Learning One of the World’s Hardest Languages With an App

© Pedro Szekely/Shutterstock
© Pedro Szekely/Shutterstock
Photo of Peter Ward
Tech Editor18 May 2017

Japanese is notoriously difficult to learn for English language speakers, and those heading to the country often find language barriers an issue. I tried out Duolingo’s newest course, Japanese, to see how far I could get with the language.

I’m not one of those lucky people who picks up languages easily, which is partly why Duolingo appeals to me. I’ve been making slow progress through the Spanish course for a few months now, and have noticed improvement in understanding other people’s conversations and recognizing words on signs. But Japanese presents a whole new challenge.

Japanese is notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn. The website About World Languages ranks it in its most challenging category, along with Chinese, Arabic, Korean, and Pashto.

The Japanese course on Duolingo | Courtesy of Duolingo

Luckily, the course starts slow. The first few lessons involve learning new characters and the phonetics associated with them, and also some numbers and colors. The satisfying game-style approach Duolingo takes to teaching languages really comes into its own at this stage, as it can easily seem like you’re facing a gigantic, insurmountable mountain of learning. But by setting small goals, and rewarding you when you reach them, you get the feeling you’re always making progress.

First impressions of a language course are always going to be difficult, especially when it takes a fair amount of time to get used to the new characters. But the course is engaging and mercifully simple at the beginning, and has enough real-world value to keep users interested. Learning Japanese will require a lot more patience from English speakers than learning Spanish or French, or Italian, so a major condition of success will be the number of people who see the course through to the later stages.

The new course launched today, and it’s not just one of the most challenging languages English speakers can learn on the app so far. It’s also the most requested.

“This is by far the most requested and highly-anticipated course launch in Duolingo’s five-year history,” said Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO. “No matter what we’d share on social media, tons of people would respond with, ‘that’s nice, but when are you launching Japanese?’”

The app takes a methodical approach to learning | Courtesy of Duolingo

All of the Duolingo lessons are based on themes like travel, food, and hobbies, and there are bonus lessons to teach phrases for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and for popular Japanese culture like anime and manga. And the course doesn’t take the easy way out by teaching Japanese using English language symbols.

Users are taught the shapes, pronunciations, and meaning of all of the Hiragana characters, all 50 Katakana characters and nearly 100 basic Kanji characters. These characters are introduced thematically rather than alphabetically.

Duolingo isn’t the first app to teach Japanese. Others include FluentU, which takes Japanese videos and content and uses them to teach users the languages. Another one, Learn Japanese gives users over 800 words and phrases to learn, and is aimed just at beginners.

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