Japanese word or phrase exclusively in Kana lettering. The only problems is that Japanese is written with no spaces in between words. That's where the kanji come in...
Written Japanese uses a combination of kanji and kana to express meaning. Learning the kana isn't bad. To the native English speakers it's just an odd looking alphabet.
The trouble comes in learning the kanji. Because they are logographic (represent words or phrases), the only sure fire way to remember them is memorization.
Most Japanese programs gloss over the writing system completely which puts new learners at a serious disadvantage when they get closer to an intermediate level of Japanese.
Our picks for the 5 best Japanese learning programs
1) Rocket Japanese
20+ minutes a day
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).
Rocket Japanese emphasizes more formal Japanese but does make a distinction between the various levels of politeness.
What really makes the program standout is that Rocket Japanese also has a hefty literacy component. Level 1 covers Hiragana and Katakana. Levels 2 and 3 focus on learning Kanji. This includes videos on how to actually write the characters.
The emphasis on the writing system is the main reason Rocket Languages is our first pick. Most Japanese courses simply don't offer any help with writing or reading.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Japanesepod101 is really closer to an app than a program. It's built around audio lessons just like Rocket Japanese. The main difference is that Rocket Japanese is more structured and overall provides more resources for reading and writing. Japanesepod101 is also a lot cheaper than Rocket Japanese.
Japanesepod101 is one of the most popular Japanese learning resources out there. This is because at its price point it provides a ton of value. There are literally hundreds of quality lessons on the site.
The lessons are set up as podcast episodes and usually feature two hosts and a prerecorded conversation between native speakers. The hosts do an excellent job of keeping the content engaging and they also explain grammar and vocabulary pretty well too.
The site features transcripts in kanji, romaji, hiragana, and English. There is also a flashcard system for learning kanji.
5+ minutes a day
Duolingo is usually one of the first courses we recommend for learning a foreign language. It's free, effective, and fun to use.
The only reason Duolingo isn't higher on this list is because their Japanese course was released in May 2017 in a beta version (test version) for IOS and Android. You can download the course and work through it but the Duolingo team is still working out the course kinks.
The course is also only available on mobile not desktop.
There's some kanji used in Duolingo Japanese, but mostly you will be using hiragana. Because of the complexity of the Japanese language a successful completion of the course should put you at around an A2. Most Duolingo courses get you to around a B1 in a foreign language.
Still, the company has gone through great lengths to do the Japanese language justice. The app is free so it's definitely worth trying out!
4) Pimsleur Japanese
5+ minutes a day
Pimsleur is a completely audio based approach to learning a foreign language. Each 30 minute audio lesson is built around a question-recall-response method that forces you to think in Japanese as if you were actually speaking to someone. The emphasis with Pimsleur is always using the language rather than just learning it.
The courses are highly structured and will leave you with a working knowledge of the spoken language.The course also does a good job of breaking down pronunciation syllable by syllable.
The main drawbacks of Pimsleur Japanese are that it uses only highly formal Japanese and it features little no help with writing or reading. If it wasn't for these issues it would be higher on this list too.
Starts at $15 per month
5+ minutes a day
Fluentu is a site/app that helps you learn a language through native videos. With FluentU you can use in site flashcards, captions, and games to learn new words in context while watching Japanese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more. It's a great way to push your listening skills and Japanese vocabulary.
Fluentu isn't structured enough to be used as a stand alone Japanese course (that's the main reason it's number 5 on our list). It's best used as a supplement alongside a course.
Still the app is unique and is a great way to practice what you know while discovering new words along the way.
A not so honorable mention...
Starts at $15 per month
5+ minutes a day
You may have noticed that our list didn't include the most popular brand name in language learning. This is because the Rosetta Stone Japanese course falls terribly short of being effective.
The method of the course was pretty much lifted from their Spanish course and doesn't really cover much of the complexities and common difficulties of the Japanese language. There's virtually no help with Kanji, and there are no explanations whatsoever for grammar.
The course can work if you're just looking to learn basic words or phrases, but its shortcomings and somewhat high price tag prevent it from being in our list.
This is the part where I usually say that there are a ton of language resources out there. But if you're learning Japanese that simply isn't true. A lot of language learning companies shy away from the language because it can be difficult to teach.
Even so there are some great options available. You just have to know where to look. I hope you enjoyed this list and found it helpful. Best of luck in your journey to learn Japanese!