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Why the Japanese course does not pass Duolingo's standards

I write this as I finished the Japanese course. I have very mixed feelings about my experience. Some extremely good and some not as much, but I have come to a realization: this course does not pass Duolingo's standards.

Here's the question: what are duolingo's standards? To address this, what Duolingo's goal should be addressed. In my opinion, Duo is an excellent way to introduce yourself into a language, whether from scratch or as a beginner. For example, I started French in Duolingo five years ago with French. After taking it all the way to level 25, I got my first language exchange tutor and was able to go to France for a year where I achieved a C1 level after five years. Looking back at it, I would recommend to everyone that wishes to start French to begin with Duolingo. I write this not to brag, but to explain why from my perspective, the goal of Duolingo should be to introduce a person to a new language.

Now, regarding the Japanese course. Frankly, it felt like being dropped in a cage with angry wolves. First, I want to say that I started not as an absolute beginner. I had already learned all three writing system and had studied the structure (including particles) of Japanese. Even with that, I felt like I had no idea what was happening. There is little to no explanation as the course progresses. I often relied on the comment section to understand the sentences and relied on additional resources. Now, this isn't uncommon in the advanced parts of trees in other courses. However, it should not be a "must" for the first section of the tree. What's the point of "easing" the language if the course itself needs to be explained by other sources?

I, of course, recognize that this course is on beta, but that does not give it exemption from further criticism. Beta is about tweaking and adding additional accepted answers. It is for me to add that "the meaning of the word" can also be "the word's meaning". For there to be a lack of notes of much needed explanation is not a "beta" issue, especially when it directly hinders the understanding of the lesson. If I wanted to introduce somebody to a new language, for the most part, I would recommend duolingo. Want to learn Spanish? Duolingo! Swedish? Duolingo! Esperanto? Duolingo! However, if they asked for Japanese, I would most likely point somewhere else. Therefore, this course is not useful for an absolute beginner.

Then, what about a person who is well versed in at least JP5 (roughly A1)? I would also not recommend it. There is a substantial lack of Kanji for this level, even at the end of the course. Now, I understand the argument that the course is hard enough already. But then you are basically stuck in a compromise that does not benefit either party. Beginners are lost and "less" beginners turn to other resources to expand the 'first' level of Japanese, at least for Kanji.

How do I interpret this course? I see it as an ambitious project that is far from perfected. Now, if this was the first month of the beta, I would be more than understanding. However, looking at the fact that the last update was six months ago, I am afraid that this project was, perhaps not abandoned, but there are no plans to fix it in a major way. There are many interesting or simple ideas. Adding notes, for one, but also things like allowing people to manually pick what words they would like the kanji to be shown during exercises.

In my opinion, Duolingo should serve as a curator. After all, it is the platform itself, not the creators of the course, to be held accountable for maintaining the quality of its services. I commend Duolingo for having forward thinking and innovative ideas like the new stories and podcasts, but to simply leave an already created course in the backburner is a decision I cannot agree with. Before Japanese, I had a high opinion about Duolingo's quality control of all of its courses, but now I see Japanese as a course that reduces the reputation of Duolingo as the best free source of language learning. I believe that those who have taken the Japanese course would agree that Duolingo should take a look back at the Japanese course to rework it to either better help absolute beginners or those with a basic understanding, or, even better, both. I am not asking something grand like the big expansion that courses like German got with an enormous new tree. Rather, I wish that the, let's be honest, short tree of Japanese was user friendly and self-standing introductory course to the language.

December 16, 2017



> Before Japanese, I had a high opinion about Duolingo's quality control of all of its courses

I had a high opinion of the default courses and some of the newer ones, like Turkish and Russian, but others, like Vietnamese, Swahili, Hebrew, seemed seriously deficient, and I have heard stories of serious deficiencies in other newer courses. The lack of full audio really killed those three courses IMHO, especially in Hebrew where you can't infer pronunciation from spelling alone, and the course doesn't use niqqud or have any other easy way of discerning pronunciation...and sometimes it'll even be teaching a new word without teaching you how it is pronounced.

I agree with you though that the Japanese course isn't up to the level of the old courses.

This alone, however, doesn't bother me. I expect new courses to have serious deficiencies and to take time to graduate from Beta. This happened with the Russian course and I saw it develop into a mature course.

What I'm more concerned about with the Japanese course is that it seems to have multiple serious flaws or deficiencies that would be relatively straightforward or easy to address, and that could have easily been fixed BEFORE the public Beta launch, and that the course was launched without fixing these, and that most of them have not yet been fixed. Examples included (a) misreading of certain characters in the matching exercises (b) inconsistent kanji-only or kana-only hover-over hints when it would be most useful, and very easy, to put both kanji and kana in all hover-over hints.

Other deficiencies, like a lack of accepted alternate wordings, seem expected to me from a Beta...and they seem to be making good progress on this.

I really agree with you when you write this:

> perhaps not abandoned, but there are no plans to fix it in a major way

This really troubles me. It especially troubles me because some of the flaws or deficiencies in the Japanese course, like the ones I mention above seem really simple and straightforward to fix. I have heard (and made) some deeper and more nuanced critiques, ones that I think would be harder to address, but the concerns I raise here seem straightforward to fix, and this is why I find it extremely troubling that I see no plans or commitment or enthusiasm from the DuoLingo management or staff, to actually address these concerns.

This has been a major factor in why I recently cancelled my DuoLingo Plus subscription. It's not only with the Japanese course, it's with other newer courses like Chinese, or even the new DuoLingo stories feature that is only available for Spanish and Portuguese -- it has several major bugs that have gone un-addressed since its launch. I have seen no commitment or plan to address any of the deficiencies...and meanwhile I've been seeing DuoLingo do all sorts of other new stuff. It seems they're putting expansion above quality and I find this really troubling.


inconsistent kanji-only or kana-only hover-over hints when it would be most useful, and very easy, to put both kanji and kana in all hover-over hints.

I agree that this is the single most annoying and befuddling issue with the course, well apart from the words where there's just no hint at all.

Perhaps the contributors at some point put their heads together said, "hints come after we get the level of 'my translation should be accepted reports below level X' and that's that?" I don't know how often they drop by the forums to read complaints. And the great bulk of people doing the course on mobile (at least iOS) of course don't have any facility to directly critique this. And the technical realities may be a whole lot more Gordian knot-ish than we imagine on the outside. It might well be a sentence-by-sentence effort to get the hints fixed. Independent of whether it should be that way or not, it might well be. I recall reading all the weird tricks and kludges they had to use to get the English from Japanese course to work. Hard to imagine there isn't some hanging around to make Japanese from English a peculiar brute itself.


Formatting tip to Alex:

You need to enter ">" twice, after posting (double edit), because they replace those characters with HTML code & gt', which obviously DOES NOT WORK with their forum software.

So in fact, you need to edit / post your comment twice (Copy & Paste full comment text).

If you edit the 2nd time, you will see those changed HTML code characters for >, which prevents the quote from working.


In my opinion, Duolingo should serve as a curator. After all, it is the platform itself, not the creators of the course, to be held accountable for maintaining the quality of its services.

perhaps you are unaware that this course was largely created by duo staff. there is no platform/creator split here, at least not to the extent of nearly all other courses, which were prepared and are being serviced by volunteers.


If this is indeed the case, it makes some of the deep flaws in the course even more troubling to me, troubling in the sense of further eroding my already-waning trust in the people who run DuoLingo.

How long has it been since the launch of the course, and they still haven't fixed some of the misreadings of characters in matching exercises? (Why wasn't this fixed before launch? I would have seen it got fixed before launch had I been in charge.)

Or...the inadequacy of hover-over hints (It would have been easy to have the hints show both Kanji and Kana for every word, but instead some show only one or the other, including showing only Kana for many words typically written with Kanji). Again, this wouldn't have been that much effort to do before launching...they could put one in parentheses, or just have a space?

I have been doing, and getting a lot out of, the Japanese course, but I've been relying heavily on external tools like Jisho and Google Translate for things like looking up Kanji for words only written in Kana or, occasionally, vice versa if I forget the reading of a certain character. This makes the course less useful as a standalone course than nearly all the other established courses. It's also cumbersome and time-consuming, and I wouldn't expect other users to have the initiative to do this.

And there's been very little communication. I've posted dozens and dozens of times about these concerns in the forums, submitted numerous bug reports, and haven't seen changes to any of these things.


I think that, while a couple of the contributors are Duolingo employees, it's not like they're Duolingo employees there to support the Japanese course. They're computer science folk who happen to speak Japanese, and they have plenty of other day-to-day responsibilities.

From what I read it sure seems like the operation of the incubator is pretty byzantine. I don't know how easy it would be to actually do things that would, from the outside, seem easy. Among other matters, who knows if it's even possible to get the TTS system they're using to enunciate another reading of a kanji without any context? I'm pretty much guessing it's just not. Sure, they could have someone record the snippet, but I'm doubting there's any set-up whatsoever for anything recorded to be just squeezed into a TTS course.


This is true also for Chinese, the course needs a revamp along with them actually teaching you the characters' meanings instead of just the pinyin and the character for it.


People complain about this, but honestly I don't really get it. Yes, the characters are introduced relative to pinyin, but they're also used in context to make sentences. I have read from experienced Japanese learners that it can wind up easy to remember what the kanji mean in English but not remember how to pronounce them. I think the focus on drilling the pronunciation of the characters in Chinese helps avoid this sort of outcome.


Have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I've studied Japanese for about two years, now. Seriously studied. Using a variety of resources. And Duolingo is the first program that has actually helped me to make sense of it all. The official JLPT5 test itself is seriously lacking in kanji. I think what Duo has here is appropriate for the test. There are still some minor issues, and they are still going through the multitude of reported "should have been accepted" answers. I'm still getting emails (as recently as yesterday!) from reports that I filed months ago. The course is still new and still being actively improved. I have many, many, many resources at my disposal for learning Japanese, and this is the one I keep coming back to. It works for me.


Hi David,

wow, great writing style! Very profound summary!
It was a real pleasure to read it. How many hours have you been writing it? ;)

How come you can write with such a good command of English and express all those words? Are you a native speaker?
I really like your posting, especially your French comparison!!
I am curious: How would you rate the Portuguese (over 400 lessons) vs Spanish vs Italian vs French course qualities? (I finished PT and started reverse trees)

Thanks for sharing all your personal thoughts as a long-term DuoLingo member!!!

PS: Please make a offline .TXT backup of your really long text for yourself, just to be on the safe side!

(not to USB stick! Choose a CD/DVD/Bluray or NAS raid5++ system where you can hot swap 1-2 HDDs) if:

  • Either the thread suddenly shows HTML error 404 after a while and can not be accessed anymore - there are so many for the past weeks! (UPDATE: I do not mean the HTML 404 error the 1st time when you initially post the thread!)

  • Duo's production or backup systems and Raid HDD's may crash one day (I have seen it for a big big RC model flight forum where MANY threads from 1-2++ years have been gone), etc.
    I have no idea if there are any additional zipped offline FTP backups to multiple places, so 1-2 HDD raid crashes for a single backup systems won't hurt...


Haha, thanks for the compliment Thomas. I actually got the error404 issue but it somehow posted. I used to want to be a professional writer back in the day. I learned languages like French and English so I could read their literature to find inspiration. Sadly, I cannot comment on the Portuguese course because I did the tree in the early days of Duolingo. Since I understand that it has been revamped massively, it would be unfair for me to comment on its current iteration. I find it hard to revist Duolingo as a practice tool because once you start practicing with real people, Duo's robotic voice (for most courses) becomes more of a detriment than a benefit for strengthening listening.


Personally, I love the Japanese course, but even I can't deny there are some serious issues with it. But is it below Duo's standard's? Only by a tiny bit. The course has some problems that really need to be fixed, but other than that, it's not horrible. I would recommend it to any complete beginner trying to learn Japanese.


Before Japanese, I had a high opinion about Duolingo's quality control of all of its courses

Ah, the simple joy of those who have never done a beta course before!

Yeah, the hints are a mess. But hints can be something of a mess even much further into beta and beyond. I'll grant that the hints are a singular mess in that they're often in a writing system different than the one used to introduce the word. Perhaps you did the course mostly on an iPhone, thereby not having access to the discussions? Given that it's possible 90% of people doing Japanese are doing it on mobile, I think the importance of the missing Tips Notes is commonly overstated. [Yes, there should be TN in the app, but there isn't now, so let's deal with the world as it is in critiquing priorities.] If the contributors put 100% of their effort on fixing the hints, I certainly wouldn't complain.

Incidentally, I started the course as an absolute beginner. About all I knew of Japanese grammar was that particles existed and that things like grammatical subjects are often left to context to disambiguate, and that was pretty well all I needed to know to figure things out just by seeing examples. Of course I wouldn't understand every possible permutation, but I'm going to be hoping that the ones Duolingo is showing me are the most useful/common [if not, well, that's a separate complaint].

Of course, there may well be better options out there (https://www.lingodeer.com/?). Japanese has a breadth of resources not present for many languages taught here. I interpret the short tree as Duolingo rushing to gets its foot in the door on one of the last languages with a really big potential market before totally losing the game to more nimble - and more adept - upstarts. One might well speculate the aim was to use their incredible market power and brand strength to capture market share even with an inferior product.


I would feel better about the Tips and Notes not being on the app if I could at least access them through the mobile website. Unfortunately, they changed the mobile site several months back and it’s nearly impossible to access anything. (I bookmarked the Discussion Forums directly, or I wouldn’t be able to access them either.)

That said, I find that I have been able to pick up some Japanese basics, even if my progress is slow. The problems with the course are less irritating to me than the lack of sound in Swahili, Vietnamese, or Guaraní.


Yeah, I also lost access to T&N via the mobile browser. I've heard it may be possible with a different browser, but I don't care enough to find out. I am mostly a web user and largely in courses where there's not enough to the T&N to be worth worrying about much, anyway.

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