I’ve been wanting to pick my Japanese up again for some time, but had been focusing on becoming fluent enough in German to work as a professional translator. Now that I’ve reached that goal, I have the time and mental space to return to my Japanese studies.
This review is from an intermediate student’s perspective, but I haven’t used my Japanese skill since I lived in Japan eight years ago! I’m familiar with the basic words and pronunciation of Japanese, as well as a fair amount of the grammar. But I’ve forgotten all of my Japanese kanji – my Japanese is very rusty.
I love using language apps to fill in dead time while waiting for public transport, so I decided to have a look at the various Japanese language apps that are available today. All my favorite apps that I used back in 2010 are not available today (or at least not available in my local App Store!)
Learn Japanese with Duolingo – a review
One of the most often recommended free apps for learning Japanese is Duolingo. The developers of the Japanese Duolingo course aim to have learners speaking Japanese right from the start, following a teaching method that is similar to how children learn. That means learners need to use katakana, hiragana and kanji immediately, and overcome the hurdle of the Japanese grammar being ‘backwards’ to most English speakers.
Even though it was one of the most-requested languages, Duolingo didn’t release their Japanese course for many years as they struggled with both how to teach it effectively and how to work around some technical hurdles (e.g. some kanji are identical to kana, there are no spaces between words, etc.)
Duolingo: Thematic approach to learning Japanese
Unlike many apps, Duolingo arranges its Japanese lessons thematically and into sections, not based on grammar or vocabulary difficulty. This is similar to how children learn. Having a context to anchor new vocabulary makes remembering it much easier!
If you could dip into and out of topics in Duolingo, without being forced to unlock lessons systematically, I believe the thematic approach would work better. Then, before you go on a vacation to Japan, you could do the vacation lesson and learn the vocabulary and phrases you need. But as it currently is, you must work through or test out of all of the lessons leading up to it.
The most basic lessons in Duolingo Japanese are like almost all school classes, starting with learning the hiragana, then onto greetings, family words, basic numbers and telling time, a little bit of food and school vocabulary. Not necessarily the most useful phrases for an adult learner.
Jump ahead with a placement test in Duolingo
You can take the placement test to skip ahead in the Duolingo Japanese lessons, but surprisingly, this was quite infuriating. I was interrupted before completing the test the first time I took it, but Duolingo did not remember my progress – I had to restart. Even though I had only two wrong answers, only half of the first section of the course was unlocked.
If, like me, you were placed at a lower level, you can tap on the next section to test out of the remaining lessons and move onto the next section. These tests are very strict, and even if you get only a few answers wrong, none of the lessons in which you successfully answered all of the questions will be unlocked.
Unfortunately, you don’t seem to get any credit (crown levels) for the lessons you have unlocked via these placement tests. To ‘level’ these lessons up and work with more difficult words, phrases and grammar in any particular topic, you’ll have to step through each lesson 4+ times as if you were a beginner student, or complete a longer test in each lesson individually.
What I liked and disliked about the Japanese course in Duolingo
The good aspects of Duolingo Japanese
You can quickly form a habit: With all the standard motivation aspects of streak tracking, reminder notifications, as well as leaderboards and friends to provide a little competitive encouragement, it is relatively easy to build Duolingo Japanese into a habit.
Whole sentences help you speak phrases quickly: By learning entire sentences and repeating them regularly, you’ll be able to say these confidently without searching for words.
Weekly reports, achievements and global ranking are motivational: I’m not at all competitive, so this surprised me! I actually wanted to keep my streak going and my ranking stable.
It’s cute! Being able to dress up the Duolingo owl based on how much I used the app was surprisingly motivating.
The disadvantages of Duolingo Japanese
The kana and kanji are introduced with little explanation: At least in the mobile version of the app, there is no real introduction to learning hiragana and katakana. Kanji are introduced without the helpful furigana, so you are simply left to guess their pronunciation. This is seriously confusing to new Japanese students! You’ll need to learn the kana and kanji in other apps or via textbooks alongside Duolingo if you don’t want to keep guessing.
Japanese grammar is not explained (in the mobile app): It felt a lot like learning by memorization and mimicry, which is really how children do learn at a young age. While the desktop version of the Duolingo app does have decent grammar notes, I suspect most learners will start with the mobile app. The comments and questions asked by other learners, available via the mobile app, are somewhat helpful, but the explanations can be incorrect.
The audio is clipped when you move further into the lessons: In the initial lessons, the audio of the words and phrases was clear. Moving into later topics or higher levels of lessons, where more complex vocabulary, grammar and phrases are used, the ends of the words are clipped and the pronunciation is unclear.
The questions that require translations as answers are inflexible: A lot is left out in Japanese (and English), sentence meaning can be quite ambiguous and the translations to/from it need to be flexible. Unfortunately, for many phrases, it seems only one translation is considered to be correct.
You don’t learn to physically write the kana and kanji: While being able to read and speak kana and kanji aloud is extremely valuable, I want to be able to write letters to my friends.
No built-in flashcard review tool: I like apps that add the words and phrases I have trouble with to a flashcard deck automatically, so I can review and improve later. I missed having one of these while using Duolingo.
Good app alternatives to Duolingo Japanese
LingoDeer currently offers two Japanese courses with more in development (along with many other languages). The tasks you do in each thematic lesson are more varied than Duolingo, which helps you remember what you have learned more easily. The Learning Tips for each lesson contain detailed explanations for the grammar and usage of the words and phrases you learn. These are often more detailed than those in a textbook!
The audio is very helpful for pronunciation – better than most of the other apps I’ve tried because everything has been spoken by native Japanese speakers. Plus, like many language learning apps, motivational tools like a streak tracker and levels are built in, along with a useful spaced-repetition flashcard review tool. LingoDeer is available as a web app and as native apps on iOS and Android.
Kanji alive is ideal for learning how to read, pronounce and write kanji. You can sort the kanji by popular textbooks, reading, pronunciation – almost any order in which you are studying them. Each character animation is written by pen, showing you how a real person would write it. Plus, you can see how the kanji look using both the common and historical fonts actually used in Japan on signs and in print. Kanji alive is a free and open source web app, which means it works on all platforms and devices.
If you like visual mnemonics and silliness, Dr Moku has developed a set of apps to learn katakana, hiragana and kanji. Dr Moku’s apps are available on iOS and Android.
For practicing your listening and comprehension skills, JapanesePod101.com is still the best podcast by far. It’s how I started learning Japanese – when they had only 10 lessons available! By now, they have so many different courses for different levels, you’ll definitely find one that fits!