Duolingo Japanese Review

Today I’m going to be giving you my personalized Duolingo Japanese review. I’ve gone through most of the course myself and I’ve also checked out some of the things that the language learning community had to say about it in order to bring you a thorough analysis of it.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Duolingo, it’s the most popular way to learn a language online. According to their website, there are more people using Duolingo to learn a second language than there are in the entire US public school system (for languages).

That’s a pretty crazy statistic!

I’m sure that you’ve seen or heard about them before, but if you’re wondering if their Japanese program is worth taking or not, then continue reading on to learn what you need to.

Duolingo Japanese Review

Duolingo is a language learning program that can be used for free on your phone or on your computer. Free is always good.

Most people use it on their iPhone or Android while they are out and about, but I also wanted to check out their desktop version to get a better understanding of what could be done.

When you sign up for a new account you make a couple of choices such as how much time to spend each day:

  • Casual – 5 minutes a day
  • Regular – 10 minutes a day
  • Serious – 15 minutes a day
  • Insane – 20 minutes a day

This is now your daily goal with Japanese.

You then tell them what level you’re currently at with the language.

If you’re a total beginner they put you right at lesson #1. But if you already know some Japanese, then you can take a placement test which will allow you to skip some of the initial lessons.

As you go through the lessons you earn experience points. You can also unlock achievements. You can also compete on the leader board against other people. Furthermore, each time you hit your daily goal, your streak increases.

In other words, it’s a very gamified system where it feels like you’re playing some sort of trivia game on your phone or computer while learning Japanese.

You can also invite your friends to join and see how your activity compares against theirs. A little healthy competition can go a long way in making progress.

These are just some of the features that come with Duolingo, but what are the lessons like?

How Duolingo Teaches Japanese

Duolingo uses a lot of different methods to teach you Japanese. The first one is through the use of picture cards that show an item, the Japanese spelling of it, and a native speaker saying the word.

This is illustrated in the picture above.

They primarily do this for nouns, things like dogs, people, news, etc. They also use it to help teach you hiragana which is the first Japanese writing system (out of three).

There are also some “pair matching” exercises where you see romaji, hiragana, katakana, and kanji and you have to click on the two that go together.

For example, じ pairs with ji and 目 goes with め.

They also use a multiple choice format where they provide you with a word in English and then ask you to select the correct Japanese word below out of several different options:

Mark the correct meaning: Maria

  1. メキシコ
  2. オーストラリア
  3. マリア

These methods are fine for learning individual new words, but what about when it comes time to learning full sentences and grammar? Well, they use a couple of different methods for those.

When you’re on the computer version you can click on a “Tips” icon that looks like a light bulb and it will have a little bit of information about some of the upcoming grammar that you will be using in that lesson.

Things like how the を particle works or how to go about changing verbs from the present tense to the past tense.

However, the primary way that Duolingo teaches you a new language is though implicit learning which is where they allow you to discover the language’s patterns on your own without focusing on the rules.

They say that this is how you learned your first language as a child.

So how do they teach you grammar and the way a sentence should be structured without directly explaining it?

The primary way they do so is through translations exercises.
They use both Japanese to English, and vice versa.

Basically how it works is that you get a full sentence in one language, and then you have to pick from the available pool of words provided to reconstruct the same sentence in the other language.

Or you can type the words in yourself if you’d prefer.

In addition to teaching you new words through pictures, they sometimes introduce new words in these sentences exercises, but thankfully they highlight the new words which you can click on to see their meanings.

Of course, there’s more to Japanese than just reading. You also have to learn how to understand it when you hear it. In addition to having a native speaker say each word when you click on it, they also have dictation exercises.

This is where you hear a Japanese sentence and then have to write down the same sentence in Japanese.

You can hear the sentence multiple times if you want to and also at a slower speed. With the help of these two options, it’s not as scary as it might sound for beginners.

Something that’s also included in a Discuss button available after each sentence exercise where you can see what other people had to say about that particular phrase.

Maybe they had a question on why it was structured a certain way, or why a particular word was used. This is where you can get your questions answered.

Below is a picture of a translation exercise.

What I Like About Duolingo

I think there are some pretty cool things about Duolingo. Obviously it’s nice that it’s free and can be used on your smartphone or computer whenever you want to.

I also really like that they use native speakers for the audio. I actually tried it out way back when they released the beta version, and back then the audio was not only a machine, but was often wrong or non-existent.

It’s way better now.

Something else that I noticed is that it’s really fun to play through the lessons and exercises, trying to get the right answer and seeing the green check mark along with the nice “dinging” sound.

Duolingo is intentionally set up to be fun and play like a game, and I think they do a really good job at that.

It’s also pretty cool that there’s such a large community of Japanese language learners all gathered together in one spot that you can ask questions or just chat with.

When I looked at it the other day, they had over six million!

In addition to all the above, the app just looks good and runs smoothly. This doesn’t really have anything to do with learning, but it just makes the overall experience that much more pleasant.

Unfortunately, I have more negative things to say about it than I do positive.

What I Don’t Like About Duolingo

Alright, I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t like the implicit teaching method they use (when you’re a beginner).

I understand that this is similar to how babies learn, they just see something in context enough times and are able to figure it out, but the problem is this method takes a lot of time and is very frustrating.

For example, they teach you how to read hiragana (good) and then after that they start introducing katakana and kanji without any explanation (bad).

They just expect you to figure it out. But let’s pretend that I am a total newbie and I encounter these new writing systems for the first time.

The first thing I learn is that じ is pronounced “ji” which makes sense because the course specifically taught me that.

Everything is fine and dandy until I run into the character ジ which I’ve never seen before and now I find out that it is also pronounced “ji” after making a total guess in the exercise and getting it wrong.

Does this all seem a little confusing? Why is there a second way to say “ji” in Japanese? Well, hold on because it actually gets worse.

The next thing I run into is 時 which is also pronounced “ji” and I throw my hand up because I have no idea why.

Now I have three ways to say “ji” in Japanese and for some reason one of them has to do with time (for those of you wondering, 時 means “time” in Japanese).

Why are there three separate characters that are all said the same way? I never figure out the answer because the next time I see 時 it’s pronounced “toki” and I then rage-quit the app.

Here’s my beef: all of this annoyance can be avoided with a simple explanation.

However, Duolingo intentionally avoids explanations so that you can learn the language naturally like a baby does.

In my opinion, using implicit teaching is a really poor way to teach English natives the Japanese language.

The reason is because people who only speak one language (their native one) have preexisting beliefs on how languages should work (for example, using only one writing system) and those beliefs fight against learning the new language when you’re not given explanations.

All you have to do is explain the difference and then people will know what to look for. That’s called learning a new language like an adult.

Another thing I don’t like is the idea they push that you can learn Japanese in a mere 5-20 minutes per day.

When you start up the program, there are several options on how much time you want to spend learning Japanese. I actually think that this is a good idea, you know to have a daily activity goal, but I simply think that the numbers are realistically too low.

Duolingo lists the highest time goal of 20 minutes a day as “insane.”

Is it, really? Is devoting 20 minutes a day to learning Japanese “insane”?

Maybe it is if you’re only learning a few Japanese words as a hobby. But if you are serious about learning Japanese, then 20 minutes per day is nothing. It’s just getting started.

Let me compare this to a couple other things in life:

If you wanted to build you own business or succeed in your career, would 20 minutes a day be enough?

If you wanted to create wonderful relationships with your kids, your spouse, or your BF/GF would 20 minutes a day do it?

What if you wanted to do well in school or college and you only went to class and studied for (you guessed it) 20 minutes a day. Would you get straight A’s? Would you even pass the class?

The unfortunate fact is that it takes a long time to learn a new language, and Japanese in particular for English native speakers.

There are other problems with Duolingo, like the one listed in the picture above about a word’s “correct” meaning in the exercises, but I don’t want this review to turn into a Duolingo bashing match.

Let me just leave it at that and wrap this whole review up.

Final Thoughts On Duolingo

I think that Duolingo has some really good points and would be a nice supplemental tool that beginners can use to help them get more exposure to Japanese and stay motivated to learn the language.

Having said that, I would not recommend that a total beginner use it as their sole resource for learning Japanese due to the problems that I listed above.

If it were me, I would use Duolingo along with a good beginner book. I would play with it while I’m out on the go and then I would use a more serious Japanese course when I got back home.

I think that’s the best way to get the most out of Duolingo if you really want to use it.

I also wouldn’t recommend that anyone who is at an intermediate level (or above) use it, as it would probably just be a waste of their time.

Technology has helped us immensely. Especially when it comes to the convenience and accessibility of learning a new language.

However, it’s also made us lazy and unrealistic in what it really takes to learn a new language well.

Duolingo can be good in certain situations. I personally don’t think it’s a good as it’s hyped up to be.

Have you used Duolingo for learning Japanese? What are your thoughts on it?

Let me know by leaving a comment down below. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Duolingo Japanese Review”

  1. I have been looking for something like this for my daughter, who took Japanese for 4 years in high school. They did not really learn conversational Japanese as much as the Hiragana. My daughter aced the classes all 4 years, but the only course offered at the university has odd hours that do not work with her job. Do you think that she would be better off with the Pimsleur course?

    • The Pimsleur Japanese courses are great. I’ve used the first three levels (they have a newer fourth and fifth one now) back when I was first getting started and I learned a lot. Their greatest strength is that they really teach you the correct pronunciation of words and help you to understand conversational grammar. I wrote a full review of it here:

      Pimsleur Japanese

      Hope that helps!

  2. Great review Nick. I’ve had similar experience with learning other languages in Duo Lingo. In general it is an awesome free tool, but I think one of my key takeaways it that you have to use an actual computer on top of the mobile application to get the most out of it because the community largely contributes

    One of the key concerns I’ve had with it is that it doesn’t really ‘teach’ you much per se, it instead just educates you through rote memorization. That and in a lot of cases it actually throws curve balls at you where it’ll ask you to write a sentence you’ve never seen before in a foreign language.

    • Hey Craig, you make some good points. The fact that other learners contribute to it is a pretty awesome thing!

      Saying that it “educates” you is a pretty apt way of putting it I think. I ran into that same problem myself where, if you have questions like “what is this は thingy all about?” the course doesn’t really ever explain it. It reminds me of the way Rosetta Stone teaches, although Duolingo has word for word translations at least.

  3. Wow, that’s amazing. My kids use duolingo for their language studies in school, and my youngest (who is very interested in anime) was just mentioning how she wanted to learn japanese. I can’t wait to show her! THANKS!

    • Hey that’s pretty cool that they are using the app in conjunction with their school language lessons. Duolingo is definitely one of the most popular ways to learn a language these days. I think they are second only to Rosetta Stone when it comes to brand recognition and awareness. But if they keep it up, pretty soon Duo will be #1.

      Hopefully your youngest finds the Japanese course helpful!

  4. I love to use Duolingo and I use it for several languages, but sometimes I feel that it is too much for someone who only wants to learn how to speak and understand the language. Do you think it is necessary to also learn how to spell and grammar rules when you are learning a new language like Japanese?

    • Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Duolingo does indeed put a lot of focus on learning how to read the writing systems of Japanese and then use them to write out sentences.

      If you are really only interested in learning how to speak the language, then you’d probably find a course that is completely audio based more helpful. I actually wrote a review on probably the best audio-only course out there right now. Here is a link to it if you want more information:

      Speak Japanese in 30 Minutes – My Pimsleur Japanese Review

      As for your question on is it necessary – it’s not necessary to learn to write if your intentions are more in the direction of speaking it. You will still have to learn some grammar so that your conversations sound coherent, but a very basic understanding of Japanese grammar is sufficient since the spoken language is a lot more forgiving than the written part when it comes to grammar mistakes.


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