Learn Japanese With Duolingo – A Review of Beta Version

I’m sure that all of you are familiar with the famous language learning app Duolingo. They’ve been making news ever since they first come out on the App Store back in 2011.

But it took them six years to finally come out with a Japanese course! If you want to learn Japanese with Duolingo, now you can!

Well, I say that… But the truth is that right now it is only released in beta to the people who signed up for it. That includes yours truly of course 😉

If you’re familiar at all with how Duolingo teaches, then you’ve probably already got a good idea on what the Japanese course is like, but if you’re brand new to it then I’ll give a general explanation to their process.

On a side note, one of the investors for Duolingo is actually Tim Ferriss. He’s the guy who wrote a book on accelerate learning, called The 4-Hour Chef.

I wrote a review on it a little while ago and talked about how it can help you to learn Japanese faster than traditional methods. If you’re interested in checking that out, you can do so by clicking on the link below:

Click Here To Read About “The 4-Hour Chef.”

“Learn a language for free. Forever.”

Duolingo’s motto is “free language learning.” You can pay to have the ads removed for a month, but money is not required to get access to the full version of all of their courses. In fact, there are over 120 million people signed up!

Do you think that Japanese is the number one language? Well sadly it’s not 🙁 , Actually, English is the #1 language that people learn with the software. Go figure.

BUT! Japanese is the most requested language out of all of them. So we’ve got that going for us.

Duolingo takes a scientific based approach to teaching a language. One of those methods is gamification, where you can earn points for progression through the lessons, you can get experience that levels you up, and you can have daily streaks when you’re consistent in your studies.

Making it fun does a lot of things to help you succeed, like motivating you to stick with it and playing around with the language to really understand how to use it in different scenarios.

Another method they use is spaced repetition, where you learn a language and review it a lot at first, and then as time goes on you see it less and less often. This way you are always working on the harder/newer vocabulary and only occasionally review the easy ones you’ve already spent a lot of time on.

Duolingo’s Methods

First you learn the sounds that the Kana systems make (both Hiragana and Katakana) and what they each look like. It does this by showing you a card of it, and making the Kana’s sound. You usually go over two different ones before you are tested on them to help reinforce what you’ve just learned.

Once you’ve memorized a decent amount of them, you get to play a matching game by selecting a Kana and matching it with it’s sound (written in Rōmaji). As you advance, you eventually start learning Kanji this exact same way.

Now obviously Kanji has both a sound AND a meaning, so there are pictures attached to their respective Kanji to help you associate the two together.

This is all in order to teach you how to read the Japanese writing systems and learn some basic vocabulary. Once you’ve got a certain number of words under your belt, it begins to teach you some basic sentences.

It usually does this by making you translate them either from English to Japanese, or the other way around from Japanese into English. Sometimes you type the actually words in, and other times you select individual words to form the phrase.

What’s cool about piecing together a sentence is that you get to hear an audio file of the words play when you tap each one. That helps to reinforce the information in your memory while you translate.

It will occasionally throw in a new word that you haven’t learn yet during this translation part, but it will highlight the words in yellow so that you can tap on them and see what the meaning is.

Of course, due to the limited number of sounds that are in the Japanese language, sometimes a word will have more than one meaning. You will have to read through each possible translation and decide which one makes the most sense based on the context of the surrounding words.

My Thoughts On It

First of all, I like it! I think that it’s a great way to learn some Japanese for free. That being said, there are a few bumps that I’ve run into while using it.

First of all, it doesn’t always play the sound bite when you click on a word during the translation parts. It’s actually only like a 50/50 chance that you will get to hear it.

Also, the Hiragana は gets pronounced “ha” which is technically correct since it’s selected in isolation, but since it’s used as the topic marker for the sentence it should actually be pronounced “wa.” That might be confusing for someone who is just starting out.

Also, they don’t explain the difference between Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji during the lessons. So again, if you were new to everything then you might be confused since you will see several different Japanese characters that all share the same sound.

You might wonder “what is the difference between に (Hiragana), ニ (Katakana), and 二 (Kanji) when they all sound like ‘ni’ ?”

This isn’t as much of a problem with Duolingo’s sister app Tinycards, which is a flashcard program that you can use to learn all of Hiragana and all of Katakana. They are seperated into different decks, so you won’t be as confused by identical sounding Kanas as you might be in the main Duolingo course.

Also, there are no testing sections that prompt you to speak Japanese. You can always repeat what the app says by using The Shadowing Technique, but unless you go into each lesson with this tactic in mind, it’s all too easy to take a more passive role while learning.

This leads to a situation that my friend told me about (he used Duolingo Spanish) where “you can understand what is being said, but can’t say it yourself.”

All things being equal, it would be better if you could speak Japanese too.

Check It Out Yourself

Now that I’ve told you about it, here is where you can sign up to try it out for yourself:

  1. Duolingo
  2. Tinycards

Just remember that it is still in beta testing at this point (6/1/17) so all of the problems that I mentioned might very well be gone by the time you use it yourself. Also, I’m not sure if it is open to the public just yet. But it doesn’t hurt to try and join anyway!

Like I said, Duolingo is great! But there is only one Japanese course that I recommend above the rest. Click on the link below to read about that one!

Click Here To Learn About My #1 Recommendation for Learning Japanese.

Now I would love to hear from you about this topic!

Have you used Duolingo to learn a language before? What about Tinycards? Let me know with a comment below!


  • Irma

    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?

    • Nick Hoyt

      The Pimsleur Japanese courses are great. I’ve used the first three levels (they have a newer fourth 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

      Unfortunately, Pimsleur has what I consider a “content problem” when their courses. They focus more on getting a few words down 100%, rather than learning a lot of material. So if your daughter already knows some Japanese, then I would actually recommend that you check out Rocket Japanese. They have the most content when it comes to learning conversational Japanese, bar none. I also did a review on them that you can find here:

      Rocket Japanese

      When it comes down to price, Rocket Japanese is actually cheaper too. But if your daughter wants to learn Japanese at home, or even on the go, then both courses have a digital option that should work perfectly.

      It’s kind of a long answer to your question, but yes if you are serious about learning Japanese then you would be better off with either Pimsleur or Rocket Japanese, rather than Duolingo’s free course.

      Hope that helps!

  • Craig

    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.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Craig, you make some good points. I actually have never tried it on the computer, so I will have to give that a go sometime to see how it is different from the phone version. 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 translation at least.

      But at the end of the day it’s hard to argue with free, right?

  • Wenda

    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!

    • Nick Hoyt

      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!

  • Paulina

    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?

    • Nick Hoyt

      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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