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Best Apps to Learn Japanese (2023 Reviews)
After using a dozen apps, our team breaks down the best Japanese learning programs in detail
Once you’ve decided to learn to speak Japanese, the next choice is naturally how to learn. Given that language apps tend to be the most practical, affordable, and efficient means of learning to speak Japanese, this is likely the route you will go. But with dozens of online Japanese learning programs, how do you know which one is best? In this detailed guide, we cover our list of the top four Japanese apps, and elaborate on which situation each may be best for.
In the video above, John (from the TPI team) walks you through each of the best Japanese learning apps to make our list, including why we think these particular Japanese learning programs are so good. For more detail regarding each Japanese language app, be sure to continue reading below.
Why Rocket Languages Makes Our Best Japanese Apps List
Our #1 pick for best overall Japanese app (after reviewing seemingly countless programs), is Rocket Japanese. It is a bit of close call with our second pick, Pimsleur (discussed below), but generally speaking, when comparing all of these different Japanese programs side-by-side, Rocket is just clearly the best.
In terms of the design of their program and the depth of their lessons, they simply have the most well-rounded Japanese app from top to bottom. To better explain this, I want to cover three key points.
The first highlight is Rocket’s use of interactive audio lessons. In these exercises that kick off each unit, English speaking moderators slowly walk you through a guided conversation step-by-step and break things down verbally. In my opinion, this audio lesson, which makes up the heart of each unit, is really powerful for improving your listening comprehension and speaking skills.
No other app—apart from maybe Pimsleur—offers this level on in-depth verbal practice and instruction. Most other apps tend to focus on basic drills and exercises that don’t necessarily boost your conversational skills, whereas Rocket places a massive focus on the most important part of language learning—heavy doses of listening and speaking. And we really like this.
Then after each audio lesson, Rocket makes you work through a series of reinforcement exercises and drills to really drive home what you just learned. It’s most analogous to class followed by homework. These drills get you to interact with the new Japanese words and phrases you just learned in a non-verbal way, which really increases retention, because you’re learning from multiple perspectives.
Lastly, the third thing I want to highlight about Rocket is how they emphasize grammar instruction in their coursework. Grammar isn’t fun, but the reality is that it’s half the battle when learning a new language. Maybe even more than half the battle with a language like Japanese.
It’s not just about learning new vocabulary, and the main audio lessons in their program, as well as the supplemental “language & culture” lessons, are full of helpful teaching points and tips to help you internalize all the different Japanese grammar rules and principles.
To be honest, there aren’t many negatives we could find with Rocket Japanese. They even offer reading and writing lessons for Kana and Kanji, which no other apps really do. They really have it all.
If there is anything to knock, it’s just the price. Rocket only sells lifetime plans, and they are a bit pricier than other options on the market. However, in all fairness, those prices on their site are a little misleading, as Rocket Languages is almost always running some sort of deal or special promotion. So just make sure to check for coupon codes before buying.
As noted above, the second course on our best list is Pimsleur Japanese. The interesting thing about Pimsleur is that they’re the runner-up because their program is so much like the course from Rocket Languages.
For one, Pimsleur also builds their course around interactive audio lessons that use a guided conversation to help develop your listening comprehension and conversational skills. The lessons are even about the same length at a half hour long, so very similar.
Second, Pimsleur also reinforces their audio lessons with more typical drills and exercises like matching pairs and fill-in-the-blanks. Plus, they both use speech recognition software to give you feedback on your pronunciation.
So overall, Rocket and Pimsleur are very, very similar. However, Pimsleur does differ from Rocket in a few ways, and there’s a reason we give Rocket Japanese the edge.
First, the Pimsleur lessons don’t use any transcripts with their audio lessons—it’s pure audio. Frankly, we really like the transcript. It makes it easier to follow along, see spellings of words, and digest the teaching points.
Secondly, the Rocket program allows you to go back and replay the mock dialogue from the audio lesson as one of the two fluent speakers for extra practice, which is helpful. Then third, Rocket offers much more in-depth grammar instruction.
Altogether, these additional features just make the Rocket program feel a little deeper and more comprehensive. However, that’s not to say Pimsleur doesn’t have some advantages of its own.
For one, the Pimsleur audio lessons are equipped with a special driving mode feature so you can be productive with your time in the car and knock out lessons on your commute. I think that’s a major bonus.
Second, I think the Pimsleur interface is better. It’s about the best user experience we’ve seen in language learning. Then third, an important point for budget shoppers here is that Pimsleur offers monthly subscription plans, rather than one-time purchase plans like Rocket.
Thus, if you want to take things slow and test out your course before fully committing, Pimsleur will be the cheaper option to start. Plus, Pimsleur even offers a free 7-day trial period, so you can try this course before dropping any money.
Our third pick for learning Japanese is Busuu. Even though Busuu isn’t as robust of a program as Rocket Japanese and Pimsleur, it does offer some unique advantages.
For one, the Busuu lessons are very short and go by quickly. Each one only takes 10 minutes or so on average. This is in comparison to the Rocket and Pimsleur lessons that take a full hour to complete from end to end.
Of course, you can always pause those Rocket and Pimsleur lessons and come back to them whenever you want, but if you want to rip off full lessons here and there, Busuu will be a better option.
Second, Busuu incorporates videos of fluent speakers into their program, which I think is really helpful for visual learners. Third, Busuu has a cool community feedback feature that allows fluent Japanese speakers to give you comments on your writing drills and pronunciation. This makes things pretty interesting and fun.
Then lastly, Busuu is our budget pick. Their program costs only $5 to $15 per month (depending on your plan and current sales), so it’s very affordable. Again, check for discounts.
However, that’s why we like Busuu: bite-sized lessons, use of video, community feedback from other users, and a cheap price tag.
Not everyone is going to agree with our last pick for best Japanese language app, but in our #4 spot is Duolingo. Here’s the thing. We as a team agree that we actually don’t even like Duolingo as a standalone Japanese app. We think it’s a little gimmicky and basic, and I am sure a lot of people will agree.
However, we include it for good reason. For one, it’s free. It literally doesn’t cost a cent if you want to just leverage the free version, which is decent in its own right.
Secondly, it’s great for hammering basic vocabulary, which you do need. Then lastly, it’s pretty darn addicting with all of the characters, motion graphics and game-like features. This is good for motivation and staying on it.
Therefore, here is where and how we would suggest using Duolingo. If you’re going on a trip to Japan and just want to learn some basic phrases and survival language in the weeks leading up to that, Duolingo is perfect for that.
You can nail down a couple hundred words, and learn how to order sushi and ask for directions. It will get you that. But with that said, if you want to actuallylearn Japanese with any level of fluency, you’ve got to use another app like Rocket, Pimsleur or Busuu.
I think that’s another area where Duolingo can be of use. It makes for a great supplement. Use a more robust Japanese program, and then fill in gaps with Duolingo.
It doesn’t cost anything, it’s highly repetitive (which is great for burning new words into your brain), and you can bite off little 5-minute lessons here and there on your phone. It’s the perfect, free complement to a bigger, better program.
Let’s wrap this post up with some closing thoughts. What is the best app or online course for learning Japanese? The answer is of course, it depends—mainly on what level of fluency you’re trying to obtain, how much you want to spend, and what type of learner you are.
As noted above, if you’re simply trying to learn a few phrases before a trip to Tokyo, Duolingo is fine for that. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a supplement.
At the next level up, Busuu is a great option for visual learners and those on a budget. It’s affordable, effective, and has some strong features that others don’t, like community feedback. Honestly though, at the end of the day, Busuu isn’t nearly as effective as Rocket Japanese and Pimsleur.
The audio lessons from both of these companies are just so powerful and important to developing you speaking and listening skills. In the opinion of our team, they are by far and away the best two apps for learning Japanese in the space, with Rocket Japanese having the edge over Pimsleur thanks to the overall depth and effectiveness of their coursework. It’s our belief that Rocket Japanese is the complete package and offers everything you need to reach an intermediate to advanced level of fluency.
What is the best app to learn Japanese?
After reviewing a dozen different Japanese language apps, we believe Rocket Japanese is the best on the market. With audio lessons and in-depth reinforcement drills, it is the most comprehensive Japanese learning program.
How much do Japanese apps cost?
Japanese language apps range from totally free (like Duolingo) to $400+ for full blown Japanese courses.
How long does it take to learn Japanese?
The length of time it takes to learn Japanese is directly correlated with your input. Using a Japanese language app everyday, doing perhaps 20-30 minute of studying, it might take 4-6 months to become fluent at an intermediate level.