Back in the day, the best option for learning hiragana and katakana was to write it out using worksheets, hope you could guess or remember the pronunciation right, and (perhaps) repeat that process over and over until you got it.
Now there are a lot of games which let you hear the kana as you study them, give you immediate feedback on your writing, and are available for free. Here are the three best that I’ve found so far:
1. あいうえらび – がんばれ！
This app is like a caruta game for three year olds—or for anyone of any age who wants to channel their inner Chihaya and learn Japanese. A single kana is shown at the top of the screen while being pronounced by a native speaker; your job is to find it out of twelve options shown below.
Learning the kana with this app is thus seriously simple. It may even be a little fun. But you know the best part? After playing it enough times you will be able to easily distinguish all the kana and know how they are pronounced—which means you’re almost ready to enter the exciting, unparalleled world of Japanese media.
2. Hiragana Roid
This app asks you to write a syllable in hiragana or katakana. If you do it perfectly, it praises you for doing so. If you mess up, it doesn’t tell you anything; you can choose to erase your attempt and start over or continue to the next kana.
Writing hiragana and katakana is thus easy to practice (and ultimately learn) with this app. Since they’re also surprisingly easy to forget if you don’t write them out for a long time, here’s some advice: Don’t delete this app when you level up! This is one you’ll want to return to periodically to refresh and deepen your skills.
(You can download this app from the Google Play store here.)
3. Learn Japanese Hiragana! (あいうえ おにぎり）
This app (along with its twin for katakana) is a perfect complement to the above ones. It includes a memory game, where you have to match kana, but the core of it involves pressing one kana after another to spell out the word that names a picture.
For example, the game will show you a picture of a car. Below it will be five kana, in this case ま, ね, る, ち, and く. Don’t know that word yet? No problem. If you choose the wrong kana, the game will simply pronounce it for you; if you get it right by chance, it will pronounce it for you and move it to its spot above the picture; and if you are paralyzed by the options, after a little bit of time the kana you should choose will start wobbling. Your job then is simply to touch it before it drops off the screen.
So this game not only solidifies your understanding of the sound that each kana makes, it also introduces you to new vocabulary. Not bad for free. It’s pretty good even if you had to pay for it.
Having these types of apps on your phone could only be dreamed of back in the day. But they won’t play themselves, which means they can’t learn the kana for you. That is something you will have to do—though thanks to these apps the process is now more convenient, requires less money, and is a lot more fun.
I love reading books in Japanese and plan to start translating them into English in 2015.