Japanese learning app review: Skritter

By | July 8, 2021

Skritter is a platform whose focus is learning to write Japanese and Chinese characters but also has other features such as vocabulary decks. They have a web-based app, an Android app, and an iOS (Apple) app.

I was contacted by someone from the Skritter team the other day, asking if I would like to participate in a program where I could use Skritter with my “students” (which in this case means mostly my blog readers) in exchange for receiving a percentage of the monthly fees paid by any users that started using the service through my recommendation. While I appreciate this offer, after some thought I decided to decline, mainly because I preferred to give an honest, unbiased review of their services, as opposed to one that would have to be, at best, slightly biased (had I been given a cut of any profits made).

Because Skritter’s primary focus is learning to write in Japanese, I will focus my review on that and related areas, and not talk about features like decks (which I didn’t use anyway). I will constrain my review to the iOS app and Japanese-related functionality, although I did briefly use the Chinese version of the app. These apps are free to download and I focused on only experimenting with the free content.

Once you download the app, it’s pretty easy to get started. The “home” menu has a bunch of categories: Learn Hiragana, Learn Katakana, Japanese Stroke Order, Skritter Japanese 101, Zodiac Animals, Colors, Food & Drink, JLPT N5, 100 Kanji for JLPT N5, and Learning Japanese through Music. 

“Learn Hiragana” is probably where most people start since it is on the top, and because learning to write Hiragana is an important skill you want to learn when starting out in Japanese. This section begins with a video with two students talking about and showing how they use the app to learn writing characters. There’s a nice atmosphere here of friendly learning and I think this is a good introduction, but I was a bit turned off by how both people butchered the pronunciation of the word ‘Natto’ (the way they speak it sounds more like “Nado” to me). I realize that this video is just supposed to set the mood, but I think it’s a bad idea to expose Japanese learners to incorrect pronunciation this early on.

But back to the focus of this app: learning to write in Japanese. The first few sections of “Learning Hiragana” are: Saying Hello, Japanese Vowels, S category, and K category. Personally I would prefer just starting out with the vowels (あいうえお), but I can see how beginning learners would enjoy being about to write “こんにちは”, so I don’t have a problem with this as the first category.  However, as you can see from the 3rd and 4th categories, the characters are not shown the proper あかさたなはまやらわ order. In other words, “K” should be before “S”. But perhaps this is a minor issue. Besides the basic alphabet, there are categories like “G”(がぎぐげご) and categories for diphthongs (combinations of characters like ひゃ).

For each letter in this section there is a visual aide to remember the characters. For example, the entry for こ shows a coat hanger. While I am not a huge fan of such memory tricks, I think they are OK for beginning students who are just getting started. 

Clicking “teach me” starts a process that takes the user through a few screens. First, it shows the letter with the visual aide and a description of the aid (i.e. “A coat hanger”), and plays back the sound for the letter. Then when you click “teach me” it starts a mini-quiz. This in itself is a bit odd since typically I would not consider taking a quiz as part of “teaching”, but that’s a minor point. 

The quiz says “What’s the romaji?” and when you click on the screen it shows the answer. The next screen shows the character and the direction the strokes go, and you must trace them to draw the character yourself. When you are able to draw it correctly enough, the app will allow you to proceed to the next screen where you do the same thing again, except without the stroke direction help. Finally, you have to draw the character without anything to trace over. Despite any complaints I have about this app, this process for learning and practicing how to write characters is relatively simple and useful for any beginner. You can also take a test that asks you for the reading and then has you draw the character (without help) for the characters in the section.

While the simple character lessons are pretty nice, as you get to more advanced areas I started finding some problems. To begin with, the “Japanese Stroke Order” section breaks kanji into eight categories to help you understand stroke order: Top to Bottom, Left to Right, etc. While perhaps there is some value in these categories, I couldn’t find a way to get the app to show me the actual stroke order of any of the characters in this section, which is arguably the most important thing to show users here. I guess maybe they are accessible on another area, or to paid users, but if so it should at least be clearly linked to this section somehow.

It is in this section that I started to notice problems with two major areas of this app: the voice recordings and the example sentences.

As for the voice recordings, the good news is that they all seem to be done by native speakers in standard Tokyo dialect, but my positive feedback stops there. First of all, there are only female recordings, something which I verified with the Skritter team. This is a serious drawback since I have personally been told my Japanese sometimes sounds “girly” from copying too many female speakers, so I really was looking for male speakers. In an age where gender equality is so prominently discussed it is surprising things are so slanted. To be fair, the Skritter team did tell me they are looking into adding male recordings.

Also, the recordings are done by at least 4-5 different people of different ages and types of voices, and also the recording quality, pronunciation speed, and volume differ. I found this a little annoying when going through the app. I think one of the recordings cut off a vowel (the ひ from ひと, which I know is de-vocalized but was not audible at all), though I forget which entry. Another annoyance is that when there are multiple readings, sometimes only some of them are pronounced. For example, for 行 it will pronounce コウ and ギョウ, but not アン or いく. Finally, many of the example sentences and some of the words didn’t seem to have any voiceover at all. For example 銅色 had no voiceover, but it’s components did (I would have preferred the opposite).

As for the example sentences, on the whole they were good enough to provide important context to students, but I found a few mistakes. One mistake I saw at least twice was a mistranslation of a phrase with に after a time. For example:

  • 彼女は一時に来ます。
  • She’s coming in one hour.

This translation is incorrect, it should be “She’s coming at one o’clock.” (I verified this with a native speaker just to make sure I wasn’t missing something.) Another example translated “あの猫” as “the cat”. This is a more subtle issue, since in some cases “the” might be correct, but overall I think “that (cat)” would be a much better translation. I was also a little surprised by the inconsistency in the level of difficulty of sentences given. Some were extremely easy, and a few frankly too difficult for beginning students. There was also inconsistency in the sense that only some entries contained examples, for example “緑” had an example sentence whereas “赤” did not.

Finally, many of the sentences begin with “あなたは”, which while technically not incorrect, is arguably unnatural because in practice “あなた” is only used when absolutely necessary (often subjects and even objects are omitted in everyday speech). 

Besides the audio samples and example sentences, I found it confusing how the app didn’t make the boundary between kanji and words clear. For example, under “100 Kanji for JLPT N5” / “Adjectives”, it says “Words” and then lists 多, 小, 古, etc. As you may know, none of these kanji are generally used as single words on their own. If you click on 多 it says タ and おお(い) for readings, which is correct, but beginner students may not know which is actually a word that can be used by itself (answer: only the second). In this specific case there is no example sentence either, further adding confusion. On a positive note, I did appreciate how the radicals, along with their meaning, were called out for each kanji.

The “Learning Japanese through Music” section has a video along with a list of vocabulary words and definitions, which is a nice idea for a different way to learn words. I didn’t particularly enjoy their choice of music (a piece from 20 years ago, though it felt more like 40 years ago to me), but everyone has different tastes. 

The app has an “About Japanese” section that can be accessed from the top left “hamburger” icon (three lines that look sort of like 三). The first few entries were well-written until I came to the word Google described as ググル. This is incorrect and should be グーグル. For the name of the app itself (“Skritter”) it listed スクリータ which also seems a bit odd, I would have expected スクリッター in line with how Twitter is spelled (ツイッター). I couldn’t find the official Japanese spelling on site itself, though I found a few other sites that used my spelling. There is also a brief note on Japanese word order. While it does correctly describe it at Subject-Object-Verb, I wish they would have mentioned this as being ‘basic’ word order that has many exceptions, not to mention complications for more advanced sentences. For example the sentence それを僕は食べた (Object-Subject-Verb) is actually correct grammar, though it sounds a bit dramatic to my ears. 

All in all, while the fundamental functionality of this app to teach and practice writing in Japanese is solid, I was disappointed by the inconsistency in a few areas, plus the presence of at least a few mistakes. This is even more surprising considering that Skritter is said to be around for more than ten years. Perhaps I’m more picky about some of the stuff than the average user, but I think having more consistency and higher production quality would really make the app shine.

There is a good amount of free content, but to access the full set of content, including decks, progress tracking, and “my words” (work breakdowns, etc.) you will need to pay $14.95 if going for month-by-month, though it gets cheaper with more long-term pricing plans ($99.99 for one year, etc.) There is a one-week trial available to give you a good idea of what you will be paying for. I haven’t gone through Skritter in detail enough to give a confident opinion on whether it is worth the price, but my gut feeling is that it is a bit high.

Out of curiosity I checked out the Skritter page that lists their main team of eight people. Of them, there appears to be no native Japanese people, and only one who lists Japanese as a primary (?) language, with three others listing it as “learning”. On the other hand, three people are listed as “Chinese Educator” and one has lived in China for nearly a decade. The history of the company too seems to begun with Chinese initially and moved on to Japanese later. Given this information, it seems likely that the quality of the Chinese learning app would be much higher. I would suggest the Skritter team find a Japanese specialist (if they haven’t already) to add to their team to help improve some of the points I mentioned in this review. Having native-recorded samples for Japanese is great, but I feel they really need someone to coordinate things at a higher level.

On a final point, even though apps like Skritter can be helpful for Japanese learners, generally I recommend only spending a fraction of your time on apps, drills, and other “gamified” learning mechanisms. For a detailed reason why and some ideas about how to spend your language learning time, please see my latest book about improving motivation when learning a language here.

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