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.
Though Duolingo alone won’t get you fluent, I do recommend using the site and app since their masterful gamification makes learning fun and addictive. Even though your ultimate goal may be getting fluent in a language, your first goal is developing the “habit of the habit” (showing up every day). I also find that Duolingo creates a wonderful “habit halo” effect that leads me to get more practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing outside of the app.
Though it lacks some of the bells and whistles of more advanced flashcard apps like Anki, Duolingo’s Tinycards app has just the right balance between function and ease of use. Like Duolingo, it has an elegant, intuitive design, and just enough gamification to keep you going. They have premade decks, but I highly recommend creating your own from content you encounter in your immersion activities, making sure to include images and complete sentences.
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.
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 sites out there, but I think James Heisig’s classic book Remembering the Kanji (RTK) is still the best way to go. Using the approach, you can learn all 2,000+ regular-use kanji in months instead of years.
For 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.
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 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. Best of all, they have premade decks for RTH!
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.