My Favorite Tools for Learning Japanese and When to Use Them

I’ve been studying Japanese in earnest since September 2021, though I’ve made many attempts over the last 10+ years. In that time, I’ve tried dozens (maybe hundreds!) of tools, books, videos, and apps.

The journey to learning a new language is not going to be the same for everyone. You have to figure out what works for your learning style and your lifestyle, so some amount of trial and error is expected, but here’s what worked for me.

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My favorite Japanese textbook

Over the years, I’ve tried many Japanese textbooks for English learners. Most recently, I’ve been using Genki I in my college class and tried Minna No Nihongo with a tutor. Neither of these books really work for me. Whenever I try to study with them, I’m left with more questions than answers.

It wasn’t until last year, after I started working as a technical writer and learning about instructional design, that I finally understood why I’ve had so much difficulty with Genki. I also know enough about my own learning style to realize that the way these textbooks are organized doesn’t make sense in my brain. Genki teaches a part of concept, then says, “Hey remember that concept we talked about last chapter? Here’s more stuff about it.” I prefer to group things together.

Plus, Genki is written for learners who are studying in class or at least with other people. It has pages and pages of exercises you’re supposed to practice with a partner, but since I’m essentially self-studying, it’s annoying and all those exercises just get in the way.

I found a Reddit thread recommending Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese, and when I checked out the website, I realized this is what I’ve been missing. All of the material is available online for free, but I prefer to read actual books for things like this and to give my eyeballs a break from screens, so I ordered the book on Amazon. It is organized in a way that makes sense, doesn’t have activities, and gets to the point of the lesson quickly.

I didn’t start using this book until a couple months into my first quarter of Japanese, but I would have liked to use Tae Kim’s Guide right away to help clarify the concepts taught in Genki.

If you’re also learning in a formal classroom at a community college like me, be aware that Tae Kim’s Guide teaches the casual form, so you’ll still have to rely on Genki or your school’s chosen textbook for formal speech and writing.

My favorite Japanese vocabulary apps

Anki is highly recommended by a lot of people for learning vocabulary, but it didn’t work for me. The app was a bit clunky, I didn’t like the organization of any of the decks I tried, and I didn’t want to take the time to make my own.

I was relieved when I found Memrise, and especially when I found the JLPT N5 Vocabulary & Kanji on Memrise, which you can do for free. You can also use the official Memrise Japanese course, but I like the JLPT N5 course because it focuses on vocabulary rather than grammar, which is exactly what I wanted. It also uses different voice actors, so you can hear the vocabulary spoken by different people.

My Japanese dictionary, Takoboto (website or Android app), is indispensible. It’s available on Android only, but if you’re looking for something for iOS, try Shirabe Jisho.

Duolingo is good if you like a game-ified experience and aren’t looking for detailed grammatical explanations. I had a couple issues with Duolingo. First, sometimes the phrases they used didn’t even make sense (すみません、私はりんごです。was an actual phrase from Duolingo when I was using it). Second, because it’s game-ified, you can cheat and find workarounds to get to a high level without really learning anything. Obviously, you’re only cheating yourself if you take shortcuts, but it’s something I started doing without realizing it because I was focused on “playing the game” rather than learning. That’s the main reason I stopped using Duolingo.

Using apps was the first method I tried when I decided I wanted to learn Japanese, and I found Memrise to be an excellent resource immediately since vocabulary is something I’m actively working on building. The official Memrise course is meant for beginners, so it’s great to start with if you have no experience with Japanese.

If you’re like me and found Memrise a little later in your journey, you can find a higher level course if you want. I decided to slog through the bits that I was already familiar with because I knew I didn’t know the entirety of N5 vocabulary. It didn’t take long to get there, and I’m glad I did it that way because it was a great way to refresh my memory.

YouTube channels and online classes

Since I started studying Japanese, I’ve spent way more time on YouTube than I ever have before. Since my husband watches YouTube too, we invested in YouTube Premium family plan (they also offer a discounted rate for eligible students), and commercial-free is the way to go if you don’t like the interruptions while you’re trying to study.

I do have a couple issues with YouTube, so it’s not my main source of educational material.

  1. I don’t like having to dig around to find good videos to watch for my level.
  2. YouTube’s suggestions are often not related and distracting, so I ended up watching non-educational videos when I’m trying to study.

I do still like to watch videos in Japanese for listening practice or videos with tips on learning Japanese, but I found it a bit time consuming to find actual lessons on YouTube and I didn’t have the patience for it.

But here are my favorite YouTube channels for beginners and more experienced beginners to use right away.

  • Japanesepod101.com is fantastic for beginners and even some more advanced learners. They have awesome videos that are a great way to practice listening comprehension. These can be discouraging if you don’t pick up much of it, so be sure to watch videos that are appropriate for your level. They also have a YouTube channel and great playlists.
  • Yuko Sensei is great for beginners because her talking speed is a bit slower than natural and she enunciates well.
  • Learn Japanese with Noriko is best if you’ve studied Japanese for at least one term in school or the first 4 chapters of Genki. Noriko-san speaks in normal conversation speed, so these videos might be tough if you’re trying to understand as an absolute beginner.

And here are a couple of great classes if you’re like me and want a little more structure.

Japanesepod101.com on Udemy

As I mentioned above, Japanesepod101.com is an awesome resource, and if you’re looking for something a little more structured than poking around YouTube, their Ultimate 100-Lesson Course is fantastic for beginners. Some of the videos are dated, but they’re still helpful if you’re just starting out.

My favorite videos were Learn Hiragana in 1 Hour and Learn Katakana in 1 Hour.

Miku Real Japanese

Screenshot of Miku’s website

Miku Real Japanese has an awesome YouTube channel, but she also created a Shadowing Audio Masterclass, which I highly recommend. Basically, she says a word in English and you get 3 seconds to say the Japanese word in dictionary form. Then she says the correct word and asks you to say the word in て-form. You have another 3 seconds to do so. I’ve found this method to be effective for both conjugating faster and learning more vocabulary.

She provides several different methods for purchase so it’s more accessible if unlocking the full course all at once is out of reach. I recommend checking out Miku’s YouTube channel first to get a better idea of her style and if it might work for you.

My favorite ways to practice

Especially if you’re self-studying, having someone to practice with is critical if you want to be able to actually speak Japanese with other people.

Language partners with Tandem

Tandem is my favorite app to find language learning partners. I wrote about HelloTalk or Tandem: What’s better for language learning partners? and — spoiler alert — Tandem was the clear winner for me. In fact, I’ve been chatting with one of my practice partners for about 6 months, and she has become a dear friend. We chat nearly every day, and I look forward to meeting her in person someday. Hopefully in Japan! Also, she helped me tremendously with my final project for my second Japanese class, 日本へ行きましょう (Let’s Go to Japan): My First Video in Japanese.

When to find a language learning partner is hugely personal, but I wrote an entire post about Why I’m Glad I Found Language Learning Partners Sooner. The short version is that I’m glad I found a language partner right away instead of waiting until I was more advanced in my language skills. I definitely understand the hesitation and shyness, but especially since I’ve been learning online, having a language partner is key to keep me motivated and help me practice what I’ve learned.

Plus, Tandem’s app allows you and your partners to easily correct each other’s messages. It’s been a fantastic way to apply my developing language skills in a low-stakes environment and learn more about how to sound more natural from native speakers. It’s also great to have someone to ask quick or weird questions when I don’t want to ask my teacher or want an answer faster.

Tutor with Preply

Illustration by Preply

I would say when to find a tutor is actually straightforward: when you start to struggle or when it’s too easy. You might also want to find a tutor for a specific goal like a job interview, the JLPT, or maybe a trip to Japan.

Read more about how I chose a Preply tutor.

My Preply tutor totally transformed my learning experience.

When school is in session, she helps me with questions I have about class and my homework. When school is on break, we practice conversation, which has had the added bonus of helping me with confidence building. After only 3 sessions of dedicated conversation practice, we were speaking exclusively in Japanese for an entire 1-hour lesson! すごいね!

Get 70% off your first lesson with Preply.

In closing

Over the last 10+ years, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on tools and books to help me learn Japanese. These are the best tools I’ve found in terms of value, actually learning from them, and sticking with them long term.

Plenty of free resources exist, so I try the free ones first, but as much as possible, I also try to support software I value.

Everyone’s learning style is different, but hopefully this helps you narrow down what might be useful for you.

Photo by George Milton from Pexels