Learning Japanese, I really think so: Observations on Duolingo from an English teacher

As a shamefully monolingual individual, I am always impressed at how people can switch between different languages. It makes me feel very North American and a typical English speaker. We English speakers get off easy because our language is the most commonly spoken second language, and there are few areas in the World that haven’t been touched by English. (Southern Italy apparently!)

When I became an English Second Language teacher, this feeling struck me even more, especially when learning many African students could speaking five or six languages fluently, with English being their “latest” one. I decided that I should learn another language, something “hard,” I told myself, so I could understand the intricacies of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and all the other goodies I pack into an English class. Which language I should choose? French, Spanish, and Italian seemed too easy; we have the same alphabet and our languages are all somewhat similar in grammar, while pronunciation is not too bad once you get that “R” rrrrrrrolling.

I eventually chose Japanese for two reasons: first it looked hard, but I knew it was generally easy to pronounce (pronunciation also never changes, unlike English); and secondly, it was out of respect and affection for many of my Japanese students whose politeness and curiosity was infections. My first step was to take a Japanese class, which I did through Extended Education at the University of Manitoba. There were only about five students in the class, and the other four were learning Japanese because of their love of Manga. In that sense, they had already been somewhat exposed to Japanese while I was starting from scratch. (The original Iron Chef aside, that is).

What first struck me was how quickly I fell behind. I struggled to memorize the Japanese alphabet hiragana and thus had difficulty reading words. I knew so little vocabulary that I couldn’t write a coherent thought. I could say “Hi, I’m Paul and I smell like ass.” but would never know it. When it came to grammar, I was completely discombobulated because Japanese grammar structure is virtually the opposite of English: the verb goes at the end of the sentence and subjects don’t necessarily go at the beginning of the sentence. For instance, to say in English “I go to school at 8:00 o’clock” in Japanese reads “8:00 to school I go.” If that weren’t bad enough, I was unaware that Japanese has not one, not two, but three types of alphabetic characters, the hardest of which, kanji, is derived from Chinese characters, those square pictograms that look nothing like what they’re supposed to represent. Dear God, what had I gotten myself into?

After the class, I let my Japanese slide and in 2018 I gave up ESL teaching, but with an impending trip to Japan in 2019, I decided to try Duolingo. I had heard good things about it and felt the daily practice would be beneficial. I have been using Duolingo now for about a year and a half, but not every day. There were times that I lost my motivation, but other times when I was using it regularly. Here are some observations for those wishing to learn Japanese on Duolingo:

  1. Good – Duolingo is very repetitive which in my case was good. It really helped me memorize hiragana and I have gone on to learn most katakana as well. It can also help you listen and learn the language through context, based on the clues provided, which is an important strategy for learning a new language.
  2. Bad – Duolingo is very repetitive so you often feel as though you’re spinning your wheels with a lesson, but if you jump forward, you get lost and burn up your hearts and gems quickly (see below). You are pretty much stuck following what Duolingo wants you to know, not what you may want to know.
  3. Good – Duolingo is motivating because you can see your progress on your phone/tablet every time you open up the app. Whenever you get five correct answers in a row, the Duolingo green owl, “Duo,” gives you a message of congratulations like “You have been practicing” or a virtual high-five. I love you, Duo!
  4. Bad – Duolingo is motivating to the point of annoying. It’s all a little cult-like how this stupid green owl controls your mind and your behaviour. The whole thing feels like a psychological experiment. That green owl sends me emails every day to remind me it’s time for a lesson or, God forbid, starts weeping if I don’t open the app for a few weeks. You have to suffer these for about two weeks before Duo leaves you alone and stops loading on the guilt trip. Even then, after six months, Duo will pop into your inbox to remind you how sad he feels. Fuck off, Duo!
  5. Good – Duolingo is great for gradually introducing kanji so you can start to recognize and memorize it. I don’t think there is any other way of learning kanji besides pure bald memorization–a skill of which my viscus brain has trouble handling. My Japanese textbook is all hiragana and some katakana, but that is not Japanese! Look at any Japanese text and you will see it’s mostly a blend of hiragana and kanji.
  6. Good – Duolingo is a translation program so you are able to understand the words and grammar in English and start to recognize patterns in Japanese. It also forces you to listen carefully to nuances in sentences, such as the difference between “I go to school at 8:00” and “I go to school at around 8:00.”
  7. Bad – Because Duolingo is a translation program, it is not nearly as effective as immersion. I used to dissuade my students from translating because it has been proven to be less effective and at some point everyone has to stop translating anyway. Translating also doesn’t work for conversational language learning. Words and context often do not translate well; we see it all the time. Getting used to translation is not how language learning works and some of the translations in Duolingo are bizarre. Sorry Duo, but I am NOT an apple.
  8. Good – Duolingo keeps lessons short, in fact most take only a few minutes and in order to keep Duo off your back, all you have to perform is two per day. Duo doesn’t even care if you do some review, just as long as you devote about 10 minutes per day, and that’s about an average toilet visit. (Washlet visits in Japan were 20 minutes or longer!)
  9. Bad – When you are starting Duolingo, you don’t really understand how the program works and if you’re not careful you can run out of gems and hearts and seriously curtail your learning experience. This is how it works:
    • You start out with a certain number of gems and as you finish each lesson are awarded a few more. You have the option of increasing your gems by watching extra advertising or doubling your gems by betting you’ll continue lessons for seven consecutive days. I don’t recommend the latter unless you are highly motivated. You sometimes forget to do lessons, even when Duo shakes an accusing finger at you.
    • You start with 5 hearts, which is the maximum. Every time you get a question wrong in a new lesson, you lose a heart, and that number of hearts carries over into the subsequent lessons. Now this is important: if you run out of hearts mid-lesson, you cannot proceed unless you get the Duolingo subscription, or you buy hearts with your gems, but be warned, that if you run out of gems, you can no longer buy hearts. This happened to me. In order for you to increase your hearts and gems, you must do review exercises. When Duo asks you to “open another treasure chest” or “gain another heart” do it. You have to watch another advertisement, it’s the only way you’ll build up your stash. Also, never go into a new lesson without five hearts. If you start to run low on hearts, just quit the lesson and do a review. This, of course, can get tedious if you’re feeling motivated, but it’s better than buying a subscription.
  10. Bad – Advertising. Yes, the scourge of most “free” apps is watching ads. As I stated above, I used to forego the extra gems and hearts to avoid these ads, but this will catch up to you once you run out of gems. I now recommend that you watch the ads, but put your phone down for that 30 seconds and either talk to someone, put water on for tea, or wipe your ass. The most common ads are for games and relaxation apps, which is probably necessary because you’re stressed out from watching too many stupid fucking ads!
  11. Bad – It’s not language learning as much as it is phrase learning. If anyone has ever tried to learn a language by listening to tapes or using Duolingo, you quickly realize how ineffective this new language is when you get off the airplane and walk out into the airport. Duolingo makes it seem easy, but once you arrive in Japan, you’ll hope that the person at the security checkpoint speaks English. (Japan is very English-friendly by the way).
  12. Good – Regardless of how effective Duolingo is (or isn’t) you will learn something. I think we are often our own worst critics when it comes to learning anything. I can show people a sentence in Japanese now and confidently say, “I can read that.” There is a certain point you arrive at where a new language and new grammar starts to make sense and for some people–like me–that takes a long time. Duolingo gives you an introduction into Japanese and I assume that you are learning Japanese because you are intrigued with Japan and Japanese culture. That’s great, so learn as much as you can before visiting this unique and interesting country. Besides, there are worse ways to spend 10 minutes of your day.

I would love to know some of your challenges with Duolingo or if you have any quicker or easier methods to learn Japanese. If you’re looking for English help, either for personal or business reasons do not hesitate to contact me.



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