Do you feel naked without your phone?
Are you always compulsively scrolling down your social media feeds?
If you’re a social butterfly with a digital inclination who loves to interact with people online, we’ve got great news for you: you can use your smartphone addiction to improve your Japanese conversation skills!
Technology and the internet have generally become accepted as excellent learning tools. Thanks to this trend, there are many quality apps out there that can connect you with language partners all over the world.
These programs are sometimes known as “chat to learn” or “chat2learn” apps and they can be used to message actual people in Japanese.
We’ve rounded up some of the best free resources that harness the power of chatting with real people to help you jump on that 上手 (じょうず) — skillful train ASAP!
The Benefits and Basics of Chatting to Learn Japanese
Why learn by chatting?
There are a few reasons why chatting to learn Japanese is a good idea:
- You get your weekly fix of writing practice. Yep, texting totally counts as writing practice, plus you’ll be up-to-date on all those awesome Japanese emoji packs.
- You can have real-life conversations with native speakers. There’s really no better way to get that slang practice!
- It’s easy to incorporate into your schedule. Chat in the grocery line, on your commute, or on the couch—the versatility means that you’ll be able to practice more often.
What makes a good chat2learn resource?
Trying to zero in on the right platform? There are a few things to look for when choosing a good chat to learn Japanese app.
The Japanese speakers on the app should be native or at the very least near-native. You want to get your information from people who know what they’re talking about, after all.
There should also be a large number of speakers to choose from so that you have a good chance of finding the right partner.
Finally, all users should be vetted as legitimate language learners or speakers. If there’s no vetting system in place, there should at least be a clear code of conduct that everybody has to follow.
Basically, nobody should be asking you for your bank details or pestering you for photos.
How should you prepare for chatting to learn Japanese?
Before you embark on your chatting and learning journey, we recommend that you learn how to read at least hiragana and katakana (kanji can come later) and that you install a Japanese keyboard on your phone.
We also recommend that you don’t go in as an absolute beginner. The chatting partners you find will be happy to help, but they’re usually just regular people, not teachers.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
How to Find a Good Japanese Chatting Partner
Finding the right partner is absolutely crucial to getting the most out of chat2learn apps! Here are a couple of things to look out for:
Aside from both speaking Japanese, you and your language buddy should have at least a couple of shared hobbies, interests or personality traits, so you don’t run out of things to talk about. Speaking a foreign language is hard enough without stressing about conversation topics!
Your partner should be attentive to detail and committed to helping you improve. That means they should correct you, guide you and be able to answer a good amount of your language-related questions.
Your partner should understand your language learning goals and be enthusiastic about helping you meet them.
If you’re using an app that offers a two-way language exchange, you and your partner should have the same or similar levels in the languages you’re learning, so you can more or less pick up conversations where you left off in the other language.
And don’t forget that you should give back the same as you receive. In other words, be as enthusiastic and as helpful as your partner when helping them learn the language that they’re studying, too!
Chat to Learn Japanese with 7 Free Apps
Here’s the lowdown on some of the top free apps out there, along with their pros and cons.
HelloTalk (iOS and Android)
With its slick and modern interface, HelloTalk is super easy to set up (just sign in with Facebook and provide basic personal info).
The platform has handy “Translate” and “Correction” buttons that you can use during your chats to ensure that you and your partner are really learning and improving through your conversations.
HelloTalk also has social-network-like newsfeed, where people post news, thoughts and language tools.
The app has an “unacceptable behavior” section that lists the things you can’t do, but no clear vetting process of their users. So if you’re uncomfortable with a conversation you’re having, your best option is to block the person and report them.
Tandem (iOS and Android)
Tandem is similar to HelloTalk but without the social media aspect.
On the plus side, everyone’s profile is vetted before they’re allowed to join: you fill an application with three simple questions (your interests, your ideal partners, your goals). You can “skip the line” and become a member directly by paying a subscription fee.
A cool feature is that if you get stuck filling in your profile, Tandem has some great prompts that’ll help you get started!
For example, for possible discussion topics to display on your profile, it offers up “I can help you kickstart… (your personal project)” or “I want to learn… (onomatopoeia in Japanese).” Use these prompts to help you find someone who has the same interests as you and to make your learning goals clear.
For a fee, you can also have a personal tutor on the app.
italki (iOS and Android)
Italki is an easy-to-use app with a simple interface that can help you with both finding a (paid) teacher or a (free) language partner.
Finding a partner is pretty easy since users tend to spend a lot of time on their bios to make sure they’re funny and original.
And on the off-chance that you can’t find a good person to chat with, you can schedule a lesson instead (for a small fee).
As a bonus, italki has a handy feature: The app syncs with your calendar directly to make sure you don’t miss an upcoming lesson.
Lext Talk (iOS Only)
LextTalk has a fun and unique feature sure to get you hooked: It hosts chatrooms with specific themes where you can easily meet friends with similar interests.
You don’t have to browse through a gazillion profiles to find somebody who wants to talk about the coolest tech innovations in Japan or the best okonomiyaki recipes—just find the right chatroom and meet some fellow Japanese comfort-food lovers!
Another useful feature is the integrated map which lets you easily find a user from a specific city. This means you can hear the local accent of a city you plan to visit, or master 関西弁 (かんさい べん) — Kansai dialect.
Doongle (Android Only)
If you’re an Android user and are bummed that you can’t use Lext Talk, worry not! Doongle (you might have known this app previously as ePenpal) also offers a nifty map that lets you see where all your potential pen-pals are located.
You can also easily filter through user profiles by age, city and interests.
The group chat feature is similar to LextTalk’s chatrooms too: You can use it to discuss a specific theme with a bunch of your new friends.
Please note that at the time of this writing, Doongle seems to be experiencing some technical issues as reported in the reviews. But with a 4/5 star rating from over 23,000 votes, we’re confident that they’ll work the kinks out.
Langmate — Chat with Japanese (iOS Only, for Now)
The interface is a little less slick than some of the other apps we’ve discussed, but Langmate does its job well.
It essentially matches you to conversation partners that have things in common with you.
The app is Japanese so it has a large number of Japanese users to choose from. Of course, that also means that the English version of the app is sometimes a little confusing. But hey, there’s no better way to get on those kanji that to see them in use, right?
Festar (iOS and Android)
You’re matched in real time, so you can start chatting right away, but after the 10 minutes are up you’re both asked if you want to keep chatting “forever.” Pressure’s on to make a good first impression!
Festar requires its users to register with Facebook and is monitored regularly, but you should know that it’s widely considered to be a dating app, even though many use it to make friends.
We hope at least one of these options has you up and rearing to chat away!
Remember: keep it fun, friendly and stay safe. Happy learning!
Sara Chatterjee is a French-Indian writer and lover of languages based in Paris, France. You can follow her on Twitter @sarachatterjee.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.