Though I completely agree with Benny Lewis that HB 2.0 is the best “app” for learning a language, there are some pretty darn ninjetic smartphone apps that can help you improve your Japanese listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills from the convenience of the mobile device right in your pocket. A search of the Apple App Store or Google Play store reveals an overwhelming number of Japanese language apps, but sadly (or perhaps, fortunately) the vast majority are not very useful. To save you time and help you focus on actually acquiring Japanese instead of wasting time searching for tools, I have tried dozens and dozens of apps over the years and have narrowed down my list to just my top five favorites.

The main criteria I looked for when selecting the apps below included:

  • Apps that help you improve your active communication skills and procedural memory, not just passive recognition and declarative memory.
  • Apps that have a clean, intuitive, well designed user interface.
  • Apps that offer a good “freemium” option that allows you to try out enough of the service to see if you like it before having to commit financial resources for the premium version.
  • Apps available on both iOS and Android.

In truth, some of the apps below don’t meet all four criteria, but they at least meet three. As a recovering perfectionist, I have learned to accept “good enough” solutions that actually exist over the “perfect” solutions that don’t.

Note that I have intentionally not included any Japanese dictionary apps in this post as they are already covered in my post The Top 8 Japanese Dictionaries for Web, iOS, Android, Mac & Windows.

And one last thing: please make sure that the time you spend staring into your device augments―not replaces―the all important time you spend communicating with actual Japanese speaking humans in meatspace. Okay, with that public service announcement out of the way, here now are what I consider to be the best five best smartphone apps for learning Japanese.

FluentU

“Learn Japanese through the web’s best videos.”

Watching authentic Japanese video content like YouTube, TV shows, movies, music videos, commercials, etc. can be a great way to pick up new vocabulary, phrases, and structures within fun, meaningful, engaging contexts. Video is also especially good for helping improve your listening and pronunciation skills. There is just one problem: most videos created for native Japanese speakers are beyond the reach of beginning learners. FluentU solves this problem by providing interactive subtitles in kanji, hiragana, and English that allow you to look up words on the fly using their built-in dictionary (which includes contexual defintions and links to other videos that use the word or phrase). You can then save new words to your personal vocab list and practice them using FluentU’s multimedia flashcards complete with video clips, audio, and images.

The free app is available on iOS, and there is an early-access beta version for Android as well.

JapanesePod101

The Innovative Language app allows you to access JapanesePod101’s massive library of Japanese learner content, including:

  • 1,700+ audio and video podcasts: Each episode includes show notes with a complete transcription in kanji, kana, and roumaji, as well as an English translation. Their line-by-line audio tool is particularly useful. I also like that you can learn offline by downloading lessons to your device.
  • Lesson Checklist & Custom Feed: Use their lesson checklist to keep track of which episodes you’ve already listened to, and create a custom RSS feed with content for only your level.
  • Vocabulary Tools: In addition to a built-in dictionary, JapanesePod101 also includes lists of high-frequency words (including the 100 Most Common Words and 2,000 Most Common Words), a Japanese “Word of the Day”, a custom Wordbank to save new or favorite words, and Flashcards to help you review.
  • Grammar Tools: Familiarize yourself with key structures in Japanese using JapanesePod101’s Introduction to Grammar, Grammar Bank, and Verb Conjugation Chart.
  • Practice Quizzes: Test your kana and kanji and prepare for the JLPT using their Kana Quiz, Jouyou Kanji Quiz,  JLPT Kanji Quiz, and JLPT Practice Tests.

iKnow!

“Our learning science does the heavy lifting for you.”

The iKnow! website and app use powerful spaced repetition algorithms to help optimize your acquisition and review of new vocabulary. The offer a variety of quizzes and sentence training tools, and provide opportunities to practice

Some of the best features include:

  • Multimedia flashcards: Unlike most flashcard apps, iKnow! integrates audio and images to help provide more context and more mental “hooks” to imprint words in your memory..
  • Visual Memory Bank: As Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” iKnow’s Memory Bank helps you monitor your progress visually.
  • Kanji, hiragana &English: Japanese words, phrases, and sentences are displayed in kanji, hiragana, and English to help learners of all levels.
  • Japanese Core 6,000 List: The app helps you master the highest-frequency Japanese vocabulary first, a useful linguistic application of the “80/20 Rule“.

HelloTalk

“HelloTalk is the first global language and culture exchange community that connects you with native speakers of other languages for free.”

The HelloTalk app (available for iOS and Android) allows you to practice communicating with native speakers around the world. You can search for Japanese speakers by location (nearest to you or specific countries or cities), and then have conversations via text or voice. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • Correction of mistakes: Your langauge exchange partners can help correct your language usage (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, pronunciation, etc.) right in the text (see image on right).
  • Text-to-voice: If you can’t read a given message or want to hear how it sounds pronounced, you can use the voice-to-text feature to hear it spoken aloud.
  • Voice-to-text: Conversely, if you can’t understand an audio message you receive, you can use the voice-to-text feature to read the message in text.
  • Favorites: You can save any words, sentences, audio files, corrections, etc. that you’d like to review later.

Skritter

“The problem with most spaced repetition systems is that they have no idea whether you remembered an answer unless you tell them. Many of them ask you to grade yourself on a 0-5 scale after each prompt, so that they can adjust your interval accordingly. Not only is that distracting, but it doesn’t have active recall built in. Active recall is the key to long-term memory: you have to come up with the answer yourself, rather than just see the answer on the flip-side of the card. Existing programs are spaced repetition for flashcards, not characters. That’s why we made Skritter.”

The Skritter app provides an effective, enjoyable, innovative way to master the writing, meaning, and pronunciation of kanji. Instead of relying on rote memorization (the default method used by most learners), Skritter leverages the efficiency of spaced repetition and active recall to help make characters stick. Here are my favorite features:

  • Excellent Spaced Repetition System: Any language app or system worth its mustard should incorporate some kind of spaced repetition system and Skritter delivers the goods. Unlike competing spaced repetition apps which rely solely on self-reported difficulty scores, Skritter requires you to physically write target characters on your screen to demonstrate that you actually know them. This is especially important when learning kanji since it is far too easy to self-report that you “know” a character when you have simply reached a level of passive recognition but not true mastery.
  • Vocab Lists From Popular Text Books: While it’s good to have the option to create some custom lists, having to create all your own study lists is a “pain in the app”, wasting valuable energy and time that would be better spent learning the characters themselves. With Skritter, you can simply download one of the many pre-made textbook decks, including my number one recommended kanji book: Remembering the Kanji.
  • Non-Intrusive Stroke Guidance & Clues: Skritter’s elegant handwriting recognition system not only checks whether your stroke order is correct, but also if you are writing a particular stroke in the proper direction and with the required “hooks” seen in some characters. If you are completely lost, simply tap in the center of the screen to be shown the next stroke in blue.

Want more recommended tools and resources for learning Japanese anywhere in the world? Want to spend your time actually learning Japanese instead of waisting precious time searching for materials? Check out my detailed language learning guide, Master Japanese: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun WayThe guide tells you exactly what to use, how to use it, and why. In addition to the step-by-step guide (available in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats), you get 9 interviews with language experts, 5 exclusive discount codes for products I use myself, 10 worksheets and cheatsheets, free lifetime updates, and a free copy for a friend.