Language Mastery Toolbox
The Best Tools & Resources to Learn Languages Right at Home
ESSENTIAL LANGUAGE TOOLS
iTalki Online Tutors
iTalki is my preferred place to find online language tutors. The community boasts over 3 million users and thousands of tutors to choose from, including free language exchange partners and low-cost professional teachers. I know that speaking can be the scariest part of learning a language, but if you want to get better, you HAVE to actually practice. And talking with kind, patient tutors is one of the best ways to do exactly that right from the comfort of home.
Language Learning with Netflix
The Language Learning with Netflix (LLN) extension for Google Chrome supercharges Netflix and makes it one of the most powerful ways to immerse yourself anywhere in the world. When enabled, the extension adds interactive subtitles, a nifty pop-up dictionary, the ability to save words and phrases, and a even the option to export to Anki. (Update: They now also offer a beta version for YouTube, too!)
Anki Spaced Repetition App
Literally meaning “memorization” (暗記) in Japanese, Anki is one of the most popular spaced repetition systems (SRS) for language learning. It has tons of useful user-generated decks and add-ons, it allows for extensive customization, and it works on every major platform. It does have a somewhat steeper learning curve than simpler SRSs and certainly lacks some of the polish, but its effectiveness more than makes up for its lack of elegance.
JapanesePod101 produces some of the highest quality learner podcasts and tools available with nearly 3,000 audio and video episodes for various levels (absolute beginners, beginners, intermediate learners, and advanced learners), complete dialogue transcriptions with kanji, kana, roumaji, and English translations, and custom feeds so you can download just content right for your level. They also have spaced repetition flashcards, kanji study tools, pronunciation and accent review tools, a grammar bank, and a free app for on-the-go practice.
Nihongo con Teppei
There is a lot to like about the Nihongo con Teppei podcast: each episode is short (usually about four minutes), presented only in Japanese (with no distractions in English), and tailored for language learners (with words pronounced in a slow, clear way). The show is hosted by Teppei, a popular Japanese teacher on iTalki who has taught over 750 lessons to date. Since he is learning English and Spanish himself, he knows exactly what it’s like to learn a language, and uses the same methods to teach his native language that he employs to learn foreign tongues.
Nihongo Dictionary App
Nihongo is my go-to Japanese dictionary app for iOS. I especially like that it is focused on learning Japanese in context and using authentic content (e.g. you can paste in text from blogs, Japanese Wikipedia, etc.). It was developed by Chris Vasselli, a software developer (formerly of Box, Subspace, and IBM) and Japanese learner who has really thought the user experience through. He has managed to overcome many of the problems with competing Japanese dictionary apps and continues to improve and adapt the app based on user feedback. For other platforms and recommendations, see The Best 10 Japanese Dictionary Apps.
Remembering the Kanji
Trying to learn kanji through tedious rote repetition (like Japanese children do) is a recipe for frustration and failure. Fortunately, there is a far more fun and effective approach: imaginative memory. Instead of trying to memorize random piles of strokes (extremely hard), you instead just remember crazy, vivid stories (far easier). There are many mnemonic systems and sites out there today (and any mnemonics are certainly better than no mnemonics), but I think James Heisig’s classic book Remembering the Kanji (RTK) is still the best, most effective way to go. Using the approach, you can learn all 2,000+ regular-use kanji in months instead of years.
For tons more Japanese resource recommendations, check out Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese through Anywhere Immersion, my detailed how-to guide and resource manual for independent Japanese language learners. The guide and bonus resources show you exactly how to build a Japanese immersion environment no matter where in the world you live, and how to learn Japanese the fun, effective, modern way (through anime, manga, Netflix, etc.), instead of through expensive classes and boring textbooks.
“Master Japanese is the most helpful book I’ve found in my two+ year effort to learn Japanese. The book is focused on helping a Japanese language learner be successful by providing practical hints, tips, tools, apps and advice. There are hundreds of links to excellent resources. The author provides learners with helpful strategies to approach the learning process, which can be overwhelming unless you can figure out how to make sustainable progress continuously. This is a very comprehensive book. Want to learn Japanese by watching movies, listening to music or podcasts? The author provides links to all these resources, along with specific tips for success. I am so grateful for this book. Need to figure out which of many learning resources to choose? The author provides an in-depth review of what’s available and how it works.”
MANDARIN CHINESE TOOLS
Pleco Dictionary App
The Pleco Chinese dictionary app was developed by Michael Love, who was first inspired to create a basic version for Palm OS in the year 2000 while living in China and struggling to remember Chinese vocabulary. Twenty years later, his little labor of love has evolved into the most powerful Chinese dictionary, flashcard app, and e-reader available on iOS and Android!
The ChineseClass101 podcast is divided into four basic levels: Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. There are numerous programs available for each level, including audio lessons with transcripts, videos, culture classes, and more. You can access the content online, through the Innovative 101 app, or through your podcast app.
Remembering the Hanzi
As mentioned above, learning characters through tedious rote repetition (like Chinese children do) is not a great strategy for adult learners. Fortunately, the same “imaginative memory” approach James Heisig used to master characters in Japan is now available for Chinese learners, too, for both traditional and simplified characters: Remembering Traditional Hanzi and Remembering Simplified Hanzi. The books, co-authored by Timothy Richardson, provide a systematic way to more easily learn the most common 3,000 characters.
Though I think Remembering Simplified / Traditional Hanzi (RTH) is best for learning Chinese characters, I think Skritter is best for practicing and solidifying your learning. Instead of training and assessing passive recognition like most apps, Skritter requires you to actively produce the language, writing out a given character or tone on your smartphone screen or computer trackpad. This active recall approach better assess which words, characters, and tones you truly know by heart, and which you can simply recognize but not yet produce from memory. And they have premade RTH decks!
For more tips and resource recommendations, check out Master Mandarin: How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Anywhere in the World, my detailed how-to guide and resource manual for independent Chinese language learners. The guide and bonus resources show you exactly how to build a Chinese immersion environment no matter where in the world you live, and how to learn the language the fun, effective, modern way (through comics, Netflix, etc.), instead of through expensive classes and boring textbooks.
“The only book I’ve ever seen that covers absolutely everything from start to finish in terms of must-knows.”