Last updated: May 16th, 2015
One of my main hobbies is language learning, namely Japanese. Ever the tinkerer, I’ve tried out many different tools and approaches, and want to present some of the ones that have been most effective for me, along with descriptions for each one. Here are links to some of my favorite resources, many of which are free!
Rather than just paste a list of resources, I’d like to talk about them here in a casual way, explaining why I like them and use them. I consider this a living document that will be added to and evolve, so there is always more to come!
Hiragana and katakana, called kana collectively, are the syllabic writing systems used in Japanese. Typically, hiragana is used to write native words, and katakana is used to write loan words (along with some other uses.)
Dr. Moku is one of those things I wish I had when I was first learning Japanese. Using imaginative stories and a colourful presentation, I’ve seen people use it to learn kana in a day or two. (Available for Android, iOS, and browser-based. Free trial with full paid version at a low, one time cost.)
Despite the name, Read The Kanji also includes an option to drill kana characters. Though some of the site is only accessible with a paid subscription, the kana sets can be used for free.
If you do research into language learning by self-study, it won’t take long before you come across the concept of an SRS, or a Spaced Repetition System. On the surface, it’s basically flashcard software, but with an important difference. When you view the answer to your card, you’ll be asked to grade yourself (usually by pushing one of a few buttons on a scale.) Depending on how well you remembered the answer, the program will either increase or decrease the amount of time before showing you that card again. Difficult or new cards may be shown again just hours from now, whereas for ones you know quite well it could be days, weeks, or even months before seeing them again. The result is that even if you have a deck of thousands of flashcards, you may only need to review 50 or so per day to keep them memorized.
Anki is without a doubt the most popular SRS out there. It features a ton of shared decks, including ones to learn kana and much much more. It’s available for just about every device and platform out there including computers, mobile, and web-based access. Anki has been at the very core of my studies from the day that I discovered it, and continues to be of absolute value to this day.
When it comes to grammar and textbooks, I think of this process as getting to know how the language works. I feel that the important part of this stage isn’t memorizing grammar rules and charts, or perfecting textbook drills, but rather just to get a feel for things.
Genki I & II are pretty much the name-brand textbooks for Japanese. As a result, there is a lot of support surrounding this series, including a vocabulary app for iOS, and several shared decks for Anki based on Genki. The lessons provide both kana and romaji at the same time, so if you’re still getting used to kana, you’ll be safe, yet still get exposure to Japanese written in kana.
Japanese For Busy People I, II, and III is the series I had used, based on the fact that a university in my province used it for their Japanese course. It’s more similar than different when compared to Genki, and comes in both romaji only and kana only (with kanji later on) versions.
If a textbook approach isn’t what you’re after then you’re in luck! JapanesePod101 is a very modern, casual, and entertaining approach to learning the language, and has recently become my go-to for language learning material. With this approach, you get lessons in audio format with accompanying text that includes the script, notes, examples, and cultural points. (You can also listen to just the dialogue later for review, which is handy for those that enjoy making an immersion playlist!) These dialogues often follow entertaining and even funny storylines, which I think is what gives JapanesePod101 (and all the other Innovative Language courses) this unique, modern spin that keeps me motivated. Lessons are organized by level to make it easy to jump right in. Although it requires a subscription, they do offer a free trial with no credit card required.
Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar is a free web-based collection of lessons. Even if you use one of the textbooks above, I would suggest going through this too, as it offers a totally different approach. Rather than trying to explain grammar points in relation to English, it attempts to explain things from a Japanese point of view. What this means is the English translations are much more literal and word-for-word, however this approach has certainly helped me clear up many grammatical concepts that had previously eluded me.
Although mainly known for European languages, the Assimil series does include a Japanese With Ease textbook. It features kana, kanji, and furigana, as well as romaji. Like other Assimil books, the lessons are based on bilingual dialogues with a pronunciation guides. The explanations tend to be a little less frequent than in other textbooks, which can be good or bad depending on your tastes.
The Lonely Planet phrase book for Japanese can be a handy addition as well. Though it doesn’t go into as much grammatical detail as textbooks, it provides a wide variety of tourist-type sentences ranging from asking for directions to much more complex topics. The book also features pronunciation guides throughout all the phrases, as well as a basic dictionary.
Once you know how the language works (grammar), you’ll want to learn the many words that serve as the building blocks of the language (vocabulary.) Some of these resources are made to be used together, while some are alternatives to each other.
As mentioned before, Anki is without a doubt my single favorite tool to use in language learning, by a lot shot. Just like with kana, there are many premade decks for vocabulary, or create your own content by various means. Japanese has a lot of content based on specific sources such as the JLPT or textbooks such as Genki. Another popular set is what’s referred to as the Core series, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
Learning With Texts is another one of my absolute top tools for Japanese. (The version I just linked to is graciously hosted by Benny Lewis of Fluent In 3 Months.) As the name implies, it’s used to learn vocabulary through texts and web dictionaries of your own choosing. When you click on an unknown word, the interface brings up a dictionary for you, as well as another section to create flashcards based on these words. There are various ways to study with these newly created flashcards, but my favorite is (of course) to export them into Anki. I’ve made a quick guide about using LWT for Japanese, and a much more detailed one is in the works.
Anki and LWT are great tools with amazing flexibility, but I admit they can sometimes be a bit overwhelming for the non tech-saavy. If you don’t mind a monthly subscription cost, iKnow may be just the thing for you. This site uses an updated version of the previously mentioned Core Series, which has examples and full audio for all new terms, and is a platform very much designed specifically for Japanese with a lot of options for how you want vocabulary presented to you. There is a free trial of the site available if you want to see if it’ll work out for you, and it’s also available for various platforms including mobile and browser based solutions.
Regardless of your learning materials and approach, you’ll probably want to have a few good dictionaries on hand. Here are a few of my favorites, along with what it is they do best.
Tangorin is my go-to Japanese-English dictionary. It features tons of definitions including things like set phrases and expressions, a seperate kanji dictionary, and is pretty good at de-inflecting verbs to their dictionary forms. What’s more, you can create lists of vocabulary and/or kanji for printing or exporting to Anki.
SpaceALC is an example sentence database (among other things) designed for Japanese speakers learning English, although it’s equally useful for the opposite (keeping in mind that the interface is in Japanese.) I find this site to be especially useful for grammar, or to get a better feel for a word that has lots of different meanings.
Sanseido is a dictionary which is also designed for native speakers, but does sometimes feature a Japanese-English entry as well (even those can have Japanese mixed in though, since it’s designed for natives.) This has become my main dictionary for creating monolingual flash cards because I find the definitions more simple and less convoluted than some other dictionaries.
Two other popular options for dictionaries are goo (monolingual, Japanese-English, Chinese-English) and kotobank (monolingual). I have referenced those two in the past and have found them to be useful as well.
One element often seen as a hurdle when learning Japanese is kanji. This is the ideographic writing system imported from China, and is a very important part of the language. With the right resources and techniques, kanji can go from a headache to being your greatest ally. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have exposure to the characters early on, but you may want to build up a bit of a vocabulary with just kana in the beginning so that you can relate newly learned kanji to words you already know.
The most popular and most controversial method for learning the 2000+ standard use kanji characters is the one found in the book series Remembering The Kanji. (Popular because it’s very effective, controversial because it’s very non-traditional.) The approach is to learn the meanings of individual characters using imaginative stories based on the different elements that make up the kanji (which also have meanings of their own.) Official sample chapters of the book are available online if you’d like to see this method in action. Because it separates learning things like pronunciations or new Japanese vocabulary, it really lightens the load and makes learning kanji a much more manageable experience.
Although it has no affiliation with the original book or publisher, Reviewing The Kanji is a platform for creating and sharing stories/mnemonics for characters in Remembering The Kanji. This can be a very valuable reference tool for when you have trouble coming up with your own stories, or want an alternative to the ones in the official book. It also features a built-in SRS-style learning tool if you want to try that out too.
Tangorin’s kanji dictionary features a lot of extra information and features for learning characters, such as multiple meanings, various possible readings, and example uses of each kanji. Because it’s compatible for use as an LWT dictionary, and has a feature where you can create word lists for use in Anki, I sometimes use it as a means of learning new kanji or to relearn ones I may have gotten rusty on.
If you simply want to learn all of the RTK characters at once… You guessed it, there are shared Anki decks for this too. There is also a modified deck available on Japanese Level Up that removes some characters that aren’t used very often.
When it comes to learning the many readings for characters and their compounds, Read The Kanji presents a simple, easy to use interface to test yourself on your kanji knowledge. You can learn by JLPT level, and the site uses a game-like EXP system that also lets you track your progress and share tips with other users. You can access the aforementioned kana sections, as well as the N5-level section for free, whereas anything beyond that level requires a monthly subscription.
These are various utilities to help you along the way that haven’t already been mentioned earlier. Some of them are directly related to language learning, while some are just things to make the journey easier depending on what methods you’re using.
Like many Japanese learners, you may end up wanting to practice by reading manga. If you happen to have some in digital format, I’ve found CDisplay Ex to be the most comfortable experience (after a lot of searching!). It’s fast and even has features specific to manga.
Managing time can be a challenge, whether you’re studying a language or trying not to get sucked in by funny things on the Internet. Using the timeboxing technique, I often load up the very intuitive Orzeszek Timer to make sure time doesn’t fly by wasted.
Freemake is an audio & video converter can be used for anything from converting high def video to something more mobile friendly, to ripping audio from TV shows for use as background immersion.
If you do happen to create audio rips, Slice MP3 Splitter can be used to divide them into sections. On my phone, I have several entire anime series split up into 3-5 minute sections to be played on shuffle (along with other types of Japanese audio, such as music.). This is one of the pieces of software I use to achieve this.
When playing audio from different sources as mentioned above, one issue you may run into is different volume levels. One track could be quiet, with a sudden burst in volume for the next. MP3 Gain is a great piece of software to fix that by normalizing MP3 files.