Whether you are a native English speaker or know English as a second language, picking up Japanese is no easy fit. Japanese is difficult and requires a lot of practice to master. With the growing popularity of the language, more and more resources are being introduced, such as language learning apps that you can play on your smartphone. One of the popular options is Duolingo, so we thought we’d give our two cents here, in our Duolingo Japanese review.
Duolingo has millions of users throughout the world, and many of those users are learning Japanese. One of the reasons Duolingo is so popular is because it is free; the huge, international community is very helpful and friendly; and you can do the course on your time, anywhere in the world. For anyone who wants to study on their own time, Duolingo is a great resource.
Duolingo Japanese Review: Overview
Duolingo has four learning goals, or periods of time, that you can select from when setting up. It goes from Casual 5 minutes to Insane 20 minutes periods. The course has been set up to immerse you in Japanese by first introducing some hiragana, the basic writing style, and some numbers. From there, you work towards more vocabulary and can gradually work on building complete sentences. Those who are more skilled in Japanese can take a proficiency test to jump ahead of the courses.
But is Duolingo going to help you learn Japanese? It depends.
We’re going to talk all about the advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo Japanese in this review.
What We Like About Duolingo Japanese
Here are some of the benefits of studying Japanese with Duolingo:
Audio is excellent.
The sentences are all recorded by native speakers, which is excellent for learning what real Japanese sounds like. You can repeat the sentences multiple times to help with pronunciation, as well as picking up on cadence and nuance, which is so important in the Japanese language.
Encourages making studying a daily habit.
Whether you choose the 5-minute daily goal or the 20-minute goal, you are making time to study a language every single day. Japanese is one of those languages that requires repetition to truly grasp over time. This also helps with memorization.
Includes basic and useful phrases for communication.
You can learn greetings and cultural phrases like “itadakimasu,” which are extremely helpful for those who plan on meeting with Japanese people in the future.
Teaches hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji.
Hiragana, the writing system Japanese children first learn, is introduced right off the bat. Since avoiding the Japanese writing systems can limit comprehension later on, immersing yourself immediately is key. You can then get comfortable with reading various words with hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji (with English alphanumeric characters).
What We Don’t Like About Duolingo Japanese
Here are some of the disadvantages of studying Japanese with Duolingo:
Grammar and writing systems are barely explained, if at all.
Although Duolingo relies on immersion and extrapolation to help you learn a language, Japanese is the exact opposite of English in sentence construction and grammar. That means it can be difficult to master if you are unable to grasp the foundational concepts.
Some grammar is not entirely correct.
Even though Duolingo Japanese has been released for some time now, there are some phrases that do not seem correct or natural sounding. This usually happens with plurals, particles, and certain inconsistencies that happen during translation. There are some words in Japanese that have no direct translation. You should always double-check with proper grammar textbooks to make sure everything is correct.
Translating can be confusing.
As mentioned above, Duolingo includes, well, lingo that has no direct translation. Cultural phrases, grammatical structures, vague and onomatopoeic phrases have no English equivalent. If you’re not aware of this, you will have trouble making the sentences and adsorbing the information.
May move too quickly for beginners to feel comfortable.
Once you complete hiragana training, you are thrown into kanji and other mixes. Sentences get suddenly longer. Vocabulary is added in a rush. Although Duolingo allows for you to check the meaning of words and grammatical points, as well as discuss things with the learning community, it can still be too much, too fast for beginners.
What Are The Lessons Like?
As we have already mentioned, Duolingo takes you through a basic study to an advanced beginner level. Yes, you read that correctly. You are not going to become fluent using Duolingo exclusively. For those who already know some Japanese, the beginning might seem extremely rudimentary.
Someone who has already achieved the JLPT N2 or N1 proficiency tests will have no issues completing the proficiency test. In fact, if you don’t get messed up by some of the grammatical issues present in Duolingo (more on this later), you can easily complete the entire course in one day.
Hiragana and Katakana
Once you have worked through the basics, you will start seeing new words presented in a couple of ways: hiragana/katakana, English, and with kanji. You will be asked to rearrange sentences, fill in the blanks, and translation. Later on, 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. 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.
That said, Duolingo offers a wide variety of vocabulary to help you lay down a firm foundation. The app covers basic grammar, adjectives, verb tenses, and more formal speech (business and keigo) later on. You can certainly learn a lot from the app during your free time.
Who This Course Is For
Duolingo is an excellent application. You might like the Japanese course if you fit into one or more of the following:
- You have a limited amount of time each day to practice, and that’s usually on lunch break or during a public transportation commute.
- You’re somewhat familiar with Japanese, such as previous practice with the writing systems and know some general vocabulary.
- You are a beginner who is looking to practice listening and some common speaking patterns.
- You plan on traveling to Japan for tourism or business some time soon.
- You have been out of practice with Japanese for a time and simply want to brush up on the basics.
Who This Course Is Not For
Now, while Duolingo Japanese has many advantages for people who are less experienced or who want to brush up their travel vocabulary, it can be less challenging for those with an intermediate and expert understanding of the language. This course is not for you if fit into one or more of the following:
- You have already passed the JLPT N2 or N1 exam.
- You are intermediate level or beyond and have decent command of the language.
- You want speaking practice.
- You are uncomfortable with reading hiragana, katakana, and kanji (or you are looking for writing practice).
- You prefer podcasts, textbook, and more detailed audio and video lessons.
Duolingo Japanese vs. Competitors
Still trying to decide if Duolingo is right for you? Are you leaning more towards other options after reading our review? Here are a few of our favorite alternatives.
Duolingo Japanese vs. JapanesePod101
JapanesePod101 is not an application but an entire program that has in-depth lessons from beginner to expert, features over 2950 audio and video courses to use on your own time, and even learning tools for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The New York Times and The Japan Times have even endorsed the course. Best of all? The podcasts are completely free and you can watch them on your phone, computer, and anywhere around the world. JapanesePod101 feels more like classroom than a game.
Duolingo Japanese vs. Rocket Japanese
Compared to Duolingo, Rocket Japanese has been around for many years and is one of the most well-known programs. Rocket Japanese is far more comprehensive than Duolingo, and the approach is different from the smartphone app. Rocket Japanese is immersive like Duolingo, but grammar is demonstrated through podcast-style lessons. The lessons are delivered in chunks, similar to Duolingo, but certain grammatical points are discussed more deeply, helping you understand the language better than with Duolingo.
If you are looking to get really good at Japanese, you can use JapanesePod101 or Rocket Japanese together with Duolingo, giving you a chance to practice whenever, wherever, while studying more diligently at home.
Duolingo is an excellent free resource for learning languages, especially if you consider yourself a beginner who is looking to immerse yourself quickly in Japanese. The audio quality for listening practice is fantastic, and the app utilizes a number of formats to help you develop an understanding and keeps you motivated. While it is not the be-all-end-all with studying any language, Duolingo can help you make progress with your Japanese language learning goals.
If you want to accelerate your learning or are at a higher level than advanced beginner, we recommend pairing Duolingo with another program, like JapanesePod101.