Spider by Tom Royal on Flickr
Spider by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr

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The best iPhone apps for learning Japanese

December 9th, 2012

Ever since I started to learn Japanese, I've done a lot of studying on the train to and from work. At first this meant carrying around home-made paper flashcards and a big English to Japanese dictionary, but these days an iPhone can replace both of those and help you do much more – there are apps for flashcards, for learning the stroke order of kanji, and even fully fledged dictionaries.

I've downloaded and tried loads of apps, and even created a few, but here's my personal top five covering everything from basic kana to kanji-lookup.

1 & 2) For learning Hiragana and Katakana

I learned hiragana and katakana before the iPhone existed (sadly – it was a pain), but still need to brush up on my katakana every so often. There are dozens of kana apps, but the best I've found come from a Japanese independent developer called Kenji Hioki (hk2006).

They are rather large to download, but this is because they're packed with audio: the app spells out a word (in the screenshot above right, the audio says: "ku – ku – kuruma… kuruma"), while you tap it out using the kana shown on screen. This helps to build up recognition between the sound and forms, while also teaching you basic vocabulary at the same time.

The hiragana and katakana apps are completely free – I also like his Kanji apps as a quick way to revise basic kanji.

3) For learning Vocabulary

For vocabulary, I've found that nothing works more effectively than flashcards: English on one side, Japanese on the other, so you can learn from Japanese to English first, and then the other way around. There are dozens of flashcard apps, but for me the key thing is ease of adding cards: you need to be able to add them quickly, in bulk, and in either kana or kanji.

It's much easier to do this on a computer, and for that reason I recommend Touchcards 2. This relatively simple flashcards app has one great trick, shown above and to the left: it can import vocabulary from a Google Docs spreadsheet. This means you can easily create and manage huge lists of vocab, then sync them onto the iPhone to learn when you're out and about.

That function aside, it's simple and to the point: you can study cards in both directions, customise the size of the text, study in order or at random, and enable a scoring system when you want.

4) For Kanji, and as a Dictionary

Only a few years ago I had a big, heavy paper dictionary and was tempted to buy a Canon Wordtank. Now, I just use the appropriately named Japanese, by CodeFromTokyo. This great dictionary app is ideal for looking up words by sound (as shown above, you can type phonetically in roman letters), or kanji (by component, SKIP, or handwriting).

It also has a handy lists function (shown above, right), and an extensive flashcard system for learning those. I use this for drilling through kanji – it works for vocab, too, but you can't set kanji or kana display per item or add cards that aren't forms in the dictionary. The app costs $10, but that's ridiculously cheap considering just how much it can do.

[Update 11/13: in the end, I found the multiple readings in the dictionary got in the way when trying to study kanji - all I wanted was to quickly learn the simple readings found in my textbook (Japanese for Busy People). So I made a new app entirely - my Simple Kanji Flashcards app includes all the kanji from JFBP2, with only the simple readings listed. I hope you might like it too!]

4) For Verbs

A huge disclaimer here: I made, and I sell, this app. But the reason for that is that there wasn't a good one available before. There comes a time – after you've picked up kana, and a bunch of vocabulary – where you'll need to start learning various verb forms beyond the simple masu / masen / mashita / masendeshita ones, and I wanted a way to learn these in a flashcard-like fashion. So, here's my Japanese Verbs app, which does just that.

The app is free, with ten basic verbs included, and teaches the masu, dictionary (plain), nai, ta, and te forms of each, along with English translations and classification (Regular 1, 2, irregular). You choose the verbs you want, pick the front and back of each card – English to Dictionary, say – and then drill through the flashcards. A 99c / 69p in-app purchase unlocks 35 more verbs, covering most basic tasks. A second app teaches transitive and intransitive pairs.

So those are the Japanese apps that never leave my iPhone. If you've got a recommendation for another I should try, please leave it in the comments below or tweet it to @tomroyal.

Illiterate des

May 8th, 2009

Practice makes slightly less inept

I've been scrawling that over and over again, lately.

A few years ago, and about five years after finishing my degree, I decided that I wanted to learn something again. I figured a language would be more useful than anything else and working in technology there were only really two useful choices: some sort of Chinese, most likely Mandarin, and Japanese. Knowing nothing much about China or Chinese culture, and being an avid consumer of Japanese books (a lot of Haruki Murakami, at the time) and video games (yes, I am a walking stereotype) I picked the latter. I signed up for a one year "Beginner's Japanese" course at SOAS with two hours of tuition per week.

I followed the course for a year, and it taught me a decent amount of (largely business-like) Japanese, along with how to read and write hiragana and katakana – the two alphabet-like kana scripts, rather than the pictographic kanji. I also learned a few other things, though, such as that I couldn't really stretch to £300-plus-per-term courses on my salary at the time and that after working an eight hour day in the office my brain is pretty much incapable of writing English, let alone any other language. So, I passed the first year and then dropped out. Yay me.

I figured I'd continue to study on my own, but this never really happened. For two reasons, I suppose: a lack of willpower and a problem with textbooks. SOAS uses a course called Minna no Nihongo, which is largely concerned with business situations and very focused on instruction in Japanese only – great with a teacher, but on your own it's hard to work out which audio clips or exercises are which, let alone what you're meant to be listening for or writing. So, that was pretty much the end of my experiment with Japanese. Until last week.

Last week Helen and I decided that, having not had a long holiday for three years, it was time to take more than two days away from work. I was briefed to look for relaxing beach holidays. I found myself looking at flights to Tokyo. Helen liked the idea. We're going later this summer. Which leaves me a month or two to pick up the language again. No pressure.

And, pleasantly, it's been going surprisingly well. I was amazed to find that most hiragana characters had stuck somewhere in the back of my brain, and after a few days of practicing on the train I can now read and write both it and katakana again. I've also picked up a different textbook – Genki, which is apparently more modern, easier for English-speakers and less business-focused – to replace Minna no Nihongo, and I've found some PC-based flashcards that are quite good. And unlike the final months of my last course, where I felt like the daft kid at the back of the class who hadn't done his homework (usually on press week), I'm enjoying the whole process of learning again.

Of course, despite all this I'll probably get to Tokyo and find that I can't read, comprehend or say anything of use. But who knows – it's worth a try.