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Suggestions for the Japanese Course

I've been studying Japanese on Duolingo since the day it was available for learning, and I've been very happy with my progress. I really like the new system of teaching characters, and it's fun to practice Japanese whenever I get the chance. However, there have been a few things that I feel could be changed to improve the course.

  1. The course is quite short. At 185 lessons, it is one of the shortest courses on Duolingo (second only to High Valyrian I believe). I understand that it teaches everything needed to pass the N5 proficiency test, but you only need to have a Japanese proficiency level of "Basic" in order to pass the N5, and a "basic" understanding of Japanese is probably not enough to get by in Japan. It's great that this course is being developed off of the JLPT, but I feel like it should teach up to at least N3 (Intermediate).

  2. There are no speaking or listening exercises. One of the integral parts of learning a language is being able to speak and understand it. However, Duolingo only teaches reading and writing in its Japanese course. While the course is filled with audio exercises, the audio is always accompanied with a written sample of the phrase being spoken. To practice my speaking and listening, I've had to resort to looking away from my phone screen while the Japanese text is being read out loud, and then repeating what the speaker said after she finishes saying it. Additionally, one of the main parts of taking the N5 is being able to comprehend spoken Japanese. I understand that it's difficult to add speech exercises to any Duolingo course, but it shouldn't be too hard to add listening exercises. I studied French on Duolingo before my trip to Quebec a few weeks ago, and one of the main reasons I was able to communicate with so many people was because Duolingo's listening exercises had greatly helped me understand spoken French.

  3. There are no exercises where the learner has to type out phrases in Japanese. Instead, users are given several words and have to rearrange them to form the correct sentence. This method is questionable in its effectiveness because the learner doesn't have to really think to be able to give the correct translation. Users cannot truly create their own Japanese with this method.

  4. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, where the majority of characters only have one pronunciation, in Japanese, Kanji can have 5 different pronunciations or more. While Duolingo does an effective job at teaching one pronunciation of each Kanji, it doesn't do a very good job at teaching the additional pronunciations. For example, the character 一 (one) is pronounced "ichi" in 一時です (It is 1:00). This is the pronunciation that is taught when the character is first introduced. However, in 一つ (one piece), 一 is pronounced "hito". Duolingo did not teach the hiragana pronunciation for the latter pronunciation of 一, leaving me confused about why the pronunciation had changed until I Googled it.

  5. Many words that could and probably should be taught in Kanji are only taught in Hiragana. Strangely, the dictionary hints often show the word in its kanji form instead of the hiragana form that is taught in the course, leaving many users confused.

  6. No desktop version yet. I understand that a desktop version of Japanese is in the process of being made, so I have no complaints about this. Hopefully, we'll see this by the end of the year.

In all, these were the main issues I had with the Japanese course. There were a couple of smaller issues that I encountered here and there, but they've largely been fixed. I understand that the course is still in beta, but it might be cool to see some of these changes get taken into consideration. What do you guys think? How else could the Japanese course be improved?

August 28, 2017



Also, with the android app there are too many places where the answer is read out loud for you. For example, when asked what is the meaning of "学校" the app reads the answer to you so all you have to do is pick what you heard, in this case "がっこう". There is no learning happening since the student / user is not required to recall the meaning. The real insult here is the time wasted getting past these questions. This is just one example, but a lot of the course is as effective and as annoying as being asked to "press the red button to continue".


I do agree that the "select what you hear" is a slight problem, but it can easily be fixed.


I'll agree with most of this. I've started the course (with some prior knowledge of Japanese, luckily), but am putting it somewhat on the back burner until it's available on the web (so I can get proper typing instead of "guess which six out of eight words are needed for this sentence") and also in the hope of getting course notes.

Yet another problem with the course as it is now is that it doesn't give any indication about what is hiragana, what is katakana and what is kanji or even (if you don't already know this) that indeed there are three different writing systems. Also, it ignores the whole bit of how to write each character properly.


Re the proper writing of the characters: I think you have to pick your battles with Japanese. For me, handwriting in Japanese is not a priority at all - I'd much rather work on listening and reading comprehension, and on being able to say stuff.

Also, there are really nice tools for stroke order available on the web - Duolingo does not have to reinvent the wheel for that.


Sounds handy! Any links for things like that?


I use Kanji Study for learning to write kanji. It's been mentioned by another person that it has stroke order for kana as well but I haven't used that. It starts out free, but you will have to pay past a certain point, but considering how much the app offers I think it's fair.


For number 3, the app has always been like that: you have to select the words from the bottom of the page to make the correct sentence, but I don't think that kind of exercise helps you learn the language, unless you struggle with word order, which is why the website is better since you have to type the words and when you type the words, you're more likely to remember them than if you select them and make a sentence. That's why the website version is needed. Duolingo shouldn't have rushed Japanese so much, otherwise it would have more lessons and not be one of the shortest courses.


Agreed. Hopefully we'll see a Tree 2.0 at some point in the near-future.

[deactivated user]

    Agreed with the above. In addition, one of the very helpful Duolingo "go to's" for learning (for me, anyway) is the "hint" one gets by hovering over or clicking on the English that is to be translated. When that "hint" is just kanji that is NOT one of the options, (usually, but not always, only hiragana or katakana is available) the "hint" isn't helping. This happens a LOT.

    Also, small rant, having an answer marked wrong because I re-ordered the ENGLISH words is a bit silly. Example (and pretty close to what I remember), "I don't eat bread very often", would be marked wrong if "I don't very often eat bread." Word order in English is almost unimportant so please stop testing me on it.

    Lots of improvements needed but it's progress. Thanks.

    [deactivated user]

      Also, under "it would be nice", it might be good to be able to type the Hiragana/Kanji like the Japanese IME, where one types in, say, "shi-go-to", and gets the しごと or 仕事 , like one would when using the IME. Memrise has this capability on the PC, and IPAD. (Don't have an iphone so don't know if it works there, but am guessing it does if the IPad has it.) Not sure about Android and the Amazon Tablet.


      All those devices have Japanese text input capability. It's simply that Duolingo's app doesn't contain any questions where it asks the user to type the answer in Japanese.

      Web doesn't have the click-the-tiles-in-the-right-order questions. This Duolingo course has Japanese typing on web (even when doing it on mobile web browsers on phones/tablets). ^^


      Wait - Duo has Japanese on the web? Where? When I log in it dumps me on the front page, says there's no Japanese course, and tells me to pick another language. O_o ???


      The Japanese course on the web can only be accessed via a glitch. However, it's very buggy.


      Oh. Thanks. I'll look into it. If it's got input in Japanese it might be worth braving the glitches.


      So far, the web has no recognition, only recall - Japanese examples with a textbox for English and vice versa. Same examples, but seems like fewer because they're all one type. Much harder but much more effective. Japanese to English accepts more phrasings. Hovering over Kanji gives dictionary reading, not in-context reading. English to Japanese gives hints. Hovering over a word gives possible translations in hiragana. I can omit spaces once I know where they would go. Japanese input is via IME - install it beforehand. It might change your keyboard layout. You need to switch input methods from question to question or you'll be writing English in hiragana. ^_^ Use the app for reading / recognition, use the web to for recall / production. がんばて!


      N3 would never work, this course would have to be 50 times larger. The best that can be done is N4, nothing more than that.


      Would it really be 50 times longer though? Wikipedia says that about 600 hours of study time are needed to pass the N5, while 1000 are needed to pass the N4, and 1700 for the N3. Then again, I'm no expert on the JLPT.


      The High Valyrian course is tiny. Only thirty skills.


      Reading the Kanji characters has been challenging. It would be nice if we could draw the characters as a lesson. I think learning the characters individually would make it easier to read the sentence, especially once you've understood some of the basic sentence structures


      On your point 3, I use an iPad to do the Japanese course and I have to type the answers to many of the questions. If you have access to an ios device maybe you could try that and see if it helps.


      The android app also sometimes have you type a response instead of just shuffling words but it's not very often. Also, it's only when writing in English.


      I actually use Duolingo on an iPhone, and I have also used an iPad in the past. As Hans said, there is typing in the Japanese course, but the only language being typed is English.


      What's even more crazy is that the reverse tree (English from Japanese) is the same! (I have absolutely no idea why they don't even let Japanese people type Japanese on their phones.)

      Although I don't really ever use the app, I'm fairly certain I used it enough to be sure of this: The only typing answers on both normal and reverse Japanese trees are English typing answers!

      On web, thankfully both courses have both Japanese and English typing. ^^


      Yes, it's only some of the English responses, sorry I gave the impression you could type in Japanese on iPad.


      I agree with all of this, but especially 2 and 3. Typing in Japanese is very simple to do and set up on most devices. I honestly don't see any logic in not having the learner type in Japanese. It's just a handicap when trying to actually learn the language.


      Very happy w/ the initial release of the Japanese course. Really hope it will continue to improve. Might even volunteer to help out on the technical stuff. Some suggestions:

      Would love to always see the "correct" kanji-version of every Japanese phrase.

      I think Romanji is helpful when you're starting out, esp. if you could only show it when you need help--- it took me a couple months to get bulletproof on the katakana/hirigana. I think this could have gone faster w/ romanji.

      Would really love to see some writing practice, both mouse/tablet & keyboard IME; I have trouble memorizing symbols if I don't practice writing them.

      Tooltips for kanji w/ pronunciation (very important, I think) & meaning would also be a huge help, especially if they could be context-sensitive.

      If regional/dialect stuff is used, it should be identified. I think learning (or at least being aware of) the regional variations (& differences from the Tokyo dialect) is a key part of learning Japanese.

      Video w/ collaborative subtitling would be awesome, not just for Japanese.

      But mostly, just need a whole lot more exercises.


      In french, (and possibly many other languages) there's an option in the shop to buy more lessons using lingots, but this option is not available in japonese, this is an extension of how only basic Japanese is taught but I really need to rant about this, because it's really annoying me.


      I agree with the speaking part. In order to learn Japanese correctly you should know how to pronounce the words


      Romaji please.

      I've completed 10 lessons, all golden, and I haven't learned a thing.

      Hiragana is for grammar, but there are no spaces between words. Phrases become syllable sausages. Katakana is for foreign names, but it can't handle consonant clusters. My surname and city get mangled beyond recognition. Kanji is for vocabulary, but the reading changes between stand-alone words and compounds. You think you can read, but nope.

      At this rate, I'm not learning to speak, just learning to decode symbols which I don't even know how to write.

      Romaji fixes all of these: it's got spaces, consonant clusters, consistent phonetic reading, and doesn't need special input.

      I'd pay the yearly Duolingo Plus for romaji, and they could keep the adds.


      If the Duolingo course in Japanese was in romaji only I wouldn't touch it.


      Not Romaji instead of other scripts, but in addition / as an alternative to them.

      Right now, Japanese is read out too fast for me. Since there's no turtle speech and hiragana has no spaces, I don't know where one word ends and another begins, and the kanji just confuse me. So I solve Japanese to English by decoding images.

      English to Japanese has you "guess which six out of eight words are needed for this sentence". Since recognition is easier than recall, I recognize the pictures and plug them in.

      I've managed to complete 1/4 of the tree - gilded! - without being able to have the simplest conversation. That's a huge design flaw.

      If I could switch to Romaji mode, I could see where words began and ended, and changing kanji readings wouldn't be a problem. If I had to write in Japanese from scratch, I would remember things.

      Either Duo adds turtle speech and inputs for hiragana, katakana and kanji - or they just add Romaji.

      Or I look outside Duolingo.


      I don't understand why Romaji would help with that. It'd just leave you with one more thing to try to remember. What you need is a proper understanding of what the course is trying, and -currently- failing to teach you(and a lot of other people, myself included). The speech hasn't bothered me too much, yes, I've needed to reply some longer sentences a few times, but I enjoy that. What is really missing is explanations for what they're teaching you: what are these crazy looking symbols that are more complicated then the first ones, and where did they come from? Why is this "wa" thing placed randomly in sentences? etc, etc, etc, etc.


      Romaji would help because it's 100% consistent, has spaces, and I can read it at a glance. None of which applies to kana.

      I can't digest info all at once at full speed, no mater how many times it's repeated. I just get more and more frustrated. But slowly, in pieces, I only need to hear it once to understand, and to reproduce a dozen times to learn.

      The complicated symbols are Kanji. Word order changes between affirmative and negative. In English, word order changes between a statement and a question. (It is. vs Is it?)

      My question:

      Why is the particle 'wa' written as は and not わ? How many words is 'dewaarimasen'? A few kanji togeather - are they a bunch of stand-alones like '1 hour 45 minutes' or a compound like 'student'? When I see 中 , do I read it 'naka' as in Tanaka, or 'chū' in Chūgoku?

      Ie - What words is this sentence comprised of (there are no spaces) and how are they pronounced (it's never like last time)?


      The speed is something that I think is important to struggle through. Japanese isn't the hardest language for English speakers for no reason. Romaji won't magically allow you to read kana fast, it takes practice. One hundred days later, and I'm actually able to breeze through some of the basic sentences.

      And those are good questions. Almost all of them should be answered in a grammar section. That last one is one I've been wondering myself, I've seen furigana in some manga that show you how to pronounce kanji but they aren't on Duolingo.. and no explanation for it makes it tricky.


      As someone who grew up bilingual, I can tell you that romaji is a stumbling block. When I lived in Japan in the 80s, I noticed that Englishmen (and women) could speak very fluent Japanese, but I never met one single North American who could speak even a sound, let alone a word, of Japanese. Why were Americans so incapable? I noticed that English people did not use romaji. They read Japanese. Americans depended entirely on romaji. They did not read any Japanese and they wanted you write in romaji what you were saying instead of carefully listening and learning real, actual Japanese language. Perhaps that had something to do with it. Romaji teaches you a word that does not exist in either language.

      There are serious problems with romaji, not the least of which is that they are based on American phonetics, not Japanese phonemes. For example, there is no "r" in Japanese. Romaji does not account for vowel length. Japanese vowels are different than English vowels. Romaji pretends they are not so different. Americans tend stress the penultimate syllable on words they do not recognize, which is never correct in Japanese. If I were teaching a Japanese class, I would forbid all written materials. The first challenge to English speakers is Japanese sounds. English is spoken very slowly compared to other languages because of the high ratio of consonants to vowels. Consonants are harder to say and hear when they are clustered together. Japanese has a very low ratio, so it is easy to speak very fast, and they do! And in Tokyo, it's horrible! So it is very challenging. In my opinion, beginners should learn by relying on their ears.

      If you are serious about learning a language, the first thing you need to do is immerse yourself in the language. You need to hear it. Listen to Japanese radio, watch movies and tv. Don't just watch cartoons. Too many young learners sound like manga characters. It's weird. Your subconscious will sort it out as long as you focus on listening. Get a feel for the way the pitch and volume change. Listen for emotion and expression. Try to single out words and repeat them as you hear them. Duolingo is a testing site, but it won't actually teach you a language.

      Good luck! がんばってください!


      Great for you. I'd rather have a course where, after 10 gilded lessons, I could handle introductions, time and food.


      Very strongly against the suggestion for a romaji mode, even if only as an optional setting.

      If you would prefer not to be shown Japanese writing, and if you instead want to go by pronunciation but the audio is too fast, then what seems a much more logical suggestion is simply that "turtle speech" thing you mentioned—reads out the sentence/individual words at the pace used when teaching new words to a Japanese toddler (rather than closer to a fluent speaker's pace). We are essentially like toddlers when we embark on learning a new language, so this seems sensible for the early stages of learning it. :)

      There is a lot you've said in those three posts that I'd like to reply to, but I'll try to pick just a few of them.

      In general, most of your criticism seems to be related to the way the course is on the silly app? I don't think you will be able to gild 1/4 of the tree without knowing what you are doing when on web. ^^

      Romaji fixes all of these: it's got spaces, consonant clusters, consistent phonetic reading, and doesn't need special input.

      1. Spaces aren't without their own added complications. Should a particle have a space between it and the word/phrase/clause it is attached to? And, when answering in romaji, would you have to insert the spaces in the "correct" places?

      2. Japanese itself doesn't really have consonant clusters. For example: the name Alfred in Japanese is spelt "arufuredo" in romaji (which is アルフレド in Japanese writing).

      3. Consistent phonetic reading via romaji can make things more confusing later when you then try to write Japanese.

      For example, you might end up thinking: that "konnichiwa" is properly written こんにちわ instead of こんにちは; that "tōkyō" is properly written as とおきょお instead of とうきょう (東京, Tokyo); or that "tōka" is properly written as とうか instead of とおか (十日, tenth day of the month).

      There are also several different systems of romaji, with some kana even being spelt differently between them. Take the word ローマ字 (ローマじ), which means "Roman letters". This word can be written various ways depending on which romaji style is being used: rōmaji, roumaji, romaji, rômazi, roomazi,...

      4. Typing hiragana requires only that you select Japanese in your language input settings of whatever device you are on. After doing this, you type romaji on your keyboard and it converts automatically to hiragana on your screen. In this method you are basically doing the same thing as you would when typing romaji (except that you don't add any spaces).

      If children learn the 26 lower case and 26 upper case letters of the English alphabet when they are 4 years old, then I think adults/teenagers should be able to learn the 46 hiragana and 46 katakana symbols in the Japanese syllabary without too much fuss. ^^


      I can read hiragana and katakana and I know the meaning of a few dozen kanji.

      Hiragana and katakana aren't actually phonetic; I can't tell where words end (don't tell me Japanese doesn't have words); I can't tell how to read a kanji.

      As for your issues:

      1 - The way Japanese kids learn to write Romaji at school.

      2 - Arufuredo? O_o ??? Why adopt an alphabet and then impose the limitations of a silabiary on it?

      3 - Those examples of inconsistency are precisely why I'd like Romaji. If I saw 十日 I'd say 'ju ni' and think "ten days". If I saw とうか, I'd say 'touka' and wonder what it means. If I saw tōka I'd say 'tōka' and think "10th day".

      4 - You mean that, in order to input Kana, I'd have to write in Romaji anyway? That the Japanese do it every day? ... So what's the problem?


      I'm trying to learn Mandarin (using the Hello Chinese app), but I also would love to learn Japanese at the same time (which I've studied to some extent before). Knowing the challenges this would pose, I would love it if I could use Duolingo in a "kana-only mode" to avoid confusion with characters between languages. The Russian course can toggle on some platforms between Roman and Cyrillic characters (not that anyone would want to, you can learn it in a day.) I would love it if Japanese could toggle between kanji and kana/kana only/romaji. I think that would allow me to learn both simultaneously without confusion. It would present some hurdles later, but I'm not that concerned about them.


      If you're aiming to learn Japanese without Kanji, I'd recommend trying out the Mango Languages course. It's free (through the library) and it doesn't use kanji. However, you'll still need to learn hiragana and katakana outside of the course.


      Learn Japanese to Survive is great for kana.

      Learn Japanese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.