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  • Writer's pictureJacob Maguire

To learn or cheat? That is the question…

Yes, learning the Japanese language is a daunting prospect, but if you’re passionate about being able to communicate with, and like a local, it is apparently a far easier language to learn than English. A promise made from those who already read, speak and write Japanese I’m sure. Here’s the skinny;

Hiragana has a “free flow” appearance. It is reminiscent of every tramp stamp or Japanese text spinal tattoo you have ever seen. Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic script. It represents every sound in the Japanese language. Therefore, you can theoretically write everything in Hiragana. However, because Japanese is written with no spaces, this will create nearly indecipherable text. (Which although looks fabulous in a tattoo, makes it hard to read when deciphering Ikea building instructions)

Katakana has a slightly more simple appearance, with this Japanese alphabet predominantly used for words being imported from another language and adapted to Japanese.

Then there is Kanji. Where do you start with Kanji….? It has an estimated 15,000 images that represent words and have been formed from an adaption of the images they represent. The Japanese have shortened the list of necessary Kanji Symbols to 2,000.

Now the easy bit.. We all have smart phones right? Well, let’s put them to use….

Android, iOS, Windows Phone

iTranslate has plenty going for it. The interface is clear and simple, and there’s an option to save phrases for later—handy if you know the situations you’ll be finding yourself in ahead of time (toilet, beer, where is base J). You can type or speak English text and iTranslate converts into any of 80 languages, and will even speak the pronunciation back to you in several, including Chinese, Polish and Turkish. In a quiet room, its speech recognition was accurate during my test. The app requires an internet connection.

Android, iOS

Google’s visual translation tool does not currently work with Chinese, Japanese or Korean text, but WayGo does. WayGo works similarly: just point your smartphone camera at one line of clear text, such as a menu or street sign, and an English translation appears on the screen. Everything works offline. Pleco (Android, iOS; is an alternative, for serious students of Chinese. WayGo is working to add Western languages this year, according to the company.

SMS Translators


This is handy and quick for conducting a text message conversation with a foreign language speaker. Type in English, add your correspondent’s phone number, tap translate and hit send. You can translate any replies back into English. You can also switch translation engines between Google and Bing Translator, the engine that Twitter uses to translate tweets automatically.


The idea is simple and time-saving: iTranslate Voice enables person-to-person conversation using natural language and a smartphone, with no need for tapping text onto a small screen. Just talk into the phone or iPad mic and the app translates. It supports around 40 languages and dialects, including pretty much anything you’re likely to use on holiday.

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