Japanese Learning Resources For Intermediate Levels
Right now is an excellent time for Japanese learning. With the rise in overseas popularity of Japanese culture in the past few decades (and with the advent of a more accessible Internet) resources for learning Japanese have multiplied greatly.
There are many different textbooks and workbooks to choose from, from a variety of publishers, and a plethora of websites and smartphone applications. However, this myriad of learning options can also be dizzying to choose from, and it can be hard to know how useful a book or app will be before purchasing it.
Beware: The wrong textbook can make the Japanese language seem incomprehensible instead of fun to learn!
In this article, we will provide a list and short review of five different Japanese-learning resources. You will discover 1 textbook, 1 website, 1 app, 1 kanji workbook, and 1 JLPT practice book. Some of these resources are the best of the best, and some are good – but with caveats.
Through showcasing both the great and the semi-great, we aim both to give you some A+ resources to start with and to give you tips for judging the usefulness of other resources you may come across.
Here are Japanese Learning Resources for Intermediate Levels:
Genki I and Genki II
Price: Genki I is $50.00 on Amazon
The two-book “Genki” series is one of the best (if not the best) Japanese textbook series out there. Frequently assigned in university and college Japanese courses, it moves fast but is very thorough and avoids feeling intimidating. It’s perfect for motivated high school students as well.
Genki has companion CDs and workbooks for enhanced study, and the back of each book features a decent writing section. The Genki series is, unfortunately, somewhat pricey. The $50 price above does not include the CDs or workbook that goes with Genki I.
However, depending on what alternative textbook you choose, you may end up needing to read two or more books to equal the content of Genki I, and so the price is probably worth it.
One important attribute of the Genki series is that, beginning early on in the textbook, Japanese writing is used for example and practice sentences (with English translations for the examples, but limited romaji text).
Some other textbooks overuse romaji or do not use hiragana/kanji much at all. This is fine if your primary reason for studying Japanese is to gain some general skill for travel, but if you plan to study for any level of fluency, a textbook with too much romaji will give you much catching up to do later. It can also create confusion and bad habits since romaji is only an approximation of the sounds of Japanese.
After Genki II, some students progress to the “Tobira” series, some progress to a textbook called simply “An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese,” and some progress to other books.
Link: Maggie Sensei
Maggiesensei is a website that any student of Japanese should consider bookmarking immediately. It consists of pages and pages of detailed articles on exactly how to use a wide variety of grammar points and vocabulary.
What can you expect from Maggie Sensei?
Maggie has many articles on basic “textbook” grammar, such as the use of the pattern “-te oku”. It also has a lot of colloquial or slang-like grammar and vocabulary. Maggiesensei is particularly useful when you come upon a grammar pattern (or word) that you are having a hard time understanding the full nuance of.
Maybe sometimes you see a few items in the book but you don’t understand its meaning. Or maybe it was brought up in a textbook and not explained adequately. Either way, chances are that pattern (or word) has a Maggiesensei article with several sections of examples and explanations.
There are also articles about cultural topics such as holidays, complete with related vocabulary and phrases. And articles on things to say in specific situations (such as ordering at a restaurant or giving an apology).
Maggie’s archive of articles is so extensive at this point and her explanations so thorough that her website taken all together is probably better than some textbooks. However, most Japanese-learning websites – Maggiesensei included – should be used in supplement to a textbook and not in place of a textbook. In Maggiesensei’s case, this recommendation is mostly due to the non-linear nature of her articles (even her articles on very basic grammar contain some sentences that are longer and more complex than the level of grammar being explained).
In Maggiesensei’s case, this recommendation is mostly due to the non-linear nature of her articles. Even her articles on very basic grammar contain some sentences that are longer and more complex than the level of grammar being explained.
Imiwa? and JDict
Format: Smartphone apps
Links: These apps are available in Apple and Android app stores, respectively
Imiwa? and JDict are two different dictionary apps (Imiwa? is on iOS and JDict is on Android), but they both draw on Jim Breen’s JMdict and are very similar to one another in design.
What can you expect from Imiwa? and Jdict?
They are well-programmed and fairly expansive dictionaries, and have several useful additional features. These include the ability to look up kanji by radical, an animated stroke order GIF for each kanji, long pages of example sentences for all non-obscure words, and lists of kanji by school grade or by JLPT level.
Both apps also allow you to paste in whole sentences to look up words en masse. These apps would be improved if users could hand-write in the words they are looking for in kanji, rather than typing them phonetically. Or ability to search by kanji radical. Many of the practice sentences are long and complicated, but other than that both apps are excellent (and free).
Unko Kanji Drills
Price: Book 1 is 1,058 yen through Amazon Japan, potentially plus shipping.
Unko is a series of workbooks designed to give Japanese elementary school students a fun way to practice writing kanji. Thus its cutesy-rude theme of “unko,” or “poop,” including a poop-emoji-shaped mascot.
Why do I need to use books for elementary students??
The benefit of these books intended for elementary students is that they start with the easiest kanji, and in total cover 1,006 characters. If you go through all six volumes of Unko, you will have practiced about half of the kanji a Japanese adult knows. You will also learn aout three-quarters of the kanji you need to comfortably read a volume of your favorite shojo manga*!
Some material intended for Japanese children is perfect for language students and some is not. So before purchasing Japanese children’s books, workbooks, or films it is a good idea to try some of it out (if you can) and see if it fits your level.
Surprisingly, some materials intended for Japanese adults (or teens) can actually make for better studying than materials intended for kids. In the case of Unko, unless you have gone through at least the first volume of Genki (see item 1 in this article), the practice sentences will go over your head. Even with Genki I behind you, you will still need to look up vocabulary words as you go through the Unko books.
Anytime you are purchasing a Japanese workbook, whether it is for kanji or something else, keep it mind that it needs a good textbook to go with it and not by itself. Workbooks often have little to no explanation of the words and grammar they contain, and unless that explanation comes first the practice in the workbook loses much of its worth.
*When practicing Japanese, read slice-of-life stories, romances, or human drama stories. Shonen manga (action stories) are more difficult to read – and makes worse reading comprehension practice – due to their frequent use of battle and fantasy vocabulary and tactical discussions.
The 日本語能力試験模試と対策 (Nihongo Noryoku Shiken Moshi to Taisaku) books
Price: The N1 book is $23.48 plus shipping on Amazon
Format: Practice tests and answer explanations for JLPT levels N3-N1
Note: Because the publisher’s website listed above will assume you are shipping the book to Japan, you will want to copy and paste the ISBN number of your book of choice into Amazon and order it there instead.
These books contain two full-length JLPT practice tests each, a CD for the listening sections, scripts for the listening sections, practice bubble sheets, answers to all the test questions with a short explanation for why the correct answer is correct, and a short section with advice on strategies to employ during the different sections of the test. These are all highly essential test-prep materials.
What can I expect from JLPT?
The JLPT contains several question formats, and familiarity with these formats will help you to know what to focus on in your JLPT-prep studies. Note that the official JLPT website also contains one more or less full-length practice test for each level of the JLPT (including N4 and N5). It also has listening section audio files, listening section scripts, answer keys, and practice bubble sheets (all free). However, the JLPT website does not include answer explanations for its practice tests.
Plus, you will likely want more experience with the JLPT question formats than the contents of one practice test can give (there are other JLPT practice sites with free practice materials, but most do not offer full-length practice tests). As with any test, keep in mind that practice tests’ purpose is to help give direction to your studies, but cannot substitute for an old-fashioned, thorough study of grammar, kanji, and vocabulary.
If you are looking for additional online resources, check out our Library and Blog tabs! In our Blog we have a large pool of articles on Japanese grammar. We also have articles on culture, kanji-learning resources, and other topics; and in our Library, we have free downloadable lessons, worksheets, and vocabulary charts.
Our Library is free to access, and we are constantly adding new content! Check them out below:
Have you used any of the Japanese-learning materials reviewed in this article? Did you find them helpful (and if not, why?) What resources have you found to be the most helpful? Leave us a comment and let us know!