Whether you are a native English speaker or know English as a second language, picking up Japanese is no easy task. Japanese is a difficult language that requires a lot of practice to master.
With the growing popularity of the language, more and more online language programs are popping up all over the place, with some language learning apps allowing you to learn straight from your smartphone.
One of the popular options out there is Duolingo, so we thought we’d give our two cents here, in our in-depth Duolingo Japanese review.
Duolingo Japanese Review: Summary
Price: The basic version is free for a lifetime account. Duolingo Plus is available for $6.99/month and comes with a 14-day free trial.
Application Category: Language Learning Software
Description: 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 firstly it’s free; it has an addictive game-like motivating factor to it; it boasts the largest international community of learners in the world; and you are free to complete the course on your own time, anywhere in the world from the convenience of your smartphone.
Quantity of Lessons:
Effective and Efficient:
Teaches Useful Phrases:Price:
Overall Score: 3.8 / 5.0
Duolingo Japanese Review: Overview
Duolingo has four learning goals, or periods of time, that you can select from when setting up. You can choose between a ‘Casual’ 5 minutes per day, right up to an ‘Insane’ 20 minutes per day, depending upon your preference. (Personally, we feel that even 20 minutes per day is a very short period of time to be studying and you should really be spending at least 30 mins per day being immersed in the language if you are serious about actually learning the language.)
The course has been set up to gradually feed in the target language bit by bit, first introducing some hiragana, the basic writing style, and some numbers. From there, you slowly work on adding more and more new vocabulary to your memory, and then eventually work on building complete sentences on your own accord.
The course is conveniently broken down into units, with each unit being made up of individual lessons each focusing on a different topic. You start with only five hearts and you can lose hearts every time you make a mistake. Once you’re all out of hearts then you are not allowed to continue. You must either buy more hearts using your XP points or pay for hearts with real money. If you can’t do either then you simply have to wait for a few hours until you can start using the app again.
The lessons don’t actually ‘teach’ you anything per se, but rather put you through a series of randomised questions that introduces you to new words and sentence structures. The possible questions are restricted to one of these possible scenarios:
Once you’ve completed one lesson you get the hang of it very quickly since every lesson follows this exact same format. You are also given some hints to supplement your learning. For example, to write down all the phrases you can remember after completing the lesson. This is not a bad idea to be honest.
Already know some Japanese?
Those who are more skilled in Japanese can take a proficiency test to jump ahead in the course. However, we have doubts around the effectiveness of the test since it follows the same layout as the actual lessons.
Plus it’s very easy to actually cheat by clicking on hints (giving a full translation) or some of the questions are just far too easy – often the image completely gives away the answer, for example. Overall though, the placement test does a fairly good job of placing you somewhere vaguely in the right place in the course.
But is Duolingo really going to help you learn Japanese?
Let’s take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo Japanese to understand how effective the program is, and thus conclude whether it’s worth your time as a learning resource, or best to skip it altogether.
The Pros: What We Like About Duolingo Japanese
Here are some of the benefits of studying Japanese with Duolingo:
Pro #1: Native Audio Recordings
The sentences are all recorded by native speakers, both male and female, 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.
Pro #2: It Encourages You to Develop a Daily Study 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 constant repetition over time to truly grasp the grammar and commit everything to memory. You’ll receive daily notifications to encourage you to keep your learning streak going and even built in incentives like rewards and badges.
Pro #3: Includes Basic and Useful Phrases for Communication.
You can learn some really useful phrases like different greetings, and even cultural phrases like “itadakimasu,” which are extremely helpful for those who plan on meeting with Japanese people in the future. We also really liked to see lessons on topics like ‘Net Slang’ which provides a really interesting twist to an otherwise standard syllabus, hopefully providing some modern-use language (though we didn’t reach that level yet to properly try it out).
Pro #4: They Teach Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, and Romaji
Hiragana, the writing system that 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.
Pro #5: Simple User Interface That's Fun to Use
Duolingo’s mission is to make language fun and accessible to all, for free. This really shows in how they’ve chosen to design the app – it’s super user friendly and very engaging to use. The Owl character guides you through each lesson giving you hints and tips, and encouraging every time you get a question correct with ’Great Job!’ or ‘Awesome!’
The whole program is designed to mimic a computer game, right down to the satisfying ding when you get a question right. Your progress is continually being tracked and you can even compete against your friends, which makes using the app very addicting and fun. The ingots or coins that you earn can be traded in the store for outfits, bonus levels and wagers (for more ingots). The whole system puts many traditional language learning platforms to shame, with its slick design and clever motivation techniques.
The Cons: What We Don’t Like About Duolingo Japanese
However, unfortunately it’s not all fun and games. Here are some of the disadvantages of studying Japanese with Duolingo:
Con #1: The 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.
For beginners, it’s perfectly adequate for the basic words and phrases but at some point some explanations are definitely necessary to understand all the rules and avoid confusion. Unfortunately Duolingo expects you just to pick up these rules and complex grammar points automatically without actually having been taught them.
Con #2: 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 sound natural. This usually happens with plurals, particles, and certain inconsistencies that happen during translation. There are some words in Japanese that have no direct translation. Therefore, we recommend that you always double-check with proper grammar textbooks to make sure everything is correct.
Con #3: 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 absorbing the information.
Furthermore, the answers to the questions are very sensitive to minor errors that are still correct, costing you a valuable heart. For example, an answer to a question can be ‘please speak slower’, however if you type in ‘please speak more slowly’ (which is also correct) you’ll be marked down.
Con #4: The Lessons Move May Move Too Quickly For Some Beginners
Once you complete the hiragana training, you are thrown into kanji and other mixes. Sentences suddenly get 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.
Con #5: Marketing heavy
Although the program is free, they do get a bit in your face with ads and marketing. In between every lesson you are shown an ad and prompted to buy the Duolingo Plus version. You can even watch full length ads in return for more hearts (if you’re into that kind of thing), and they get quite aggressive with their constant emails and notifications. The ads do stop however once you sign up to the Plus versions (along with all the other benefits).
What Are The Lessons Like?
As we have already mentioned, Duolingo takes you through 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 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 translate. 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
Overall, Duolingo is an excellent application. You might like the Japanese course if you fit into one or more of the following:
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:
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 a classroom than a game, with the tutor feeling like a close friend.
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 the 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 far 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 Japanese Review Conclusion
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 keyword here is ‘free’. We can really get behind the noble goal of making language learning free for all, however mass producing a language program for lots of different languages comes with its own challenges. Some of the issues stemming from the overly randomized and translation based system is choppy audio for the longer phrases, inaccuracies, and a lack of proper explanations (which is so essential when progressing with a new language).
However, the app does get a lot of things right, like how it utilizes a number of techniques to help you assimilate the new language and keep 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 (though we do recommend you use it just for review purposes only).
If you really want to accelerate your learning or are at a higher level than an advanced beginner, we recommend pairing Duolingo with another program, such as JapanesePod101.
Michael has lived in Japan on and off for almost 10 years. He loves studying Japanese, and is currently working on going from N2 to N1 on the JLPT.