On the recommendation of several friends, I recently started using Duolingo to study Japanese. The tldr; of my reaction is that Duolingo seems like a great way to practice a language — I’ve been doing at least small amounts of Japanese daily for over two months now, which is more than I’ve managed for years — and an absolutely abysmal way to learn a language.

I don’t know if that’s just because I’m doing Japanese, which, as a non-Indo-European language with a super-complicated writing system, is especially heinous. But I doubt there’s any massive difference with, say, Spanish, unless the format of the lessons is totally different, because Duolingo makes precisely zero attempt to explain anything to the user. (Including how to use the program. Maybe that would be different if I were accessing it via a web browser, but the phone app doesn’t even have a “here’s how Duolingo works” how-to.)

And yes: immersion is a way to learn a language. But immersion requires substantial commitment; five minutes a day with a phone app ain’t gonna get you there. The Japanese lessons do not tell you that there are hiragana, katakana, and kanji, and that kanji can be pronounced multiple different ways. They don’t tell you about -te forms or the difference between polite and plain speech (and they just start randomly salting the latter in eventually, so that somebody not already familiar with that concept will be looking in vain for their です option). They tell you nothing: they just fling sentences at you and assume you’ll figure it out by trial and error.

[EDITED TO ADD: Okay, so it turns out there are profound differences between the mobile app and the website. As in, the website provides short lessons, which are entirely missing from the app. And the website also gives you a way to provide feedback on a sentence or its translation, if you think there’s an error. Which doesn’t remove the problems I discuss below; those things should have been caught before this ever went live. And I am utterly croggled that the app not only doesn’t include more functionality, but doesn’t make it clear to you that there is more functionality available, because in these days of “let’s make everything mobile,” in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume that what I’m getting on my phone is what I’d get in my browser. But my overall impression of Duolingo is improved somewhat by knowing that lessons are available if you look in the right place, and that they do have a method of letting you go “omgwtfbbq this is wrong.” Back to the post now.]

But that isn’t what really grates my cheese. No, I have massive issue with the fact that whoever coded this appears to have no fucking clue how Japanese works.

I don’t mean the sentences are ungrammatical — though there are places where I take issue with their translations, especially when they translate one Japanese word with variant English ones, or vice versa, in ways that muddy the distinctions between the words they’re teaching you. No, this has to do with the way the app works, and the way Japanese works, and the flat-out wrong way those two things interface sometimes.

Three pieces of context, for those who aren’t already familiar: first, many of the Duolingo questions operate by giving you a sentence in either English or Japanese, and then asking you to assemble the translation from a set of pre-determined blocks. For example, I might have to select [My] [older] [brother] [is] [tall] to translate the sentence 私の兄はせが高いです. Second, as you can see from my Japanese there, the language does not natively have spaces between words; in fact, determining where to put spaces is not simple, and people don’t agree on how best to do it. And third, for Reasons, the hiragana character は is normally pronounced “ha,” but when it’s being used as a particle — a piece of grammatical equipment — it’s “wa” instead.

So that “there’s no clear system for where to break words” thing? There might not be a right way to do it . . . but boy fucking howdy are there wrong ways.

Early on in using the app, I hit an English sentence I think was something like “The book is here” — 本はここにあります, or in romaji, hon wa koko ni arimasu. Note the は there. So I start assembling the blocks of Japanese, only I can’t find ここ among my options.

Because the blocks it’s offering me are [本] [はこ] [こ] [に] [あり] [ます].

I can accept those last two, because there is (faint) merit in splitting a verb ending off from the verb stem, even if every romanization system I’ve ever seen would write that as “arimasu” rather than “ari masu.” But the beginning of that sentence is flat-out wrong. The app helpfully plays the sound for what you’re selecting, and it read out “hon” followed by “hako” followed by “ko.”

Hako means “box.”

They split the word for “here” in the middle and slapped the particle on the first half of it, turning what should have been “wa koko” into “hako ko.” And this is not the only time they’ve done crap like that. I hit one sentence in a later lesson that used the word 郵便局 (“post office”), only it was written in hiragana, ゆうびんきょく. All well and good — right up until the point where they offered me blocks saying [ゆうびんき] [ょくに行きました]. You can’t do that. Not only does it literally split the word for “post office” in half, it does so in a manner that amounts to [postof] [ficeIwentto]. That ょ can’t start a word, not when it’s shrunk down like that; the whole reason it’s shrunk down is to show that it modifies the preceding character, き. On its own, that one is “ki,” and the other is “yo.” Together, they’re not “kiyo,” they’re “kyo.” Which is a meaningfully different sound — as in you can literally change the meaning of a word by swapping one for the other.

There are lower-grade problems like this all over the Japanese lessons. Because kanji can have multiple pronunciations, 中 can be pronounced both “naka” and “chuu” (among other options) — but when the app asks you to match characters to their pronunciations, the one it provides you is “chuu,” while the voice cheerfully reads out “naka.” Yeah, ’cause that’s not going to confuse the hell out of someone who hasn’t already mastered hiragana and learned about the difference between kun’yomi and on’yomi. If I assemble the phrase for “man” in a sentence, the audio it gives me for 男の人 is “otoko no jin” instead of “otoko no hito” — the exact opposite of the 中 problem, because “naka” is the pronunciation you generally use when that character is on its own, but “jin” is the one you use in a compound word (like “gaijin”). When you put a number with a counter, you get audio like “ichi hon” instead of “ippon,” because that’s how those parts are pronounced separately, and the app doesn’t take into account the fact that together they undergo a sound change.

. . . except it does. That’s what’s so infuriating. Duolingo does a good job of hitting the same material from all the angles; it will give me English and ask me to assemble the Japanese, or the Japanese and ask me to assemble the English, or I’ll have to do listening comprehension and provide either the transcription or the translation. And when what it’s giving me is the Japanese sentence in full, it’s correct. It will say “otoko no hito” rather than “otoko no jin,” and “ippon” instead of “ichi hon.” So they have that audio. But whoever put the Japanese lessons together utterly failed to notice that, oh hey, they kept giving us wrong things whenever they break it up. (A fact that manifests in a small, mildly hilarious way any time you need to put together a negative polite verb, because the final -n is its own block, and the audio pronounces it with the kind of rising intonation you’d use when you’re asking a question — not the way you’d pronounce it as a normal verb ending.)

So basically, I find Duolingo pretty good for studying Japanese because I already know the language. I’m learning new vocabulary and getting lots of practice in things like word order, which is a thing I never really internalized very well — i.e. when you have a complex sentence, what bits of it should go before what other bits. But if you’re trying to learn from it, what it’s providing ranges from “unhelpful” to “straight-up wrong.”

I’ve sent in feedback (once I figured out how to do that; see above re: the app isn’t even helpful in telling you how to use the app), so maybe it’ll be fixed. Right now there’s only one basic Japanese course, and I’ve gone through the first level of all the lessons, so now it’s just rinse and repeat until I internalize some of this stuff. But dear god: if they want to continue with this language, they need to get their grammatical and phonetic house in order, because otherwise it’s going to be a trash fire.

3 Responses to “Duolingo”

  1. Becca Stareyes

    I remember for Irish (at least on the web app), some guide to grammar was included, because Irish has sound changes based on how words are used and English doesn’t mark those. So, for example, ‘peann’ is ‘pen’, but ‘his pen’ is ‘a pheann’ (where ‘ph’ marks ‘f’… and that is one of the most straight-forward changes)[1]. And ‘ten pens’ is ‘deich bpeann’ (the p is silent).

    Of course, they didn’t actually explain Irish pronouciation that well or at all, and I needed to find a systematic guide. (I asked my dad, who learned Irish as a kid.)

    [1] That one is particularly annoying, as the sound change in the noun is literally the only difference between ‘his’ and ‘her’.

    • swantower

      Funny story: when I started listening to Celtic music in junior high and high school, I bought an Irish-English dictionary so I could figure out what the songs were about. Which meant I wound up identifying the concepts of lenition and eclipsis the hard way, because I kept on not finding half the words in the dictionary, but I realized that if I dropped the h or the initial consonant in a pair that really didn’t look like they belonged together, then a lot more of them showed up . . .

      Life got easier when I took a year of Irish in college. <g>

      Interesting to know that they provide that explanation for Irish, though. Sound changes like “ichi hon” -> “ippon” are systematic, as are the fact that the -te form of “kaku” is “kaite” but the one for “yomu” is “yonde” . . . but there is zero attempt to tell you that. It’s very sink-or-swim.

      Edit: see the update to the post; apparently there’s a biiiiiig difference depending on whether you look at the website or the mobile app.

      • Becca Stareyes

        Yikes. Yeah. Having a partial-function mobile app for your website that lets you practice on the go is good, but only if you explain that people should be going on the website for grammar information. I can even imagine that the app would work all right for vocabulary learning, not just drilling. But having some grammar lessons rather than just trusting that humans will figure out the patterns is handy.

        But I’ve tried three languages, and Irish is the only one I didn’t have training in school before I tried Duolingo.

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