It can be very expensive trying to learn Japanese.

I have spent thousands of dollars trying to learn this language.

It doesn’t help that every time I quit, lost motivation, didn’t believe in myself–anytime I looked for clues about how to learn Japanese there was someone there to take my money.

Language schools. Private Lessons. Video series. Anime subscriptions. Books and books and books.

I guess anytime people want to do something really difficult, there’s always a product there to comfort them into believing they can do it. Just think of how many ads you see about losing weight every day. Or getting rich.

Anyways, in retrospect, there are a lot of things I should have done differently, and a lot of things I’m doing differently now.

But let’s imagine for just a bit that I’m going back in time and starting Japanese from zero all over again.

This is what my young, broke self would do…

The Cheapest Way to Learn Japanese

There are only three things you ever need to buy when studying a language:

  1. Study Materials (Books, Audio Lessons, etc.)
  2. Study Tools (Smartphones, Tablets, Flashcard Apps)
  3. Lessons

In this post, I’m going to list what I find to be cost-effective options for each of these three things.

“Cost-Effective” is kind of a difficult word to define, because it has a subjective meaning. If you have lots of money, maybe there are some things that you might consider cost-effective that I wouldn’t. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s just say that:

cost-effective – (adj.) something that poor, 21-year old Niko (me) would have paid for back in the day

Okay. We’ve got our foundation set (very important when learning languages). Let’s see what we’ve got…

1) Cost-Effective Study Materials

When I say ‘study materials,’ what I mean is anything that teaches you new Japanese words, grammar, kanji, etc.

A site (like the one you’re reading right now) which only talks about how to learn a language is not teaching you Japanese… so I don’t really see much of a reason to pay for one. There are a lot of sites out there like mine that talk about how to learn a language, how to be fluent and awesome in XX hours or something. I’ve never paid for one, though. But I must admit: some of them have some pretty awesome sales pitches. If anyone’s ever tried something like that, I’d love to hear about your experience so we can gauge together whether or not it’s a time-and-cost-effective addition to your Japanese study plan.

Before I start listing a bunch of books and audio lesson and whatnot that you want to go buy, please be careful about level-appropriate study materials.

One big mistake that I repeated (six hundred times) when studying Japanese was buying study materials way above my level.

How to read novels in Japanese? Sounds Awesome! But then I buy a book like that and realize that my vocabulary and kanji foundation… and grammar… and everything… is way too low for reading novels. In the time that I spent frying my brain trying to understand what I was looking at, I could have learned ten new kanji, words, practiced my listening skill, talked to someone!

But, meh, live and learn… Japanese.

Books and audio lessons I would still buy:

Beginner Level

Intermediate Level (whatever that means)

  • Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar. You might also want to pick up the Advanced Grammar book, but honestly I’ve never even read it. I did read some N1 and N2 JLPT Grammar books that were completely in Japanese, but I bought them in Japan and don’t remember what they were called Probably one of these ones though. The example sentences and practice examples were helpful. But I still think that there are easier ways to understand the nuances of advanced Japanese grammar.
  • Making Sense of Japanese, by Jay Rubin. When I first read this book, my Japanese was still a pretty low level, and I didn’t get much out of it. Then I read it again about six months later, and I thought it was really helpful. Totally recommended.

Advanced Level

  • Uh… whatever you want? If you’re at an advanced level, you can pick whatever you want and study that. Books, manga, whatever.
  • The マンガで優しく分かる series of books are really helpful. They’re 説明書, so they’re not too hard to read. There are usually very clear (and sometimes monotonous) explanations, plus manga dialogues that emphasize key points. So far I’ve read a Japanese manga explanation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Japanese manga version of The E-Myth: Revisited. Both were pretty enjoyable and straightforward. Via manga, you can also study The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Leadership,  NLP (1), NLP (2), Coaching, Logical Thinking, and Problem-Solving. I think maybe reading Manga Self-Help Books in Japanese might be the height of nerd-dom as we know it. It’s amazing. I have officially reached max nerd-dom, everyone. Please don’t tell my girlfriend.
  • iBooks Samples. If you have an iPad and access to the Japanese iTunes Store, then you might want to think about looking at the iBooks Store (in Japanese, of course) and downloading free samples of books. Usually you get the first 30-50 pages for free. So, for example, my iPad has a ton of free samples of Japanese books on everything from Zen Buddhism to Tips on Sounding Intelligent. My rule is that I can’t purchase a book unless I read the whole sample first. As expected, usually I get tired of books before I finish the sample.

Also, I think I should list some stuff that I don’t use, but that other people seem to find relatively useful in their language studies:

  • Memrise is a free spaced repetition study tool (kind of like Anki). A lot of people seem to be using it, and it looks to have a promising future. But I’ve never used it. And Anki is already so deeply integrated into my life, I don’t really have room for another flashcard program. If anyone’s tried it, I’d love to hear about it.
  • TextFugu is a sort of digital textbook coming from the guys at Tofugu. As with Memrise, I’ve never used this, so I can’t say whether or not it’s cost-effective (or time-effective). But they have posted some great stuff on their site. So I’d imagine that their textbook is probably a pretty good value.
  • iKnow is also a spaced repetition study site. I used this years ago when I was studying Japanese, and some of it was very helpful. Eventually I quit, though, because the only things I’ve ever managed to keep from quitting are Anki and JapanesePod101. If I kept at it, though, seems like it would have been a pretty solid way to solidify some foundational vocabulary. Tofugu guys seem to think it’s worth the money. Their review is here.

I feel like I’m forgetting something. Am I forgetting something? Please let me know if so.

2) Cost-Effective Study Tools

These ones are optional. But I’d still buy them.

  • Anki is actually free. And usually I like to use the (free) desktop version when adding new cards. Still, I think the (comparatively expensive) app is really awesome. Technically, it’s not absolutely necessary, because you can use AnkiWeb to study your cards on your phone without it. But I spend thousands of hours using this app. So I’m pretty happy to pay for it.
  • An iPad or tablet will set you back kind of a lot. But I use my iPad so much when reading Japanese texts. Also, I use it for studying Anki cards, watching Japanese lesson videos I’ve downloaded from JapanesePod101, movies and shows in Japanese, ebooks in Japanese. And even when I’m at work or on the train or in a coffee shop, I use it to write articles (in Japanese) for my site on how to learn English.
  • Smartphones are the best for studying languages. Here in Japan, everyone always uses electronic dictionaries, and I honestly can’t understand why. They tell me that it’s because those dictionaries are better than the ones on the phone. Then I tell them that, for instance, how every example sentence that comes from the 研究社新和英中辞典 (Kenkyusha Japanese-English Dictionary), which is often the source for those, is available for free on Weblio. For example, earlier I said 参考になった (sankou ni natta), which means “came in handy,” “was useful,” etc. (usually talking about information). You can look up examples of that word on Weblio divided by source. And you can do it on your smartphone, for free. Yay!

If you know any other boss ninja tools, please tell me in the comments.

3) Cost-Effective Lessons

This might sound kind of hypocritical, because this site is mostly about how to learn Japanese by yourself, but I think that Japanese lessons are incredibly useful. I only had about six months of them at a Japanese language school in Shinjuku, but in that time span my Japanese did improve substantially.

Everything after that I learned on my own–a fact which most Japanese people find difficult to believe. There is one downside to self-study, though: it’s easy to overlook your shortcomings. Sometimes I meet a foreigner here in Japan who majored in Japanese, studied about for one or two years at a Japanese language school in Japan–in short, someone who has had between 5-10 times as many hours as me in a Japanese classroom. Even though my Japanese is often better, I can’t help but respect how clean their Japanese is. Nice, beautiful 丁寧な日本語. And at such times, I wonder if perhaps I should have spent some more time in a Japanese classroom.

But hey, I planned to spend more time in a Japanese classroom. I just couldn’t afford it. In those six months that I was studying in Tokyo, I burned through all of my savings and ended up heading back to California feeling defeated and discouraged. That was the first time I gave up on studying Japanese, because I thought maybe it was just impossible. I couldn’t afford to study it. I know now that I was just making excuses. But those excuses cost me more than a year of no studying whatsoever.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t study at a Japanese school in Tokyo, though. Instead, I would either stay in my home country and take lessons online, or (more likely) I would take Japanese classes somewhere they’re cheaper than Japan.

Cost-Effective Lessons:

  • italki is a website that connects language teachers with students, and it already has well over a million users. Usually, teachers are not too expensive, and many of them appear to be quite experienced. Maybe you won’t be in a foreign country, but maybe that also means that you can save a lot of money, which means you have more money for lessons, which means you get better at Japanese. You can often find lessons from native Japanese tutors on italki for under $10.
  • Japanese Schools in cheap countries are an option that I only began to consider recently. I’m planning to move to Thailand in a few months, and I was researching Thai language schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai when I found out that a lot of the schools also have Japanese courses. And usually one group lesson is only $5 US or less! What?! And theoretically there should be even cheaper options in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, etc. I’m planning to look up more schools around Southeast Asia, but theoretically they should be available in countries across the globe. In retrospect, I could have spent less money studying at a Japanese language school in Southeast Asia for two years than I spent studying at a school in Tokyo for six months. I’d like to make a list of cheap schools around the world available for readers. So if you know of one, please message me.
    • Saigon Language School in Vietnam, for example, is only about $100 (at the time of writing) for 2 months of classes 3 times a week. Nice!
  • Language Exchange is another option, but technically these aren’t lessons. There is a large number of Japanese people using MyLanguageExchange.com, Lang-8, and LiveMocha. So you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an exchange partner. Everyone wants to learn English, after all. Most of these options are free or very cheap.

What cheap lesson options am I forgetting? Please let me know!

Things You Don’t Need to Buy

Part of finding the cheapest way to learn Japanese is to simply avoid buying things you don’t absolutely need. If I went back in time, these are some things that I think I wouldn’t need. Some of them I have purchases. Others I’m just guessing.

Don’t sign up for language learning systems of language learning software.

I have never seen a language learning software where you pay up-front that was worth the money. I’ve used a couple of them. They’re not bad. They’re just not worth the money. If you know of one that you think is worth the money, though, please let us know in the comments.

Don’t sign up for anything that doesn’t have a free trial, unless it’s a cheap, monthly subscription product.

Learning a language takes a lot of time. As a result, most cost-effective language programs are sold as monthly memberships. Programs that know they have valuable information to share with you are confident that you’ll continue paying them as they give it to you over time. If a company tries to sell you the whole package up front, there should at least be an extensive sample.

Personally, I’m skeptical of any language-learning ‘solution’ that requires a big up-front payment without an option for monthly studying.

For example…

  • JapanesePod101 is a monthly service with a free trial, and it’s totally worth the money.
  • Anki is free, and you only need to pay for it if you want the iOs app, which you technically don’t “need,” because you can also study via their mobile website. (That said, I do personally own the app and love it.)
  • iKnow is a spaced repetition learning program with a free trial, and it’s arguably worth the money.
  • TextFugu seems like a good learning resource (I’ve only just barely looked at the free trial, and it’s a cheap, monthly subscription.

Compare that to all of these, which I think (1) not the best Japanese-learning resources and (2) ridiculously overpriced:

  • Rosetta Stone costs a lot of money up-front. (Benny from FluentIn3Months.com has a very detailed review of Rosetta Stone here.)
  • Pimsleur is expensive and requires a large, up-front payment.
  • Aside from these two famous examples, Japanese Language-Learning Software (e.g. TeLL me More Japanese) tends to be expensive and requires a large, up-front payment.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these are probably great learning resources. I just don’t think they’re cost-effective resources.

Wow, if I could go back in time, I’d save a lot of money.

Oh well. Live and learn… Japanese. Yeah?

Keep swimming, homies.


p.s. Free Japanese:



Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!


p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.