You're just starting out learning Japanese and are looking for the right apps and resources. Which apps you'll choose can determine if you'll still be learning Japanese in a few months or if you'll end up giving up. In this article, we introduce a few of our favorite free apps to help you learn Japanese efficiently and help you stick to it.
There are many apps, websites, and resources for learning Japanese than we'll cover in the article, but the list below should give you a lot of mileage; it's what worked for us.
- Jisho.org. The go-to vocabulary app.
- Google Translate Mobile App. Helps you center yourself in a sea of unknown kanji.
- Tofugu. The most comprehensive blog about learning Japanese.
- Bilingual News (バイリンガルニュース). Ease yourself into listening.
- Kotobaten. Keep expanding your vocabulary.
- Genki textbooks. The friendly textbooks.
- Tatoeba.org. Context is everything.
Let's get into it!
Jisho.org is an excellent choice for a comprehensive English - Japanese dictionary. It's not flashy but is fast, functional, and contains all the information you'd expect. The site works great whether you're on your computer on your phone.
The dictionary uses JMDict for vocabulary data, same as many other online dictionaries. THe JMDict dataset gives you the freedom to use almost any dictionary you like while still getting high-quality results, but we still like Jisho the most!
One of the nicest features for people learning Japanese is showing how to write kanji correctly. When writing kanji, the stroke order matters; Jisho makes mastering it easy! Overall, Jisho has excellent support for kanji. You can look them up by pronunciation, by scribbling its rough approximation with your finger, or for more advanced Japanese learners, by the radicals it contains.
Aside from stellar Kanji support, Jisho also has great support for recognizing verb endings. Paste a verb in any form imaginable into Jisho, and it will recognize it, tell you in which form the verb is, and find it. It's a crucial dictionary app feature to get right, and Jisho certainly does!
Almost everyone knows Google Translate. Machine translation is one of the marvels of modern technology and a powerful tool for people learning Japanese. While it might be a better idea to look up individual words in a proper dictionary like Jisho where you have more context available (when talking about Japanese, context is everything!), Google Translate can be invaluable where a dictionary fails you because:
- You just can't find the kanji in the dictionary!
- There are so many unknown kanji in the text. Finding them in the dictionary would take forever.
- You're unsure where are the word boundaries, a common issue for people beginning to learn Japanese as there are no spaces in the language.
- The word doesn't seem to be in the dictionary, maybe because it belongs to a peculiar slang
Enter Google Translate.
The Google Translate mobile app enables you to point your phone at any text and get a pretty good idea of what the text is about. It also gives you reading for all kanji, which you can use to look up the words in a proper dictionary.
Reading long tests becomes much easier with Google Translate. But, handle with care! Google Translate can have trouble correctly inferring the relationships between the people in the text and occasionally inverses the meaning, making you superbly confused. It's always good to double-check with a good dictionary and if you recognize the grammar, make a sanity check. Just like Jisho, Google Translate is an excellent tool for learning Japanese and is entirely free!
Technically, Tofugu is a blog for people learning Japanese. In reality, it's so much more!
You don't need to look further than Tofugu's impressive counters list. This single blog post could be an entire website, and it would still be one of the top resources for learning Japanese. But on Tofugu, it's just one of many unique blog posts that go in-depth on specific grammatical topics.
If reading blog posts is not enough, there's also a podcasts where the hosts casually discuss different topics related to Japanese grammar. It's definitely worth checking out!
And Tofugu is not only about learning Japanese either. It's full of great travel tips like a farming experience in Hokkaido that will motivate you to progress your Japanese learning journey.
The Bilingual News website is a bit rough, but don't let that turn you away from taking advantage of this one-of-a-kind podcast!
Once you become a bit comfortable with Japanese, finding great listening material can be challenging. Japanese people can speak really fast and use a range of intimidating vocabulary. Moreover, the way Japanese pronounce words and which grammatical constructs they use vary a lot person by person.
The Bilingual News podcasts can be an interesting tool in your toolkit for learning Japanese. It consists of long conversations between an American and a Japanese. They are both fluent in both English and Japanese and fluently transition from Japanese to English and back as they talk. This dichotomy can feel a bit confusing at first, but switching to English once in a while can be of great help for two reasons.
First, if you become completely lost, it acts as an emergency brake that allows you to catch up to what has been said and continue listening. The individual podcast episodes are long (one hour or more). While they start by talking about recent news, they also tend to dive deep into specific topics (space exploration, edible insects come to mind). This comes with a lot of particular vocabulary you might not know, which quickly causes you to get lost in the conversation. Catching up on the discussion via the English-speaking sections is a great way to stay motivated and keep learning Japanese!
Section, the English sections allow you to take a break. Listening to Japanese speakers at their actual talking speed exerts your mind quickly. T The occasional break in the form of a few English sentences helps you recharge your learning batteries and keep listening to the podcast.
If you want to go the extra mile, Bilingual News also has an app with transcripts for all the podcast episodes, which you can use to read along and practice pronunciation. The Japanese speaker on the podcast, Mami, has beautiful Japanese, so if you're looking for a person whose speech you could copy, she's a great choice!
Continuously expanding your vocabulary is a crucial ingredient to mastering any language, and Japanese is no different.
The unique Japanese writing system composed of hiragana, katakana, and kanji poses some unique challenges when using flashcard apps. The foremost one is how to capture the kanji and its reading separately; in most flashcard apps, each card has only two sides - Japanese and English. That's just not enough for Japanese and results in some awkward solutions like having separate decks for kanji and hiragana or forgoing learning the kanji altogether.
That's why we built Kotobaten, a Japanese learning app that focuses purely on Japanese and not any other languages.
In Kotobaten, concepts like kanji and kana are first-class citizens, not hacks. Kotobaten is also sprinkled with features to help you maximize your odds of success when learning Japanese in the long-term. With features like Recovery Mode, Kotobaten has the tools to help you get back on the horse after you've fallen off for a few days.
Kotobaten works well whether you want to create your decks with the vocabulary that you encounter during your Japanese learning journey or whether you want to lean on the classics like the Minna no Nihongo and Genki decks. And just like the rest of the Japanese learning resources we're sharing in this post; it's free!
6. Genki textbooks
If you're looking for a traditional textbook to learn Japanese from the beginning, you have two main choices:
Both have strengths and weaknesses when learning Japanese. Minna no Nihongo is the more traditional Japanese textbook. But it feels a bit intimidating as it only uses Japanese from the beginning, including lots of kanji that a beginner likely won't know. It's an excellent choice for the classroom, but if you're a self-paced Japanese learner, consider giving Genki a look.
Genki feels like the more "Western" textbook. It's a bit more conversational and explains Grammar in English. The focus is more on gaining the ability to say and write basic sentences as quickly as possible instead of mastering a lot of grammar from the get-go.
For example, a common approach when learning Japanese counters is to introduce all the basic counters at once, in what feels like a giant spreadsheet to memorize. If you're not the type of student that excels at memorizing large tables of grammar, you might enjoy what Genki does instead. In Genki, they introduce individual counters one by one, spread over several chapters. This approach allows you to gradually learn them over time and focus on getting a solid feel for one counter before moving on to the next one. Knowing all the counters at once certainly also comes with its strengths tho', but if you're not a student that excels at learning Japanese grammar the traditional way, the Genki books are a great choice to consider!
When learning Japanese, context is everything. Many words look very similar to each other when you look them up in the dictionary. It's easy to end up using the wrong one if you're not careful.
One way to improve your odds at using the right words at the right time is to look at real-world sentences where the word is used. Tatoeba.org is a great tool to help you with that! It's essentially an extensive database of example sentences. When you see a word that you're not unsure about, it can be a great idea to search it within Tatoeba to see sentences where it's used and giving you a quick tool to clear up any confusion about the meaning of the word you might have
Tatoeba is effective when you can combine it with other tools when learning Japanese and take you the last mile when looking up new words. You might not need it every time, but you will sometimes be surprised that a word you thought is very general and can be used almost anywhere actually tends to have a more specific meaning, giving you an excellent signal to be careful with how you use it.
That's it for the apps, sites, and tools for learning Japanese. As you probably noticed, the tools above are mostly complementary. Think of them as tools in your toolbox. It will take a bit of time to learn when to use them, but once you have a good grasp of them, it will allow you to learn Japanese more effectively and level up in no time!