Best Apps to Learn Japanese in 2019: our Review in depth

Japanese, it is one of the top ten most spoken languages in the world. It is the mother tongue of one of the greatest economic and technological powerhouses in the world. Whether you are a tourist, a businessman or a student, Japanese is an essential skill for many. Here are some of the best apps to learn Japanese for both beginners who are starting out in their language learning journey and for those wanting to sharpen up their Japanese skills.

Duolingo

Duolingo is one of the most popular free language learning apps in this guide. It has been in the language teaching market for years but it wasn’t until over a couple of years ago that the Duolingo team launched a Japanese course. This course is designed to help you learn the basics through a number of interactive lessons. Each lesson covers a different topic and introduces relevant vocabulary. For those learners that already know some Japanese, you can take a proficiency test to jump ahead to later lessons.

This app offers different language practise exercises, varying from translating vocabulary or phrases from Japanese to English and vice versa, writing or rearranging sentences to filling in the blank exercises. The great thing about Duolingo is that the creators have ensured that with the Japanese course you can obtain a basic vocabulary and grammar to the equivalent of an upper beginner level (JLPT N5).

Pros

  • It starts teaching from the building blocks of the Japanese language; Hiragana and Katakana. In the beginning romaji is mainly used but as you progress more Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji are introduced.
  • The audio is clear. You can repeat it as many times as you want, which makes for great shadowing practise.
  • Vocabulary is introduced by topics. When learning a new language, the amount of vocabulary to learn can feel overwhelming. Duolingo introduces words and phrases based on a range of topics.
  • It encourages you to make language learning a daily habit! Setting aside 15 minutes a day for language learning is a much more effective way to study and retain new information. Achieving streaks on the Duolingo app is a fun way to stay consistent with your learning.
  • You can compete against friends or other learners on the Duolingo leaderboard. The competitive side of me loves this feature!

Cons

  • Grammar explanations are lacking. Duolingo relies on inference to learn grammar, (by seeing a sentence pattern repeatedly you will eventually work out what it means). This method does not work with Japanese grammar since it’s completely different to English. Full explanations are available on the Duolingo website but not on the app where it’s needed most.
  • When it comes to hiragana, katakana and kanji, the focus is on recognition. On top of that, most of the questions are multiple choice, so it is easy to think that you have learned all the kana despite having learnt it on a surface level.
  • The introduction of katakana and kanji feels abrupt with the lack of explanation. This is very confusing to learners without any background on how the various Japanese writing systems work.

Download on: iOS / Android

LingoDeer

Meet Duolingo’s lesser known cousin, LingoDeer! LingoDeer is one of the newer language learning apps on the market and has taken the Duolingo model and enhanced it for Asian languages, specifically Mandarin, Korean and Japanese.

The interface of this app will feel really familiar with Duolingo’s with its segmented and themed lessons. Like many other language learning apps, LingoDeer gamifies the learning experience. Users receive experience points upon completing goals and lose turns for wrong answers during test portions. But that is where the similarities end. From there this app only enhances what their competitors have on offer. Newly-learnt vocabulary and grammar can be practised in a larger variety of exercises from matching, fill-in-the-blanks, spelling, writing, listening, speaking to much more.

Grammar is explained far more thoroughly. Tips and notes can be found on the lessons plate, and can be brought up in the middle of exercises by simply clicking on the Japanese particles. With almost textbook-like grammar explanations, this difference alone sets LingoDeer above the rest.

But the best feature of this app is its comprehensive lessons covering the 3 Japanese writing systems: Hiragana, katakana and kanji. The lessons go in-depth at the pronunciation, including word stress, exceptions and explanations on how to make the sound. There are even words accompanying the characters where you can click to hear the pronunciation.

LingoDeer has taken the model of a successful language learning app and taken it to another level. With its comprehensive content and numerous unique features for Japanese language beginners this might be one of the best apps available.

Pros

  • Clear Audio. The example sentences are recorded by native Japanese speakers! This is a small but refining feature of the app.
  • It has a great review system. The app offers in-house flashcards to review vocabulary, grammar and kanji that you encounter throughout the course. The flashcard system takes inspiration from Anki (one of the best SRS review systems available) in its design.
  • Grammar is explained well and in detail. Grammar is not treated like an afterthought. Compared to other competitors, LingoDeer excels at explaining in a clear and concise manner with many example sentences.
  • There are different exercises and stories to practise your reading, listening and pronunciation. Variety is key when it comes to studying a language!
  • It also has a customizable interface. You can magnify or shrink text size, choose your background colour, toggle romanized script on/off

Cons

  • It cost money after the first half of the course. The price ranges from $3.49/mo to $8.99/mo depending on how long you want to sign up for. There is also a lifetime option for $69.99 which gives access to all of the language courses on the app.
  • The order that the topics are taught don’t make sense. For the most part, LingoDeer does a good job of teaching useful language and structuring lessons that build upon each other well. But sometimes, the lessons include language that’s not useful for the level they’re at.
  • There are a few bugs in the app. While the app works well and looks great, since it’s a new app there are still some small kinks in the gameplay such as lessons loading slowly or hearing random audio during another practise exercise.

Download on: iOS / Android

Kanji Study

Learning kanji is one of the most difficult aspects of studying Japanese. Not only are there thousands of characters, but each one often has more than reading, making it an overwhelming process for learners. The Kanji Study app makes the kanji learning process interactive and enjoyable!

Kanji Study breaks down the daunting task of learning over 2000 kanji into manageable chunks. There’s detailed information for each kanji, from its definition, readings, vocabulary examples to small animations showing the correct stroke order and much more. Kanji Study takes a more serious approach to learning through drilling practise exercises for optimal retention. Users can assign a rating on each character based on how well they know them, which quickly narrows down the kanji they need to focus on. But the best features of this app is the kanji writing exercises.

Learners can improve their kanji recognition by challenging themselves to recall and draw the characters. With this powerful feature learners can not only use this app as a study tool for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) but also for the Kanji Kentei Test.

Pros

  • Clean Design. This app is packed with value content and with its simple layout, it’s easy to find exactly what you are looking for.
  • Customised learning. You can also make custom sets to match your textbooks or focus on the kanji you struggle with the most. There is also the option to test yourself via adaptive quizzes that you can customize to your needs.
  • Practise writing kanji. This app takes you beyond the recognition stage of learning, you can practise the kanji you’ve learned by writing it out.
  • Quick kanji lookup. You can search over 6000 kanji using readings, radicals, stroke counts, levels and more all in one text field.
  • Suitable for beginners to advanced learners. This is one of the most comprehensive kanji study tools available and because its highly customizable to your learning needs, any Japanese learning no matter their level can take away something from this app.

Cons

  • It is not free. Though the beginner level is free of charge if you want access to the full content of the app (access to over 6,000 kanji) you’ll have to pay.

Download on: iOS / Android

Imiwa?

Imiwa has been the best free mobile dictionary for Japanese learners for the past 10 years, and it’s still going strong. If you haven’t been using this dictionary yet, download it immediately! With over 170,000 Japanese-English entries, a variety of kanji resources and a Japanese sentence analyser, Imiwa is packed in value content.

Imiwa? has a great search system, both kanji and vocabulary can be searched either via keyboard input, radicals search or JLPT levels. You can also search by example sentences. Due to the many unique customs and culture of Japan , the Japanese language often uses very specific terms for specific situations such as 三日坊主 (みっかぼうず). You are literally saying ‘a 3 day monk’ but it means a person who cannot stick to anything, an unsteady worker!

For those more advanced learners that are studying towards the JLPT, prepare to rejoice because in this single app you have access to all 5 JLPT levels of Kanji. There’s also a Japanese verb and adjective conjugation tables. No more hesitation with verbs and their irregular forms such as 来る and 飲む.

Lastly, one of the best features of this app is a powerful tool that will help you with your translation work, the Analyse feature. Copy a Japanese text, open the app and it will break down all the hiragana, katakana and kanji into single dictionary entries. Japanese becomes almost too easy...

Pros

  • It’s 100% free. All features are free, there are no in-app purchases and no adds.
  • Powerful Search Engine. Terms can be looked up in English, Japanese or romaji.
  • Analyser Feature. Analyze Japanese text and have it broken down into individual dictionary entries.
  • Verb and adjective conjugation tables. Never doubt your conjugations again with this handy table.
  • Extensive kanji resources.Organizes kanji by JLPT, jouyou Kanji list, and SKIP. There are also animations built in the app found in the kanji terms so that you can learn the correct kanji stroke order.
  • Multilingual support also available.Definitions are available in English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.

Cons

  • Large size. Since the app can be used entirely offline, there's a large size, 323 MB
  • It’s still only a dictionary. Though this app is incredibly useful, it can’t really be used as a main resource for Japanese study as it doesn’t fully cover grammar points.
  • Not available for Android users. Imiwa has been on the market for years now and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’re going to be making an Android version anytime soon. Imiwa is one of the few apps that has stayed with me throughout all the years I’ve been studying Japanese. It’s an oldie but its a goodie!

Download on: iOS

gSho

IOS users may have Imiwa? but Android users have the best range of Japanese-English dictionaries to choose from in Google Play, with gSho being one of the most reliable dictionary apps available.

Looking up terms and phrases is simple with gSho featuring a search-as-you-type function, providing users with lighting-fast results. In just a couple of taps, gSho can provide definitions, conjugations and examples sentences.

Example sentences can also be broken down into detailed explanations by tapping on them. The key words in the sentence are highlighted and can be tapped to instantly bring up information about that particular term. In case this wasn’t enough, each kanji character is also broken down by its radical, difficulty, JLPT level, stroke count and animated stroke order.

With its powerful and fast search engine, gSho is a comprehensive and handy study tool for Japanese learners of all levels.

Pros

  • Lighting fast searches. With its search-as-you-type function, looking up terms take zero time and effort.
  • Detailed entries. gSho displays clear explanations for terms, as well as detailed kanji information and verb conjugations. All terms have contextualised examples.
  • Kanji stroke order diagrams. As well as breaking down the radicals that make up the kanji compounds, difficulty, JLPT level, the app also displays animated stroke order diagrams for over 6,600 kanji!
  • Kana Tables. This app includes comprehensive hiragana and katakana tables, great for Japanese beginners. With a tap, you can switch between either for a quick reminder on the difference between ソ and ン, or whether you’re reading ぬ or ね.
  • Optimised for all devices. Tablets like the Nexus 7 and up will take advantage of the additional screen space with a two-column layout that doubles the number of visible search results.

Cons

  • Advertisements in the app. You can upgrade to the No Ads version for $2.99 and never see an in-app ad again.
  • Large size. Since the app can be used entirely offline, there's a large size, 3.1 M

Download on: Android

Hello Talk

This is where it all comes together. HelloTalk is a language exchange app that gives you the ability to take everything you have studied and apply it to a real conversation with native speakers. These native speakers will help then correct and provide you with feedback in real time via text, voice, or video conversations.

You start off by writing a brief summary about yourself on your profile, choose your native language and select the language and level that you’re currently learning. After that you’re able to search for native language partners from around the world! HelloTalk has a very supportive community.

You can talk about the latest Makoto Shinkai film with other Japanese speakers and they will make sure to edit your messages and correct your grammar. Another feature of this app is the ability to transcribe a voice message so that you can practise speech and comprehension as well!

This app is highly recommended for intermediate to advanced learners that want to meet and have real interactions with Japanese native speakers.

Pros

  • Very large, active community.The community is very large, meaning you'll never have a problem finding someone to chat with.
  • The interface is very intuitive. Despite being feature-rich, the app is very easy to use. It provides a tutorial which you can revisit at any time. It has a very clean, uncluttered design.
  • It’s free.The app is free to use. There are some in-app purchases, but the app is very helpful without them.
  • It’s like having a Japanese teacher in your pocket. You can receive advice on your Japanese pronunciation and have native correct your grammar!

Cons

  • The number of messages can get overwhelming. Because it is such an active community, you may find yourself getting 20+ messages an hour when you are online.
  • Keyboard can't be used in landscape. The app doesn't let you rotate to landscape, instead you're stuck with portrait. Using the condensed keyboard when writing long messages can be a pain for some.
  • Drains battery. Leaving the app running in the background does have a huge drain on the battery.

Download on: iOS / Android

Tsurukame for WaniKani

If you’re serious about learning Japanese, then thoroughly learning kanji is one of the most valuable steps you can take towards fluency. Long-time learners of Japanese will know about Wanikani but they may not be aware of the app Tsurukame.

Created by a long time Wanikani user, Tsurukame is not the official Wanikani app but it should be! The app syncs up to your Wanikani account and you can burn through your reviews and lessons in no time! With its simple and effective layout, user friendly features, now it's easier than ever to review kanji and vocabulary!

Subscription to Wanikani will set you back $9/month or $89/year (keep in mind that there’s an annual sale at the end of the year for lifetime access) but it will surprise you by the amount of kanji you can learn over just a couple of weeks. Based on a spaced repetition reviewing system, learners are motivated to depend on memory recall to ascent through the various levels. As well as this, memorising tricky characters are made a breeze by the use of mnemonics, making WaniKani an active learning process.

Offline reviews that sync up when connected online. Fun, interactive, on the go-review language learning app.

Pros

  • Native speaker's pronunciation. Vocabulary words and kanji have been recorded by a native speaker and there is the option to have them pronounced when reviewing them. This is helpful for memorizing the correct pronunciation.
  • You can do reviews and lessons offline. Your progress will be synced when you’re online again.
  • Easy to use interface. Much like the original Wanikani website, the app is user-friendly, colourful.
  • See your progress with charts. The app displays a pie chart graph showing your progress on current level radicals, kanji and vocabulary.
  • No more typos. There is a feature in the app that can be turned on to ignore typos and synonyms during reviews.

Cons

  • You need to have an account with Wanikani to use this app. The Tsurukame app itself is 100% free but a Wanikani subscription will set you back $9 a month. However, you’ll be way ahead in the kanji game within a few weeks.
  • You can’t begin on your desired level. For intermediate to advanced learners this can be the most frustrating thing about Wanikani and Tsurukame. Fingers crossed the team at Wanikani deal with this issue soon!
  • It’s not the official Wanikani app. This app was developed by a third party, a long time user of Wanikani.
  • Not available for Android users.

Download on: iOS

Daily NHK Japanese News Reader

NHK Japanese is a great app for intermediate learners that seek to apply their knowledge to real world situations. NHK (日本放送協会 Nippon Housou Kyoukai) is the national public broadcasting network in Japan and a leading news outlet. They publish articles daily in Japanese on domestic and international issues.

Being able to read a Japanese newspaper is a goal many serious learners aim for as its one of the most difficult aspects of the language to learn. However, NHK has done a fantastic job at simplifying articles down to one or two paragraphs, allowing learners of the language to enjoy the latest news in Japan.

There’s the option to read the articles with furigana or for those that want to challenge their reading skills, they can turn off this feature. More complex vocabulary is marked in green and underlined, if you click this the meaning is explained in Japanese (great for comprehension practise). The names of cities, people and institutions are also marked in pink, so that you’re not constantly looking up terms in the dictionary.

To take advantage of this app, learners will have to have a good Japanese language base in order to read and understand the news.

Pros

  • Short and simple Japanese news. Articles of current affairs are short and simple, ideal for light and relatively quick readings practise.
  • Furigana Feature. There is the option to read the articles with furigana or without furigana.
  • Vocabulary is clearly market. In each news article, difficult vocabulary is marked with an explanation of its meaning in Japanese.
  • Integrated translator included. This is handy for searching the meaning of specific words.
  • Audio and video content are also available. Each news includes the audio of the text as well as a small related video, ideal to also practice our listening comprehension.

Cons

  • This is not for beginners. To make the most of this app, users must have a solid Japanese language foundation. Recommended for intermediate to advanced learners.
  • Limited content available daily. One to three news articles are published daily, so the amount of new content is limited
  • Not available for IOS users.

Download on: Android

Learning Japanese is a marathon not a sprint. There isn’t a single app out there that can overnight make you a better speaker of Japanese. It’is about the effort you put in, but by using a variety of these language learning apps, fluency is within reach!

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