Everyone who studies Japanese uses different methods, techniques, and tools to achieve mastery. However, ask around, and you’ll find that most learners consistently recommend one tool in particular: digital flash cards—specifically software with an effective Spaced Repetition System (SRS).
Over the past decade, I’ve used all kinds of flash cards (even the old-school paper ones) in my never-ending quest to learn Japanese vocabulary, kanji characters, and grammar with maximum efficiency. What follows are the flash card applications, ranked in order of effectiveness, that have made the greatest impact on my studies.
Five Flash Card Programs to Rule Them All
– Platforms: web (unofficial apps available for iOS and Android)
– Pricing: $9/month, $89 annually, or $299 lifetime membership (free trial available)
– Best used for: vocabulary and kanji (meanings and readings)
– Pros: superb SRS algorithm, supportive community, built-in mnemonics
– Cons: pricing, lack of customization
Of all of the flash card systems that I’ve tried in my language learning career, Wanikani is one of the few that I still use to this day. Why? Simply put, it just works. If you learn the inner workings of the Wanikani spaced repetition algorithm and adapt your study schedule to it, the kanji and vocabulary that you grapple with every day will come to life before your eyes as you venture out into the streets of Tokyo or crack open your favorite Japanese reading material. Dedicated learners can master 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary words in under two years. (Full disclosure: since the amount of time I can devote to kanji study is limited, it’s taking me much longer than that…)
Wanikani isn’t perfect, however. It’s a pricey proposition with a rigid, one-size-fits-all learning path. However, if you want to quickly learn all of the joyo kanji (readings and meanings), it’s hands-down the fastest, most efficient way to do so.
– Platforms: web, Android, iOS (beta)
– Pricing: $3/month, $30 annually, or $120 lifetime membership (limited free version also available)
– Best used for: grammar
– Pros: flexibility and customization
– Cons: higher level content is still under development
Japanese vocabulary and kanji characters lend themselves naturally to the flash card format. However, grammar, with all of its nuances and variations, is much more difficult to effectively capture and recall via flash cards. That’s where Bunpro comes in. The developers of this application have done all of the heavy lifting for you to produce a detailed and effective digital flash card system exclusively for learning Japanese grammar. It’s on this list because, frankly, there’s nothing out there quite like it.
I especially appreciate Bunpro’s multiple study paths. You can take a variety of approaches to achieve your goals. Grammar can be arranged by JLPT level, your favorite textbook, or in any other order that you please. Regardless of what you choose, you’ll have a solid SRS algorithm working in the background the whole way.
However, advanced learners should take note: At the time of this writing, Bunpro is still missing high-level content (e.g. JLPT N1 grammar points). Like Wanikani, Bunpro is an investment. But also like Wanikani, it’s an investment that’s well worth it if you plan on making a long-term commitment to mastering all aspects of the Japanese language.
– Platforms: iOS and Android
– Pricing: $3.99 (limited free version also available)
– Best used for: vocabulary and kanji (meanings and readings)
– Pros: flexibility, pricing
– Cons: learning curve, limited in-app formatting options
Although Wanikani and Bunpro are the applications that I use the most, Flashcards Deluxe has the honor of being the flash card app that I’ve used the longest. This application has been with me since I made the jump from paper flash cards to digital so many years ago.
Don’t let the simple appearance of this app fool you: it’s incredibly powerful and highly customizable. Almost any study method you can dream up can be implemented here. However, this power comes with great… complexity. In the beginning, you’ll spend just as much time reading how to use the app as you will actually using it.
Conquering the learning curve, however, is well worth the trouble—nothing beats an effective, fully customizable flash card app to meet your study needs. Flashcards Deluxe is perfect for the Japanese content that I pick up in daily life that falls beyond the realm of standardized tests, textbooks, and the joyo kanji.
– Platforms: web, Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android
– Pricing: free (except $24.99 iOS version)
– Best used for: vocabulary, kanji (meanings and readings), and grammar
– Pros: flexibility, vast amount of user-generated content
– Cons: learning curve, expensive iOS app
No flash card list would be complete without mentioning Anki, perhaps the most well-known and commonly used flash card system in existence. That being said, I have an on-and-off relationship with Anki, using it for various periods during my language learning journey, but never consistently throughout.
Plenty of language learners swear by Anki, but its lack of user friendliness saps my motivation to use it on a regular basis. If you’d like to create anything more than the most basic of flash card decks, then you’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time reading through the software’s documentation and various online forums.
That being said, Anki’s popularity can’t be denied and this leads to its greatest benefit: a massive library of pre-made decks. Anyone or any organization that goes through the trouble of making a publicly available flash card deck is going to release it in Anki over anything else. So, if you are looking for that perfect pre-made flash card deck for your favorite Japanese textbook, look no further than Anki.
– Platforms: web, iOS, and Android
– Pricing: $8.99/month, $60 annually, or $99.99 lifetime membership (limited free version also available)
– Best for: vocabulary and kanji (meanings and readings)
– Pros: community support, mnemonics (text and visual)
– Cons: pricing, interface
Like Anki, Memrise is a platform that I’ve used sporadically throughout my Japanese career—usually when I hit a plateau and need to shake up my study routine.
Memrise has a clear, singular strength: a system that is built around mnemonics to help you memorize content faster. Memrise users can create and share their own mnemonics, even in the form of images.
Unfortunately, if you opt to create your own flash cards (something only possible via the recently spun-off Decks version of the service), the clunky user interface for inputting your content can be discouraging.
Memrise can be a little pricy for what it provides, but fortunately the free option is robust, so there’s no reason to avoid giving it a try.
Practice Makes Perfect
These are the programs that have stood the test of time, but depending on who you ask, you’ll discover plenty more out there to try (Quizlet, Tinycards, and Cram, to name a few). In the end, what matters is that you choose a system that is effective, fun, and most importantly, motivates you to study every day.