If you want to get a start on learning Japanese, there are many ways to do so without signing up for a language class.
A word of caution, however: you’re not likely to become proficient unless you put in the time and effort. Will you become proficient by just using what I’m going to talk about? Possibly, but not by using just one thing.
What’s the fastest way to start learning Japanese words? Just use Google Translate (translate.google.com) and type in English words (one at a time, not entire phrases). Again, that’s a start. You can also use Google to translate words that seem to come up all the time in Japanese music, tv shows, and anime, and then you’ll know when someone is talking about eggs, or love, or even dragons. While you can use the Google Translate webpage to translate entire websites and pages, you’re not likely to learn anything unless you have a grasp of the writing systems and you check the mouseover text to see the original phrasing. There is also a Google Translate phone app, in case you want to do word and phrase translations on the go.
In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, phone apps are the way to go. If you’re trying to learn basic vocabulary, at the very least, you’re going to do so when you have free time, and that might even come when you’re in line at the supermarket, or you’re in the bathroom (I’m not one to judge, you do you), or even just laying in bed at night. So let me tell you what I’ve used, what I think of them, and how they can help you.
To the right, that’s actually a screenshot from my iPhone 6S. I’m not listing the model to brag or anything, but I will say that if you have an earlier model, some of the apps might not work as well on your iPhone. As for you Android users, I’m pretty sure you have all of these apps available to you, so I’m not playing favorites but I am basing everything on my experience.
The folder is labeled “Nihongo.” Depending on your skill level, you might want to consider enabling the Japanese keyboard on your phone as I have done. If you don’t want to, that’s fine as well, because it’s one less keyboard to cycle through on your way to the Emoji keyboard. And that’s all it is, when you enable the Japanese keyboard, you’re making it so you can type in the Japanese writing systems (kanji, hiragana, katakana) when you need to write something in Japanese.
Moving on, before someone comments about the notifications above Memrise. So let’s begin with Memrise, shall we? Memrise is exactly how the name sounds, you are memorizing words and characters. It should call itself “Memerise,” because it sells itself by saying you can learn with the help of memes, those images that the kids are using these days to be funny. When Memrise isn’t teaching you a new word or reviewing one you should know, you are constantly in a multiple choice quiz. The quiz pulls words you’ve just learned and adds in words you should remember from previous lessons. The idea is that if you’re reminded about a word and its meaning, you will commit it to memory. The app has a simple interface, and you’re not likely to feel overwhelmed when trying to use it. As for my notifications, that’s how many words I apparently have to review. The app and basic features are free, but to get more out of it, you do need to pay.
imiwa? is a dictionary app. It’s pretty simple, you just type a word into the search box and go from there. If the word you typed is in English, it will give you the most relevant Japanese results. If you typed in a Japanese word, it will find it and you can look up what the word means in English. Each entry has sample sentences, so you can see how the word is used. I would suggest using imiwa? over the Google Translate app when you’re trying to “find the right word,” because of the fact that imiwa? will give you alternate words that you might find to be more appropriate. imiwa? has more features, but it’s mostly a dictionary app and that might be what you usually use it for.
Tae Kim’s Guide To Learning Japanese is like an e-book. If you want to learn about Japanese and how the characters are used, download the app. I recommend being familiar with hiragana before moving too far into the app, otherwise you’re going to hear silence in your head when you’re reading and come up to something that’s not in English.
Skipping ahead, HJ Lite is Human Japanese. It’s another app that’s like an e-book. I find Human Japanese to be easier to understand, and the look and feel of the app feels more welcoming. If Tae Kim’s guide feels mandatory, Human Japanese will feel optional but desirable. I do recommend having some form of text-based learning when you’re ready to go beyond vocabulary, and if learning Japanese sometimes seems complicated, download Human Japanese and give it a try.
The app that says “Japanese” with the happy face is Mindsnacks. It doesn’t really teach you, in the sense that it’s not like Memrise. It is, however, a great way to learn words by playing games. The app feels a bit like it’s meant for children, as the art is all cartoon-like and simple. However, it’s easy to pick up and learn new words this way, as it feels like when you were learning your native language. You will benefit the most from using other apps alongside Mindsnacks, and I’ll explain why later. You do have to pay for each language you want to learn, or there’s an all-language pass. I only paid for the Japanese pass, and I don’t really regret doing so.
The app that says “Japanese!” and has the hiragana for the “a” sound is an app that quizzes you on hiragana and katakana. It’s simple, it’s fairly nameless, and there’s other apps out there that will do the same thing. Why haven’t I deleted it yet? Because I have to buy the other lessons, and I don’t want to, yet I haven’t deleted the app.
Kana is a better app. It, too, is a lesson and quiz app that’s good if you’re focusing on just the writing systems. I’m pretty sure that one is free, because I don’t remember paying for it, and I’ve done more in it.
Innovative is brought to you by Japanesepod101.com, and I learned about the app through YouTube. The app makes you sign up for an account, and then you have a 7-day preview of everything the app has to offer. Free accounts are locked to the first few lessons of a level of learning. It’s the only learning app I have that makes you sign up for an account, so if that’s not your thing, then the app from Japanesepod101.com isn’t for you.
You do have to make an account for HelloTalk, but that’s different. HelloTalk is to make friends! Want to practice Japanese and teach English to others? HelloTalk is the app you want. If you’re a bit nervous about your language usage, give it a shot and practice more. The idea is for people to correct you so you learn how to be more fluent. I just started using the app today, so I might have to rethink how I’m going to use my tag for “My Japanese Friend.”
So you know how I said I recommended using a combination of these apps? Here’s how I recommend doing it. Pick a dictionary/translation app; I recommend imiwa?. Next, decide how you want to learn vocabulary; I recommend Memrise over Mindsnacks, but you can get both and use Mindsnacks on days when your brain is fried but you still want to move forward with learning Japanese. Now, pick a text e-book; I would choose Human Japanese, and you can get the Lite version like I did or you can get the full version. If you’re struggling with hiragana and want to focus just on that, add Kana to your apps. So you have a dictionary, a textbook, a game/quiz, and a means of focusing on the writing systems. It’s everything you could need!
Okay, but now you want to actually learn how to actually write the actual language. Human Japanese provides you a link to a page that you can print out to practice writing. Some apps also show you the stroke order. If you want to skip the paper, then you can get My Japanese Coach if you have a Nintendo DS of some variety, as the game cartridge will teach you how to write the characters using the correct stroke order. While it’s not a phone app, it is another option. If you don’t have a DS, just remember that kids who play Pokemon have to sleep eventually, so borrow a DS if you can easily get your hands on one. Otherwise, just use regular paper to write on and use the phone apps to learn about how the character is written.
Beyond that, you’re only going to get as much out of the apps as you put into them. If you’re not using any of the apps that often, you’re not going to magically learn Japanese. But, I’m just trying to get you started. I always feel like it’s a success when I hear a word and I know what it means, If that’s enough to motivate you to keep learning Japanese, then start by learning a few words and keep immersing yourself in the language.
Go do it!