If you want to learn Japanese, finding a good program is hard...
Which is surprising when there are almost 130 million people speak Japanese, and Japanese culture has made inroads across the globe.
Many language education companies take their best Spanish and French program and more or less copy and paste Japanese phrases 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 linguistic terms, 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:
First we'll discuss the four features of the Japanese language that a good Japanese course should cover: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and writing. All the way we'll highlight courses and apps that are especially noteworthy and teach a particular aspect of the Japanese language well (for instance courses that cover pronunciation well).
Finally We'll dive into our top list of programs to help you get started learning Japanese. the four features of the Japanese language that a good Japanese course should cover: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and writing.
You can read through the article or skip through using the table of contents below.
What makes a good Japanese program?
Here's a quick list of the 3 features that we think make for a good Japanese 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, the absence of auxiliary verbs, verb tenses, and more.
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 in the student on these not so subtle differences.
The best courses strike a balance between exposing a learner to new material, and not exposing them to too much new grammar and vocabulary that they lose their way while learning Japanese.
A solid understanding of grammar is a step by step process, and course material should reflect that.
It recognizes the levels of honorific language
One often overlook aspect of Japanese grammar is its 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.
Recommended courses for grammar
Rocket Japanese offers two lesson tracks that students work through simultaneously: audio lessons (for vocabulary), and the language & culture lessons which focus specifically on grammar knowledge.
The grammar lessons break down the core components of various Japanese phrases, to show you how the grammar works in action.
Japanesepod101 features lessons in a podcast format. Each lesson uses a recorded dialogue between native speakers, and features two podcast hosts who help breakdown the grammar contained in each dialogue.
Settings for the lesson dialogue take place in a variety of social settings, so learners have the opportunity to be exposed to honorific language.
Once you start combining an understanding of grammar with a wider vocabulary your speaking abilities really start to take off. The best Japanese course will expose you to new vocabulary in the context of phrases, texts, or even conversations.
This approach is much more effective than the classic textbook approach of simply providing students a list of translations from English to Japanese.
When you use the classic textbook approach to build your vocabulary, you’re simply memorizing the translations of Japanese words. It can be hard to recall new words during a conversation, not to mention route memorization in and of itself can get pretty dull.
Learning new vocabulary in the greater context of phrases and conversations helps you learn their meaning without necessarily having to translate them.
It also provides a broader picture of how the word(s) function in the language and make them easier to remember when you need them.
Courses for vocabulary acquisition
All three of these courses teach Japanese vocabulary through conversations and full phrases, and are a great way to get started learning Japanese.
Why pronunciation is important
Pronunciation is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning Japanese, but it is often overlooked.
When you can correctly speak Japanese sounds it will be much easier for you to 1) understand native speakers and 2) remember new vocabulary. All too often students make the mistake of only memorizing sentences from textbooks or flashcards.
Thus to them, Japanese words are written symbols that they have to translate from English in their mind before they speak.
Knowing words phonetically (while also learning them from text), helps you cut down on the translating students do in their head. This way a Japanese word isn’t just a written symbol, but also an audible (and thus memorable) sound.
This is why veteran language learners often recommend learning pronunciation at the start of your studies.
How to learn pronunciation
In any language good pronunciation starts with breaking down speech into individual syllables/sounds. In Japanese this is most easily done with hiragana (after all hiragana are designed to be read as individual syllables!).
The majority of your pronunciation work will be with hiragana, but even after you’re comfortable with the script you will have to practice imitating native speakers in order to master a Japanese accent.
Courses covering Japanese pronunciation
When it comes to pronunciation one course in particular stands out: Pimsleur Japanese. Pimsleur’s app starts off by breaking down phrases into individual syllables via its online lessons.
When you use Pimsleur you will literally listen to a native speaker breakdown each word into its individual parts, and then combine them section by section into complete phrases.
In addition to that the app will teach you to read hiragana phonetically -this is with audio clips and no English letters. No other course or app I know of covers the pronunciation system of a language as thorough as Pimsleur. If you want to get started learning pronunciation look no further than this course!
Japanesepod101 and Rocket Language are both audio based and allow users to perfect their listening comprehension, and learn to read hiragana. They are also good resources if you are learning Japanese pronunciation.
4) It teaches written Japanese
The Japanese writing system is very complex, in fact it's one of the most complex writing systems in the world. Written Japanese combines two character systems: one that represents words (kanji) and one that represents syllables (kana).
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 kana isn't too bad. To the native English speakers it's just an odd looking alphabet.
The trouble comes in learning the kanji. Because they are logographic (they represent words or phrases), the only sure fire way to remember them is memorization.
Most language programs gloss over written Japanese completely, which puts new learners at a serious disadvantage when they get closer to an intermediate level of Japanese.
Should you learn katakana or hiragana first?
So what is the best way to learn kana? Hiragana and Katakana are both important building blocks if you want to read Japanese. Depending on how much written Japanese you’re exposed to, you may want to learn one before the other.
Note also though, that many learners choose to learn both simultaneously. The order in which you learn both kana scripts is up to you. Just be aware that sooner or later you will have to learn both.
Learn hiragana first
Hiragana is the basic building block of written Japanese, and it’s no wonder that most Japanese books and courses start students off by teaching it.
Much like the English alphabet, hiragana is a collection of characters which represent individual syllable sounds. Hiragana is essential to learning written Japanese because it is attached to kanji to form words.
The majority of words you encounter in Japanese will use Kanji along with hiragana, and the words that use strictly kanji characters are few and far between. Just pick up a Japanese newspaper and you’ll see this for yourself!
Knowing hiragana will help you recognize the structure of Japanese texts, as well as give you a clearer idea of how kanji are read. Hiragana is also a crucial aspect of learning Japanese pronunciation. In fact the bulk of your pronunciation learning will start with Hiragana.
Japanese words can be written out completely in hiragana, but aside from children’s textbooks you’re unlikely to come across this in the real world.
If you plan on learning Japanese by primarily working with written texts (like most course textbooks for example), then it’s a good idea to start off learning Hiragana, because you won’t be able to work through a textbook without it.
Learn katakana first
If you encounter written Japanese in the context of everyday work, play, and travel, then it’s worth starting with katakana. Company names, food menus, and foreign loan words are often written in katakana.
Even if your knowledge of the language is nil, you will be able to recognize and read the words you encounter in katakana. Think of this script as the survival Japanese script for someone living in or visiting Japan.
Learn both katakana and hiragana at the same time
Some learners simply take the leap and learn both scripts simultaneously. In the long run, you will need and use both to reach any level of proficiency in Japanese. Whether or not you learn them together or one at a time, is really up to you.
How long does it take to learn kana?
It depends on who you ask. Some say up to a month, others claim both scripts can be learned in a couple of days. It really depends on how intensely you want to study.
At the end of the day kana isn't really that difficult to learn, compared to other aspects of the Japanese language (grammar, syntax, kanji). It’s really just a matter of making an effort and committing them to memory.
Courses which cover written Japanese
One course that covers how to read and write Japanese is Rocket Japanese. The course even includes how-to video tutorials on handwriting, showing you correct stroke order.
Though primarily an audio based app, Pimsleur Japanese includes reading comprehension lessons throughout the course. Users first learn to read kana phonetically then move on to reading kanji.
Japanesepod101 is also a great resource and provides entire lesson tracks on hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
Kana make up the syllabic part of the Japanese writing system. Kanji make up the logographic portion.
As mentioned before Kanji are characters that represent one or more different words. There are thousands upon thousands of kanji characters.
The exact number depends on who you ask. One very comprehensive Japanese dictionary cites over 50,000 characters.
Thankfully someone learning Japanese only needs to learn about 1,000 of the most commonly used characters, to understand common written texts. Functional literacy proficiency will require knowledge of a little over 2,000 characters.
1,000 or 2,000 characters sounds a lot more doable then 50,000. Even so, many learners feel overwhelmed by Kanji. But don’t worry there is hope!
How to learn kanji
Because you can’t read kanji the same way you read letter made English words, one way or another you will have to commit the most common kanji characters to memory. This is where repetition and practice come into play.
A great approach is to simply make learning kanji a part of your daily life. Set a weekly goal of learning a set number of kanji and their associated vocabulary. It could be as many as 30 or as little as 5. It really depends on how intensely you want to study.
Automated flashcards and mnemonics
Using a space repetition flashcard system is perhaps the best way to practice new kanji and review previous ones you’ve already learned. This will help you use your study time more efficiently.
Also consider using mnemonics to help you remember what each character means. Learning kanji with mnemonics typically involves imaging pictures with characters, and or assigning a short story in your head to help you remember what a given character looks like.
Here are some links to mnemonic systems for learning kanji:
Helpful apps for learning kanji and kana
This app teaches Kanji based on the users level in the language. The most common and necessary characters are taught at the beginner levels, and less common ones are taught in the more advanced levels.
Users can practice kanji using multiple choice questions, rote memorization, and a third option which requires the user to write the kanji character when given an English translation. Kanji study also provides example phrases and sentences.
The lowest beginner level is offered without cost, and all subsequent levels are unlocked with a one time purchase of $12.99
Obenkyo helps students learn all aspects of written Japanese. The app is geared toward independent learners, and allows users to freely explore content instead of following a line by line course or study plan. Users build their kanji knowledge through multiple choice questions and prompts to write the characters.
Obenkyo also features grammar explanations as well. The app is free to use and is available on ios as well as in the Google play store.
Should you learn how to physically write Japanese?
It’s up to you really. From a practical perspective learning how to write Japanese doesn’t have much value.
After all when’s the last time you wrote something by hand in your native language? Most “written” communication these days is usually typed, Japanese included.
However some learners are drawn to the beauty and art that is written Japanese. Their interest in written Japanese goes beyond the practical, and has a lot more to do with what they are passionate about.
So if you’re super interested in written Japanese, then by all means go for it! But if not, don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten you’ll be able to get by with typing or speaking.
Best Courses and Programs for Learning Japanese
1) Learn holistically with 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 learning to speak Japanese conversationally).
Rocket Japanese vocabulary and grammar
Rocket Japanese offers two lesson tracks: one which focuses on grammar, and the other on vocabulary.
Students work through the two lesson tracks at the same time, so they can build out their grammar knowledge and vocabulary evenly.
The vocabulary lessons are called audio lessons, and feature a full dialogue between two Japanese speakers.
Each lesson teaches the vocabulary used in the dialogue, so you can see how the vocabulary works in context.
The grammar centric lessons are called language & culture lessons, and break down the Japanese grammar behind a given text or phrases. These lessons also touch on various aspects of Japanese culture.
You can create flashcards of words from each lesson and study them using Rocket languages' spaced repetition flashcard system.
Rocket Japanese pronunciation
Rocket Japanese is a good resource on pronunciation, as each audio lesson allows you to listen to the given dialogue as a whole, word by word, or even syllable by syllable.
This provides you with a great way to imitate Japanese speakers, develop your ear for the language, and overall improve your pronunciation.
Each lesson also provides users with audio playback for the conversation at different speeds so learners can practice their listening comprehension. Playback is also available for individual words so you can focus on initiating and hearing the correct pronunciation.
Rocket Japanese emphasizes more formal Japanese but does make a distinction between the various levels of politeness.
Rocket Japanese writing
What really makes the program standout is that Rocket Japanese also has a hefty literacy component. Level 1 covers kana. 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. The course's focus on conversational vocabulary will also help anyone wishing to speak Japanese.
2) Listen to podcasts with Japanesepod101
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 provides more resources for reading and writing overall.
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.
Japanesepod101's podcast style lessons
The lessons are set up as podcast episodes and usually feature two hosts and a prerecorded conversation between native Japanese speakers.
The hosts do an excellent job of keeping the content engaging and they also explain grammar points and vocabulary pretty well too. They even shed light on Japanese culture and traditions.
The site features transcripts for each lessons in kanji, romaji, hiragana, and English. There is also a flashcard system for cementing your kanji knowledge.
Japanesepod101 teaches how to read and write
Japanesepod101 provides entire lesson packs on how to read kana.
There’s well over 100 lessons available on learning kanji, and even a 25 lesson tract which is focused completely on how to write kanji.
When paired with the podcast transcripts these lessons are a great resource for learning how to read and write in Japanese.
3) Read and listen to Japanese with Pimsleur
30 minutes a day
Pimsleur's conversational approach
Pimsleur is a completely audio based approach to learning a foreign language, and is a great resource for anyone learning Japanese.
Each 30 minute audio lesson is built around a question-recall-response method that forces you to think and speak Japanese as if you were actually having a real conversation.
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.
Pimsleur's focus on pronunciation
Pimsleur lessons focus a lot on pronunciation.
While the app always teaches phrases in the context of a conversation, new sounds are introduced to the learner by syllable so that he or she can mimic the native speaker.
No other audio course I know of deals as thoroughly with pronunciation as Pimsleur does.
Pimsleur's reading lessons
The app also has reading lessons, which start off by teaching you to read hiragana phonetically.
At first no translation of the words is given (along with recorded audio of a native speaker reading the given word), this is so your brain can focus on the sounds produced by the letters.
Gradually you will start reading for meaning, and you will start to see vocabulary from the audio lessons you’ve already completed.
After hiragana, katakana and kanji are also introduced.
Pimsleur lets you access all 5 levels of their Japanese courses for $14.95 a month.
They also offer a 1 week free trial of their courses so you can test them out before you pay.
4) Learn the basics with Duolingo
5+ minutes a day
Duolingo is usually one of the first courses we recommend for foreign language learning. It's effective and fun to use.
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.
Katakana also makes an appearance but is sort casually mixed into the lessons with hiragana.
One Problem with Duolingo Japanese
One of the bigger problems Duolingo’s Japanese course has, is that it often doesn't differentiate between hiragana, katakana, and kanji; nor does it help learners understand how each script fits into the Japanese writing system as a whole.
Duolingo teaches basic Japanese well enough, but after the basics, things can get a little confusing.
Finer points of grammar and sentence structures are never explained, and users can walk away from lessons unclear on how exactly a certain phrase or sentence functions grammatically.
With weaknesses aside, Duolingo is an easily accessible app that follows a freemium model.
Duolingo as a potential review tool
It definitely shouldn’t be your standalone Japanese course, and probably shouldn’t be the only way you encounter the language.
That being said it makes a fun review tool and can expose users to foundational vocabulary and grammar.
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!
5) Watch Japanese TV and Movies with Fluentu
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 vocabulary in context while watching Japanese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more.
It's a great way to practice listening and learn Japanese vocabulary, all while exposing yourself to Japanese culture.
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 as a part of your study routine.
Using FluentU to learn vocabulary
FluentU’s real strength is vocabulary acquisition, and it makes a fun and interesting supplement to your core Japanese course or program.
Still the app is unique and is a great way to practice what you know while discovering vocabulary along the way.
6) Take online Japanese lessons with Italki
$6+ per hour (varies between teachers)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
Italki is an online marketplace that connects language teachers from around the world to language learners.
Site users purchase credits on the site, which they can then use to book lessons with any language teacher they choose. Lessons take place over video chats, and teachers often use google docs to share materials with students and send them lesson notes in real time.
Two types of teachers on Italki
Italki has two categories of language teachers to help you learn Japanese: professional teachers and informal tutors.
Professional teachers typically have a degree and or certification related to the study of foreign languages or perhaps linguistics. Some pro teachers have teaching certificates from a particular university or country.
Teachers in this category usually provide their own learning materials and follow a specific method or curriculum when teaching.
Informal tutors generally do not possess any formal certification, and are usually native speakers willing to help students practice and progress through their target language.
These lessons are often more student directed and teachers do not bring their own methodology or learning program to the table.
Free resources on Italki
In addition to paid online lessons, Italki also has a lot of useful features that you don't need to pay for. These include a public notebook, where students can post journal entries and have their mistakes corrected by Japanese speakers.
There’s also a similar question and discussion board where students can ask Japanese speakers a question about a specific point in their language.
Italki is also one of the most popular language exchanges. The site allows you to search for Japanese speakers who themselves are learning English.
Here language partners can find one another and help each other in their respective language, either through conversation practice or written text.
Needless to say, Italki is an awesome resource for anyone who wants to learn Japanese, it’s not exactly a course or program so we couldn’t include it in our list. Still, it's the best way to connect with teachers to learn Japanese online!
*with a purchase of $20 or more. After you complete your first purchased lesson a credit of $10 will be added to your account
7) Honorable mention: Study Japanese flashcards with Anki
Up to you
Anki is an open-sourced spaced repetition flashcard system available on desktop or mobile. Anki allows users to create and customize their own flashcards using text, audio, images, and even video.
The app wasn’t specifically made for language learning. People use the app to help them remember not only foreign languages, but also terms for medical exams, history dates, and anything else you can think of.
Powerful and customizable flashcard deck
Anki is a popular way to learn kanji. In fact the first time I heard of the app, it was on a Japanese learning blog.
Users can create cards and build their own decks, or download one of the many shared decks which are publicly available for download.
Some learners don’t need or even necessarily want a flashcard app that is as customizable as Anki.
Admittedly it’s not the most user friendly of spaced repetition flashcard decks.
Still, if you’re working through a Japanese program that doesn’t offer spaced repetition flashcards, then you might want to check out Anki.
7) A not so honorable mention:Rosetta Stone Japanese
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.
Rosetta Stone Japanese method falls short
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.
This is because Rosetta Stone uses a no translation method, meaning that their courses offer no translation or explanations in English. Their courses are entirely in the target language (thus their Spanish course is entirely in Spanish, Japanese in Japanese, etc.).
On one hand this sounds great. In theory the user learns through pictures and audio without having to use their native English, much like a child learns their first language.
Such a method can work well for languages which are similar to English, but with Japanese being so distant from English in just about all aspects, the Rosetta Stone method does little to help users learn Japanese.
The course can work if you want to learn basic 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 want to learn 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.
You may have noticed that some courses in this article are stronger in one aspect of the Japanese language versus another.
Also some resources in this article are structured to help walk you through the Japanese language, while others offer a more hands off approach for more independent learners.
None of this is bad. Get started and pick the course or resource that fits best to your Japanese learning needs and preferences.
All the resources recommended in this post offer some sort of free trial or demo version to new users. It’s a good idea to get started and pick the course (or courses) which appeal to you the most and take them for a test run. This should give you a better idea about which one is right for your learning style, before having to pay money for anything.
Best of luck in your journey to learn Japanese! See you at the finish line!