Duolingo is a free website and app that offers language courses that look like games. I’ve always been a big fan of Duolingo because it allows me to practice the languages I’m currently studying (Russian and French) when all I have with me is my phone. I reckon, however, that you can’t become fluent by using Duolingo alone. Duolingo can be a powerful tool to practice while you take a course or interact with speakers of your target language at the same time, but it will never be a substitute for the “real” language-learning experience.
Before I started using Duolingo to practice my target languages, I checked the “Spanish for English Speakers” course, just to see how good it was. (I’m a Spanish speaker). After taking a placement test to skip most of the levels, I took some of the most advanced lessons and I concluded that the course was good enough for someone who wants to reach a lower-intermediate level. In general, the courses are quite good for European languages that use the same writing system and have a similar sentence structure as English. The only thing I never liked was that they sometimes use audio recordings with a very sloppy pronunciation.
Last month I heard that Duolingo finally released a Japanese course for English speakers. As an advanced Japanese learner, I thought this was very challenging for many reasons:
- The sentence structure is very different. But this shouldn’t be a problem for Duolingo since they have experience with many other languages.
- Japanese characters. How can you teach people to write kanji? How will the app deal with the fact that characters have different readings depending on the context?
- Many common expressions in Japanese don’t have a proper translation into English.
So, after a couple of weeks, I decided to give it a shot. I took the placement test and suddenly found myself almost at the end of the course and I finished it in a couple of days.
Of course, because I took the placement test, I don’t know if the first lessons are good to introduce someone to the language. Anyways, here are my thoughts from what I saw:
- Difficulty: The last levels of the course are not very complex, and the grammar, and vocabulary don’t reach the level of other courses (like the Spanish one). I believe this is probably because people have to learn hiragana, katakana, and some kanji, so it takes more time.
- Kanji: As you can see from the previous example, most of the words are written in hiragana. Only some of the easiest kanji appear in the course and there are a few problems in which you are asked to select the correct reading for a kanji and vice-versa:
- Audio and word recognition: Since Duolingo relies a lot on algorithms and this course was released only some weeks ago, there are still some problems with it. Particularly, since Japanese characters are read differently depending on the word and there are no spaces between words in Japanese, it seems that their algorithms are having a hard with it:
My general conclusion is: If they fix the issues with the audio and word recognition, this could be a really nice course for people who don’t have the chance to interact with Japan or Japanese people. On the other hand, if you live in Japan or have access to a proper Japanese course, that will probably take you to a level a lot higher than the highest level in this Duolingo course, in a shorter time. Let’s wait and see whether the team working on this course will solve these issues and increase the level of the course.
Thank you for reading!
Gerardo Urbina is a Chemistry student at Nagoya University who loves reading and learning about anything. Born and raised in El Salvador, he speaks Spanish, English and Japanese, and is currently learning French and Russian. Read more about him and his ideas for The Relearner.