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Duolingo may be a good Spanish learning app, but can it teach a complicated language like Japanese? This review is from an intermediate student’s perspective, one who finished Duolingo’s Japanese course to review.
I first started learning Japanese when my company offered Japanese classes. Although the class was soon cancelled after employee interest waned, I was already fascinated by the language and decided to keep learning by myself. After I reached an intermediate level, I moved to Japan for a year. However, since moving to Europe eight years ago, I haven’t used Japanese at all. Now that I have more time, I want to pick it up again.
I love using language apps to fill in dead time while waiting for public transport, so I decided to have a look at Duolingo and the various Japanese language apps, such as LingoDeer, that are available today. You can also read about the warning signs of a bad language app here.
How does Duolingo teach languages?
There are many language teaching apps available these days, and each has a different approach to teaching. Duolingo is not only popular, but also completely free, so I decided to try it out.
Themes – How Duolingo Organizes Content
To help students build stronger connections between related words and concepts, Duolingo organizes their lessons by topics, or themes, instead of by grammar or difficulty. This is a good thing!
By grouping words into themes, rather than based on similar grammatical behaviour, there is more context. Following the thematic organization in Duolingo Japanese, you can start using the vocabulary you have learned immediately.
Osmosis – How Duolingo Teaches A Language
It sounds effortless, right? Put a textbook near your pillow, and it seeps into your brain through osmosis while you sleep.
Osmosis means you’re learning in a natural, organic and indirect way through exposure. It’s the way children learn a language. It sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
Learning by osmosis can work well when you are studying languages in the same family (German, Italian, etc). Trying to learn Japanese by osmosis without explanations is inefficient and confusing because it’s in a different linguistic family.
Duolingo attempts to teach via osmosis by exposing you to the language and encouraging you to translate a lot. Because of the reasons mentioned above, it falls quite a bit short of the ideal.
Plus, you can’t easily dip into the themes that interest you, or that you could use right now. Instead, you are forced to follow the recommended progression of themed lessons, or try to jump ahead with a placement test. More on this feature below.
Perhaps even worse for adult learners (but also a common problem with textbooks), the early lessons have quite a lot of school-themed words and phrases.
Gamified Learning – Duolingo Makes Studying Fun
We learn better when we are having fun. Which is why gamification is such a popular motivational carrot, used in schools, apps and even in workplaces today. There are many ways gamification is built into Duolingo
- Leveling system: spend more time and progress through sessions and you can level up. Complete with gold stars!
- Unlockable rewards: level up to customize certain aspects of the user interface (like dressing up the Duolingo owl), or access special fun lessons.
- Achievement badges: reach milestones such as the number of hours spent studying to get badges you can display on your profile.
- Streak tracking: study every day for a set amount of time to continue your streak. You don’t want to break the chain.
- Goal tracking: select a goal (or track) and the coach owl will tell you whether you are on track to meet that goal or not.
- Leaderboards and leagues: compete with your friends and the Duolingo community by being ranked on the leaderboards.
All of these are excellent motivational tools to help you feel invested in your studies, which Duolingo has skillfully included. It is encouraging to see your progression measured by levels, achievements, and the leaderboard.
Social Learning – Duolingo Makes Things Competitive
Friends and co-students provide a bit of competition and a lot of accountability. Of course, you don’t want to fall behind!
Duolingo students can follow or friend each other via their Duolingo profiles or add their Facebook friends. Most people want to keep up with their friends, which is why the leaderboard element is a powerful social element.
There are few other social features through, you can’t chat with other users to give and receive encouragement inside the app. Duolingo Clubs, a social feature where you used to be able to chat with others, was removed to improve the safety of the app for children.
You can, however, click on the chat bubble for each question in the lessons to see what other users have asked and about that specific question and the replies they received, or ask your own question.
Is Duolingo Japanese friendly to intermediate learners?
Placement tests allow you to skip ahead in the Duolingo Japanese lessons. 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.
You can tap on the next section to test out of the remaining lessons and move on. The placement tests are strict, and even if you get only a few answers wrong, none of the lessons in which you successfully answered all of the questions in the test will be unlocked. And the translations of the example sentences are not always easy to decipher.
You’ll need to level up the lessons you unlocked via those placement tests to reach the more difficult content.
Learn Japanese with Duolingo – a review
One of the most popular 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.)
A typical Japanese lesson in Duolingo
Each thematic lesson (and test) randomly draws from a collection of exercises of different types. After the first few lessons where you’ll learn hiragana, the Japanese sentences and phrases are entirely presented in hiragana and kanji.
Does Duolingo Japanese Teach Hiragana, katakana and kanji?
The first four lessons introduce you to hiragana. Almost all of the exercises are to match the hiragana character on a card to its correct pronunciation in English. This is relatively easy to guess because the cards are spoken aloud whenever you tap them. Katakana is introduced in the same way in the next lesson. Then kanji are introduced as they are needed in the exercises, always with a card-matching-pronunciation exercise first to match their pronunciation to the correct hiragana.
One of the more common complaints about the Japanese Duolingo course is that it introduces too many kanji, too early, and too often in lessons. Plus, Duolingo doesn’t show you how to write them.
After those introductory hiragana lessons, words that are in hiragana, are always in hiragana. Kanji words and phrases are always in kanji, and katakana are always in katakana. There are no options to change this, or to use furigana to help with pronunciation. This can be quite daunting for many people, especially on smaller screens where the differences in kanji are not easily seen.
At the end of the Japanese course, you’ll have learned 1350 kanji, covering the first official Japanese Language Proficiency Test levels, JLPT N5 and N4, as well as some of N3.
Personally, I would like to see furigana and an explanation of the kanji, and a discussion of the radicals within them – perhaps how you can visualize their meanings or how they are related to each other. This would build more bridges for non-rote-learners making it easier to remember which is used in which context.
What exercises will you see in Duolingo lessons?
For some of these exercises you’ll see a translation in your native language. There are five main groups of exercise types with several variations:
- Arrange the words
- Drag each word into the right position or tap them in order to form the grammatically correct sentence.
- Rearrange a mixed up sentence.
- Select the missing word and drag it to the right position.
- Type the missing word.
- Translate the entire sentence from one language into the other.
- Pick the right word to match the highlighted word in the sentence.
- Choose the right picture card that matches a word.
- Matching pairs
- Tap the matching kanji and their pronunciation in hiragana.
- Match the Japanese words or phrases to their meanings.
- Choose the picture cards and their corresponding words.
- Speak a sentence aloud. (These exercises do not grade your pronunciation, but do prompt you to speak.)
- Transcribe what you hear.
- Listen to a sentence and choose the correct response.
The audio exercises can be a bit problematic as some audio is clipped and generated by text-to-speech technology. Without clear pronunciation, you’ll have to listen to a sentence multiple times in order to transcribe or answer it correctly.
Translation exercises are quite inflexible – they will often accept only one right answer. As many words can be omitted in Japanese (and English) sentences, the meanings can be quite ambiguous and yet still correct.
How many words are taught in Duolingo Japanese?
This course contains about 3200 words, mostly the words and phrases you will encounter in a textbook, and updated to skill tree version 4.0 in 2020. That is far more words than the JLPT N5 covers, and a good number from the JLPT N4 though, so it’s a good introduction for beginners. Because the lessons are thematic, there is a reasonable range in the vocabulary covered.
As with kanji characters, new words are introduced with a card matching exercise, and then subsequently used in sentences. The repetition of one particular word becomes less the more you level up in the themed lessons.
How much grammar is covered in Duolingo Japanese?
The grammar used in Duolingo’s Japanese exercises covers most of what is assessed in the JLPT N5 and N4 language exam. That’s good coverage for basic conversations.
Even though the new Japanese course has “TIPS”, a section that provides clickable explanations on how to use a structure, the “why” is rarely explained. In some translation exercises, you can tap on parts of the sentences to see translation hints, but not an explanation of the grammar. The exercise-specific questions and answers (the chat bubble) is where you’ll typically find explanations, but as these are written by the student community, there is no guarantee they are correct.
This means, you’ll predominantly be learning the grammar by rote memorization, without learning why you are using it in any specific context.
Does Duolingo teach polite and casual Japanese?
No. The grammar and vocabulary covered by Duolingo are essentially textbook Japanese.
Not overly polite, and not at all casual. As there are multiple levels of politeness in the Japanese language, to go past a beginner level, you’ll need to learn the different grammar and words for at least casual and polite (business) Japanese.
Is Duolingo the app for you?
Language students have different goals, we have varying proficiency levels, and what may be fun and useful to one, is not to another.
I feel it’s a fun and intensive introduction to Japanese for beginners, and it’s a good app to kill time in line. But, as an intermediate learner, it’s not the app for me.
4 reasons Duolingo is great for beginners
- There is a GOOD range of vocabulary and grammar in the course.
- It’s FUN with all the different gamification elements.
- The variety of exercise types makes it INTERESTING.
- It’s SUPER CUTE with the owl mascot and colorful.
5 reasons I’m NOT thrilled with Duolingo
- I’d like links to professional grammar explanations.
- The audio could be much better quality.
- Being forced to follow the set lesson progression makes themed lessons frustrating.
- A flashcard deck built automatically from problem areas would be useful.
- I want to learn how to write with kanji stroke order, currently missing from Duolingo.
Duolingo is great for …
- Rote learners: students who learn best by repetition and memorization
- Dabblers: someone who wants to try Japanese to see if they like it
- Busy people: those who need to fill short blocks of time with quick lessons
- N5/N4 students: anyone who wants to revise for the JLPT N5 and N4 exams
Duolingo is not so great for …
- Tourists: tourists looking for a phrase book
- Serious learners: students who need to know the ‘why’ behind the grammar
- Kanji writers: people who want to learn to write kanji
- Intermediate students: anyone who wants to go beyond a beginner level
Is Duolingo good for intermediates to refresh their Japanese?
- It’s free, you can’t beat that!
- If you have a spare minute, it’s easy to speed through a lesson.
- When you want to review the basics, it’s a fun and colorful option.
- You won’t be prompted to really use the kanji, only recognize them.
- Written answers are inflexible, not like Japanese in real life.
- The vocabulary and grammar is for beginners.
- Casual and polite Japanese aren’t included.
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. 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.
What apps do you use for learning Japanese? What’s your experience like learning with Duolingo? Tell me what you think in the comments down below.