There are a lot of Japanese language courses out there, and many of them are actually pretty good. Today I’d like to share the best online Japanese courses for 2020.
I’ve used all of the courses I’m going to cover, so I’ll talk about their teaching methods, the course content, and my personal thoughts on each one.
At the end of each review I’ll provide you with a link to their free trial page so that you can try them out for yourself if that’s something that interests you.
If I could sum up JapanesePod101.com in a two words it would be these: massive content!
This course has (arguably) the largest selection of material to learn Japanese from, which starts out at the absolute beginner level and zips right on to the advanced lessons. It then goes on to finish with some bonus stuff.
Now like the name indicates, the primary method that is uses to teach Japanese is through podcasts-style lessons.
Basically, there will be a lesson that covers a grammar point or a short dialog and most of the audio lesson will be spent going over it and providing explanations.
Thankfully they provide transcripts of each lesson so that it’s easy to read what the people are saying. I always found that to be a really good way to learn Japanese, by reading and listening to the same material.
In addition to that, they provide additional sections in each lesson that cover different aspects of Japanese. Some of the specific things are:
- Lesson Notes
- The transcript
- And some other stuff
In addition to the above methods, they also have some video lessons of native Japanese speaking that I watched and learned from. I thought it was a great way to use visual cues of “what’s going on” in order to understand the message behind the what is being said.
There are also a lot of additional features that I thought were pretty cool such as flash cards, high frequency word lists, and of course tutors that can do live sessions for anyone who wants to practice speaking Japanese.
For the most part, they had anything and everything that I would want when learning Japanese at both a beginner and intermediate level.
However, I felt that their advanced level stuff was kind of limited.
Also, their huge selection of content can make it a little hard to know how to progress through the material!
What I typically did was look for a topic that I found interesting, like the ones where they talked about Japanese culture or history, and then did all of the lessons within that category.
I also found it helpful to do the lessons that covered aspects of grammar that I hadn’t learned yet.
I skipped most of the “absolute beginner” material since I could already read hiragana, katakana, and I knew the basic greetings and such.
It was also helpful that I could see the forms were people talked and the questions that other students asked so that I could read the tutor’s answers.
I personally like to study Japanese on my computer so I can listen to and read the language, but JapanesePod101.com is versatile and I was able to download lessons and take them on the go.
Mostly I would do this so that I could listen to them in my car or while I worked out at the gym.
If you like being able to access the same Japanese material across different electronic devices, then this course can accommodate that.
So, to summarize this course I would say that it provides a ton of high quality lessons, materials, and resources that are super useful at the beginner and intermediate levels of Japanese.
I enjoyed using them and learned a lot, so it’s easy for me to recommend them to other people who are also learning Japanese.
The second online Japanese course that I want to talk about is called LingQ (pronounced “link”) and it was created by Steve Kaufmann who speaks 17 languages and most of those languages he learned through using LingQ.
LingQ is really unique and I’ve never used a course quite like it.
The basic philosophy behind the course is that people learn languages best when they do a lot of reading and listening to native material that is both comprehensible and interesting.
This is in line with what Stephen Krashen (perhaps the most well known expert on language acquisition) says is the key to learning languages. He says that we acquire languages when we understand what’s being said.
So, let me talk about how LingQ does these two things:
- Make Japanese comprehensible
- Make Japanese interesting
The way that LingQ works is that you open a lesson and you see that it is written entirely in Japanese.
What unique about these lessons however, is that each word is clickable and can save an English definition to it.
So I basically just read as best as I could until I ran into a new word and then I would click on it and select a definition to save to it. Now I knew what the word meant and I could continue reading.
I would then listen to the lesson so that I could hear what the words sound like when a native Japanese read them.
What I really liked about this method was that looking up new words only took a few seconds and if I didn’t like any of the available translations, I could create my own.
This solved the biggest problem I had every time I tried to read a Japanese novel. Mainly, that it took far too much time looking up new words.
When I would try to read a Japanese book on my own, it would take me at least thirty minutes to get through one or two pages.
Even when I would try reading eBooks, it still didn’t work out very well because their built in dictionaries were spotty at best.
Within my first year of using LingQ I read five Japanese novels, which made me feel incredibly proud of what I had accomplished.
Now, I realize that not everyone cares about reading Japanese novels, so let me talk about the second factor of language learning: finding interesting material.
First of all, LingQ already has a ton of material on it from a wide variety of sources.
They have news articles, novels, podcasts, Japanese fairy tales, children stories, grammar lessons, YouTube videos, anime, and I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting about.
But the real power of LingQ is that they allow people to upload whatever Japanese materials they want to.
So for me, I’m really big into anime and I was able to import the transcripts and audio files of anime from sites like Netflix, Animelon, YouTube, and a few others.
So I would watch the episode once, import the material, and then start learning from it.
This means that I never had to learn from a boring lesson that made me feel like I was stuck in a classroom, and could instead learn from the things that I actually found enjoyable.
But I will say that I think LingQ would be a little challenging to use if I was brand new to Japanese, because the lessons are all in Japanese.
I remember when I first started learning Japanese, I used courses that would explain things like the grammar and word order in English and then provide Japanese examples.
That being said, I started using LingQ in the summer of 2018 and I still use it nearly everyday. I just upload any new books or shows that I’m interesting in and start learning.
The Pimsleur Japanese course is well-known and has a reputation for being effective at getting people to a basic conversational level with Japanese in as little as thirty days.
The lessons are primarily audio based, and are kept to about thirty minutes per lessons which I found particularly helpful at the beginning since it allowed me time to practice each day, no matter how busy I got.
I would usually do the lessons while driving to and from work in my car, but sometimes I’d listen to them at home.
Each lesson starts off with a short two-minute conversation in Japanese, and then the full lesson begins by going over the vocabulary and grammar that were in the Japanese conversation. The lessons use listen and repeat style exercises.
What really makes the Pimsleur courses special are two things:
- The Principle of Anticipation
- Graduated Interval Recall
Let me explain each of these now:
The Principle of Anticipation
What they have found is that teaching students certain words and phrases in the beginning of the lesson, and then asking them to recall those same words and phrases later on actually boosts the memory’s retention rate.
For example, they might teach a person that “hello” in Japanese is “konnichi-wa” and then about 5 minutes later they’ll ask “Do you remember how to say ‘hello’ in Japanese?”
This then activates the mind to search for the answer, which it is usually able to do quite well. I personally never considered myself to have a great memory, but for whatever reason, this method works!
Graduated Interval Recall
This is a science based on how quickly people naturally forget. Another name for this that you may have heard before is Space Repetition System (SRS).
So the first time a person learns something, they naturally forget it within a day or two. That is unless they are reminded about it before they forget it.
Then it usually takes about a week to forget the new words, so the system reminds the student again and now they can remember it for several months.
This process continues on until the memory is locked in forever.
So that’s the science behind the two primary techniques that Pimsleur Japanese uses. Now I’ll talk about the course contents a little.
The real strength of this course is that it goes over common words and phrases that are used in casual and formal conversations.
It assumes that the learner knows nothing about Japanese, and teaches basic greetings and how to talk about oneself. As the lessons continue, the topics get progressively more complicated.
The focus is always on real conversations, so all the words that I learned were ones that I could actually use when speaking to someone in Japanese.
When I first used the course it didn’t teach how to read and write Japanese, but they’ve updated it since then and now teach reading at the same level as the conversational skills in the course.
The other thing to note is that the Pimsleur course focuses on a small core vocabulary of several hundred words per level (there are five levels total) so that it’s easier to learn and remember the new words.
Once you add up all five levels of their courses, there are somewhere between 2,000-2,500 Japanese words.
I found that sometimes I had to listen to a lesson two or three times to really remember everything, but once I got the material it really stuck with me.
Rocket Japanese is an interactive, all-in-one course that covers speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
In addition to that, there are a lot of culture lessons which I found particularly cool since it talks about many of the unique aspects of Japan.
There are three sections in Rocket Japanese with different types of lessons in each, and they all work together to form a cohesive course.
This is the primary lesson where I would listen to a short conversation in Japanese, and then the hosts would explain the words and grammar that I had just heard.
It was actually pretty similar to the format that the Pimsleur course uses, but the primary difference is that there were a lot of practice exercises at the end of the Rocket Japanese lesson.
The exercises were things like:
- Review flashcards
- Listen and repeat what you heard
- Listen and then write what you heard
What I felt was the single strongest aspect of the Rocket Japanese course is the built in recording function that allowed me to test my pronunciation with that of the native speaker.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought I said it exactly like the Japanese person, but then when I listened to my recording I noticed slight mistakes!
This allowed me to work on correcting it, so that my pronunciation improved a lot.
In addition to that, there is a computer grading system that will gives a percentage rating on how well you do. Having said that, I found that listeing to it myself was the best way to tell how well I did.
This part was actually a combination of grammar and culture. Usually it would start off by going into great detail on the rules of the grammar that were used in the first section’s conversation.
Then it moved on to talk a little bit about Japanese culture, history, trivia, or anything else that plays an important part of learning the Japanese language.
The final section teaches how to read and write all of hiragana, all of katakana, and a fair amount of kanji in the later parts.
I did these exercises on my computer, so I guess you could say that it teaches you both how to write and also how to type Japanese.
There’s also an app that you can use on your phone, but I never really took advantage of that fact.
The lessons start off with total beginner material, and then every lesson builds from there until it gets to the point where the learner can engage in everyday conversation with natives on a variety of topics, as well as read all Japanese kana, and a lot of the most common kanji.
Not a lot of people have heard about Glossika, and I only ran into them by chance when surfing through the internet one day.
The Glossika Japanese course is designed to help people break through to spoken fluency in Japanese.
It’s centered around several thousand Japanese sentences that use the common words, expressions, and grammar that they found were used in most day to day conversations.
The basic method is to listen to the full Japanese sentence and then repeat it yourself.
For each sentence that the course provides, there is the full Japanese version, a romaji version, an IPA version, and then the full English translation.
Because of this, I think it would be a little overwhelming for people who are brand new to Japanese, but if someone was at an intermediate level then I think they could handle it just fine.
There are a few other techniques that they recommend the student use in order to learn the Japanese at a deeper level.
Some of the techniques are:
- Repeating the sentences aloud
- Listening to and writing out the sentence
- Recording and comparing pronunciation to the native
- Interpreting from one language to the other
It’s pretty heavy stuff, but I found it to be effective.
The massive repetition in this course reminds me of lifting weights at the gym.
If someone only does a couple reps, there probably won’t be a noticeable difference. But if they do several thousand, there’s no doubt they will become much stronger.
The founder of Glossika, Michael Campbell, says that most students at a university have only done about 3,000 reps in their language.
In this case a “rep” is one full spoken sentence.
But he says that it takes at least 30,000 reps to start feeling fluency where you can speak with ease.
This has been my experience as well, mainly that speaking a lot of Japanese in full sentences greatly improves spoken ability.
Glossika also does something else that I’ve never seen anywhere: they use artificial intelligence to help people learn languages.
The system uses an algorithm that decides which sentences need to be reviewed and practiced each day, so that the learner is always working efficiently and doesn’t waste any time.
In addition to that, Glossika is that they use what is called a “decreasing interval system” which means that the same words and sentences are used several times per lesson, and in subsequent lessons, so that the brain gets a lot of exposure to them right away and is able to assimilate them naturally.
Which One Is The Best?
I think all five of these courses are really great, but each one is different and has certain strengths and weaknesses.
I’d like to divide them into two categories:
- Understanding Japanese
- Speaking Japanese
From my experience, the best way to learn Japanese is through a lot of reading and listening.
However, if you want to get good at speaking Japanese, then you have to speak a lot.
These are complementary skills, but each one needs to be worked on specifically to get better at them.
For Understanding Japanese
I think if I were a total beginner, then I would find JapanesePod101.com to be the most helpful course.
But once I got to the intermediate level, I would switch over the LingQ, and probably stay there from then on.
For Speaking Japanese
For speaking, I’ve found that Pimsleur is the most beginner friendly and the way that they teach pronunciation is really intuitive.
When it comes to speaking a lot (so, the intermediate level) I would put my money on Glossika. They’ve got thousands of full Japanese sentences and their methodology forces you to speak an incredible amount.
All that being said, Rocket Japanese actually has the best tool for improving your accent. Their recording feature on every Japanese word and sentence allows you to hear what you said and immediately compare it to the native.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that all of these courses are really good, but which one is best will depend on your currently level with Japanese and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Hopefully I’ve given you enough information to help you find the right one.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments on any of them.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: