Apps

Duolingo Japanese Course Review

I see a lot of people asking: is Duolingo any good for learning Japanese?

From my perspective as a long time Japanese learner, I believe that it can be a useful place to start learning the language.

However, if you are serious about learning Japanese, do not make Duolingo your only resource. As great as the app is for allowing you to practice Japanese and many other languages, it does have some limitations.

About Duolingo for Japanese

Duolingo is a free app for learning various languages. The Japanese course is designed to help you learn the basics through a number of lessons. Each lesson covers a different topic and introduces relevant vocabulary.

People who are not new to the language can take a proficiency test to jump ahead to later lessons.

Duolingo has you practicing new words in a few ways. Often this is by translating them from Japanese to English or vice versa, writing or rearranging sentences and filling in the missing word.

Duolingo has a crown system. By completing all of the lessons within a topic, you level up a crown for that topic. As your crown level increases, the complexity of the sentences does too.


Advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo for Japanese

What I like about the Duolingo Japanese course

There are some obvious benefits to learning Japanese with Duolingo:

  • It starts from teaching Hiragana. Katakana and kanji are gradually introduced, and they doesn’t use lots of romaji, except at the beginning.
  • The audio is clear. You can repeat it as much as you need to, which is great for shadowing. There are also sometimes options to hear the audio a little bit slower if you need it, by clicking on the button showing a tortoise.
  • Vocabulary is introduced by theme. With a new language, the amount of vocabulary to learn can feel overwhelming at times (particularly with Japanese). Introducing words and phrases by topic gives learners a better idea of how to form sentences around that topic.
  • It encourages you to make language learning a daily habit. Doing a little bit each day is much more effective than once a week. I think the Duolingo streak is a fun way to try and stay consistent with your learning.
  • The Duolingo community is friendly and helpful. During lessons, you can click on the comments button to see discussions regarding sentence translations.
  • If you are competitive, it is easy to compete against friends or other learners on the Duolingo leaderboard.

What I don’t like about the Duolingo Japanese course

On the other hand, the disadvantages of the Japanese course as I see it are:

  • Grammar is not explained at all (in the app, that is). Duolingo relies on inference to learn grammar, ie. by seeing a sentence pattern repeatedly you will work out what it means. This is usually fine for languages with a similar structure to English. Unfortunately, Japanese grammar is so different from English that it is hard to pick up on the differences simply from observing phrases in two languages.

For example, when Duolingo gives you the sentence:

アメリカ人です

= I am American

I would want to know why the Japanese doesn’t include the word ‘I’.

Fortunately, the desktop version does have grammar notes, which can be viewed before you start a lesson.

I think that these explanations are clear and cover a lot of the basics. However, sometimes the sentence patterns change within the same lesson but lack any explanations on why this happens.

An example of this that is introduced in the Food lesson is the sentence:

ごはんは食べません= I don’t eat rice

I would be confused as to why は is being suddenly used rather than を. Even on the Desktop app, the notes prior to this lesson introduce を as an object marker and there is no mention of how は could be used at all. I think it would be particularly difficult to pick up particle usage from the course.

The comments section goes a long way in filling some of the gaps in grammar explanations.

Having said that, I would be a little wary of some of the comments. After all, they are from fellow learners who may unintentionally give out incorrect information.

This is why a lot of Japanese learners would benefit from using other resources for grammar alongside Duolingo.

  • When it comes to hiragana, katakana and kanji, the focus is on recognition. Together with the fact that most questions are multiple choice, it is easy to think that you have learned all the kana when you are not studying it on a deeper level.
  • The introduction of katakana and kanji feels abrupt without explanation (again, I am referring to the app). This would be very confusing to learners without any background on how the various writing systems work.

It would be good for the app to explain how the pronunciations of kanji can vary – for example, 何 kanji is introduced within the first few lessons, but it appears in example sentences as both なに and なん.

Similarly, some vocabulary needs explanations, especially since a lot of English words can correlate to a number of different words in Japanese. Sometimes water is 水, sometimes it appears as お水.

  • Example sentences and their translations can feel a little off.

Part of this is because some Japanese phrases do not have an English equivalent. I have seen a noticeable improvement in this since the Japanese course was first released in beta. This is because of the many people who have been reporting suggestions on what should be accepted, which Duolingo have then added to the course.

Of course, this is a tough issue to address, but Japanese learners should be aware that the phrase Duolingo tells them is not necessarily the definitive answer in all situations.

What I think Duolingo needs to continue improving on is giving greater flexibility when it comes to writing the right answer. Japanese can be quite ambiguous, so there are many ways to interpret even the simplest sentences.

duolingo-japanese-course-itadakimasu
According to the comments, there are a few acceptable translations including “bon appetit”

Overall impressions of Duolingo for Japanese

Overall I feel that Duolingo is a fantastic starting point for those who are interested in learning Japanese. However in my opinion, the cookie-cutter format that Duolingo uses isn’t really compatible with the Japanese language.

By completing the whole tree, you are going to cover a lot of basic Japanese vocabulary, kanji and grammar. The sentences that you cover do increase in complexity but you will most likely reach an upper beginner level (JLPT N5) by the end.

This is great if you are thinking of travelling to Japan in the future. In fact, the last lesson on the Japanese language tree (at the time of writing) is about the Olympics!

If you like the style of Duolingo, but want to try something that addresses some of the issues I raised above, then I recommend checking out Lingodeer. Lingodeer is an app which has a similar format to Duolingo, but is more tailored to East Asian languages. I wrote about the app in my post on the best 7 Japanese learning apps on Android.

By writing this post, I do not mean to discourage people from learning Japanese if Duolingo is their only option. The more people study Japanese, the better! Japanese is a relatively recent addition to Duolingo and there are updates and improvements being made all the time.

I do however think it is important to be aware of the limitations of the course as I see it at the time of writing. At least you can be aware of what things you may need to be careful of or learn via another resources.


What to do alongside or after the Duolingo Japanese course

If you do have a long term goal of learning Japanese beyond beginner level, here are my top tips on making the most of Duolingo Japanese.

1) Use the Desktop version of the course

The desktop version of the course is going to help you understand the structure of Japanese much better than trying to guess grammatical rules.

I do think that it is best to study basic Japanese grammar from other resources where you can. Sometimes grammar makes more sense when you can see the same topic explained in different ways.

When it comes to textbooks, Genki I will help you build a solid foundation in Japanese grammar and comes with a workbook to practice with too. Online alternatives to Japanese textbooks include Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide and Human Japanese.

2) Practice hiragana, katakana and kanji outside the app/ website.

For learning kana you can use apps such as JustKana, Japanese Kana Dojo (iOS, Android), Dr Moku (iOS, Android), RealKana (iOS)

Marvellous online resources for kanji practice include Kanji Study app and Kanshudo.

If learning to write Japanese by hand is something you want to do, then make sure you are practising this alongside apps or online resources.

There are also some books you can get that focus on learning kana and kanji, such as the Basic Kanji Book.

3) Review vocabulary regularly.

The spaced repetition in Duolingo will only help you so much, and with a wide range of topics it can get hard to keep track of everything you’ve learned.

Make your own flashcards based on the vocabulary you encounter in the app. Either physical flashcards or flashcards on a program like Anki both work really well.

Duolingo has a sister app called Tinycards which you can find the flashcard decks for the kanji and vocabulary introduced in the Japanese course. The app is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen!

4) Get in some real world listening and speaking practice

You want your learning to be as active as possible. I recommend trying out the following things depending on your interests:

Listening – Netflix, YouTube, podcasts

Reading – Watanoc, Hirogaru, children’s stories

Speaking/ WritingItalki, Hello Talk, Japanese classes, language exchanges and meetups

I want to end this post by saying that I believe that the most important thing in language learning is consistency in your studies rather than what resources you use (although some are definitely better than others!).

My How to Start Learning Japanese page has a lot more resources for beginners.

There is going to be an update to the Japanese course on Duolingo very soon (known as Japanese 2.0). This update will significantly increase the number of skills, kanji learnt and grammar that you learn. I look forward to giving it another try when it is officially released!

My favourite free/cheap Online Japanese Resources

The cost of learning with textbooks can be a barrier to those who are just starting to learn Japanese. However, there are plenty of online Japanese resources which are great no matter what your budget is.

Most people are told that in order to study Japanese they should make their way through Genki textbooks 1 and 2. There is of course nothing wrong with this method (it is tried and tested after all).

Unfortunately Genki books are not cheap at around £40 (over $50) for the textbook. This doesn’t include the costs of additional materials such as the workbooks either! So if your funds are limited, buying a Genki is not an affordable option for people studying on their own.

Online Japanese Resources to the rescue!

On the other hand, the internet is packed with online Japanese resources that are actually pretty good! So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce some websites to help those looking to study Japanese without a textbook. When I think back to the Japanese language classes I have attended, textbooks were never used so I definitely think it is possible to self-study without using a textbook.

Having said that, I believe textbooks are useful because they provide a methodical framework in which to work your way through learning the basics of a language. Online resources do not always provide this same framework to follow, which can make it difficult to know what to study next. Fortunately, most of the ones I mention in the below list do not have this issue.

I recommend looking at grammar lists for the beginner level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT for short). Even if you aren’t planning on sitting the exam, you can get a feel for essential grammar and vocabulary. If you are new to Japanese your focus should be on essential words and phrases, sentence structure and how particles work. Check out my How to start learning Japanese page to get some further ideas and resources.

Here is a list of various online Japanese resources that I think learners can work through like a regular textbook. You could also use this as supplementary material to a textbook or class that you are already studying with.

Websites

Tae Kim – Probably the most well known on the list and for a good reason. Tae Kim’s website offers a comprehensive introduction to Japanese. It also tries to take a different approach to a lot of textbooks. It is being updated all the time too.

Imabi – This is a great place to start if Tae Kim isn’t for you. This online grammar guide starts from the beginning of learning Japanese right up to advanced level. The website is split into beginner, intermediate and advanced conten. Each level is split into a number of lessons, enabling you to work your way through the website just like a textbook. Best of all this is entirely free – needless to say, this is a must visit resource!

Erin’s Challenge – if you’re a visual learner you may find supplementing your study with this website useful. Erin’s Challenge is a website put together by the Japan Foundation. The website has a series of videos featuring Erin, who becomes a school exchange student in Japan. Each short video covers a different topic as she gets used to her new life in Japan. These also have explanations of key grammar points and phrases used which you can then test yourself on.

Marugoto – The Japan Foundation website has a number of free online courses aimed at those self-studying Japanese called Marugoto. Different courses with suit different learners depending on your goal. If you aim is to build practical communication skills in Japanese then I recommend the ‘Katsudoo’ course. However if you want to study Japanese in more depth then choose the ‘Katsudoo & Rikai’ course.

apps-japanese-resources

Apps

Human Japanese – Whilst not free in its entirety, the ‘lite’ version of this app is free. Fortunately the free content gives a pretty good indication of the app’s approach to learning Japanese. I’ve written a separate post reviewing this app as I think it is worth the cost of entry for complete beginners to Japanese.

Lingodeer – this (free!) app is more like Duolingo in style. You follow a series of lessons covering different aspects of vocabulary and grammar. Having said that, it covers topics in a way that makes it very accessible for Japanese learners. You can then follow up the lessons with some of the sites below to reinforce your understanding of the content. It also does a pretty good job of testing you on the content of the lessons in different ways, which is really important when self-studying.

If apps are your thing, you might like my post on the The Best 7 Android Apps for studying Japanese!

Japanese Grammar Reference sites

It’s always good to have somewhere else to check out grammar explanations if they are not making sense straight away. Here’s a list of online Japanese resources you might find useful:

Jgram – I think of Jgram as a database of Japanese grammar points which the community contributes to. You can search for grammar points by the (old) JLPT levels or use the search function to look up something specific. Each entry has notes and example sentences which is helpful for getting a new perspective on a grammar point.

Maggie Sensei – Everything on the website is presented in a really fun and easy to digest way. As well as explanations of grammar points, you will also find posts on aspects of Japanese culture. I also like that vocabulary is listed by theme rather than difficulty.

Wasabi – Wasabi’s online grammar reference is similar to Tae Kim in layout and style. I think Wasabi’s guide is particularly good for learning to distinguish between grammar points which have similar English meanings.

Japanistry – The Japanistry grammar guide works quite similarly to the Tae Kim guide but is a great reference site for the foundations of Japanese grammar.

日本語の森 (Nihongo no Mori) – This YouTube channel has lots of videos on grammar points aimed at all levels of Japanese learners. The playlist that I’ve linked to called ‘Ekubo Basic Japanese Lessons’ starts from the very beginning, but there are a number of playlists focused on different levels of the JLPT.

online-japanese-resources-quiz

Worksheets and Quizzes

MLC Japanese – full of handy printable worksheets and quizzes. There is a lot of content for JLPT N5 & N4 in particular, but you can find study plans and JLPT material for the upper levels (old levels level 2 and level 1).

Memrise – has a number of electronic flashcard decks, including decks on the main textbooks including Genki, Tae Kim’s guide and the JLPT.

Japanesetest4you – This is an all round useful website for learners, with grammar and vocabulary lists for each level of the JLPT. You can practice a bunch of mock questions online.

JPDrills – JPDrills is pretty new to the game, but from what I’ve seen is pretty good. Access to the full website requires a subscription, but you can sign up to practice a bunch of Japanese questions for free. This is a helpful resource if you are working towards the JLPT.

The above are all websites that I have tried and thought could be useful for other learners. If you are looking for even more online Japanese resources, check out my Japanese Resource Masterpost!

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