Learning Japanese may initially seem challenging, primarily due to its significant differences from Western languages.
Not only does it have a distinct writing system consisting of three alphabets, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, but it also has intricate grammar rules that further add complexity.
However, there is encouraging news – achieving mastery in Japanese is possible, and you don’t need to do it alone.
Let’s understand the fundamentals of the Japanese language and provide you with the top 10 apps and other online resources that will propel you towards fluency.
Breaking Down the Japanese Language
To understand which resources would be best for you, we first need to understand the Japanese language. So, let’s dive into it!
The language uses three different sets of alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Hiragana is a phonetic script, each representing a distinct sound.
There are 46 Hiragana characters, which are like the building blocks of the Japanese alphabet and is often the first one individuals begin with while learning.
It is commonly used for words and grammatical components such as verb endings and particles.
Katakana, just like Hiragana, is also phonetic but with a different appearance.
Katakana is primarily used for sounds and words borrowed from foreign languages.
There are also 46 Katakana characters, just like Hiragana, and when combined with 46 Hiragana characters, they make up basic sentences.
At this point, you should be able to read books for kindergarteners and even some first graders.
These are complex-looking characters that originate from Chinese characters. You need to know at least 2136 Kanji characters known as “常用漢字” (jyō-yō Kanji) to be considered literate in Japanese.
Unlike many languages worldwide, where you can pretty much read everything after you learn the alphabet in the first grade of school, in Japan, these 2136 characters are taught throughout nine years of schooling.
So, expect to invest a lot of time and effort into Kanji if you plan to become proficient in Japanese.
Japanese sentences often follow a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure, contrasting with the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) setup standard in English.
For example, “私はりんごを食べました” would be “I an apple ate” rather than “I ate an apple.”
Another challenging aspect of Japanese grammar is particles. There are 188 particles in Japanese, which help show what is happening within a sentence.
For instance, the particle “は” (wa) indicates the topic of a sentence, while the particle “へ” (e) indicates direction.
Vocabulary in Japanese is unique and often context-dependent, making it an essential part of the path to fluency in Japanese. Here are some points to consider:
Japanese has many onomatopoeic words, which are words that phonetically mimic sounds from the real world.
For example, “きらきら” (kirakira) is used to describe something that shines or shines. These words are not just some sounds but are commonly used in everyday conversations.
As you learn the basic Kanji characters, you will recognize Kanji compounds, which are two or more Kanji letters combined to form a new word.
An example of this includes “自動車” (jidōsha), which means car. This word consists of Kanji characters for “self,” “walk,” and “vehicle.”
There are so many words in Japanese that sound incredibly similar or exactly similar but can mean completely different things, depending on where you put the intonation or so-called stress.
For example, the word “あめ” (ame) can mean both candy and rain. When you put the stress on “a,” it means rain while putting the stress on “me” turns the word into candy. That’s why Japanese can be highly context-dependent.
4. Politeness Levels
In Japanese, adjusting your level of politeness based on situations is essential.
For example, how you speak with friends will differ from how you address teachers or superiors. To master politeness in Japanese, you need to know “敬語,” Keigo, a collection of extra-polite words in Japanese.
There are two types; “尊敬語” (sonkeigo) for talking up others, and “謙譲語” (kenjougo) for talking down about yourself or your group.
Various forms and expressions show different degrees of politeness, adding a unique layer of complexity.
Best Apps To Learn Japanese
Now that we have a good understanding of different aspects of the Japanese language let’s see which apps and resources work best for you.
**Best For Beginners, Alphabets, Basic Vocabulary & Phrases**
For beginners, this can be a good start as Duolingo provides a less intimidating learning process through its gamified interface.
Its mobile-friendly platform offers the convenience of practicing anywhere and emphasizes building a strong foundation in vocabulary and essential phrases.
Duolingo starts by teaching Hiragana and Katakana before moving on to basic Kanji. Something you need to keep in mind is that Japanese phrases or sentences you see on Duolingo can sometimes be a bit off.
For example, there are phrases and sentences on Duolingo that are grammatically correct but don’t sound natural, or the translation is not entirely accurate.
For example, this sentence introduced in unit 1, “かっこいいべんごしです,” “She’s a cool lawyer,” has two problems; first, even though the translation refers to “she,” in the Japanese version, there’s no subject, meaning the gender of a person is unknown.
Second, the word “かっこいい” is often used for men or boys to describe them as handsome or good-looking, and essentially, it doesn’t really mean “cool.”
This was just one example of how phrases and sentences on Duolingo can sound a bit off; however, if you are looking for a free and fun way to learn the Japanese alphabet as a true beginner, Duolingo is for you!
2. Pimsleur Japanese
**Best For: Audio Learners, Listening, Speaking & Conversational Skills**
Pimsleur’s audio-based learning method greatly benefits individuals who learn best through hearing. It focuses on developing your speaking and listening skills by immersing you in the phonetic aspects of the language.
It is also a great way to work on your Japanese pronunciation, as there’s a heavy focus on the right pronunciation. This app is perfect for those with a busy lifestyle who want to improve their conversational skills while on the go.
Remember that if you are looking to work on Japanese reading or writing, Pimsleur Japanese might not work for you as it has little to no focus on reading or writing. On top of that, it is not cheap compared to other language-learning resources.
3. Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide
**Best For In-depth Grammar Understanding**
This free online resource is like a textbook for Japanese grammar, offering an extensive range of topics from basics to advanced structures.
It’s particularly useful for those who prefer a traditional, read-and-understand approach to language learning. If you learn it on the paper, you can also purchase their book.
One remarkable aspect of this resource is using Romaji only partially throughout the lessons. Romaji is a Latin script guiding the pronunciation of Japanese words.
This can be both beneficial and bad at the same time, depending on your learning style. Another thing to note is that there’s no audio guide. So, if you need clarification on the Japanese pronunciation, use other resources too.
**Best For: Vocabulary & Kanji Memorization**
Anki works on the spaced repetition principle, adjusting the frequency of flashcards depending on your familiarity with the content.
With over 10,000 flashcards, you can learn the meaning and the different pronunciations of Kanji characters.
This application is incredibly effective for reinforcing Kanji and vocabulary so that they become ingrained in your long-term memory.
5. NHK World
**Best For Listening Skills, Cultural Insights & Current Affairs**
NHK World provides news and documentaries in Japanese that are accessible and easy to understand. It offers a wide range of resources that help improve listening skills while also becoming familiar with Japanese culture.
Because of its nature of being a news channel, it will also keep you updated on the latest news. Additionally, the platform frequently includes English subtitles for more effective learning.
**Best For: One-on-One Practice with Native Speakers**
iTalki offers a variety of language instructors who are certified professionals. They also have community tutors available for casual chats and practice sessions.
Whether you’re looking to improve your conversational skills or dive deeper into the nuances of the language, iTalki can personalize lessons based on your proficiency level and specific needs, making it an invaluable resource.
7. Rosetta Stone
**Best For Immersive Learning**
Rosetta Stone’s Japanese course is a mixed bag.
On the one hand, they make use of immersive teaching techniques that help you relate directly to Japanese phrases. They also cover all three Japanese alphabets and even Romaji, but no focus on pronunciation, grammar, or writing.
The built-in speech recognition and audio recordings are also great for working on your listening and speaking skills. However, the accuracy of the voice recognition feature can sometimes be inconsistent.
**Best For Comprehensive Learning**
Japanesepod101 offers a wide collection of learning materials, from podcasts and video lessons to written exercises.
The materials are categorized by level, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced, making it ideal for learners at any stage and level of their Japanese journey.
You can also find supplementary materials such as a transcript of the episode and vocabulary list, making it ideal to reinforce learning.
9. Genki Textbook Series
**Best For Structured, Academic Learning**
Genki textbooks offer a well-organized but not-so-intimidating path to mastering Japanese.
These textbooks are academic by nature, covering grammar, vocabulary, and both written and audio exercises while also being engaging and not too dry. These features make Genki a top choice for those who prefer structured learning environments and want a little fun.
While it seems ideal, Genki textbooks lack real-world Japanese, making it sound too formal.
**Best For: Kanji & Vocabulary Mastery**
Our final recommendation is WaniKani. This website utilizes a unique method of radical recognition and mnemonic devices to teach Kanji and its associated vocabulary.
By using this web-based app, you can effectively memorize and recognize Kanji, which is crucial for achieving advanced proficiency in reading Japanese texts.
Learning Japanese can be a challenging endeavor, but with the right online resources, the journey to fluency becomes more manageable and enjoyable.
The top 10 apps and sites each offer a distinct approach, tailored to various learning styles and goals. Whether you’re a beginner or seeking to advance your proficiency, there’s something here for everyone.
So why wait? Take the leap and embark on your Japanese language adventure today!
Nooran is an English and Japanese teacher. Since she was young, she has lived in many countries, such as Japan, The Netherlands, and Canada. Because of this, she picked up many languages either by living in those countries or taking online classes and can currently speak Japanese, Dutch, Persian, and English Fluently.
While learning these languages, she found that she has a passion for teaching different languages to students. She teaches English to Japanese students and Japanese to many English-speaking students.
She started her blog, Japamana.com, so that she could share resources with anyone who wants to start their Japanese learning journey.