The 14 best online courses and apps to learn and speak Japanese, according to a fluent speaker

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Japanese Language Learning IPhone 4x3

Whether you love Japanese literature and cinema or hope to travel to Japan someday, learning the language can be a great way to feel more connected to the culture (and spend any free time at home right now). Japanese has also seen a steady uptick in learners, reaching close to 4 million, according to a 2018 survey from the Japan Foundation, making it potentially easier to find fellow Japanese language students to practice with online.

Learning Japanese can be daunting – it’s ranked as one of the hardest languages to learn by the US Foreign Service Institute. It has a lot of moving parts, from mastering the three different writing systems (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) to learning grammar that’s structured differently than English. 

Luckily, tools and apps for learning Japanese abound, from robust online courses to quick kanji flashcards. Many of these options are free or have free trials; others offer certification to add to your LinkedIn or resume. Whether you’re interested in casual self-study or intensive, university-style cramming, there’s a platform for you. 

14 online courses, apps, and resources to learn Japanese:

Online courses

Image of a city in Japan seen from above

Steps in Japanese for Beginners (edX)

edX offers a beginner program through Waseda University, perhaps Japan’s most famous private university. The three self-paced courses included in the series introduce practical Japanese, everyday expressions, and phrases for building relationships with others. All of the courses are free to audit, though paid completion certificates are available for each course ($49-$99) and the full, 4-5 month certificate program costs $222.30.

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Japanese for Beginners (Coursera)

Coursera’s free Japanese for Beginners course is great for those who want a college class-type experience, online. This 20-hour course is taught over a series of videos, exercises, and quizzes and covers basic grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills. Learners who like this course can proceed to Japanese for Beginners 2.

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Online Japanese Beginner Course (Udemy)

Udemy has a number of Japanese classes for a fee (and often on sale), but something that stands out is their targeted classes for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) across all five test levels. Additionally, they offer specialized classes like business Japanese or kanji mastery. In particular, the Online Japanese Beginner Course is one of the top-rated intro Japanese courses on the platform.

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Japanese Course for Absolute Beginners (Skillshare)

At Skillshare, a wide variety of instructors offer Japanese courses on a number of topics, such as travel Japanese, writing hiragana, and beginner Japanese. There are both free and paid classes, with paid classes available under a free trial for seven days. The quality varies widely, but you can see an introductory video and read a description to get a feeling for the teacher’s style. 

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Platforms and websites

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The popular Tofugu website and blog about learning Japanese spawned WaniKani, a web-based application for learning kanji and vocabulary. The WaniKani system uses repetition and mnemonics along with digital flashcards. The funny mnemonics and cute illustrations will make you chuckle — but will also help you to remember tricky characters. The first three levels are free, then there’s a choice of a monthly ($9), yearly ($89), or lifetime ($299) subscription.

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Duolingo (Japanese)

The popular language app Duolingo offers gamified learning with a cute owl mascot to cheer you along. Since the courses are crowdsourced, some of the translations can be strange (and often hilarious). One nice feature that many other platforms don’t offer is that you can test out of lower levels so that you don’t spend time going through material you already know. The app is totally free and can be used on iOS, Android, or desktop. An ad-free version is available for $6.99/month after a free 14-day trial.

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Rosetta Stone (Japanese)

Rosetta Stone is the original name in computer-based language learning, and you can use their app on both desktop and handheld devices. Lessons are chunked in 5-30 minute spurts, so it’s easy to do a little at a time. Prices start at $7.99/month, and there’s a free seven-day trial. The software offers support for vocabulary, grammar, writing, pronunciation, and listening, and is good for beginner through intermediate learners. 

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The Mango platform offers dozens of language courses, including Japanese. A single language subscription is $7.99/month, and there’s a free trial lesson so you can get a feel for the interface. The site also points out that many organizations such as libraries offer access to Mango for free, and provides a search engine to look for nearby access. The interactive course offers spoken English explanations, with native speaker pronunciation examples. The application is available on web browsers, iOS, and Android.

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Online tutors

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italki (Japanese)

The platform italki matches students with teachers for live one-on-one lessons. Prices vary greatly, but many fall between $10-20 an hour. With almost six hundred Japanese tutors on the site, you should be able to find someone who suits your learning goals, interests, and skill level. The site differentiates between community tutors who teach informally and professional tutors with official teaching qualifications. After choosing your tutor, you can book a lesson and pay, then meet over the video chat software (such as Zoom, Hangouts, or FaceTime) of your choice.

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Cafe Talk

Cafe Talk also offers various languages and skills, but as it originates in Japan, the site has a large number of Japanese tutors and lessons, offered live. You can set search parameters around the tutor’s qualifications, country of origin, residence, gender, and whether or not they offer a free trial lesson. After settling on a tutor, you book and pay for the lesson, then meet via Skype. Registration is free, and you only pay for the lessons you reserve.

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Other resources

Jizo-ji Temple Pond Garden

Japanese dictionaries such as Imiwa?, Jisho, and WWWJDIC

When built-in catch-all translation apps just won’t cut it, turn to a Japanese-specific online dictionary. Both Jisho and Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC are powerful web-based dictionaries with an impressive depth and breadth of entries considering their simple interfaces. The WWWJDIC offers numerous specialist dictionaries and a name database, while Jisho allows you to hand draw characters and search. If you’re looking for an iOS app, turn to Imiwa?, a free dictionary that has definitions in not only English, but also French, German, and Russian. 

Akiko Suzuki’s Twitter

Japanese teacher Akiko Kitamura offers Japanese lessons for a fee, but she also regularly posts vocabulary words and phrases on her Twitter account that reflect the issues of the day. She’s a fun follow for bite-sized vocabulary lessons.

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