Photo:Steve James on Flickr

Learning Japanese: It’s All About Your “Application”

If you’ve been following my posts over the last few months then you will know that I have been striving over the past 9 months or so to finally get a firm grasp on the Japanese language. To that end, I have been avidly pursuing language studies. I currently work with an excellent private tutor in Osaka, who teaches me 3 times a week. Additionally, I also try to use my free time at work to engage in Japanese discussion with my colleagues.

Many would see working at a venue where you are the only person who can speak English as something of a negative. In saying that, where some see problems, I always try to see opportunities, and indeed for those new to Japan, there is no better immersive environment than working in a public school as an English teacher.


Photo: Canadian Pacific on Flickr

However, one of the downsides of my current assignment is that it takes about one hour to get from my house to the school each day.

So, by the time you factor in the commute there and back, I am effectively losing 2 hours per day. Those are two hours that could be used to better improve my Japanese.

So, how does one deal with this quandary. How can I utilize this “down time” in a positive and productive manner.

Thankfully, we now live in the era of the smartphone.

Since the first iPhone came to market back in 2008, people have been making use of these little portable computers to improve their daily lives in any way they can. As apps become more sophisticated, an increasing number of users are making use of their phones’ capabilities to augment their language studies.

For my Japanese studies, I have found a few very useful apps. So, today, for your consideration I present my own personal top 5 mobile apps for learning Japanese.

Please bear in mind, since I am not one of those who worships at the altar of Steve Jobs, these are apps for android phones. However, you may well find some of them are available on the Apple store too. I don’t know as I haven’t used Apple phones for quite some time.

Kanji Draw: As far as entry level apps go, this is a good one. For those who are new to the realms of Kanji, those delightfully difficult to remember pictographic characters used to form words in Japanese and Chinese, Kanji Draw provides a nice, easy introduction.

Basically you trace the outlines of the kanji either with your finger, or in my case as a Galaxy Note user, your phone’s stylus attachment. It’s not as easy as it sounds however. One of the key aims of the Kanji Draw app is to get you writing Kanji like a native, and that means using the correct stroke order and direction. As you level up and master more kanji, you unlock higher levels with more detailed kanji. The interface is highly intuitive and easy to pick up, and the level progression very well-designed. Most of the more complex characters you encounter later are built up using elements of simpler Kanji you have already mastered.


Photo: Diane Main on Flickr

The app is free, if you don’t mind occasional advertising pop-ups. However, if you are prepared to pay a small fee you can remove the ads permanently and unlock all kanji levels from the beginning. This app doesn’t unfortunately teach you any listening or pronunciation skills, but as a ready and writing tool, it is quite useful. It’s also pretty addictive.

Kotoba-Chan: This app is what developers would call a “beta” project, meaning that while it is available to download for free now, it is not yet a finished final product and as such there are some “bugs” in the system.

Nonetheless, the premise behind Kotoba-Chan is a good one. It’s a quiz based app, which can be used to test both your Japanese reading skills and also your Vocabulary understanding ability. The app achieves this by giving you the option to answer either in Japanese or English. It also has a huge range of vocabulary, with options to practice from vocabulary lists of all 5 JLPT testing levels, as well as the most common words found in newspapers and also in daily usage.

Photo: Steffan on Flickr

The app works on the premise that each word must be drilled multiple times before it can be fully remembered. So in other words, the key lies in answering the same questions multiple times. This can seem a bit monotonous at the start, but it’s certainly more effective than just drilling the same words again and again. The vocabulary is broken down into blocks of 50 or 60 words to make assimilation easier. Try to start by doing one of two blocks a week and you’ll find your vocabulary expanding exponentially in no-time.

JLPT N4 by V-Next Software: This handy little app is the perfect review companion to my JLPT test preparations. Apps are also available up to N2 Level. The app contains quizzes with hundreds of different questions for vocabulary, kanji and reading. There is also an extensive grammar review section. The app itself may sound a bit generic but it contains one important additional feature not factored into any of the other apps I have discussed thus far: time.


Photo: Amy Jane Gustafson on Flickr

As we all know the JLPT is a time-restricted test and for many, especially first-timers, getting the test finished on time can be rather tricky. This app sets a time limit in accordance with the number of questions you opt to answer, with a clear breakdown of your score and the time taken at the end. It has certainly heightened my sense of urgency and attentiveness in getting things done in a timely fashion. Additionally it has also been very heartening to see my scores gradually improve as things progress.

JDIC: This interactive dictionary app is tailored to suit all levels of Japanese learner. Not only does it include a comprehensive search feature, it also has multiple input options. You can search using Japanese hiragana typing, assuming your phone has a Japanese keyboard, or even handwriting input for those complicated Kanji characters. If you’re worried about misusing those irregular verbs then you needn’t be, as the app gives a full breakdown of how each verb is used along with example sentences for each of the common tenses. All in, a great dictionary reference app, especially considering that it’s free.


Photo: JoeL MutantE on Flickr

Kanji Nankuro: This is one for the experts. If you have ever done a crossword or codeword puzzle before then this will interest you. The idea of the game is to solve a multitude of such puzzles as you answer questions and progress through an RPG type game, complete with Manga style animated characters. Definitely one of the higher levels only, as its written completely in Japanese, I look forward to the time in the not too distant future when my Japanese ability reaches a level where I can actually get some enjoyable out of this fine app.

One of the most important things to remember about learning, whether it be for languages or any other type of study is that everyone is different. We all learn in different ways and at different paces. The apps I have listed today work well for me at the moment, but that’s not to say they will work for you. Likewise you may get better usage from some other apps I am not so interested in. It really depends on the individual. Good luck and keep studying!

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