With over 300 million users around the world and over 90 language courses across 22 languages, Duolingo is the largest and most popular language learning app in the world.
But how well does it do as a Japanese language app? In this post we take a closer look into Duolingo Japanese to answer that question.
What is Duolingo and how does it work?
Duolingo takes a gamified approach to language learning. Lessons are grouped together by topic, or specific parts of grammar. These groups of lessons are called units and they make up the "language tree" (course) of Duolingo.
Each lesson will walk you through a series of exercises which test and expand your abilities in your target language. These exercises vary greatly and can include fill in the blanks, matching, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and more.
You get points for each lesson completed, and bonus points for streaks of correct answers. Also if you answer a question wrong you "lose a life". If you lose enough lives the lesson stops and you have to start over.
The gamification aspect is subtle but does make Duolingo more enjoyable and engaging that a lot of other Japanese learning apps.
Are there hidden fees in Duolingo?
No. The app is very upfront about its premium pricing features. Duolingo is monetized through a freemium model. This means the app is free to use if users are willing to view ads.
If a user loses all of their lives by giving incorrect answers they have the option of paying in order to receive new ones. Otherwise they'll have to wait 5 hours before they can continue learning.
If you run out of lives you will have to refill them with gems, which often (but not always) cost money
There is also the option of a premium monthly subscription to Duolingo for $9.99. This subscription gets rid of the ads, gives the user unlimited lives, and allows for offline use of the app.
Strengths of Duolingo Japanese
It really does feel like a game
Veteran language learners might be turned off by the app's game like structure, but the vast majority of Japanese learners will appreciate this feature of Duolingo.
Learning Japanese as a foreign language often conjures up dreadful visions of rote memorization or endless grammar charts and Kanji lists. Duolingo does really feel like a game, and it does a good job of avoiding the monotony so often associated with language learning.
Duolingo helps you consistently practice Japanese
Duolingo's practice reminders are internet famous, and have been made into memes.
The app's reminders and its bonus study streak gives incentives to help users practice their Japanese on a daily basis, if only for five or ten minutes a day.
Consistency is king when learning a foreign language, so we're glad that Duolingo emphasizes this (even if you have to save your family).
Four weaknesses of Duolingo Japanese
1) Shaky understanding of written Japanese
The Japanese writing system is notoriously one of the most difficult in the modern world. It weaves together two writing systems and is a serious challange for any new learner.
Duolingo starts users off by teaching some of the writing system. Learners will be exposed to hiragana and then to some basic kanji, before they start working with basic phrases and more advanced vocabulary.
"Duolingo does not offer much explanation about Japanese sentence structure or writing systems. If you don’t do any additional research on the Japanese language, you might never understand the differences between hiragana, katakana, and kanji (and Romaji, for good measure), or why you need to know each of them and that can be problematic if you decide to go to Japan."
Due to the complexity of the Japanese writing system, it does feel like Duolingo glosses over writing. New kanji are thrown in fast. It's questionable if the user is given enough chance to master any part of the written language. However, you are able to review a previous lesson at any time.
Users are never given an in depth explanation on how written Japanese works. They may know kana and kanji, but Duolingo never really shows them how these two work together to form written Japanese sentences.
2) Duolingo struggles with Japanese grammar
Japanese grammar is very different from English
Grammatically speaking, Japanese is about as far removed from English as you can get. The list of differences is quite long.
A closer look at some basic grammatical differences between English and Japanese
In Japanese you're able to omit certain words from sentences and still retain the same meaning, a luxury not afforded English speakers. Japanese also doesn't use auxiliary verbs, and its particles are usually difficult for native English speakers.
Duolingo glosses over some aspects of Japanese grammar
To Duolingo's credit, teaching Japanese to native English speakers via an app is no small feat. That being said, there's a lot of grammar points in Japanese that aren't explained well in the app, and sometimes they're not even covered at all.
These grammar gaps often include particles, and elements of sentence structure. Vocabulary is also a struggle sometimes, as there are many Japanese words that have no direct equivalent in the English language.
"Some apps also have a hard time teaching complex grammar. In Japanese, for one small example, “particles” are core parts of a sentence that indicate how words relate to each other in a sentence. They’re usually written with the same symbols used to spell words — sort of like how “a” is both a letter, but also a word on its own — which can get confusing since Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words and symbols.
Duolingo often just drops a new particle on you without much explanation of what it does or even that it’s a particle at all."
All this being said, Duolingo does provide some help with grammar before each lesson. You have the option of reading a brief summary and explanation of the grammar in a lesson before you take it.
Also, each exercise in a lesson has a sort of forum attached to it. Here you can read and discuss the lesson material with other learners taking the course. Often students help explain to one another the various pain points of Japanese grammar and vocabulary.
Still, sometimes the lesson explanations and student discussions don't quite cut it, and you're still left unsure of what you've learned after a lesson.
"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"
3) Too much "handholding" in the course
In Duolingo's effort to make their Japanese app fun and accessible to as many learners as possible, sometimes the effectiveness of the course suffers.
Lessons often contain multiple choice exercises which are rather obvious, even without knowing any Japanese. With questions and answers so easy, you don't really learn or retain that much.
This is especially true when it comes to learning kanji. With Duolingo Japanese you will be exposed to Kanji, but often the app doesn't work your brain hard enough. You're likely to breeze over the characters without remembering them.
"Duolingo tends to rely heavily on multiple choice questions that are relatively straightforward, and this can become a form of hand-holding throughout the course.
For example, you might get the question, “Which one of these is ‘bag’?” You will see a map, a school, a bag, and a bank. These pictures are paired with hiragana for the Japanese words. (see screenshot below)
The issue here is that you might not know the full hiragana system yet. Furthermore, katakana might get mixed in. This can be a little confusing, because Duolingo does not offer much explanation about Japanese sentence structure or writing systems..."
4) No cultural context
Japanese uses honorific language with distinct levels of politeness. This means that words will take different forms based on your relationship with the person you're talking to.
You have to learn the grammar behind each level of politeness and when to use it. This aspect of the Japanese language doesn't really appear in Duolingo.
Alternatives to Duolingo Japanese
20+ minutes a day
The Rocket Japanese course is built around two types of lessons. the first are the audio lessons in the form of dialogues. These dialogues have English explanations and usually teach Japanese in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for conversational Japanese).
The second type of lessons you find in Rocket Japanese are called cultural lessons. These lessons take a deep dive into Japanese grammar. They explain the hows and whys behind grammar rules and sentence constructions, so you can later then reproduce your own original sentences.
The course also features entire lessons on kanji and written Japanese, and covers politeness levels.
Rocket Japanese is a comprehensive course. It covers all four aspects of learning Japanese as a foreign language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This course is more for learners who are serious about learning Japanese. Casual learners might be interested in other courses.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
The Japanesepod101 course features audio lessons in a podcast format. Lessons are great for grammar and vocabulary. Each lesson is designed around a Japanese conversation between native speakers, and the teachers do a great job of keeping things engaging, and explaining relevant points of grammar.
If you're interested you can read more about the lesson in our Japanesepod101 review.
While it's not as structured as Duolingo, it's still a substantial Japanese learning tool. The site features lesson transcripts in kanji, romaji, hiragana, and English. There is also a flashcard system for learning kanji, and many other useful features.
Japanesepod101 is easily one of the most popular apps for learning Japanese, and for good reason. What it lacks in structure it makes up for in sheer volume of useful content.
$14.95 per month
30 minutes a day
The Pimsleur Japanese course is an audio based approach to learning a foreign language. Each 30 minute audio lesson is built around a question-recall-response method that forces you to think in Japanese as if you were actually speaking to someone.
The emphasis with Pimsleur is always using the language rather than just learning it.
The courses are highly structured and will leave you with a working knowledge of the spoken language.The course also does a good job of breaking down pronunciation syllable by syllable.
The course also features a reading component which allows you to start reading a foreign language phonetically, before you start reading for meaning. This unique approach helps you master the symbols and sound systems of the language. With Pimsluer you'll start off with hiragana and then work your WAY up through kanji.
Pimsleur lets you access all 5 levels of their Japanese courses for $14.95 a month. They also offer a 1 week free trial of their courses so you can test them out before you pay.
Duolingo Japanese has its pros and cons. On one hand the course does a good job of helping learners practice Japanese consistently, all while keeping things fun and engaging.
On the other hand, the course doesn't do much to help users grasp the complexities of Japanese writing and grammar, and gives little to no explanation of sentence structure.
The course is also a bit too easy at times, making it hard for the material to stick.
Duolingo can introduce you to basic phrases and words in Japanese, but if you're serious about grasping and understanding the language as a whole then this app falls short.
Duolingo Japanese is best used for beginners who have a very casual interest in Japanese. More advanced beginners could also use it to review and reinforce the Japanese they're learning through a more comprehensive course.
The app is free to use, so its best to download the app and see for yourself if the course is right for you!