Do you take your smartphone with you wherever you go? If the answer’s “yes”, congratulations! You have a powerful language-learning tool in your pocket at all times.
Supplementing what you're learning in class with apps and games is fun, easy, and cheap. But with so many applications out there, here do you know where to start?
So in no particular order, here are five and a half brilliant apps to get you started on the magical quest that is learning Japanese.
1. Hiragana Pixel Party
If you want to read Japanese, you need to start by learning hiragana, the 46 characters that make up Japanese's basic 'alphabet'. And there are a plethora of apps to help you on your way. The problem is...well, lots of them are quite boring. Hiragana Pixel Party breaks that mould with an addictive little rhythm game that is actually good fun.
As kana characters appear on screen, you listen to the sound of each character, and then tap in time with the beat to successfully jump over obstacles. So it's a musical running game that also happens to be teaching you to read the characters.
I'm going to go out a limb here and say Hiragana Pixel Party is probably the most fun you can have learning hiragana (and katakana). Unless you don't like chiptunes, I guess...?
Mindsnacks is a series of smartphone learning games for different foreign languages. You start with a couple of games, and unlock more by completing tasks.
The games themselves are pretty fun, and easy to get the hang of. You spell vocab words in hiragana by tapping on squeaky little chipmunks in the right order, or match words and meanings by spinning the cubes of a totem pole. So, it's basically vocab matching, gamified.
Did I mention it has chipmunks? Naww ↓
You can also choose between romaji, kana, and kanji when learning words, which is a nice touch.
The only downside with Mindsnacks (apart from the fact it's for iPhone/iPad only - sorry...) is that I do find it a bit repetitive. To try it as a beginner, I downloaded the Mandarin app too, and felt like I was being tested too many times on the same words before the app was satisfied that I'd "mastered" them.
It is a fun set of games, though, and worth checking out. You can try out one lesson for free - to unlock all 50 lessons is £3.99.
Learn Japanese by Mindsnacks: iOS
3. Dr. Moku
Dr. Moku claims to be able to teach you hiragana and katakana in one hour, through mnemonics and quizzes. I like the illustrations - they're cute (and sometimes creepy, but in a funny way, which is helpful for committing the images to memory).
↓ Creepy and cute.
4. Hiragana Memory Hint
Less of a game and more of a learning aid, this app from the Japan Foundation Kansai has mnemonics and varied quizzes to test yourself on the reading and sound of the hiragana. There's a separate app for katakana too - but the best part though is that they're both FREE!
5. Tae Kim
Tae Kim's grammar guide is a comprehensive reference to (you guessed it) Japanese grammar. It started life as a website before taking flight in app form for iOS. Having this app on your phone is like carrying around a searchable textbook that you can look things up on at any time. And it's free! Yay!
Don't be scared by the kanji - you can tap on underlined words and the reading and English meaning appear in a nifty pop-up.
↓ It's pretty nifty generally, actually.
What I like about the guide is that it attempts to explain grammar "not from English but from a Japanese point of view". So, instead of translating Japanese sentences into natural, long-winded English, it tells us what the sentence is saying (and no more).
↓ You go Tae Kim!
You probably won't want to read it from start to finish (although some people do), but it's great for double-checking something you're not sure on, or for when you need a quick refresher. For looking things up on the go you can't get much better than this.
Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese: iOS
I read in the front of a dictionary once (a paperback one) that all you need to learn a language is a good teacher and a good dictionary. And that's why essential app number 5 and a half is...a dictionary!
Sure, you could just fire up a web-based dictionary like jisho.org - but if you've got the space for it, having offline access to a dictionary is more useful than you might think. It won't eat all your data, and you can still use it on top of Mt. Fuji.
There are loads and loads of free Japanese dictionaries for smartphones. Imi wa is deservedly popular for iPhone, or you could try JED or Akebi on Android. The best thing to do is just download as many free ones as you can, figure which one you like and delete all the others.
Just don't use google translate to do your homework, unless you want a string of garbled directly-translated text and a disappointed teacher.
Apps won't teach you everything - you're not going to get much speaking practice from playing with hiragana all day - but they're a great way to add in a bit of extra practice and complement your language learning.
So there you have it - five-and-a-half apps to get you started on the road to learning Japanese! What do you reckon of my selection? What did I miss? I'd love to know what you think, so please let me know in the comments!
First published November 05, 2015
Updated October 03, 2018