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The best Japanese-language apps for the iPhone

May 24, 2010 |  6:02 pm

There are apps for opening garage doors, setting your DVR and making dinner reservations -- but learning Japanese? 

That task is anything but simple.  For a taste of its linguistic complexity, just consult Wikipedia: Regular folks may not even understand the English words used to describe the essentials of Japanese.

Japanese is "agglutinative," "distinguished by a complex system of honorifics" and "mora-timed." The thought of downloading an app that can make sense of all this is dubious to say the least.

But you have to start somewhere.  And Apple's app store is always a good place to start.  We checked out all 14 Japanese apps so you don't have to.  Of those, we left out two that were minimally helpful.

Most of the other 12 could be great substitutes for classroom or book learning. A few of them proved useful for those who had no previous knowledge of the language. The skills that many of the apps offered were even enough to make a difference when visiting Japan, allowing language neophytes to navigate cities and engage in very basic conversation with locals.

In order of most useful, here are our favorite (free) Japanese-language apps:

HuHuman japaneseman Japanese: This could be one of the best language applications on the iPhone. The application is broken up into chapters, each one teaching the Japanese spoken language, alphabet and culture in a step-by-step manner. Human Japanese begins by explaining how Japanese is different from -- and similar to -- English, and what to anticipate when learning the language. Before diving into vocabulary and the alphabet, the application offers a pronunciation lesson, and frequently displays how a typical English speaker tends to say a Japanese word versus how a native speaker would. For someone who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, this app is a breath of fresh air, and the only free application we reviewed that was good enough to upgrade to the $9.99 paid version.


Japanese phrases Japanese Phrases:
Japanese Phrases carefully leads the user though the various Japanese alphabets and grammar in a thorough and ordered fashion. Its major flaw, however, is in its layout: With multiple colors and cluttered pages, the app isn’t as visually appealing as Human Japanese (above). On the plus side, it’s one of the few apps to offer quizzes at the end of each section, and the quizzes are much more simple and straightforward than those in the Human Japanese app.

Start Japanese! Lite Start Japanese!: The free version of this application introduces basic verbs, basic temporal expressions and a tutorial on asking questions. Users can also just push play and listen to the tutor during each lesson, instead of having to read through the text. The app is thorough, and like the two above, assumes the user knows nothing about the language. The app does little for those looking to learn more about reading Japanese script, however. 

Fantastic apps for those who lack practice time to memorize words and phrases:


Lessons free WN japanese La
nguage Learner, World Nomads Japanese: These two apps were  helpful once I was actually in Tokyo and needed to quickly look up a basic phrase. Both are packed with essential phrases that tourists need to get around -- the obvious stuff like "Hello," "How are you?" "I’d like a table for two please," etc. If you have little time to actually learn the language, these two apps are a great shortcut to get the basics.

Apps that rely heavily on flashcard use and are great for those with prior knowledge of Japanese language structure and grammar:

Accelastudy Word power lite Japanese lite Gengo lite Accela Study, Word Power, Japanese LITE, Gengo Lite: None of these applications are ideal for those completely new to Japanese. All consist largely of Japanese flashcard-style learning, which could be great if that's your preferred learning method. However, if your purpose for learning Japanese is to be able to navigate the country, this might not be the right choice.  These apps are more about vocabulary-building rather than learning basic phrases.

Apps that rely heavily on listening skills and are good for those with prior knowledge of Japanese language structure and grammar:

Gogospeak Beginner japanese lite Linguatalk GogoSpeak, Beginner Japanese Lite, LinguaTalk: The free versions of these apps offer audio conversations with translations. With no prior understanding of Japanese, the conversations, despite being simple, are not easy to pick up. Unlike applications like Human Japanese, they fail to clearly explain why the Japanese language works the way it does. These applications would be more useful for someone who had a little background in the language and grammar -- and excellent listening skills.

--Zohreen Adamjee

twitter.com/Zohreen

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