In this article we introduce some of the best smartphone apps for studying Japanese vocabulary, grammar, reading, and kanji.
Drops is a simple vocabulary builder. It won’t teach you grammar, sentence structure or how to communicate, but as a fun supplement to other studies it works just fine. In a series of puzzles you match single vocabulary items with simple mnemonic images. There is a paid version which lets you play for longer, but 5 minutes a day on the free version is probably all you need. Over time you can work your way through a variety of categories including “travel talk”, “food & drinks”, “city & shops”, “society & politics” and “business & tech”. Drops is available on Android and iOS for 35 languages which include both Japanese and Ainu!
Memrise is a super popular app available for Android and iOS with courses in 23 languages including Japanese. Memrise uses a series of memory games based on flashcards to help you learn basic vocabulary which is then gradually built up into more complex phrases and sentences. This app also uses the spaced repetition method to help with memory retention and increase the pace of your learning. Memrise is particularly good for beginners and will help you build a solid foundation in the language, but for more advanced study you will need to look elsewhere. There is a “pro” version of Memrise that you pay for on a subscription basis, but there’s plenty of content available on the free version too.
Duolingo is one of the most famous language learning apps, and has courses in 35 languages including Japanese. Like Memrise and Drops it offers a gamified method of learning. Unlike those apps, Duolingo’s method is based on direct translation. Duolingo’s strong point is that it teaches you how to build sentences. Personally, I find it a little repetitive, but it is definitely useful for beginners who want to get a handle on basic grammar. Duolingo is basically free, but to stop the periodic advertising that interrupts the courses you can subscribe to “Duolingo Plus”. The app is available for both Android and iOS.
Midori is a dictionary app for both Japanese-English, English-Japanese searches. It is very easy to use and has a lot of useful functions, such as flashcards for words that you bookmark, the ability to search for kanji from their radicals or by drawing them, and stroke order animations that teach you how to write the kanji too. Word entries have example sentences so that you can learn new vocabulary in context. And there is a “Translate” function that you can use to break down a Japanese text into its component words and meanings. Midori is not free, but it is not expensive either. I have been using it on a daily basis for years, and find it invaluable. Unfortunately, Midori is only available for iOS. Android users might like to try the “Japanese” dictionary app from Renzo Inc. which is also very easy to use and has the distinct advantage of being totally free (and is also available on iOS).
If you want to get some reading practice you can’t go wrong with Manabi Reader. The app gives you a number of content choices such as News, Blogs, Folktales, and Reddit. Click through to the News section and you are given a choice of websites such as RocketNews24 and NHK News. From these you can choose the latest news articles. Automatic furigana readings can be turned off if you want to challenge yourself, and words can be color-coded by their JLPT grade if you are studying for the test. To look up a word, simply tap it, and you will be given an automatic definition. For those who are just getting started with Japanese there is also a Beginners section which has easy editions of selected websites. Manabi Reader is only available for iOS, but there are similar apps available for both iOS and Android, such as JAREADS and TODAI: Easy Japanese.
Skritter is an excellent kanji learning app that tests you on both your writing and reading ability. You can choose from multiple vocabulary lists, which include many popular textbooks, and then let it test you on the writing, reading and definition of that vocabulary’s component kanji. Oddly addictive, it is a very well-made app! Available for iOS and Android; a one week free trial is followed by a monthly subscription fee.