FAQs

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!

The Best 7 Android Apps for learning Japanese

Longtime readers will know that I review language learning apps on this blog fairly often. However, in reality there are only a small number of apps that I think are the best for people studying Japanese. Many of them I wish had been around when I was a beginner! For that reason, I thought I would put together a list of the best Android apps out there for learning Japanese!

Choosing just 7 was quite tricky, but I have tried to include apps for studying Japanese vocabulary, kanji and grammar which are useful at any level.

The best thing is that these apps are either free or available at a low cost. As I almost exclusively use Android devices, this list was made with Android users in mind. Fortunately, many of these are available on the Apple Store too.

top-android-apps-learning-japanese

1) The best app to introduce you to Japanese: Lingodeer

Cost: free; also available on iOS

If you like the idea of using an app like Duolingo, then I recommend trying out Lingodeer instead. Lingodeer was initially aimed at those learning Mandarin, Korean or Japanese (French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Vietnamese are also available) and so the lessons are tailored towards these languages in a better way than Duolingo.

How Lingodeer works

Lingodeer starts by teaching hiragana and katakana, which makes it a great choice for absolute beginners. Like Duolingo, the app has many lessons increasing in complexity covering a number of different themes.

Each lesson starts out with some grammar notes (called ‘Learning Tips’), then a number of smaller topics covering a few grammar points and vocabulary under the given theme. You also have the ability to toggle the use of kanji, furigana and romaji within the lessons if you wish.

When it comes to the lesson quizzes, the app tests your understanding in a few different ways. Successfully passing the quizzes earns you XP, and allows you to move on to the next lesson. Similarly, there isn’t a heavy reliance on English for learning new vocabulary; instead, the focus is on using lots of images to convey meanings. There is a ‘Test Out’ feature which allows you to skip ahead if you can pass the tests.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using Lingodeer as a resource on its own, but I think it is a great way to supplement learning using another textbook. Alternatively, I think it is a nice app to use if you have taken a break from Japanese and perhaps want to review the basics before starting new material.

2) The best textbook app for Japanese: Human Japanese

Cost: Human Japanese Lite is free, full version £8.99; also available on iOS

Speaking of apps for beginners, I would highly recommend the app Human Japanese. I think it is one of the best on Android for covering all aspects of Japanese

How Human Japanese works

This app has a textbook style app that takes you through hiragana, katakana and the basics of Japanese grammar. All aspects of the language are explained in a very clear and straightforward manner, imparting a lot of information designed to give as much context as possible to what you are learning.

The grammar lessons are also supplemented with relevant information on Japanese culture – you cannot understand the language without understanding the culture after all!

This short video gives you an overview of what Human Japanese is all about:

A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into Human Japanese – the quality of the app is great. All example sentences have crisp audio and example sentences have ‘ingredients’ which break down the sentence into its component parts, which is useful as sentences get more complex.

The full version of the app is not free and requires a one-off payment, but there is plenty of free content for Japanese newbies to work through to see if the app is appropriate for them before making a commitment. Looking at the content of the textbook, Human Japanese provides a solid foundation on which learners can continue to build on. I’ve written about Human Japanese in a previous post so I recommend checking that out if you would like to learn more.

3) The best Japanese dictionary app: Akebi

Cost: free

I have tried a number of free Japanese dictionary apps available on Android, but Akebi is by far my favourite. Again, this is another app that I have written a post about on this blog.

How Akebi works

The sheer number of features that Akebi has makes it a great learner friendly app. These include:

  • Inbuilt Japanese keyboard – no worrying about switching keyboards just to look something up
  • Detailed kanji information (including frequency, JLPT level, words containing that kanji)
  • Handwriting recognition and ability to search by radicals
  • Deconjugation – if you look up a verb in the te-form, it will find the verb in its dictionary form along with meanings and other useful information
  • Full functionality offline, perfect for when I am avoiding the internet during study sessions!
  • Example sentences

One of my favourite features relates to Anki; whenever I use the app to look up new words, I can immediately add them to a flashcard deck of my choice in Anki to review later.

Overall, I find that it has the right balance of user-friendly interface and powerful features that make it the perfect companion for Japanese learners at all levels.

4) The best app for practicing Japanese with native speakers: HelloTalk

Cost: free; also available on iOS

One of the biggest issues Japanese learners tend to have is lack of access to native speakers. Fortunately, language exchange apps like HelloTalk are the next best thing to address this issue.

How HelloTalk works

When you sign up for an account, you can select the languages you are interested in learning, as well as the languages you can speak. You can then post a message to native speakers of the language you are learning and find an exchange partner. When speaking with your language partner, you can post in your target language or record audio/ have a video call.

HelloTalk has expanded into a sort of social network for language learners. You can now post status updates on your profile called ‘Moments’, which other members can correct any language mistakes for you.

The above Youtube video by Reina Scully gives a good overview of how the app can be used to study Japanese.

HelloTalk has a couple of handy features for language learners. For example, as Reina mentions in her video, the Translate feature allows you to see translations from your target language by tapping any word or phrase. In addition, the Notepad feature also enables you to save a message or recording for later practice.

I think HelloTalk is a great way to find a language partner or even to practice your reading skills by reading other users’ Moments.

5) The best reading assistant app: TangoRisto

Cost: free, ad free version requires one off payment of £4.29; also available on iOS

Reading in Japanese can be a scary experience at first, but TangoRisto is a great app to build your confidence. TangoRisto draws together articles from NHK News Easy among other sources which you can read via the app.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 at 20.09.14

As you can see from the screenshots, the interface is crisp, clean and very user-friendly.

How TangoRisto works

Once in an article, a quick tap of a word brings up its reading and meaning. Like Akebi, tapping a conjugated verb will bring up the dictionary form of the verb with a note to indicate the form it has within the text (eg. passive tense, past tense). You can then bookmark these words to revise in the Vocabulary Review part of the app.

I like the ability to only highlight and/or show the furigana for words at certain JLPT levels as chosen in the settings, as well as the ability to save articles for offline reading. There is also a Text Analyzer tool, where you can paste Japanese text into the textbox; by then clicking ‘Analyze’, you can click on any word to find its readings and meanings.

Considering that this app is free to use, it is a quality resource for Japanese reading practice. It is definitely an app that I wish had been around sooner, especially when preparing for the JLPT tests!

I have a post reviewing TangoRisto which might be worth reading if you want to know more about the app.

6) The best app for vocabulary reviews: Anki

Cost: free; also available on iOS (for a price)

I haven’t always been a fan of Anki, but it is on my list because when used correctly it can be a very powerful tool. Whilst there is a free Anki app available on Android, Anki is available on a number of mobile and desktop platforms.

How Anki works

Anki (anki/暗記 is the Japanese word for ‘memorisation’) is a spaced repetition flashcard app that has a high degree of customisation. Putting together your own flashcard decks tailored to the type of Japanese content you want to study (ie. from your favourite TV show, video game or novel) is a great way to learn Japanese and stay motivated.

There is a bit of time required to experiment with what kind of flashcard set up works best for you. If making your own flashcard decks sounds like too much trouble, there are some great flashcard decks available for download via the Shared Decks. Some of my favourite shared decks are the Kanji Damage deck and the Core 2000 vocabulary decks.

This video by Landon Epps gives a nice overview of some of the features Anki has and how Japanese learners can use it to review vocabulary.

Anki is a great app because it can be used to help memorise all sorts of things, not just the Japanese language. If you like looking at data, there are all sorts of statistics you can look into regarding your learning and progress for each flashcard deck.

7) Best app for Kanji: Kanji Study

Cost: limited content is free, full app costs £11.99; older version of app available on iOS

If you are looking for an app to specifically help you with kanji, look no further than Kanji Study. I love the user interface, and there are so many features to help you customise your kanji learning experience.

How Kanji Study works

You can choose to tackle kanji in any order of your choice, but the default is the order in which Japanese children learn Joyo kanji at school. You can then break down each level into smaller groups of your choice. In the ‘Study’ mode, each kanji has its own page showing the stroke order, radicals, common readings, useful vocabulary and example sentences to help reinforce the meaning.

If you long press a word, you then get the option to add it to an Anki deck or look it up via another website such as jisho.org – both very useful features!

You can then choose to review the kanji via flashcards, multiple choice quizzes or writing challenges. These tests are highly customisable so that you can tailor your study sessions to focus on your weaknesses. The app also allows you to practice writing kanji. I like that the app uses a very readable kanji font which is much closer to how kanji would be handwritten rather than a typed font.

It is possible to set a daily study target, and you can set notification reminders to make sure you don’t miss a study session.

The beginner level kanji content is free, however access to all kanji requires a one-off cost of £11.99. All in all, I highly recommend this app because the quality of the app is top-notch.

Honourable mentions

There are a lot of apps which are great alternatives to some of the apps on my top 7 list:

 

Hello Talk -> HiNative

HiNative is fairly similar to Hello Talk, but I find HiNative better for learning about the current trends or asking questions about the culture of your target language. You can read my full review of HiNative here.

Anki -> Memrise/ iKnow

If you prefer an app that makes use of spaced repetition with a more user-friendly interface, then I recommend checking out Memrise or iKnow.

About Memrise

Memrise has its own starter courses for the Japanese language, however, I cannot comment on their quality as I have not tried this out for myself yet. Instead, I like to use the Memrise app to study some of the courses created by other users for certain aspects of Japanese, such as JTalkOnline’s keigo course.

Recently Memrise has made it difficult to search for these user-generated vocabulary courses (via the app anyway – they are still easy to find via the website), which is a slight annoyance.

About iKnow

iKnow requires a monthly subscription (a free trial is available), but I think the Core 1000/ 3000/ 6000 vocabulary decks help build a good grounding in Japanese knowledge if you are not interested in making your own vocabulary flashcards.

Akebi -> Tangorin

Tangorin is another free dictionary app available on both Android and iOS, which also works fully offline.

TangoRisto -> Mondo

Mondo is another reading assistant app aimed to help Japanese learners. Mondo tends to pull its reading content from different sources compared to TangoRisto, and there is some original articles and dialogues that can only be read on the app. I’ve covered how Mondo works in an earlier blog post.

So that is my list of the best apps available for learning Japanese on Android. Do you agree with my list, or is there a glaring omission? Please tell me in the comments 🙂

Should you learn to write by hand in Japanese?

learntowritebyhandinjapanese

We live in an increasingly digital world. As a consequence, the importance of handwriting has diminished – why write a letter when you can send an email? A lot of Japanese learners may think that learning to write Japanese by hand is a waste of time.

Especially with all the apps and other digital materials out there for Japanese study, it is even easier to skip learning handwritten Japanese and to stick to typing kana and kanji instead.

The major argument for avoiding writing Japanese is often that Japanese people don’t remember how to write kanji any more. There is certainly evidence to suggest this is a growing trend.

So, in the light of all this, is learning to handwrite Japanese worth it for Japanese learners?

When it comes to studying Japanese, I believe that learning to write by hand is a good skill to have, although in a lot of situations handwriting is no longer necessary in Japan.

How important it is for you as a Japanese learner to practice handwriting will depend on two questions.

The first question to ask yourself is: ‘What is your language goal?’

If this includes living in Japan at some point, being able to handwrite the basics is a minimum requirement. Particularly in rural areas, you will be required to write certain things such as your address by hand when completing essential tasks such as setting up a bank account.

Similarly, if you want to become a student in Japan you could get asked to write rather than type your assignments. Needless to say, attending a language school in Japan will involve writing your homework by hand.

The second question to ask yourself is: ‘How do you study best?’

I am always writing things down as a way of remembering things. For me, this also applies to language learning: I personally find it much easier to memorise new vocabulary/ kanji when I write them out by hand.

There is some evidence to suggest that in general, writing is a more effective way to study compared to typing.

Ultimately you are the person who has the deepest understanding of how you learn best. If you don’t have to write things down in order to remember them, then using handwriting as a study method is likely to be a futile exercise.

A couple of caveats…

Technology is a great thing, but you shouldn’t be entirely reliant on it. Making sure you recognise how things should look in written Japanese will avoid any potential for embarrassment.

I would recommend learning the stroke order of radicals – having a basic knowledge of the building blocks of kanji means you’ll be able to write neatly should you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must handwrite Japanese.

In addition, whether you decide to learn to write by hand in Japanese or not, there are differences between handwritten and typed fonts for both kana and kanji, so make sure that you as a Japanese learner are aware of these.

E3819DE3828FE3828CE38195E3818D.JPG (462×164)

Note: TheJapanGirl’s post on this topic has some great infographics and is definitely worth checking out!

I am interested to hear other people’s opinions on this. Do you think that handwriting is a necessity in today’s age, whether that be in Japanese or any other language?

 

Image source: http://la-lievre.seesaa.net/article/165005808.html 

%d bloggers like this: