Learning Japanese can be complicated, especially if it’s your first time trying a new language. From getting your syllables and pronunciation right to mastering any one of the three separate writing systems, you have a lot to figure out.
Luckily, we’ve tried a bunch of language courses and can guide you in the right direction. Some of these resources are top-notch, while others are a total waste of time (and money).
Here we’ll look at the best courses for learning Japanese, the top tier options. We’ve also ranked the second and third-tier. Down at the bottom, you’ll find the courses you should stay away from. These just don’t come highly recommended, so you’re better off picking a resource from the upper tiers.
Top Tier – The Best Online Japanese Courses
These top-tier Japanese courses are the best for all-around learning.
Fantastic for a conversational jump-start
Price: $14.95/month for the basic subscription
Pimsleur uses audio-based lessons to help you get started immediately. Oral language is where Pimsleur excels, and it doesn’t seem to matter what language you’re working in. Lessons use male and female voices, and you listen to conversations between actors to learn vocabulary and pronunciation.
Pimsleur Japanese has 150 30-minute lessons, and there’s even a driving mode so you can listen in the car. The higher-level subscription option has more written work, but you can also use a free resource to fill in.
- Conversational skills are the focus, so you get started speaking fast.
- Culture is incorporated into each language, which is always a highlight.
- The focus on verbal skills means you can listen/practice anywhere.
- Because the focus is on oral language, grammar, and written language are mostly ignored.
- Some lessons are kind of boring.
Best supplement for listening practice
Price: Subscriptions range between $8/month and $47/month
JapanesePod101 works because it’s an audio-based system with lots of supplements and tools. There are tons of audio and video lessons, plus vocabulary learning tools, PDF lesson notes, and even discussion boards where you can chat with other language learners.
The platform is mobile so you can learn anywhere. With the podcast format, you’ll acquire plenty of vocabulary in a natural way. You can also use JapanesePod101 with some of the free, more text-heavy courses listed here.
- The podcast format is an excellent jumping-off point for your listening skills.
- Content ranges from beginner to advanced over nearly 3k lessons
- The cultural/background info aspect is pretty strong.
- Lessons often incorporate English, which is helpful for beginners, not so for advanced learners.
- Lessons aren’t structured in a way where you’d want to use it as your primary course.
Great for learning from the ground up
Price: Free on the website, the paperback book is $19, Kindle version is $5
This all-inclusive guide to learning Japanese covers everything from all three writing systems (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji) to verb tenses and clauses. Even as an intermediate Japanese speaker, you can use the guide in any of its digital or hard copy forms for a refresher.
One drawback is the lack of audio content, but there are some YouTube videos that help round out the lessons. You’ll probably need another resource for oral practice, though. Writing is covered, and there are prompts at the end of each chapter to get you started.
- In-depth content covers culture, grammar, and more from the perspective of a native speaker.
- It’s free if you visit the website for access.
- There’s the complete guide and an additional grammar guide—tons of free content to work through.
- Tae Kim admits there are mistakes and typos because he produced the guide quickly.
- Not much audio/video content or oral practice.
Japanese Uncovered comes from Olly Richards of the fantastic blog, I Will Teach You a Language. While I haven’t yet tried the Japanese course, I really enjoyed the Spanish version and have no reason to think the Japanese course would be any different.
The approach is rather unique, teaching the language via a story. It can be somewhat challenging compared to other courses, like Babbel or Duolingo. However, it’s also exceptionally rewarding and effective to learn a language in this manner. Additionally, you’ll have an abundance of opportunities to practice what you’ve learned.
- More challenging and rewarding than most courses.
- Learn Japanese from the context of a story.
- Requires active participation in the lessons.
- High price tag.
- Can have too much information in too few lessons.
- Some exercises aren’t the most exciting.
High-quality instruction that beats the rest
Price: $11.99/month, $29.99 for 3 months, $55.99/year, or lifetime access for $119.99
Lingodeer is newer than the comparable Duolingo or Memrise, but it offers up competitive features. Plus, Lingodeer started out with a focus on Asian languages, which is ideal if you want to learn Japanese intuitively.
Beginners, especially, will appreciate the pronunciation help, which makes up the bulk of the first level in each language. The learning tips section is also awesome and has language-specific tips. You get some cultural insights here, too, though they’re not too in-depth.
- Explanations of grammar, pronunciation, and culture are helpful.
- Good variety of exercises in an interactive app—you won’t get bored.
- The audio comes from native speakers across all languages.
- Speaking activities are limited, so you’ll need to supplement with oral practice.
- Not much content for intermediate or higher levels
Text-based supplement for all levels
Imabi is a text-based Japanese curriculum that’s in a blog format. Beginners start out learning the basics, like vowel pronunciation and the three writing methods. Content tops out at “Veteran II” level, where you can practice reading and writing skills.
If you’re using an audio-based course to learn Japanese, Imabi is an excellent resource for written practice. What’s also nice is that you can jump around depending on your ability and interest.
- Flexible curriculum—skip ahead or go back and repeat a lesson easily.
- Totally free, and a great deal of content that’s relatively current.
- A lot of exercises for intermediate-advanced speakers, which isn’t common.
- The website is slated to undergo some updates/changes, so things might swap around when you’re in the middle of a unit.
- There’s no audio element, so you’ll need a supplement for that.
A top-notch study supplement to learn to read
Price: The first three levels are free, then $9/month, $89/year or $299 for lifetime access
In order to read Japanese, you’ll need to learn Kanji and lots of vocabulary. WaniKani makes learning these more fun and efficient. They use lots of mnemonics and stories to make the content you learn more memorable.
Similar to some other resources, WaniKani uses algorithms to continue repeating vocab that you struggle with. Basically, it knows how well you’re doing and will keep reviewing the tough stuff until you get it down. You can also take notes or add synonyms to your vocabulary section to help it stick. A forum is also available so you can work on your conversational skills or get help.
- The system tracks your strengths and weaknesses, which helps you work on filling in skills.
- Native speakers provide the audio, which is always a highlight.
- There are 60 levels of content, with plenty for more advanced Japanese speakers.
- The lessons build on each other, so you have to keep up daily.
- It has a more limited focus than other courses.
A Well-Designed Course with Great Attention to Detail
Price: $18.99 for PC & Mac, $14.99 for iPad, $9.99 for Android & iOS
Human Japanese is, as the name implies, a resource created by humans for humans. It’s set up similar to a textbook which allows you to make progress at whatever pace you would like, but also may require you to implement your own study techniques. The quality of the resource definitely stands out with its detailed explanations and interesting material, even if the textbook-like layout probably isn’t for everyone.
The course material also naturally and logically builds upon itself, which makes it easy to stick to. It’s probably best used in combination with other resources that allow for more practice opportunities, but as far as instruction and explanations go, this has everything you need.
- The material is interesting enough to keep the user engaged
- Course material contains very clear and detailed explanations
- Everything builds on itself in a logical way making it easy to progress
- Doesn’t allow for many practice opportunities
- Doesn’t offer much in the way of communication practice, forcing you to look elsewhere for supplementary help
- Textbook-like format may not be for everyone
A strong text-based learning tool
At first glance, Elon.io looks like a basic vocabulary review tool. And it does have lists of vocabulary words, plus pronunciation guides and definitions. But within the lessons, there are interactive, self-correcting activities for everything from basic verbs to reading and writing comprehension.
Some lessons are short, with just questions you type the answers to. Others involve a lecture and then a list of exercises you can try. If you don’t know the answer, the site prompts you with the answer, which is helpful since it’s otherwise a self-guided course. Elon.io also uses a similar spaced repetition system (SRS) as Wanikani uses—so you’ll keep seeing the content you have a hard time with until you nail it.
- You can make your own word lists to learn the specific vocabulary.
- Strong grammar instruction so you learn the basics you can build on.
- It’s free but also customizable, something you don’t often find.
- Not much audio practice, so you’ll have to find that somewhere else.
- The interface is kind of clunky, with multiple clicks for every page you visit.
An interactive intro to Japanese
The Japan Foundation operates this free resource, with the option to study on your own or with a tutor. Every lesson includes supplements with cultural information, discussion of new vocabulary, and more. The online dashboard shows your progress and has a portfolio page, which is a cool reference tool for looking back on your accomplishments.
For oral practice, there are videos where you can take on the role of a character and engage in dialogue. Lessons typically include a scenario with phrases to practice and questions to answer. Same-page translations and suggestions help you come up with responses.
- While the main site is for English speakers, there’s another site for non-English speakers.
- It’s free!
- Levels range from A1 to C2, so they cover beginners through proficient Japanese speakers.
- The audio is somewhat limited, so you might need another component to practice with.
- The on-page prompts make it easy to ‘cheat,’ so you need to really engage with the material.
Second Tier – Good Online Japanese Courses
These resources are good options for most Japanese learners, but with a few drawbacks.
A fun, comprehensive Japanese intro
NHK World uses an engaging, comic-strip style format for teaching the basics of Japanese. The Easy Japanese course has a bit each of audio, animated videos, written content, and cultural info.
Each lesson has a video that lasts about 10 minutes. You’ll work through a skit animation (with or without subtitles) and then follow speaking practice prompts. All three writing systems are discussed here, plus you can download the audio and video for the lessons.
- You can use the website or the smartphone/tablet app.
- The graphics and animation are fun, and the range of activities is engaging.
- It’s free, including downloads.
- Not a lot of content for advanced speakers—it’s essentially a resource for beginners.
- There’s not much support, just automatic correction as you work through the lessons.
Popular & accessible Japanese lessons
Price: Free, Kindle book is $9.99, and paperback is about $28
YesJapan is a combination of books, YouTube videos, games, and online courses that help beginners on up become fluent in Japanese. The associated Japanese from Zero YouTube channel has videos with an instructor who’s engaging and straightforward, too.
If you prefer a book format, the courses come in Kindle and paperback form. Of course, the online platform is free, while the books are a paid resource.
- Chatrooms, live streaming, and ask-a-teacher function help you get answers to your learning questions.
- The notebook area is great for reviewing and reinforcing lessons and vocab that are challenging.
- It’s not clear how you can sign up or whether there’s a fee for an “upgraded” subscription.
Helpful for beginners
Price: Free. Premium plans are $9/month
Memrise is a helpful free tool for beginners. You’ll learn the basics of Japanese conversation and vocabulary. Content is always changing, and since a lot of it is user-created, variety is the spice here.
Whatever scenario or topic you want to study, you can probably find it on Memrise. The key is not relying too heavily on this tool for all your language learning, though—it’s not perfect.
- User-created content is free.
- You can choose to study different topics based on your interests.
- Flashcard-type courses are quick and engaging.
- There’s not much material for advanced Japanese speakers.
- Good for memorizing vocabulary, but the functionality beyond that is limited.
Balanced instruction for beginners
Price: Level 1 is $99.95, Levels 1 & 2 are $249.90, and Levels 1, 2, & 3 are $259.90
Instruction quality varies a lot with Rocket Languages courses, but the Japanese one exceeded our (fairly low) expectations. The modules include four types of lessons, spanning writing, culture, audio, and more. The audio lessons are pretty long—20 to 30 minutes—and they involve verbal prompts, so you get some oral practice in.
You’ll likely need another way to learn the Japanese writing systems because Rocket Japanese sort of assumes you know it already. Beyond that, their course is solid enough for beginners.
- The free trial features five lessons, so a good sampling before you buy.
- Cultural sections are a regular feature and add some perspective.
- Good balance of writing, oral practice, and culture.
- Exercises can be repetitive and boring.
- The voice recognition feature is unpredictable, which is fairly common.
Tons of material for a foundation in Japanese
Price: $14/month for month-to-month or $12/month for a year. Premium plans are $22/month for month-to-month or $20/month for a year.
Instead of a single Japanese course, the Supercourse combines 29 smaller courses into one package. There are more than 1,000 lessons, but the drawback is that they use the same style and can get pretty repetitive. You also won’t find a lot of exercises—it’s mostly read-and-retain instruction. The content is extremely in-depth so if you stick with it, you’ll come away having learned a ton.
Basically, the format is humorous but not always engaging, like a textbook with video elements. For grammar nerds, though, this is one resource that’s worth checking out.
- Grammar instruction gives you a strong foundation.
- A free introductory course lets you try it before you buy it.
- The format and instruction are high-quality, and you can tell Niko cares about the content.
- Not a standalone resource—you’ll need another tool for oral practice.
- Lessons get boring since they all follow the same format.
Free university classes
Price: Free. You can pay $49 for a “Verified Certificate” of completion.
Edx is a learning platform with free courses from universities around the world. There are both self-paced and instructor-led courses, so you can choose what works for your schedule and study habits.
What’s nice about Edx, beyond the fact that it’s free, is that you can study specific topics. Not only do they have some beginner level Japanese courses, but you can also learn about business management, Japanese architecture, or something else completely.
- Variety of content on different topics and cultural elements.
- Option to get a certificate of completion.
- Limited offerings and not always the most exciting stuff
- Quality and content vary by course.
Textbook instruction for beginners
FSI has two Japanese courses: a Fast Course and a Headstart Course. Both are downloadable courses in textbook format (PDFs). The Fast Course is a book only, with over 500 pages. The Headstart Course includes student text modules, a guide, glossary, and flashcards. It also has over nine hours of audio instruction.
The texts themselves are outdated and pretty boring, but the information is solid. If you’re looking for a free and comprehensive course, and can overlook its faults, you could learn a great deal from FSI Japanese.
- The Headstart Course offers both audio and text.
- You don’t need Wi-Fi to study since you can download/print the resources
- Format is clunky—it was written with a typewriter.
- The material is old and audio quality is low.
Third Tier – Decent Online Japanese Courses
These third-tier courses have plenty of benefits, but a few more negatives. Still, you might find your perfect course here.
Useful, but with a cost
Price: $30/month for month-to-month, $24.99/month for a yearly subscription
If you’re learning multiple languages, Glossika might be worth the high subscription cost. The repetitive format—which kind of feels boring—is a good strategy for becoming more confident speaking a new language. While there is text, the focus is on listening and speaking.
The content for all languages is the same, so it won’t be helpful for learning anything about Japanese culture. Likewise, it doesn’t teach you anything about how the language works. Instead, you’re meant to pick this up naturally through repetition.
- You get access to all languages with a subscription.
- The lesson style is the same for all languages, so it’s helpful if you’re learning more than one.
- Exercises accompany the audio recordings
- Errors are common in the materials.
- The format isn’t engaging or interesting.
- Pricing is too high for the value.
A passable option for beginners
Price: $19.99/month or $199.99/year
Mango Languages is a somewhat pricey competitor of Duolingo, but the good news is, you can often use it for free at your area library. You also get access to every language (70+) with a single subscription.
With Mango Languages, you’ll get basic grammar and culture instruction and a game-y format that’s kind of fun to toy around with. You can track your stats and translate phrases in the platform, but beyond that, there’s not much reason to use it over other courses.
- Your local library might offer it for free.
- You can access all the languages with one subscription.
- The game-like format is fairly engaging.
- Fairly high cost for what you get.
- Only lower-level content, none for advanced Japanese speakers.
Culture and reading, and that’s it
With LinguaLift Japanese, you might learn how to read Japanese really well, but that’s the only highlight. It’s a text-heavy course that shares plenty of cultural and historical background. The problem is, there’s not much audio or oral practice in the lessons.
Fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions make up the bulk of the activities, which gets boring fast. And since most of the lessons involve a lot of English, you’ll probably feel like you’re learning Japanese really slowly.
- Cultural information is excellent.
- One subscription gets you access to all three languages.
- If you want to learn to read in Japanese, LinguaLift covers it in-depth.
- The course lacks audio content.
- The lessons get dull because they’re all the same format.
- There’s not much Japanese—instruction takes place mostly in English.
Blog-style lessons for practice
Price: Free, paid products available from $5 to $16
The Japanese Page offers email courses in Japanese, plus lesson pages on culture, grammar, and vocabulary. Its blog format makes it easy to find what you want, which is helpful if you want to focus solely on grammar or culture. There are a lot of free lessons, though nothing that’s really outstanding.
The paid products range from about $5 to $16 and include stories with audio downloads to go with them.
- Lots of free lessons on a range of topics.
- Convenient access to lessons—just visit the blog or sign up for an email course.
- There’s a lot of cultural information and resources.
- The content isn’t accessible to complete beginners.
- It’s hard to know where to start since the format doesn’t involve levels.
- Not a lot of audio lessons unless you buy the books with MP3 downloads.
Game-style Japanese practice
Price: Free, $9.99/mo for Duolingo Plus
Duolingo’s highlights are that it’s free to use and it’s engaging. You do need a working knowledge of the writing systems for Japanese because Duolingo doesn’t teach it. Once you know the basics, this course can be helpful for reinforcing concepts and just general practice.
There’s not a lot of in-depth instruction, but the game-like format is fun and can keep your Japanese skills current.
- Instruction is simple and easy for beginners.
- The game-style format is fun and accessible.
- You can use it sporadically to brush up on skills.
- You won’t learn any of the writing systems for Japanese.
- They struggle to teach non-Latin based languages.
Avoid These – Online Japanese Courses We Can’t Recommend
You can still learn Japanese with these courses but they’re among our least favorites, so we’d recommend looking elsewhere.
Barely passable instruction
Price: $9.99/month to $47.99/year for one language
You might be able to learn some passable Japanese with Mondly, but it won’t be worth the price. It’s not an engaging format, and cultural elements are nonexistent. A cookie-cutter design and very basic Japanese instruction mean you may be able to learn a few words or phrases, but that’s it.
It’s similar to lots of other courses without anything particularly special. Although they do have AR and VR apps, the VR one was pretty disappointing.
- Teaches useful vocabulary and phrases
- Can help you practice some key phrases.
- All levels and languages use the same format so it’s repetitive and boring.
- There’s not enough in-depth instruction (in any language).
Too much money for too little content
Price:$9.99/month for Premium and $13.99/month for Premium Plus
Busuu covers a handful of languages, but it only does a few of them decently. Unfortunately Japanese isn’t one of them. The highlight is the language exchange part of the app, where you can get writing or speech corrected. But that’s really the only thing we love about it.
The price is a problem because although it’s not really expensive, it’s not as comprehensive as some of the other apps out there. You also won’t get instruction on the basics with Busuu—like grammar, pronunciation, or discussion of the writing systems.
- Busuu’s language exchange feature is an excellent idea for language learning.
- You can get access to the language exchange aspect with a free subscription.
- It’s not as comprehensive as similar apps
- It skips most grammar instruction, leaving you confused.
- It doesn’t do pronunciation very well outside of the language exchange feature
An old approach that isn’t worth it
Price: $36 for 3 months, $179 for 12 months, or $199 one time for a lifetime subscription
We’re kind of surprised that Rosetta Stone is still around. With the high price point and their juvenile approach to teaching any language, there’s not much to like here. Sure, an absolute beginner can start working with a Japanese course and learn some vocabulary. But the format, which relies on picture matching and sorting, gets old really fast.
For this cost, we expected way more in terms of instruction. Being treated like an adult would be cool, too.
- Each initial lesson starts with the absolute basics.
- The voice recognition tool is fun to work with.
- Your subscription only covers a single language.
- The picture-sorting format is almost obnoxiously juvenile.
- There are no English explanations, making the grammar hard to grasp.
Audio-heavy instruction at a cost
Price: Starts at $11.99 and up to $100 per course
Like some other Michel Thomas Method courses, Japanese isn’t taught by Michel Thomas himself. Two Japanese instructors wrote and recorded this course. The course heavily relies on audio and follows the format of an instructional session between a teacher and two students.
It’s a good concept, but the courses are expensive overall and there’s not much to them. Basically, there are far better free resources that use the same methods.
- Focus on oral instruction, which is good for getting you speaking.
- Pause-and-play means you can work at your own pace.
- Doesn’t deliver enough value to justify the cost.
- Lack of reading and writing practice.
- Nothing for advanced speakers—only up to intermediate.
Pricey with little value
Price: $39/month, $150 for an annual subscription
Living Language might seem like a fun tool for language learning, but it’s not worth the investment. You don’t really have to learn the language you’re studying to “game” the system, even if you don’t mean to.
At this price point, we wouldn’t bother subscribing just for the engaging content. There’s not enough to keep you learning Japanese beyond the cool interface.
- Interactive, gamey style is engaging.
- Forums are nice for connecting with other learners.
- There might be errors in the Japanese course.
- It’s pricier than better alternatives
- You don’t have to really learn to beat the games.
Only the basics of different languages
Price: $24.95/month or $149.99/year for one language. $49.95/month or $249.95/year for all languages
Transparent Language has a ton of different languages, but they don’t do any of them in-depth. While you might learn some vocabulary, you won’t learn how to build a conversation with it. What’s neat is you can record yourself and drop the recording into a conversation to listen to your pronunciation.
- A wide range of languages is available.
- The recording tool is useful for checking your pronunciation.
- Pricing is way too steep, even if you’re learning multiple languages.
- Memorization is the main focus, not actual learning.
- Instruction is repetitive and dull.
Learn to parrot foreign phrases without instruction
Price: $147 for the beginner level, $342 for all levels, $472 for all languages
Coming in at last place is Language101, offering courses in ten languages. The aim of these courses is to take the learner from a beginning level of speaking and comprehension skills to an intermediate level, and it falls short of the mark.
The teaching style is dubious at best and involves parroting Japanese phrases as soon as you begin, without instruction. There are no explanations and no reading, writing, or grammar practice. There isn’t even a conversational aspect to this pricey course.
You’re also expected to move as quickly as possible through the phrases, which makes for a disorienting learning experience. There are far better options for spending your time and money.
- Literal translations are provided
- It’s far too expensive for what it offers (and doesn’t)
- You won’t learn how to read or write
- Course structure is messy
Learning Japanese can seem like an impossible task. But with the right language course, you’ll find yourself speaking in no time. With our recommendations, you can find the learning tools that work best for your style and ability level. Tell us what courses you’ve tried and loved for learning Japanese. Also if you’re interested in Japanese apps then take a look at our best Japanese apps page.
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