Before our trip, I had hoped to learn enough Japanese to speak at least a little bit. I took a couple of classes. But work and life got in the way and I only ended up taking about 6 months of class, then stopped for a half year before our trip. I was able to read Hiragana, slowly, but did not learn Katakana (these are the two Japanese phonetic syllabaries), learned a handful of Kanji, and could form very basic sentences and questions with a limited vocabulary. In the end, I had to rely heavily on my mother to translate, seek out those people who had any English knowledge at all, or simply repeat the few words and phrases I knew. I want to do much better next time.
I am researching and trying out various ways to learn Japanese. Classes are great, but can be expensive and unless the class location is convenient, very time consuming and inflexible. Being a tech geek, I’ve been looking at ways to learn and drill that are online, on my phone or tablet, and free or cheap. I’ve only just scratched the surface, but here is what I have found so far. I invite anyone who has experience or opinions on this subject to send me email or submit comments.
Android Japanese Learning Apps
(I have an Android tablet and smartphone, but I suspect some/many of these are available for Apple):
Hiragana – Learn Japanese
Katakana – Learn Japanese
– These two apps are great for learning the Japanese syllabaries, known collectively as “kana”. You learn to read, hear, and write them. Many learners of Japanese say that learning kana is the essential first step to learning Japanese. These work fine on both a tablet and on a small smartphone screen. Free.
Japanese Hiragana Handwriting – Another handwriting drill app for learning Hiragana. It is free and pretty good, but I prefered the apps above to this one
Learn Japanese – JP Translator – learn basic phrases. Pros: audio and Kana-only modes. Cons: have to pay for anything beyond very basic phrases.
Learn Japanese – Phrasebook – similar to above, it plays the words and phrases aloud, and has Kana-only modes. But beyond 400 basic words/phrases you need to pay
JapanesePod101 aka Innovative Language 101 – I have gone through the free lessons offered by this app/podcast and they are excellent – but expensive. Access runs between ~US$10 – 25/month. If my other options don’t work out, I may go with this one.
Memrise Learn Language – Japanese language tutor which teaches Kanji, speaking, and writing. It offers fun/odd pictures/memes to help you remember words and phrases. And it plays the words and phrases aloud. Although it does cost money, it is more reasonable, IMHO at US$9/month or US$59/year. I have only been using this app a few days but think it is worth paying the premium for.
Kanji Senpai – This is a Kanji learning program. It plays the words/phrases, displays them, and drills you on the Kana pronunciation, reading and writing of the Kanji. Additional classes/levels cost just US$3. I think this will also be an app I deem worthy of paying extra for.
Google Translate – In a pinch there is always Google Translate. Of course you won’t know how good a job it is doing, but I trust it for single words or simple, short phrases. You can choose to download specific languages (provided you have the space) to allow you to use it even if you don’t have an internet connection.
Podcasts can be great for listening and learning during your commute, after work, before bed, or whenever. Here are a couple:
JapanesePod101 – The podcasts I have heard are excellent, but again, for more than the introductory content, you must pay (see the associated app info above)
The Japanese Learner – Not quite so much a podcast for learning Japanese as a discussion about how to learn Japanese. I’ve only listened to a couple podcasts so far. It may be more of a cultural study as well as inspiration and a break from hard-core language study and drilling
One Minute Japanese – As named, these are short lessons teaching basic Japanese phrases. Little grammar, no reading/writing, just basic phrases.
JLPT Bootcamp – These podcasts alternate between suggestions and tips for studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Tests and cultural, living-in-Japan observations from an American who has lived and worked 8 years in Japan.
GengoLanguages – Learn Japanese – These appear (or rather, sound) like the same lessons in JapanesePod101. I will continue to investigate to see if this is true, and if there might be any cost savings of one over the other.
Easy Japanese – NHK WORLD RADIO JAPAN – the podcast appears to have only one lesson, but the NHK website appears to have downloadable MP3 audio and PDF lessons available for free. I will update when I have something to report
If you have ideas and experiences regarding learning Japanese as a non-native speaker, please do share!