Let me guess – you’re looking for an app to learn Japanese on your phone, and it had better be free or inexpensive, right? Congratulations! You’ve come to the right place. In this article, I will review the app store’s eight most popular apps for learning the Japanese language. I downloaded each one and tested them out over a period of time in order to help you decide which ones to choose for their studies!
If you don’t have enough time to read this article, you can also skip to Final verdict: which one is the best for you? However, I hope you will read my complete review for a more detailed look into the pros and cons of each Japanese learning app.
LingoDeer: the best overall Japanese learning app
App store ratings: 4.8
- high C/P
- 10m+ paid learners
- systematic curriculum
- review flashcards
- interesting XP leaderboard
- visually pleasing design
When it comes to serious Japanese learning apps, you must have heard of LingoDeer, the best app for learning Asian languages including Japanese, Korean, etc. With 10m+ learners, LingoDeer Japanese is highly renowned for its systematic curriculum and 100% authentic audio, which aims to comprehensively improve learners’ listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in Japanese.
What’s more, LingoDeer is the only app you can find that combines memory curve with the flashcards function. In other words, LingoDeer can automatically present the content you need to review each day, so you will save a lot of time and effort in making review plans.
The LingoDeer app’s design is visually pleasing and includes no ads. The mascot deer encourages you to keep a daily streak and accumulate XP to participate in the weekly leaderboard competition. Similar to Duolingo, LingoDeer lessons need to be unlocked one by one as you complete your studies. The courses are categorized in a structured way.
Through the framework above, learners can capture what floor they are on in the Japanese building, which allows you to learn Japanese more effectively by applying other assistant resources for the corresponding level. The first three are easy to understand, but I’m guessing you may be curious about what the “Travel Phrasebook” and “Character Drill sections entail.”
The Travel Phrasebook includes multiple collections of Japanese phrases for real-life applications. For example, the collection “Shopping” contains 138 items (i.e., words and sentences) to help you shop happily in Japan.
The Character Drill is also an excellent practice session feature that other apps don’t have. As you may know, the Japanese writing system consists of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, the latter being the most challenging part of the Japanese language. Thus, the Character Drill is designed to help you nail the 100 most commonly used Kanji.
Pricing: Monthly ＄14.99, Annually ＄79.99
Busuu: Japanese learning app for sociable learners
App store ratings: 4.7
- community function
- interacting with native speakers
- real photos
- good review function
Busuu is also one of the most famous Japanese learning apps and has distinctive features. For example, all illustrations in the Busuu app are real photos, while images in Duolingo and LingoDeer are graphic. Besides, the Busuu app has a language community where you can interact with native Japanese speakers.
Sometimes, you may receive requests from Japanese speakers to help with things such as proofreading their English sentences. Conversely, you can also ask for help when encountering Japanese language problems, although you won’t always get a response.
The community function allows each learner to have their own profile page, and you can extend communication to others by adding people as friends. Nevertheless, I’m not sure about this feature. Communicating with native speakers might better motivate you to learn Japanese if you’re an outgoing person, but at the same time, you risk being distracted and spending a lot of time chatting. It could be said that less attentive learners may unconsciously use Busuu as an SNS rather than a language learning app.
Like the two previously mentioned apps, Busuu Japanese courses are divided into multiple chapters, and you need to unlock them gradually. The first four lessons are free; premium membership is required to continue learning from the fifth lesson onwards.
My favorite part of Busuu is its review function. You can find the “Review” button in the app’s menu bar, which is divided into two Vocabulary and Grammar tabs. Both of them have three collections, namely “Weak,” “Medium,” and “Strong,” which indicate what your focus should be on in terms of Japanese grammar and vocabulary. After each lesson, the booklets will be updated automatically according to your results.
In addition, I have to say that the speech speed of beginner-level Busuu Japanese audios is too slow. As a Japanese speaker, such a slow speed sounds unnatural to me, although I understand that it is meant to prevent some beginners from not being able to keep up.
Pricing: Monthly ＄7.49, Annually ＄89.99
Duolingo: the most popular Japanese learning app
App store ratings: 4.7
- gorgeous illustrations
- reward mechanism
- language community
Duolingo is the most well-known language learning app worldwide for its free courses. There are 38 languages for English speakers, including Japanese and niche languages like Haitian Creole. How amazing! Meanwhile, Duolingo is available on both computer and smartphone (Android and iOS), which provides you with broader flexibility in terms of platform.
Duolingo Japanese contains six units and each unit has multiple lessons. That may sound like a piece of cake, but actually, you need to work hard to unlock the next lesson. Fortunately, Duo, the app’s cute green owl mascot, and several other characters will accompany you during your learning journey.
The Duolingo Japanese lessons are mainly designed to introduce basic vocabulary and improve learners’ comprehension of sentence structure. In addition, there are also tips in the form of articles designed to teach the corresponding Japanese grammar and cultural knowledge for each lesson.
My favorite part of Duolingo is its reward mechanism, which motivates me a lot whenever I make a new achievement. For example, as you progress through the levels, you can gradually unlock different stories in Japanese that revolve around several characters.
Another exciting feature is the Monthly Challenge, in which you can win a challenge if you complete the designated task before the month is out. For example, this July’s challenge is themed “Junior and Eddy’s Beach Trip” and requires you to earn 1000 XP (accumulated by taking lessons, exercises, etc.) by the end of the month. Once you make it, the two characters will have the opportunity to sunbathe on the beach, and you can get an exclusive badge. The only fly in the ointment is that many of the audios in the Duolingo app are produced by sound synthesis, which can sound robotic and unnatural.
Pricing: free with ads (or ＄6.67/MO without ads)
Drops: immerse yourself in Japanese vocabulary
App store ratings: 4.8
- vocabulary paradise
- visual mnemonics
After you’ve been learning Japanese for a little while, if you want to make a breakthrough in vocabulary, try Drops! Drops is an app dedicated to learning vocabulary, containing no grammar lessons, just thousands of Japanese words.
Unlike Duolingo, LingoDeer, and Busuu, where the courses are arranged vertically, Drops adopts a unique horizontal arrangement. Besides, in Drops, multiple related words are included in an album, and various albums comprise a series. For example, you can learn a lot of words about shopping in the album “shopping.” The album “shopping” is related to the album “shops” and “supermarkets,” so those three plus other related albums form the series “City & Shop.” Such a way of categorizing vocabulary will help you learn Japanese words more easily.
In contrast to the traditional method of learning vocabulary by memorizing their translations in English, Drops adopts the picture mnemonic, which aims to utilize visuals to enhance memory by combining pictures with vocabulary. For example, for the word “動物のぬいぐるみ,” Drops shows you a picture of a stuffed bear instead of telling you directly that it means “stuffed animal.”
The picture mnemonic is similar to how we learn our mother tongue as children. Of course, you may ask, “What if I can’t get the meaning by looking at the picture? Don’t worry. Just tap on the Japanese word, and the English explanation will appear.
The Japanese writing system consists of Kanji and Kana. Some words are commonly written using just kana, but others require a blend of kanji and kana, or all kanji. To accomodate language learners, the writing style of vocabulary in Drops can be toggled between two options – “kana” and “kanji+kana.” For instance, the word “お母さん” (mother) can be switched to “おかあさん” if you are not familiar with the Kanji “母” yet. Also, during the learning process, you are expected to keep dragging pictures to match them with the corresponding words. This kind of interactive experience helps you focus on learning better.
Pricing: Monthly ＄9.99, Annually ＄69.99
Falou: interactive conversational teaching
App store ratings: 4.8
- immersive conversation
- scientific mnemonics
- dictation function
- require an environment without distractions
Falou is a relatively new language learning app that is becoming increasingly popular. The menu of the Falou app has three buttons: “Courses,” “Words,” “Progress,” and “Listening.” First, let’s take a look at its Courses section, which is the main axis. Like other apps, Falou’s courses are also organized in album format.
Each album has a specific topic. For example, the first three albums are “The Essentials,” “Travel Essentials,” and “My Family.” Furthermore, an album is composed of multiple scenes. In the album “The Essentials,” the first three scenes are “Introducing Yourself,” “Answering Simple Questions,” and “Ordering Food and Drinks.”
As far as I’m concerned, the most significant advantage of the Falou Japanese course is that it allows you to remember many expressions in an immersive conversational way. More specifically, a scene consists of three steps: “speaking,” “writing,” and “challenging.”
In speaking, you need to respond to what the chat-bot says verbally. For example, if the NPC says “Konnichiwa (hello),” then please say “Konnichiwa (hello)” back. What if you don’t know how to respond? No worries, each response will be presented to you in text. You just need to tap the recording button and say it accordingly. At the end of a scene, you can choose to replay the conversation you just had with the chat-bot.
Next, you need to move to the “writing” section, where you will practice the conversation you just practiced in “speaking” once again. The difference is that you need to reply by typing the response text here. You can click the play button to listen to the reply if you don’t remember it exactly. The mnemonic for this section is dictation.
Finally, the “challenge” part comes after the “writing” and “listening,” where you perform the conversation again by recording your response verbally. Unlike in “speaking,” there are no reply texts here. Likewise, if you can’t remember the reply very well, you can repeat it by listening to the audio. The mnemonic for this section is shadowing.
Each scene is repeatedly trained in three steps, and various scientific mnemonics are combined to improve your spoken Japanese quickly. However, everything has its pros and cons. Falou’s interactive lessons require a quiet environment without distractions, which means you’ll be hard-pressed to practice the conversation on your commute or in a library where you can’t speak aloud. Thus, it’s safe to say Falou is not ideal for busy learners.
Pricing: Monthly ＄29.99, Annually ＄89.99
Bunpo: best for learning Japanese grammar
App store ratings: 4.9
- Japanese grammar
- sorting questions
Bunpo literally means grammar in the Japanese language, so can you guess what the primary purpose of this app is? Yes, it aims at improving your Japanese grammar systematically.
I’m not sure if you, dear reader, know that the most prestigious certificate in Japanese is the JLPT, and just like TOEFL and IELTS for English, many Japanese learners who want to work or study abroad in Japan take the JLPT. Bunpo’s curriculum covers Japanese grammar courses from N5 to N1. The first album of each level is free, but to unlock the next album, you need to get premium.
There is no doubt that Bunpo’s Japanese grammar courses are excellent. They contain explanation and exercise sections, a classic test-oriented teaching method. First, several cards are presented to explain a certain grammar point. Let’s take a sentence pattern in the course “は… です” as an example.
Explanation: Making a simple sentence in Japanese is easy. You can add the word です to any noun to mean “I am noun” or “it is / there is noun.”
Noun + です。
(I) am a student
There are three types of questions in Bunpo: (1) multiple choice, (2) sorting, and (3) translation. I assume the multiple-choice questions are easy to understand. Let me explain the sorting questions. This is a classic type of question in the JLPT exam, where you need to arrange several disrupted sentence parts correctly, such as
エマさんはイギリスじんです。（Emma is British.）
Next is the translation question. To translate the given sentence “Tomoko’s book,” you need to type “ともこの本” using your Japanese input method. Of course, the sentence patterns and words in the exercises will have already been explained in the previous section.
That’s it. From my perspective, Bunpo is suitable for candidates preparing for the JLPT as a supplementary tool for grammar study, but not for the main course of study.
Pricing: Monthly ＄7.99, Annually ＄19.49, Lifetime ＄29.99
Rosetta Stone: picture mnemonics
App store ratings: 4.8
- landscape mode
- picture mnemonics
- stories with authentic audio
The actual Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele with three versions of a mandate that King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of the Ptolemaic Dynasty issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC. Today, there is a language learning app by that name, alluding to the concept of deciphering.
The Japanese courses offered by Rosetta Stone consist of 12 units, each containing four lessons. The first of each unit is free and each consists of two parts: core lessons and exercise. This may sound a bit puzzling, but the following written sample of the structure may be more intuitive, using the first lesson of the first unit as an example.
Unit1 – Language Basics
- Lesson 1
- Core Lesson
- Core Lesson 1.1
- Core Lesson 1.2
- Core Lesson 1.3
Like Drops, Rosetta Stone mainly uses picture mnemonics instead of giving literal definitions. For example, for the word “リンゴ (apple),” you are first shown a picture of an apple, along with the Japanese word. Then you are asked to choose the correct image out of three others. The correct answer is undoubtedly also a picture of an apple, but not the same as the original, designed to test whether you have memorized it. Also, you will need to keep recording the words or sentences you hear during the lesson. However, I must say that it’s annoying to force-rotate my smartphone’s screen into landscape mode to take the core lessons.
In addition to the core curriculum, Rosetta Stone Japanese has two other features Extended Learning and Live.
“Extended Learning” consists of three parts, “Seek＆Speak,” “Stories,” and “Audio Companion.” Although I think the other two parts are somewhat lackluster, the “Stories” feature is good, offering numerous recorded texts. All the texts have authentic audio, which helps improve your Japanese conversation and listening skills. Of course, only the first story is free. To listen to more stories, you have to be a premium user.
“Live” is a new feature, including some teaching videos by Japanese teachers, but the library of content isn’t very substantial yet. Actually, I would rather find Japanese teaching videos on YouTube.
Pricing: Three Month＄44.99, Annually ＄109.99, Lifetime ＄199.99
Japanese: more than a dictionary
App store ratings: 4.8
- Japanese dictionary
- references, kanji learning
Finally, let’s have a look at a Japanese learning app called Japanese. Unlike the above seven apps, the Japanese app does not offer Japanese lessons. It is more of a tool that you can use to look up the meanings of words and much more. Please read on. I will introduce you to some of its main features.
The “search” button on the main menu is a dictionary of Japanese words, similar to the dictionaries you can find in other apps. Thus, I won’t go into this part in detail. I think the best part of this app is its “reference” feature, which presents a wealth of Japanese learning references. You can get an idea of its catalog in the image below.
Another favorite part of mine is the “kanji” section; which is very professionally organized. There are two ways of arranging the Kanji. One is called “School Kanji,” which shows the Kanji that Japanese students need to learn at all ages, from first grade to high school. The other is compiled in groups according to the frequency of use. In addition to “Kanji,” it’s worth mentioning that the album “JLPT” presents you with vocabulary for each level from N5 to N1. Unfortunately, this app does not provide audio for any of the words.
In any case, Japanese is an excellent Japanese learning tool app. It is suitable for advanced students to use for exams. If you are a student at N2 or N1 level, this app may help you a lot!
Final verdict: which one is the best for you?
After reading the detailed analysis above, you may feel a little bit overwhelmed with information. The following table is meant to give you a simple review of each software:
Japanese learning App
learning Japanese for fun
|LingoDeer||learning Japanese effectively|
|Busuu||Japanese learners who are less attentive|
|Drops||improving Japanese vocabulary|
|Falou||Japanese learners who have plenty of time|
|Bunpo||learning Japanese grammar|
|Rosetta Stone||learning with landscape mode|
|Japanese||advanced Japanese learners|
Author’s learning story: My journey of learning Japanese
Thank you for reading this far. By now, I’m guessing you may have your answer and know which app is the best for you. Finding an app that suits you is like choosing the right teacher, which is very significant. Please allow me to recommend the LingoDeer app. It is really worth a try. If you are not so busy now, why not listen to my learning story?
About four years ago, when I first started learning Japanese, I didn’t know which app I should choose. After trying many apps, I couldn’t find one that I really liked. At that time, LingoDeer was just a new app and did not have tens of millions of users as it does now. One day, an American friend of mine who was studying Japanese recommended LingoDeer to me. After trying it, I found it was perfect for beginner and intermediate Japanese learners.
After completing the LingoDeer course, I passed the JLPT N3 exam, and I can say that LingoDeer helped me to move smoothly through the hardest stage, which is actually from beginner to intermediate. Soon after, I passed the N1 exam through further studies, such as reading textbooks and doing exercises. The process from N3 to N1 was very fast because I had a solid Japanese foundation from learning with LingoDeer.
Now I am working hard to complete my master’s degree in Japan. Looking back on how far I’ve come, I would like to express my appreciation to LingoDeer from the bottom of my heart. That’s also the reason why I’m currently writing for the LingoDeer blog.
My dear friend, it’s okay if you are still undecided, but you never know how LingoDeer will benefit your Japanese learning without trying. Why not download it just to give it a shot and you will get a seven-day trial for free. If you wish to purchase, learning with only $0.22 per day sounds like a great deal to me. If you get with their Back2School sale, you can save even more on learning 13 different languages including Japanese. Give it a try now!