If you’re thinking about learning Japanese, then you might be wondering whether Duolingo’s Japanese course is the way to go.
Despite only being an official language in Japan, Japanese is actually the ninth most spoken language in the world. Over the last few years, it’s also become one of Duolingo’s most popular courses.
This is the first language guide I’ve written where I’ve REALLY had to step out of my comfort zone. I’ve devoted the last 6-7 years almost exclusively to Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. Japanese is my first genuine foray into the world of East-Asian languages.
As such, I’m coming at this as a complete beginner. So if you’re in a similar position and you want to know whether Duolingo is the way to go, then you’ve come to the right place.
Is Duolingo any good for learning Japanese?
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know.
We’ll go over:
- How Duolingo’s Japanese course is structured
- Special features
- Other features you need to be aware of
- The pros of Duolingo’s Japanese course
- The cons of Duolingo’s Japanese course
Shall we get started?
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What you’ll find in Duolingo’s Japanese course
If you’re new to Duolingo, then you’ll find that all of the courses are structured in much the same way.
They all follow what is commonly referred to as the lesson tree.*
The tree is broken up into a set of units…
Each unit has a set of skills…
Each skill has up to 6 crown levels…
And each crown level has a set of lessons…
The basic goal is to work through the tree by completing every lesson… in every level… in every skill… in every unit.
As of October 2022, Duolingo’s Japanese course has a total of 6 units, broken down into a total of 131 skills. That means there are 655 crown levels in Duolingo’s Japanese course — or 786 if you include the legendary levels.
The exercises in the Japanese course are basically the same as in all of Duolingo’s courses. Some of the common exercises you’ll come across include:
- Complete the translation
- Mark the correct meaning
- Picture flashcards
- Select the missing word
- Sentence shuffle
- Speak this sentence
- Tap the pairs
- Tap what you hear
*Duolingo are switching up their courses to a brand new format known as the Learning Path. It’s only been rolled out to a handful of users so far, so the majority of users will get the traditional lesson tree above. However, if your Japanese course looks different to the above, then you’ve probably got the new lesson path. Check out this post from Duolingo to learn more!
Does Duolingo’s Japanese course have any special features?
Although Duolingo offers nearly 40 language courses for English speakers, not all of the courses are created equally. Some courses have special features that others don’t.
Some of the notable features include stories, audio lessons and podcasts.
As of September 2022, Duolingo’s Japanese course has a total of 30 stories, but doesn’t have any audio lessons or podcasts.
It also has a neat little feature that only a few other Duolingo courses have: the writing-system tool.
As you’ll know, Japanese uses a completely different writing system to English. Whereas other languages with different writing systems (e.g. Greek, Russian) at least bear some similarities with the Roman alphabet, Japanese doesn’t.
And to make things even trickier, Japanese utilises not one but TWO additional writing systems: Hiragana and Katakana.
Duolingo’s writing system tool is designed to help you get to grips with both. It allows you to practice every character and symbol through a range of different exercises, including tracing, sound matching, and type what you hear.
Other features in Duolingo’s Japanese course
Duolingo’s Japanese course is built on the same stuff as all of Duolingo’s other language courses.
We won’t go into too much detail here, but some of the features worth knowing about include:
- XP – As you work through Duolingo’s Japanese course, you’ll earn experience points, which are more commonly known as XP. You’ll earn XP for pretty much everything you do. Some lessons, tasks and exercises will earn you more XP than others.
- Leagues – Every week you’ll be entered into a league with other Duolingo learners. There are 10 leagues to work through, starting at Bronze and ending at Diamond. The leagues are basically leaderboards — simply earn more XP than others in your league to have a chance of winning.
- Gems – XP and crowns aren’t the only things you’ll earn as you learn Japanese. You’ll also earn gems, which you can spend in the Duolingo Shop. There isn’t really much you can buy here, but you can use your gems to pick up things like Streak Freezes, Timer Boosts for timed challenges, and some costumes for the owl.
- Friends – Duolingo is a social experience, so you’re able to follow other users and compare your progress. The guys at Duolingo reckon you’re 5 times more likely to finish your course if you follow people! To get you started, feel free to give me a follow — my username is DCiiieee!
- Duolingo Plus/Super – This is Duolingo’s premium membership. Pay for Plus/Super and you’ll get access to some useful features, including unlimited hearts, no ads and Practice Hub.
Is Duolingo good for learning Japanese?
Now to answer the all-important question: Is Duolingo good for learning Japanese?
Let’s take a look at some pros and cons.
a good place to start
For native English speakers, Japanese is a scary language.
Not only is the writing system completely different, but the way in which the language works also differs a lot to English as well.
Fortunately, Duolingo is well-equipped to help you in the daunting early stages.
Whether you’re using the old-style tree or the new learning path, Duolingo’s Japanese courses are structured in such a way that makes Japanese accessible from the very beginning.
Sure, compared to many of Duolingo’s other courses, Japanese is far from its easiest. (It also has some issues that beginners will find frustrating, which we’ll get to shortly). But for a language as multi-faceted and different to English as Japanese, it does an excellent job of getting beginners into the swing of things.
For me, this is probably one of Duolingo’s biggest selling points when it comes to the Japanese course.
Duolingo have developed various versions of the writing system tool for their other language courses, but it’s in the Japanese course that it really stands out.
It was one of my favourite features of the Russian course, and it doesn’t disappoint in the Japanese one either!
Not only does it get you used to how the different systems look and sound, but it also gives you the opportunity to write out the characters with tracing exercises.
Depending on what you want Japanese for this might not matter much to you…
But in any case, it does a great job of getting you up to speed with something that can seem so alien in the beginning.
I’d go as far as to say it’s my favourite thing about the Japanese course — and it’s probably one of the best Japanese-learning tools I’ve found on the market right now.
While the tree/path is fine and structured fairly logically, the writing system tool has done a much better job of helping me understand the different characters and symbols.
I’d be pretty lost without it!
Stories is one of Duolingo’s standout features and it’s only available in a few of its courses.
Fortunately, Japanese is one of them!
One of the best things about the Japanese stories is that they’re genuinely interesting and funny as hell! Duolingo have got some seriously great writers!
They’re so good that reading them typically doesn’t feel like work. Yet all the while your reading and listening comprehension is going up, up and up!
And while the stories aren’t up to the same standard as some of Duolingo’s other courses (we’ll get to that in a sec) they’re still a HUGE selling point for the Japanese course.
I highly recommend getting stuck into them as soon as you can!
This doesn’t just go for Duolingo’s Japanese course, it’s the same for ALL of them!
One of the best things about Duolingo is that it’s more than just a language learning tool.
It’s also a game. And although this isn’t to everyone’s liking, it’s a big part of why so many people show up every day to do their daily lessons.
For everything you do in Japanese, you’ll earn XP (experience points) which contribute towards your position in the weekly leagues.
Now this isn’t something you should take too seriously (you can read more about why here) but if you take it lightly it’ll definitely make your Japanese a lot more enjoyable.
Because ultimately, the more you enjoy something, the more likely you are to do it. Learning Japanese is going to require A LOT of your time, so the more enjoyable it is, the better — and Duolingo definitely has you covered here.
Another great thing about Duolingo is that the Japanese course is 100% free.
There is a premium subscription — Duolingo Plus (or Super, depending on your device) — but this isn’t something you need in order to complete the course. The whole thing is completely free; the premium membership just adds a few features that make things a bit smoother.
This is great if you’re just dabbling with Japanese and aren’t ready to commit just yet. But also if you’re keen to get started with the language but don’t want to fork out on special software or tuition.
I take it you’ve seen the owl memes?
Yes, the owl can be *a bit* of a stalker at times, pestering you at all hours to do your daily Japanese lessons!
But relax, contrary to popular belief, he’s not gonna kidnap your family anytime soon!
Jokes aside, Duolingo is brilliant for keeping you motivated.
Learning Japanese is a long journey. It’s not something you’re going to pick up overnight.
According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it takes roughly 2200″class hours” to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in Japanese.
So yeah, if you’re going to learn Japanese, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul!
That means creating an unbreakable habit. And Duolingo’s amazing for doing that.
Put it this way — my current streak (i.e. the number of days in a row I’ve used Duolingo) goes all the way back to May 2016.
And that’s not just because I’m a bit obsessive! It’s thanks to Duolingo being such a great way of keeping me motivated!
Duolingo’s a great way of getting started with Japanese. But eventually, you’ll need to look further afield if you want to progress.
For such a complex language, Duolingo’s Japanese course is fairly short. Although each skill has up to 6 levels, realistically you could complete the course to crown level 1 in a fairly short time.
Compared to some of Duolingo’s other popular courses, like French and Spanish, there’s nowhere near as much content.
And considering Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, 6 units of content just isn’t going to be enough to reach an acceptable level.
The writing-system tool is where the majority of the magic happens. Beyond this, the course still requires a lot more fleshing out.
Average grammatical explanations
Japanese is a tricky language, so whichever way you come at it, it’s always going to be challenging. But aside from this, one of the main reasons the Duolingo’s Japanese course is so challenging is that it lacks a lot of fundamental grammatical explanations.
This becomes more obvious as you work your way through the course. But if you’ve never sat down with an East-Asian language before, you’ll almost certainly find yourself struggling from the very beginning.
Although Duolingo includes some OK tips sections, these don’t always go into enough detail to help you fully comprehend what’s going on in your lessons. Even with the romanised assist on, it stands a chance you’ll still find yourself struggling.
For a language as deep and complex as Japanese, this is something the guys at Duolingo definitely need to improve on.
Not great for speaking
If you’re hoping to get conversational in Japanese, then Duolingo probably isn’t the tool that will get you there.
Well, not by itself anyway.
That’s because Duolingo focuses mainly on reading and listening. You do get the opportunity to practice your pronunciation with the speaking exercises (although these seem to be few and far between) but these aren’t conversation exercises and a lot of the stuff you’ll practice aren’t sentences you’ll ever use anyway.
Speaking is a skill in its own right and to learn it you’ll need to practice it regularly, ideally with a native speaker, or at the very least using a program that has conversation scenarios (such as JapanesePod101).
Stories aren’t as good as in other courses
As above, stories is definitely one of Duolingo’s best features, and so it’s definitely a selling point of the Japanese course.
That said, unfortunately, they don’t hit the heights of the stories in other courses, such as French, Spanish and German.
One reason is there just aren’t that many. As of October 2022, there are only 30 — which is pretty low compared to the French course, which has nearly 300!
They’re also pretty difficult. Stories in the other courses are a lot more straightforward and easy for beginners to follow. For the most part, this is because Japanese is a significantly harder language. But this is something Duolingo should take into consideration. For many, even the first couple of stories will seem pretty overwhelming — even though they’re supposed to be the easiest.
If you’ve read any of my other articles then you’ll know one of the things I dislike most about Duolingo at the moment is the heart system.
Hearts are basically lives or chances. You start off with 5 then lose one every time you make a mistake.
If you lose all your hearts then you’re not allowed to progress through your course until your hearts replenish.
You can either watch an ad to get one back, do a practice session, spend some gems or wait 5 hours.
It’s far from ideal as it does the unhelpful thing of punishing you for making mistakes.
Which, as far as I’m concerned, is ridiculous as mistakes are absolutely essential and unavoidable when learning a language — especially one as complex as Japanese.
And when you factor in the lack of tips and explanations, you’re going to be making lots of mistakes — and therefore you’re going to be losing lots of hearts.
There’s a reason Japanese has become one of Duolingo’s most popular courses over the last few years, and it’s not just because of the popularity of the language — it’s also because Duolingo is one of the best ways to get started in it.
Thanks to it’s welcoming course, writing system tool, mini stories and accessbility, Duolingo’s is now one of the go-to platforms to start learning Japanese.
If you’re at the beginning of your Japanese journey, Duolingo is definitely something you’ll want to consider. Not only to get you going in the language, but also to keep you motivated over the years of study required.
However, for all it’s strengths, Duolingo’s Japanese course is still lacking in a number of key areas. By itself, it’s not going to get you to a comfortable conversational level in Japanese.
One of the best tools to use alongside Duolingo is JapanesePod101.
As a beginner, I’d be pretty lost without it. It does a good job of plugging the grammatical holes in the Duolingo course, and the podcasts are also really accessible from the very beginning.
With JapanesePod, you’ll also come to learn the 2,000 most common Japanese words, and experience the language in its authentic context. This makes a huge difference in your ability to both understand and produce basic everyday sentences.
if you’re new to japanese…
I’d recommend using Duolingo to get familiar with Hiragana and Katakana and start writing out basic sentences.
At the same time, it would be a good idea to take advantage of JapanesePod’s free trial to get familiar with how the language sounds, pick up some useful phrases and cultural insights, and practice speaking as soon as possible.
Once you’ve worked your way through the Duolingo course, I’d recommend coming back to it daily to keep the streak alive (habit is SO important when learning a language) and start to move through the intermediate to advanced packs on JapanesePod.
Also, make sure you’re getting enough passive exposure to Japanese as well — so things like TV shows, music, books and real-life conversations — so everything you learn on Duolingo and JapanesePod can begin to bed in.
It was interesting to read this as I started my very first Duolingo course this autumn to learn Japanese. I agree totally with you re what you wrote about lacking explanations etc. (The new look appeared to me this morning, so let’s see if it’s any better…) Because of not enough grammar etc., I have looked for answers from all around internet (YouTube included). But the thing I have liked in Duolingo’s Japanese course is that kanjis are included from the beginning. You have to start learning them. But as you wrote, this course alone is not making you “good in Japanese”. My other online course is Marugoto online course (by Japan Foundation) and I also have Genki text and work books. I have found this a good mix. Sometimes I am a bit confused as the same things are said in different ways in different platforms, but fortunately I have a Japanese contacts and I can ask them why’s that. I will anyway continue with Duolingo as part of my learning tools. And yes, the other good thing is that you really “have to” study every day.
1) Imabi.net for supplemental grammar might be useful.
2) An introduction to Japanese Syntax, Grammar and Language by Michiel Kamermans free electronic ebook on web