How I’m overcoming my Japanese language learning barrier with apps

Your mobile device can be an excellent language learning partner, especially when it comes to difficult languages like Japanese. After 2 decades in Japan, the apps I can use easily each day have helped me to finally get comfortable with the basic levels of the language.

I’m not fluent – far from it. But I think I could get there some day. And that’s a big attitude change for me.

I’ve been resistant to learning Japanese for most of the time I’ve lived here. It’s too different, too hard, too much work. And I love English. I think American English can be elegantly direct, clear, and poetic. Of course,  English is my native language; every language can be all of these and more. But English was also my major in college, and I write lyrics and poetry in it now.

So I didn’t push myself to learn Japanese all these years. I didn’t have a Japanese love partner or a long-standing fascination with Japanese culture to motivate me. I love a lot of aspects of living here, but language has remained a beautiful remote mystery. And I was okay with that.

Then I began working in an all-Japanese-language environment. I panicked, balked, struggled with my reluctance. Then, as I do with so many things in life,  I went looking for apps to help:

I wanted apps with:

  1. Comprehensive explanations in English
  2. The basics of reading Japan’s 3 written languages (hiragana, katakana, kanji), with testing for each symbol individually
  3. Natural sentence practice focusing on grammar (a particular weak point)
  4. Spaced repetition flashcards for the vocabulary in the app, as well as my own vocabulary
  5. Pleasing modern interface and updated regularly (I update my mobile devices as soon as updates are available, these apps need to keep up)

Here are the apps I’m using most regularly, after 2 years of searching, trial and error. I’ve listed only the features that I use regularly: click the app’s link for more feature details.

Hiragana and Katakana Practice

If I had a ¥500 coin for all the people who tell me how easy it is to learn and remember Japan’s shortest syllabaries, I could…well, I could certainly go to Nikko for a good soak in an onsen! I have never found it easy to keep the combined 92 kana characters in my head. But, the more I practice with iKana’s recognition tests, the better I get.

Learning Japanese Hiragana
iKana touch – Hiragana and Katakana study tool
By ThinkMac Software

Sentence Structure and Vocabulary

I alternate between two apps for learning and practicing Japanese sentence structure and vocabulary. They are subscription apps, and I stop when I lose interest in using one, and switch to the other. You can say this isn’t the best way to learn and you’d be right. But, I’m thrilled that I’m at least sticking with these two long enough to get bored. At some point, I’ll choose one. But for now, baby steps. iKnow! is very good for studying the 6000 most-used Japanese words. FluentU uses videos for learning sentences, with helpful sentence breakdown.

Understanding Japanese Sentences

iKnow! by DMM


Understanding Japanese

The last two are an app and an online service by the same company, Brak Software, Inc. I love the extensive, comprehensive English background in the Human Japanese app – it helps build my understanding of why sentences look the way they do. And I enjoy Satori Reader for the scenario-based learning. It’s new and I do hope they create an app. For now, I can go online to read sentences in short stories that help give ma a flash of hope that I’ll be able to read a book in Japanese as easily as I read one in English.
Learning Japanese from the beginning
Human Japanese by Brak Software, Inc

Great to practice your Japanese
Satori Reader

Last but not least – in the course of my job, I run into thousands of words that I need to try to remember. I prefer using my laptop to assemble and import lists and my mobile phone to study, this app makes the process super simple.

Flashcard Hero by Kitestack Software
Japanese flashcard app for practice

So there you have it. I recommend iKana, iKnow!, FluentU, Human Japanese, Satori Reader, and Flashcard Hero whether you, like me, are a reluctant Japanese learner, or you’re eager to start/continue learning.