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Unknown words - how to handle?

I have asked this before but for some reason, the post has vanished, so I'm trying again: it seems that every lesson in the Japanese course asks you to translate at least one sentence containing a previously unintroduced word. What are the thoughts behind that, and how do the makers of the course want users to handle these words? I look them up in a dictionary app but maybe that's not what you had in mind? Answers appreciated, and thank you for a very enjoyable course!

June 9, 2017



This is a very interesting question. I think that people approach their Duolingo studies in different ways, and sharing our ideas could be useful.

I am not a beginner in Japanese, and I decided to do the course for review since I haven't used Japanese for a number of years. This is the first time that I have used the app exclusively for learning. To learn Turkish, I used the PC and the app together. Using just the app, I wonder how anyone can learn a language at all. I am relying heavily on my prior knowledge of Japanese as there is nowhere near enough information given. I didn't notice this with the Turkish course because I was not entirely dependent on the app.

The biggest problem is this. There is no explicit grammar teaching, yet you are expected to translate sentences to and from Japanese. One of the exercises is particularly difficult. When you are given an English sentence, and you have to choose the words to make the sentence, that English sentence is not underlined, so you get no hints at all. While the words have been introduced before you get these sentences, you might have only seen this sentence once before. I think that this would be quite difficult for someone completely new to the language. Coupled with a different script, and an unintuitive grammatical structure, it is probably quite daunting for a beginner.

Now, to answer your question. Yes, I think that you have no choice but to use a dictionary. I occasionally use a dictionary with Duolingo. It saves time. I also tried to get ahead with my vocabulary by doing the Duolingo words on Memrise. That way I could focus more on the sentences and less on the words. You could also find a Memrise course which teaches a little grammar as well.

If I were you, I would also find a book or a website that teaches Japanese grammar. That way, you can refer to them and gain a better understanding of what you are learning. I didn't do this much when I learned Turkish, and I was halfway through the reverse tree before some of the concepts started to make sense. It can be quite stressful to deliberately avoid learning the grammar, but I chose to do it this way because I am an ESL teacher and I wanted to know how good Duolingo is in teaching languages. I occasionally write paragraphs on Lang-8, and the people who correct my work are surprised that I have never been to Turkey and tell me that some of my mistakes are the same mistakes that a native speaker would make. I have come to the conclusion that despite its faults, Duolingo teaches languages quite well.

Don't give up. Find a method that works for you. You'll learn Japanese.


Thank you both. As of now, the yellow words seem to be few and far between but I'll look out for them. @NeridaPeters: Yes, I completely agree with you. I am enjoying the Japanese course very much but I have been taking a continuing ed Japanese course (i.e., not super fast) for two years, so I know the grammar so far. Hard to imagine that someone without grammar resources would understand what's going on in Activity2 where te-forms and consecutive actions are introduced. As to words: I put the words and sentences I have trouble with into Quizlet, so same idea. Still a bit puzzled why the makers of the course would ask for typed translations of never-before-seen words though. Sometimes I just put "I have no idea."


Fascinating read. Thanks! Interesting that I seem to have hints for sentences that you don't. It would certainly be ever so much harder without them. Could it be an iOS / Android thing? I have iOS.


If the word is underlined in yellow you can hover over the word and its meaning will pop up.


Your previous post is still there, by the way...


Weird. For quite a while, I got some Error 404 message with an unhappy owl when I clicked on it. Fixed now, I guess!


Clicking on the sentence to be translated (be it in English or Japanese) gives hints. In Japanese these are certainly a good deal more chaotic than in other languages. I expect they'll improve ere the course graduates from beta, but I think the'll always be more challenging to make sense of than in say French or Spanish.

New words are supposed to be highlighted in orange the first time they appear in a sentence. In my experience at least, it's not just in the Japanese course that this sometimes doesn't happen. However, the hints are there in everything but multiple choice questions for me, so it's not really a problem (not like I remember words the first time much anyway). This actually strikes me as unique to the Japanese tree. Other trees don't have hints for the select word box to form sentence questions.

As a complete beginner, what's harder than new words is new grammatical concepts that occur for the first time in a translation into Japanese. I remember coming upon the first prepositional phrase regarding a location ("at school" or something). I was pretty sure it could go at the beginning of the sentence since that's where the ones for time always were (even though it would have been more natural in English to have them at the end). But I wanted to see if they could also go at the end. Seems they couldn't (or it's an omission b/c beta). Another hard one are negated sentences when the examples in Japanese I've seen have only been positive. I'll sort of give it a try, and then look at the answer closely in the likely case I haven't gotten it right.

This, incidentally, is how a complete neophyte handles Duolingo Japanese without external learning materials. Not easy, but I've studied something of some other SOV languages. I know stuff's different in them, so I'm on the lookout for how it's different and then try to apply it going forward. Particles are sorta like cases, which I'm pretty accustomed to. I just try to pay attention and use general grammar knowledge to get them right. Goes without saying this (especially the trial and error required) would be unspeakably more difficult with the Health system in place. But that's a problem for another day.


Just briefly: I think I've seen the yellow highlighted words maybe five times in 14 days. They simply aren't there (yet).


Thanks for the hint about clicking on the sentence - I didn't know! That certainly helps.


Great! In other trees (well, those with TTS instead of recorded audio), incidentally, clicking even words that aren't underlined gives the spoken pronunciation (of course subject to the whims of the TTS).

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