Language Mastery Toolbox
The Best Tools & Resources to Learn Languages Right at Home
ESSENTIAL LANGUAGE TOOLS
iTalki Online Tutors
Use iTalki to get the speaking practice you need to get fluent from the comfort of home. Their community boasts over 3 million users and thousands of tutors to choose from, including free language exchange partners and low-cost professional teachers.
Just as we have to speak to get better at speaking, we have to write to get better at writing. HelloTalk lets you practice writing in a free, low-stress way by texting with native speakers around the world. Practice new words, phrases, and structures, and get instant feedback.
Language Reactor (formerly called Language Learning with Netflix) is a powerful Chrome extension that supercharges subtitles on Netflix and YouTube. From interactive subtitles, to a nifty pop-up dictionary, to the ability to save words and phrases and export to Anki, this tool is a game changer!
Installing a Virtual Private Network unlocks tons of foreign language TV shows and films that are otherwise blocked. VPNs also keep you safe when using unsecured Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops, etc. I’ve tried many, but NordVPN is my favorite.
Glossika is a science-based language learning platform that helps you learn vocabulary and grammar in context with their “mass sentence” approach, and builds fluency faster with native speaker audio recordings, spaced repetition, and an adaptive learning algorithm.
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, allows for extensive customization, and works on every major platform.
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 Anywhere in the World, 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 through the power of story instead of dry textbooks?
My friend Olly Richards’ excellent Japanese Uncovered online course takes absolute beginners (A0) up to an intermediate (B1) level using a 20-chapter story in simple Japanese.
Each chapter of the engaging story includes video, audio, text, and exercises that help you improve every aspect of their Japanese (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and honorifics) and all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
Stories make learning more fun and effective, helping you learn to think in Japanese.
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.”
Ditch the boring textbooks and learn Mandarin through the power of story with my friend Olly Richards’ Chinese Uncovered course.
The online, story-based course takes absolute beginners (A0) up to an intermediate (B1) level using a 20-chapter story in simple Chinese.
Each chapter of the engaging story includes video, audio, text, and exercises that help you improve every aspect of the language (vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) and all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
Stories make learning more fun and effective, helping you learn to think in Chinese.