Duolingo is a bit of a controversial tool, especially when it comes to Japanese.
Scorned by many, loved by others, this free, interactive language guide has spawned endless internet pages of debate.
Well, today, I’ll be adding my thoughts into the mix.
To do this, I’ll be experimenting with Duolingo in Japanese and comparing it with my own experience using Duolingo to supplement my knowledge of languages like Spanish and French.
I’ll give you some technical details, and share the pros and cons of the resource, and how you can make it better.
But, to start, let me answer the question directly…
Is Duolingo a Waste of Time for Studying Japanese?
Duolingo could be a waste of time, depending on your needs and skill level with Japanese. It is probably best for the beginner in Japanese when used alongside other resources. For experienced Japanese learners, it would be best as a way to brush up after a break from studying.
Is Duolingo Just for Japanese?
Before we talk about Duolingo with respect to Japanese, we should get a little familiar with Duolingo in general. So, what is it?
Duolingo is a platform that aims to gamify the language learning process. It’s available in your browser or as an app for iPhone, Android, and Windows phones.
That said, I personally dislike the app, and I’ve never heard and particularly flattering things about it from anyone else. Stick with the browser version, even on your phone.
This is another one of those language learning apps that I’ve been with since almost their inception.
They got their start way back in 2009, though it didn’t get a general release until 2012.
Their initial iteration had Spanish and German in 2011, and then added French, Portuguese, and Italian in 2012.
Since then the list of languages offered for English speakers has blown up to 35, with another 3 currently in the works.
Included in this are three conlangs—Esperanto, Klingon, and High Valyrian—a “dead” language—Latin—, and a few languages with small speaker populations—Hawaiian (24k speakers), Scottish Gaelic (57k speakers), Navajo (170k speakers).
Altogether, you’ll find (with the number of learners in parentheses):
Mandarin Chinese (3.52M)
Brazilian Portuguese (2.23M)
High Valyrian (952K)
Norwegian Bokmål (842K)
Scottish Gaelic (102K)
Plus, on the way:
Haitian Creole (17% complete)
Yiddish (16% complete)
Finnish (2% complete)
Additionally, there are courses available for non-English speakers as well. In fact, there are 22 languages that have courses available for them, with another 5 on the way!
Oh, and it’s all free. Seriously. You can pay to remove ads, but otherwise, no useful features are hidden behind a paywall.
That’s seriously impressive.
I’m not being paid to write this, I swear. For languages like Spanish, French, German, etc, Duolingo is a great resource to introduce yourself to the language and even brush up dormant skills.
It’s absolutely not a waste of time. Of course, Japanese is the focus of this article, and that topic is a little more mixed. We’ll get to it in a moment after a bit more overview.
Japanese on Duolingo
Japanese is one of a handful of languages that presents unique challenges to Duolingo’s system of language education.
The writing system is not just wholly different in appearance, but also wholly different in application.
In Japanese, it’s easy—in fact, somewhat common—to switch between four different writing systems for the same word. So, that means that for each and every word, there’s (or should be) a minimum of four acceptable answers.
But the complications don’t stop there. Japanese has a grammar that’s impressively alien to the (from the English perspective) European framework.
Pronouns are often optional. Verbs laze about at the end of sentences. The whole structure of entire sentences is heavily mutable.
Whatever drawbacks there are to Duolingo’s approach to Japanese, it’s worth applauding the effort they’ve put in.
It is no doubt exceedingly difficult to apply their teaching method to a language as unique and fluid as Japanese.
That said, I’m not here to sing kumbaya—I’m here to help you answer an important question: is Duolingo a waste of time for Japanese?
The Trials of Duolingo Japanese
So, Duolingo’s Japanese course arrived to much fanfare. I remember that much. According to Wikipedia, it was officially released on May 18, 2017. And since then, they’ve brought us through improvement after improvement. Starting in January 2019, they’ll begin A/B testing version 4.0.
All this is to say that what I’m saying now may be slightly out of date by the time 4.0 rolls out. Will it be a fix? A panacea? I don’t know. I doubt it.
The current tree offers 92 skills containing roughly 1,200 kanji and exactly 2,671 vocabulary items. The newest version is expected to bulk this up. 1,350 kanji and over 3,200 vocabulary words.
They’re aiming to introduce more immediately useful vocab for travelers and other common things, as well as rounding out the grammar (a common point of contention) to include everything considered “common” in daily use Japanese.
They also noted that completing the 2.0 skill tree would prepare you for the JLPT N4 examination. With the 4.0 upgrade, it’s probably a decent launch point for the N3 exam as well.
Though you’d still want to get some practice books to get some experience with the very particular way the JLPT asks questions.
All that said, I highly doubt the overall experience of learning Japanese through Duolingo will be affected by the changes.
Duolingo Japanese: Getting Started
Duolingo starts by offering you a chance to either start from scratch or take a placement test.
If you know literally nothing about Japanese, it’s best to start from scratch, at which point it will walk you slowly, painfully, and ineffectually through the kana (the sorta “alphabet” of Japanese). There’s nine million better ways to learn them, but this is what you get.
If you take the placement test, you’ll be able to jump ahead, unlocking the higher, more difficult skill levels on the tree. For my part, I unlocked the first five out of seven sections.
You also have the opportunity to unlock the remaining levels in bulk, but I found the tests just slightly out of my skill range.
And what does that mean? That means that perhaps Duolingo has something to teach me yet.
Duolingo Japanese: The Lesson
I chose a skill at random from the bottom of the tree. That is to say, a skill that I didn’t unlock already because Duolingo thinks I have more to learn, to give you my feelings on what Duolingo considers a challenging lesson for me.
So, way down in the fifth section is a skill called “Ability.” First, I clicked over to the grammar point. This section goes on at length about how to form “potential sentences.”
How do we conjugate verbs to express potential, or ability, and how do we add to sentences to do the same? The explanation is reasonably thorough, well explained, and nicely laid out with easy to read charts.
Next, I started the lesson. It began by showing me 行けます and asking me to translate it using a word bank.
It got a little more complicated after that, the second question hitting me with 私は先生の声が聞こえなかった. That’s a fair step up in difficulty, not only using what we learned in this grammar lesson, but also applying the past tense learned in earlier lessons.
After 5 of these, Duo, the owl mascot pops in to congratulate me on getting five in a row. I… wish he hadn’t. At best it’s patronizing, and at worst it’s a bit of a time waster.
This stuff takes long enough as is, and most people are using Duolingo to squeeze in learning when possible. How is adding a whole ‘nother animation and click really helping people stick to their goals? I like the sentiment, but in practice, it’s obnoxious.
One problem is that all the questions are using the potential form. Once you notice that, all you need to do is identify the verb from the kanji and then go ahead and think in English.
It’s so easy that it makes these questions pointless. I see the character for “see,” and because the lesson is about potential verbs, I know the answer is “can(‘nt) see” just from the theme.
Then there’s other problems, though I’ll get into the bulk of these later. For example, one question asks you to translate, “Can you meet me today?” into Japanese.
Well, the three Japanese options start like so: いつ.., 今日…, いつ…. Heck, even if you don’t know a lick of Japanese, you can guess the right answer just from the context.
And if you do know the first think about Japanese, then this question is just the epitome of pointless. I’m being tested on if I know the meaning of いつ and 今日, instead of on the intended topic of the question.
And these aren’t isolated incidents of this. It’s a consistent problem in every single question of this kind I’ve come across so far—in this skill and out of it, in lessons and review and tests, all the same.
Duolingo Japanese: The Frustrations
As George Carlin once said, “This next piece of material… is called ‘Free-Floating Hostility.’”
Instead of dragging things out, I’m just going to give you some bullet points on the worst aspects of Duolingo and its Japanese program. Some of these are minor, and some are critically bad.
I’ll start with issues across all of Duolingo.
Mistakes are uncorrectable. This is across all languages in Duolingo, and it’s damn annoying. Especially when using the mobile version, it’s easy to make small, unintentional mistakes, and there’s no way to undo them.
Sure, there’s no serious penalty for getting something wrong, but it can set you back a lot of time over things that shouldn’t be counted as mistakes.
This is sort of an add-on to the previous point, but you can’t even avoid getting marked down when the mistake is Duolingo’s.
That’s beyond obnoxious and unfair. My frustrations from this point alone have caused me to close the app in a huff more than once.
You’re 100% stuck in their progression system. There’s no way to import a list of vocab you already know, and no way to study the terms you need/want without going through Duolingo’s painstaking process.
You have to test out of each and every single crown. No testing straight to the 5th crown. This seems pointless and obnoxious.
Some questions give you numbered options, so you can type in the correct answer using the number keys on your keyboard.
Some questions don’t give you that option, most notably the word bank questions, even though this would be fairly easy to implement. This means I have to keep switching from keyboard to mouse over and over. Incredibly annoying.
And now let’s look at Japanese specific issues.
There’s no (as far as I saw) discussion of kanji radicals. This is a huge oversight and makes learning kanji extra difficult.
There’s no stroke-order diagrams for the kanji. This is another oversight that would be very helpful.
The audio doesn’t know what the answer is in word bank questions. See, in Japanese, a Chinese character can usually be pronounced multiple ways. How it’s pronounced is dependent on how it’s used.
So, for example, the character 人 can be pronounced “hito” or “jin.” That pronunciation is very important. So, when I’m filling in a word bank for a sentence, the audio should like up appropriately.
If the answer is “amerika-jin-desu” but when I click on 人 I hear “hito,” that’s extremely disorienting and gets in the way of learning.
Some notes on the specificity of the language would be helpful, instead of leaving it up to me to discover. E.g. Is “phone” acceptable if “cell phone is specified”? Is a “ka” question marker required for all answers even though in many real-life situations it’s not?
There are impressively stupid multiple choice questions. Don’t ask me the difference between “food” and “to go.” Ask me to find the right answer between, “to go,” “to come,” “to arrive,” “to send,” etc.
Or, for another example, in a section teaching about gold, silver, and bronze medals, the word bank gives you options for (as an example) bronze, ticket, and car. That’s not helpful. Especially at the level you’re supposed to be at when learning that skill.
Continuing from that last point, even the most advanced review sections are often just testing if you have studied your kana (the easiest part of Japanese, and the thing you should learn first).
So, even at the highest levels, they’ll ask a question like, “What sound does this make?” with a picture of the kanji. But it also auto-plays the sound of the word.
So, assuming you know your kana (which, by any of the higher levels you absolutely should—and besides, kana recognition isn’t what they’re teaching), then you’ve been given the answer.
Furthermore, they do this in reverse, asking for the correct character for a kana word. But, then you can click on each of the multiple choice kanji answers and hear the pronunciation.
So, instead of being tested on if you know the kanji itself, you’re just being tested on if you remember Day One alphabet stuff. Again! Utterly pointless.
A more nuanced complaint I have is that the word bank questions don’t give you the obvious mistakes.
For example, the sentence ボスは僕を倒した should have an English word that allows you to write either the correct answer, “The boss defeated me,” or the incorrect—yet sneakily deceptive—option, “I defeated the boss.”
Instead, you get pointless word options like “juice,” “exit,” “ill,” and “turning” in the bank. Furthermore, they capitalize the first word in the English answer, which tells me instantly which word goes first.
Combine enough of these clues together (and you do start to combine them unconsciously after a while) and you get the answer without even having to think about the Japanese.
How does Duolingo Teach?
Duolingo started out with relatively simple languages, one’s fairly similar to English.
Their alphabets were almost the same, the grammar was familiar, and there was more of a one-to-one relationship between translations. Even then, there were hiccups along the way, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Duolingo tries to get you to engage with all aspects of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. When your microphone and/or speaker are available, it’ll test you by playing the sentence and asking you the translation.
Alternatively, it’ll show you a phrase in your native language (I’ll just assume English from now on in this article) and then ask you to speak it aloud in the target language.
Using a surprisingly accurate voice-recognition system, Duolingo marks you right or wrong.
For the reading and writing, things are less surprising and exciting.
There’s multiple choice in the early levels, then they show you either the English or target language and ask you to type the translation.
Alternatively, you can use the “word bank” if you don’t feel like typing, though, frankly, this hardly ends up feeling like a test (the answers are too obvious).
The structure of Duolingo is fairly intuitive. Collections of vocabulary and grammar are organized into “skills,” with each skill being based on a sort of theme.
For example, restaurants, colors, hobbies, etc. These skills are arranged in a tree pattern, and you unlock more skill categories further down the tree as you complete the lessons above.
Each skill has five levels, although you only need to complete the first level to unlock the next skill.
Most skills also come with their own grammar section. These aren’t usually related to the theme, but they are useful and each grammar section tries to build on the last.
As you move down through the tree, vocabulary and grammar will be mixed in from earlier skills, leading to reasonably challenging lessons the further down you go.
In theory, Duolingo is supposed to be using a form of SRS, aka “Spaced Repetition System.” In short, this means that Duolingo increases the amount of time in between testing you on subjects each time you see them in order to strengthen your memory.
However, I haven’t touched my Spanish course on Duolingo in over a year, and most of my words are considered “Pretty Good.” I doubt it.
What’s the gamification aspect?
There’s a lot to this. In fact, in my opinion, it’s a bit too much. I’ll explain.
First up, there’s the simple aspect of points, or XP. Each time you learn something new, review, or level up a skill, you get XP. This is kept track of on a line graph you can see on the right side of the page, showing how many points you’ve accumulated in the past week.
This part is fine and helps keep you accountable and consistent by allowing you to see where you’ve fallen with your own goals recently.
These lead you to the next aspect of gamification. Streaks. You set a personal XP goal per day and if you hit it you add a point to your “streak.”
If you miss a day, you lose all your points. Watching that streak number go up can, for some people, be an addictive way to stay consistent.
Next, there’s crowns. As I mentioned before, each skill has five levels.
For each level you complete, you receive a crown. Each crown you collect adds to a little counter on the upper panel.
These ever-increasing points further encourage you to learn more.
Then we have lingots. These are the “in-game currency” of Duolingo. As you complete lessons, do reviews, and other such things, you get lingots.
These things are… useless. Utterly useless. They’re a cool idea, but they have no function.
The lingot store hasn’t changed in any major way in years. In the old days, you could buy special outfits for “Duo,” the app’s mascot (a green owl). I collected all three. Now what?
The perennial purchases number only three. You can buy the “Timed Practice” which, once purchased, is permanently available to you. Then you can buy “Power Ups,” of which there are two.
First, there’s the “Streak Freeze,” which allows you to “freeze” your streak for one day inactivity.
Each frozen day costs 10 lingots. So, if you have a vacation or busy time coming up and don’t want to lose that sweet, sweet streak, you can grab a few of these to keep things rolling.
Then there’s the “Double or Nothing.”If you purchase this for 5 lingots, and maintain a seven day streak, you’ll receive 10 lingots back. What a deal! (/s)
But… that’s it. It seems like they could have a graphic designer come up with a few more outfits for Duo, or something. Anything.
The lingot store seems almost entirely pointless at this moment, and even something dumb and cute like that would be a welcome way to add some silliness to the whole endeavor.
And give me something to do with all these lingots I’ve hoarded like a polyglottal dragon.
Oh, it doesn’t stop there. Then we discover “Achievements.” If you can complete a few simple tasks, you get the achievements.
They’re so easy to get that you can acquire them all in 30 days, easily.
It’s something they could expand into something fun and challenging, but as it stands, they’ve seemingly abandoned this idea, just like the lingots.
Then you can follow the leader boards where you get to see how many XP your friends that you follow have gotten that week. So, in this way, you can compete a little with friends (or strangers).
On the phone apps, they have something called “clubs,” and each club has its own rules and discussions and… other stuff. I dunno.
It was so seemingly extraneous to the process that I barely paid it any mind. If you desperately crave that competitive nature, then it might be helpful, but for me it was a hard pass.
Even so, for the competitive people out there, there’s the Leagues. And, unlike the clubs, you can’t escape the Leagues.
In fact, the inability to hide the Leagues is something I find rather frustrating. I’m naturally competitive, but I don’t like being competitive. But, I can’t escape it.
Basically, Duolingo matches you up with 50 other people from your time zone and has you compete.
The top 15 people move up to the next League (there’s Bronze, Silver, Gold, Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, Pearl, Obsidian and Diamond). If you’re in the bottom 5, you get demoted.
That’s too much pressure for something that’s supposed to be an escape from the competitive strictures of classroom life.
But, dammit, I can’t help wanting to get more points the moment I see those other people climbing ahead of me. So, I do my best to ignore it.
Other odds and ends of Duolingo
A simple, but potentially useful tool is the Dictionary, on Duolingo.
This one functions pretty much like any simple multi-language dictionary, but it also offers sample sentences for whatever word you enter, so that’s nice.
Then there’s the Words section where you can see what words you’ve learned and their relative “strength” (how well they’re baked into your long-term memory.
Duolingo has its own forum of sorts, where you can go to chat about language-related things. It is pretty standard. One nice feature is that the forum is directly connected to the reviews.
So, every single review item you cover will have an icon after you submit your answer, allowing you to jump into a discussion about that exact question. This has been a nifty feature for me when I couldn’t quite understand why I’d gotten something wrong.
A more recent addition to Duolingo is the Events feature. Here you can type in your general location and find meet up events near you.
I’ve never gone to one, but I imagine it could be a pretty cool feature for some people.
If you’re studying Spanish or French, you also get access to Duolingo Podcast. These actually look pretty fantastic. Episodes seem to be less than 25 minutes each.
They use a mix of English and the target language to keep you informed and on track. And the target language speakers tell their stories in clear, slow speech.
To top it off, each episode comes with a full transcript. This may actually be the true hidden gem of Duolingo!
The only drawback is that there’s no connection to the main Duolingo lessons.
It would be nice if you had a “Podcast Track,” a feature where you picked an episode you wanted to listen to and found out if you have the skills yet to tackle it, and if not, which parts of your “skill tree” you needed to study to be prepared.
If you’re learning Spanish, French, German, or Portuguese, you get access to Duolingo Stories. These tell short stories in the target language using the main Duolingo interface with both audio and text appearing on the screen.
They’re acted out with some amusing performances, so that’s nice.
And, woven throughout, there are little quizzes to make sure you’re understanding what you’re hearing and reading.
Stories come in sets (similar to the skills on the “skills tree”), and as you complete one set of stories, another set opens up to you. For Spanish, there are currently… a lot of stories.
Finally, there’s the Duolingo companion tool: Tinycards. This is basically a flashcard system, or perhaps a Memrise clone. I have no idea what makes this valuable, even after poking around at it for a while.
I guess there’s some interesting stuff, like being able to quiz yourself on famous paintings and whatnot, but, frankly, there’s so many other programs out there that do this better and easier, that I don’t see why you would use Duolingo’s system.
Besides, it’s not even properly integrated into the main Duolingo site—you need to go to a whole separate site in order to use it.
Duolingo Japanese: The Final Verdict
So, after all that, do I think Duolingo’s Japanese course is a waste of time?
No. I think it can be a very useful supplemental tool for learning Japanese. Unlike textbooks, Duolingo forces you to engage directly with the language and gives you immediate feedback.
That said, Duolingo is severely flawed. I feel like the people who’d get the most out of it are those who already have at least one textbook (like Genki vol. 1) under their belt, and people who haven’t yet mastered N3 Japanese. If you’re in that range, it’s a decent supplement.
For those brand-spanking-new to Japanese, I think the earliest lessons are terrible.
They don’t teach the kana particularly well, and definitely not in a way that will help solidify it in your mind. That’s my opinion, but that opinion is based off of doing some other, similar Duolingo courses.
In my opinion, Duolingo’s weakest point is teaching writing systems. They’d do well to invent a brand new way of doing that.
I haven’t been able to learn Hindi, Korean, or even Russian particularly well with their system.
For those at too high a level, Duolingo will seem at some times patronizing and at other times simply wrong. The frustrations are too great.
And, besides, there are other activities you’d be better suited to at a higher level anyway.
So, give Duolingo a shot—it’s definitely not the worst learning tool out there, but go in with tempered expectations and a willingness to abandon ship if necessary.
Oh, and if you would like to try out some other tools for learning Japanese online, I recommend you having a look at our Rocket Languages Japanese Review
Is it possible to learn Japanese with Duolingo?
Yes, of course. You can learn lots of Japanese with Duolingo. You won’t learn all of it, or even most of it, but it’s a decent place for a beginner.
Can you become fluent in Japanese with Duolingo?
It depends on your definition of “fluent.” If get a foothold on reading the news counts as some kind of fluency, then yes, probably. If you want to hold conversations, watch TV, or read novels in Japanese, then I’d have to say the answer is no. You’d need to practice those things specifically in addition to Duolingo.
Best way to learn Japanese?
Start and be consistent. Without actually starting and being consistent, you’ll get nowhere. Two more things: experiment with difficulty to see how many vocab you can learn in a day (consistently!) and make sure to practice speaking and listening specifically.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.