Duolingo: A Daily Way to Practice Your Japanese

Many Japanese video game, anime and manga enthusiasts have probably considered learning the native language of their favourite entertainment at some point… but it’s a daunting prospect.

The fact you have to learn two new phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) plus a whole swathe of pictograms (kanji) that represent various concepts or parts of speech means that it’s not a simple case of just jumping in and learning new words for things. You have to learn a completely new way of reading and writing, too.

The potential rewards are great, though, since learning Japanese allows you to access a whole host of entertainment that doesn’t get localised. And with the region-free nature of most modern computer and gaming systems coupled with international Internet shopping, importing games, DVDs, Blu-Rays and manga is trivially easy today.

So where do you start? Well, there are all sorts of ways you can tackle this challenge, but the new iOS and Android-based Japanese course from free language learning organisation Duolingo is as good a place as any to get your studies underway.

Duolingo jumps straight in with a small selection of hiragana, katakana and even kanji, though it starts things off very gradually and simply. Whenever new characters or words are introduced, you’re first given the opportunity to recognise them from their sound and appearance, then to relate them to a concept or object as part of a word, then to use them as part of a sentence.

In interactive terms, this means a series of specific types of questions you’ll see throughout your time with Duolingo. Many questions, particularly when first learning something new, are multiple choice: they’ll be something like “choose the sound that this character makes”, with the app helpfully vocalising each character or word as you tap on it.

Moving on from there, you’ll also find yourself matching pairs out of a larger selection. At the start, you’ll be matching basic hiragana to their romaji representations using Western characters, but as your studies progress you’ll naturally proceed to converting kanji to hiragana. Again, the app helpfully vocalises these options as you tap on them, allowing you to learn to recognise the sounds of the words as well as their visual appearance.

Another activity you’ll come across is putting a series of characters or words in order. This is done in both directions — Japanese to English, and English to Japanese — and helps you learn how to construct phrases and sentences correctly without becoming daunted by a completely freeform text area for you to type into. Although that’s also a type of question you’ll come across in Duolingo, though the app doesn’t make the assumption you have a Japanese keyboard installed on your device; any freeform translation will always be from Japanese characters back to English.

Duolingo’s programme, regardless of language, is designed to be done every day, just for a few minutes. A simple system of gamification helps motivate you with your studies by awarding you with experience points for completed units (which also double as a measure of how much work you’ve done that day) and a “streak” for an unbroken series of days in which you’ve met the point target you set for yourself.

With the initially daunting nature of Japanese, it’s easy to wonder if you’re actually learning anything or just memorising things, but it doesn’t take long for you to realise that you’re naturally coming to recognise characters and words without having to think about them. This is probably the most powerful thing about how Duolingo does things: the app’s careful use of limited repetition as well as introducing new concepts at a good pace means that you’re likely to retain the information it gives you, and its “strength” system encourages you to go back and revise previous topics on a regular basis to ensure you keep the basic concepts in mind even as you move on to more advanced subjects.

Long-term, however, Duolingo is no substitute for formal, structured study — and it’s not really trying to be. Rather, it’s giving you the opportunity to have some daily practice at working with the language in various different ways — though the voice recognition “speaking” aspect found in some of Duolingo’s other language offerings is disappointingly absent at the time of writing — and develop your confidence. If you’re struggling, too, many activities have the ability to comment and ask questions of other Duolingo users, allowing you to get a bit of human input into your learning as well as relying on the app’s own algorithms and your own self-discipline.

Once you reach a certain level of basic understanding, however, it’s perhaps best to complement Duolingo’s daily practice with study from a textbook or structured online course, particularly as Duolingo doesn’t give you training in how to manually write any of the characters correctly. One might argue that being able to carefully draw a kanji with all the strokes in the correct order is not particularly relevant nowadays due to the ubiquitousness of computers and smartphones, which do all the hard work for you, but who knows? One day you might have a great idea with a Japanese person in a restaurant and really need to write it down on a napkin for them.

Regardless of its flaws — most notably the aforementioned absence of speaking and writing practice, as well as the fact that the course is presently only available on mobile phones rather than via the Web, meaning that it also lacks convenient reference material — Duolingo is a great way of getting started with Japanese and developing your confidence to such a point where you feel you might be able to take your studies further.  At that point, you have plenty of choices on how to proceed, whether it’s through self-study, organised classes, individual tuition or simply immersing yourself in Japanese media — and don’t forget games like Nekoparawhich provide the option to display their dialogue in both English and Japanese simultaneously, allowing you to make direct comparisons.

I’ve been using Duolingo for Japanese for nearly two months now, and I’ve not only been enjoying it a great deal, I’ve noticed a huge increase in my confidence with the language, too. I still have a long way to go, but my progress to date makes me feel like I can go the distance.

To anyone else considering taking this challenging journey, give Duolingo a try and see how you get on — and I say with all sincerity, 頑張って!

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