Duolingo is the most downloaded language learning app in the world. Over 120 million people use it to study nearly 30 different languages.
Last month, they finally released their long-awaited Japanese version!
Apparently, Japanese was the most requested language ever on Duolingo. We couldn’t wait to test it out and try it for ourselves.
Read our Duolingo Japanese review and see if this could be the right way for you to learn Japanese!
Getting started with Duolingo
By the way, you can study other Duolingo language courses online through their website. But the Japanese course is currently only available on the app.
When you download the app you’ll be asked to choose how much time you can spend on Japanese each day. The options are 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes or 20 minutes. All nice and achievable!
This is important because the app will remind you to stick to your commitment each day. You’ll get notifications, and there’s also a streak counter within the app. Once you’ve built up your ‘streak’ by studying for several days in a row, you won’t want to break it!
Building up a regular habit is so important in language learning. 5 or 10 minutes a day might not sound much, but stick to this over time and you’ll see results.
Next, you’ll be asked to pick your level. You can start as a complete beginner, or take a placement test. The full Duolingo Japanese course goes up to around JLPT level 5.
You can always go back to any previous level, but you can’t check out higher levels without passing the placement test!
Learning Japanese with Duolingo
Duolingo is a gamified, intuitive way to learn a language.
There are no typical ‘lessons’ like you would have in a traditional language learning course.
There are no explanations of grammar or new concepts. In fact, there’s almost no English used.
Instead, you learn Japanese through examples.
The app introduces one or two new words at a time. New words are introduced with pictures. You complete lots of activities and games using these new words until they stick in your memory.
The activities fall into a few categories. There’s this one, where you click on word tiles to translate a sentence:
This sentence building activity is really fun and easy to use. It’s also addictive!
Then there’s the reverse activity, where you see a sentence in Japanese and have to type in the answer in English.
And this one, where you tap on tiles to select matching pairs:
These kinds of activities are so quick and fun to do. Each lesson or level is very short. This means it’s easy to get addicted to language learning. You might start off with a goal to study just five minutes each day, but once you start, you’ll find yourself doing ‘just one more lesson’ over and over!
Does Duolingo teach you to read and write in Japanese?
Yes, it does. The Duolingo Japanese course teaches you to read hiragana, katakana, and about 90 essential kanji. You should know enough kanji to pass the JLPT N5 test if you complete the Duolingo Japanese course.
The course doesn’t use any English or romaji at all. All new words are in hiragana, until you learn the kanji for them. This means you have lots of reading practise!
One problem with the Duolingo method is that it doesn’t actually explain the difference between hiragana and katakana.
This is in keeping with Duolingo’s principle of not having any explanations. But I’m not sure it works well for a complicated language like Japanese. If you didn’t already know about the different scripts in Japanese, you would be totally confused when you are taught the character め, pronounced as me, and then メ- another character for me – in the next lesson.
Of course, the first character is hiragana, and the second character is katakana. The makers probably assume you know this. But not all learners will.
This learning style won’t be for everyone. You might be better off learning hiragana and katakana by yourself first, or at the very least supplementing Duolingo with your own reading.
Another issue is that you will only learn to recognise Japanese characters. You won’t learn to write (either by hand, or by computer or phone). If you want to write Japanese by hand, it’s important to learn the correct stroke order when you learn a new character. Duolingo unfortunately doesn’t teach this.
Problems with Duolingo
Unfortunately, there are a few bugs and other issues with Duolingo. The most obvious one is the sound. Most of the tiles say their word out loud when you tap them. However, quite a few of them don’t work. This is an issue because you can’t hear the pronunciation of the full sentence.
More seriously, sometimes the pronunciations are just wrong. In Japanese, there is often more than one pronunciation for a word or character. Duolingo only seems to be able to cope with one pronunciation for each word or character. It can’t tell when the pronunciation should be different, based on the word’s function in a sentence. So は is always pronounced ‘ha’, never ‘wa’. 人is always ‘jin’, never ‘hito’ (or ‘nin’).
There is not even any explanation of how words can sometimes be pronounced differently. If you are a total beginner learning Japanese through Duolingo only, sadly you will learn some incorrect Japanese.
Remember that Duolingo Japanese is still very new. Hopefully they will work on some of these issues for future updates!
It’s also worth mentioning that you can’t turn off the sound. The sound got really annoying once I realised there were so many mistakes, but I couldn’t do anything about it. And don’t forget your earphones if you want to use Duolingo in a public place.
What’s good about Duolingo?
Overall, Duolingo is a really good app.
It makes learning fun. It’s nicely designed. It’s addictive and easy to use.
Features like a streak counter and daily reminders encourage you to study daily – and ‘little and often’ is a very effective way to learn a language! There are a few other cute functions, like the ability to form a language learning group with your friends (or strangers!) to motivate each other and chat about Japanese.
You will learn Japanese words on a variety of topics. The topics switch frequently to keep you interested. There are even special lessons on anime and manga vocabulary, as well as phrases you need for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
And by the way, it’s completely FREE. It’s free because it’s funded by ads, which pop up at the end of each lesson. Also, there are optional in-app purchases, such as going ad-free or pausing your streak for a day.
Our thoughts on learning Japanese with Duolingo
Duolingo Japanese is not perfect. But it is a fun and effective way to learn some basic Japanese.
If you really only have five minutes in a day to study, Duolingo is probably one of the most effective ways to spend your time.
But if you have any longer than that, I would recommended using other learning materials instead of (or alongside) Duolingo.
At the very least, make sure you read about the different Japanese writing systems, so that you aren’t confused about how to use hiragana and katakana!
I also recommend getting a lot of audio input elsewhere, since the Duolingo Japanese audio is buggy. You can get FREE, highly recommended audio lessons for all levels here.
If you want a more structured approach to learning – and if your aim is to speak good conversational Japanese, or even become fluent – you need a better quality online course.
Check out our comparison of the best online Japanese courses here.
Alternatively, head over for a free trial of one of our recommended courses here:
Have you used Duolingo to learn Japanese yet? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!