How to use Quora to practice Japanese

Quora, for those of you who may not know, is a website where users can ask and answer all kinds of questions. It’s a community of shared knowledge, not much unlike Wikipedia, and there are lots of questions being asked and answered every day.

Recently, Quora introduced Japanese language support, which means there’s been a sudden, massive influx of Japanese users joining Quora to ask/answer their own flurry of questions.

Prior to Japanese officially being supported, people were obviously able to ask and answer questions about Japanese–the Japanese language “topic” has over 130k followers—but while that has its uses, the mere act of talking about a language will take you only so far in your actual learning. At some point, you have to sit down and get some actual work done using the language.

And that’s what makes this update so great. As a Japanese learner, you now have access to a treasure trove of questions and answers about topics that can be filtered based on your tastes and interests, most of which are asked and answered by native Japanese speakers. Better yet, you can ask your own questions and attempt to answer questions posed by other users, which provides a great opportunity to sit down and practice writing Japanese, and that’s important for a number of reasons.

The key here is that you can learn and think about subjects that are interesting to you, whether it’s video games, international politics, programming, starting up a YouTube channel–literally anything–in Japanese. The pedagogical term for this is called Content and Language Integrated Learning, which involves learning a subject (e.g. geography, science, or history) through a foreign language. While Quora isn’t technically a classroom, you can still learn a lot using this approach, and you can choose to focus on meaning (i.e., getting the gist of what’s being said), form (how specific grammar is used), or some combination of the two.

So, let’s get started!

First, head over to Quora and create an account if you don’t have one already. Upon creating your account, Quora will ask you to select some topics of interest. (Note: If you are accessing Quora from Japan, it will at this point detect your location automatically and ask if you wish to use the Japanese site; for the sake of being thorough, I will continue this guide under the assumption that most people reading it are accessing Quora from outside of Japan.)

Selecting the topics that you’re interested in may take a while–as you select broad subjects, more specific subtopics start to populate the list. For example, if you choose Psychology, Psychology of Everyday Life, Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Psychiatry, Mental Health, and Psychologists will appear as subtopics. If you choose one of those, a whole new slew of even more specific topics will appear, and so on. Take your time and try to create the most meaningful and relevant feed possible for yourself!

Once you’ve chosen at least 10 topics, Quora will ask you what you know about. These can be areas of study, your career, or hobbies–perhaps you’re an avid fantasy football player, or you’ve seen more than a few movies in your life and love to talk about them, or you’re a diehard Marvel fan who will jump at the chance to debate with a DC fan about which universe is better.

Quora will then ask you for any additional languages that you may know and attempt to get you to add your friends from Facebook (skippable). After that, Quora will create your feed.

At this point, you’ll want to navigate to your language settings page. Here are the various ways you might do this based on your device:

  • Desktop: Click on the generic, blue user icon at the top of the page, which should pop open a new menu. Click on Settings at the bottom. On the settings page, navigate to Languages via the menu on the left side of the page.
  • Mobile browser: If you can somehow manage to avoid the popup prompting you to download the Quora app, locate the “You” tab and click on it to get to your profile page. From there, in the main description box (where it says your name, blurb, and the number of followers you have), locate the three tiny dots on the right. Tap on that to open a new menu and click on Languages (you can also get here by tapping on Settings first, but you may as well skip a step and save time).
  • Mobile app: Tap on the “You” button at the bottom of the screen. From there, in the main description box (where it says your name, blurb, and the number of followers you have), locate the three tiny dots on the right. Tap on that to open a new menu and click on Languages (you can also get here by tapping on Settings first, but you may as well skip a step and save time).

Once you’ve made it to the language settings page, you should see a list of available languages.

You can add Japanese to Quora by selecting “Quora日本語版へ参加”. Click on the blue button on the next page that says the same thing, and voilà! Quora is now entirely in Japanese!

At this point, Quora will ask you all of the same account creation questions again. Once you’re back on your feed, you’ll be presented with a variety of questions and answers written in Japanese. It may be a bit overwhelming at first, but you’ll get used to it. And hey, if you know the answer to questions such as 「パスタを茹でる時にオイルを入れるのは何故ですか?」 and want to give answering it a shot in Japanese, go for it!

Make it a habit to jump on Quora regularly, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. You should automatically receive email updates in Japanese containing questions that are currently trending, so keep an eye on your inbox (of course, you can turn this off if you don’t like it).

The last thing to note is that Quora makes it easy to freely switch between languages by clicking on the globe icon at the top of the page next to your user profile icon. (Mobile users can locate this button next to the “You” button.)

Happy Quora-ing!

Study hiragana and katakana with Kuma Sensei’s new flashcard web app!

Greetings!

It’s been ages since I’ve added any major content to Kuma Sensei, so first, apologies for the dearth of fresh, new stuff. Life is really good at keeping me busy — you know how it goes. But rest assured, I haven’t just been sitting around stuffing my face with Oreos and binging on Netflix (although I am finally getting into HBO’s The Wire, and man, is it good).

Indeed, one of the things I’ve been doing lately is learning how to program web applications, and I recently created a cool flashcard app that lets you study hiragana and katakana. It’s nothing special, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Here’s a (small) list of the things you can do with the app:

  • Toggle between hiragana and katakana
  • Toggle between Japanese and English modes (a => あ or あ => a)
  • Study simple characters (like あ and ヨ) as well as more complex ones, like voiced/nonvoiced characters (ゴ, ぴ, etc.) and digraphs (じょ, ギュ, etc.)
  • Study random characters endlessly using the “free quiz” mode, or…
  • Challenge yourself with the “scored quiz” mode, which keeps track of how many correct answers you’ve gotten
    • You can take the scored quiz using any combination of the above settings.
    • The most amount of characters you can study in a single scored quiz is 102 (using the “all characters” setting)
    • All other buttons are locked upon entering scored quiz mode

Tip: You can continue to the next character by clicking anywhere on the character cards. You can also just click “new character.”

 

Features I’d like to add:
  • Audio for each card by a native Japanese speaker (sound can be toggled on and off)
  • A way to mix hiragana and katakana to study together (right now you have to choose one or the other)

If there’s anything else you’d like to see in the app, or if you come across any weird bugs or glitches, please drop me a line here! I’m still a beginner at this programming stuff, so I’d love to get some more practice by adding more features. In the meantime, I’m going to continue working on making sure it displays properly on all devices and browsers.

If you missed the link above, here it is again. Enjoy!

Click here to study using the flashcard web app.

 

More new content is on the way! Stay tuned!

REVIEW: Learn Japanese with Duolingo

At long last, Duolingo has released its Japanese for English speakers course. But does it live up to the hype?

It’s here!

It’s been a long time coming, but the Japanese for English speakers course is finally available on Duolingo.

With millions of users and an offering of nearly 20 languages (with another half-dozen in development), Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps on the market today. And best of all, it’s free.

But is it actually going to help you learn Japanese?

 

Well…yes and no.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s look at what’s covered in the course.

 

What will you learn?

Upon opening Duolingo and selecting Japanese, I’m greeted with this screen.

Apparently, Duolingo considers 20 minutes of studying per day “insane.” I see where this is going.

We begin by learning numbers through hiragana. The audio is recorded by a native speaker and sounds fine.

Pretty standard fare, albeit on the less-challenging side.

There’s hand-holding, then there’s this.

We continue along, learning more numbers and more hiragana. I actually kind of like this method of learning hiragana, to be honest.

We start getting into multiple choice questions, which Duolingo unfortunately relies a lot on.

My recommendations here:

  • Instead of a static image, insert a repeating animation of the character’s stroke order that you can tap to replay to your heart’s content. This way learners can practice writing out the character on their own.
  • Ditch the multiple choice for a short answer blank that forces you to type out the individual keys “y” and “o” for better reinforcement. Multiple choice really doesn’t do learners any favors in terms of retention.

In any case, let’s press on. We finally learn our first phrase: “Good morning.”

All right, now we can greet someone in Japanese. Neat!

Duolingo begins introducing some basic vocabulary words: vegetables, alcohol, our first verb (“to read”), and certain times of day.

We also see the introduction of katakana, which gets mixed in with the hiragana we’ve been learning. A little confusing, considering there’s zero explanation for this second character set. The vast majority of learners probably won’t even realize that katakana is a totally different writing script, which is a little worrying.

Duolingo goes a step further and tosses in a kanji for good measure, just in case you weren’t already blissfully unaware that you’ve now encountered 4 different writing scripts.

I wouldn’t necessary call this a good or a bad thing–it’s just another way of teaching–but I don’t always like having to deduce what I’m learning.

We encounter the polite copula です for the first time, but unfortunately, we still don’t have a clue how to say or write our own names, which makes the language feel less personal.

That is, of course, unless your name actually is John.

We also start running into some hiccups in the system. The correct answer in the picture below is “ちゅう” (chuu), but when you click on the sound, the speaker responds with “なか” (naka). I know we’re still in beta, but it points to one of the current issues with Japanese and Duolingo: how it programmatically handles the variety of possible character readings.

Let’s hope they work this out by the end of the beta phase.

Duolingo also has no choice but to pronounce は as “ha,” even though it should be “wa” when used as a standalone particle. I make some nitpicks in this article, but this is a pretty serious issue and I’m genuinely surprised it made it through to the beta.

We also start running into strange translations.

Oh, you are, are you?

 

Pretty soon, we run into our first particle question.

Wait, when did we learn about particles?

Speaking of particles, we run into a new one, が, which is introduced alongside and seems to function in a similar way to は, but for some reason, we’re using が here instead. Maybe we can just use both interchangeably? Maybe they’ll clarify later?

Hint: They won’t.

(It’s also apparently advisable to start learning the potential form alongside basic vocabulary like “bag” and “cat.”)

Alluding to my previous problem with Duolingo’s treatment of syllabic sounds, we also encounter weirdly segmented chunks of language such as this:

We also haven’t received any explanation of how consonant gemination, indicated by the っ, functions. For better or worse, everything in Duolingo is learned by induction, similar to Rosetta Stone.

Moving forward in the course, we start learning demonstrative pronouns (こ・そ・あ・ど, as in これ・それ・あれ・どれ・etc.) and common food names. We then learn to tell time, coming across some more katakana and household vocab along the way (e.g. テーブル, プール, and トイレ).

Next, we start picking up more pieces of the self-introduction puzzle, like 大学生 and 年生. I think we’ll be able to start speaking Japanese soon!

Oh, wait.

Unfortunately, no one who uses this app will ever need to say this in real life.

More segmentation weirdness for your viewing pleasure:

Is it わい・ます? Is it わ・います? Where did the わ come from? How does it function?

Oh, but now we’re getting into the good stuff. Finally, the chapter about restaurants! Now I can order some delicious ramen in Japanese like Duolingo said I’d be able to…

…wait, what? How is this going to help me order food?

Actually, this might be the most useful sentence on Duolingo.

Oh well, let’s press on.

We start talking about activities like studying and going to parties, making plans, learning the days of the week, etc.

Some directional words are also thrown in for good measure.

Next up, we learn how to talk about basic hobbies (listening to music, reading, etc.), as well as some modes of transportation. It’s useful content and pretty par for the course.

Then come clothing and weather. We’re still apparently learning colors, but at least we’re expanding our vocabulary base with words like rainy, sunny, and snowy. Again, pretty useful stuff.

We pick up some more food words like “spicy” and “tasty,” as well as more vocabulary for asking directions.

We also finally learn かわいい. Took long enough!

The third section (of four) is rounded off with the “people” category, which introduces a few more ways to describe those around you: boy, girl, he, her, grandma, and grandpa, among others.

We’re making good progress, but I’m starting to notice that as sentences become more complicated, Duolingo becomes way less flexible and understanding; It does not know how to recognize context.

Grammar-translation rears its ugly head.
Yeah, okay.
You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.

Anyway, bugs and quirks reported, we put on our hiking packs and head out into nature with new words like mountain, tree, and river.

Then we learn a little classroom Nihongo, which will probably only serve to remind you that you’re not in a real Japanese class.

 

…sorry, I didn’t mean that. I can be bitter sometimes.

 

Anyway, we learn how to express our feelings (fun, scary, tired, and even the explanatory ~んです) and pick up a few other useful shopping-related words (necktie, blouse, business shirt, and…butter!). We’re also apparently still learning katakana.

A couple of sections later, we arrive at the grand-daddy of all categories: Vacation!

FINALLY!

Er…

…what?

How is any of this going to help me make my way around Japan!?

Actually, a lot of Duolingo users might be able to relate to this one.

 

Luckily, the “subculture” category offers a glimmer of hope for us to cling on to:

Indeed, we actually begin to see some real, USABLE sentences appear:

 

The final stop in our journey lands us amidst the hype Japan is trying to drum up before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Indeed, the land of the rising sun will see plenty of visitors in the coming years, with ever record-breaking numbers coming over to visit ancient temples, go city-hopping by bullet train, and eat the some of the best food the world has to offer.

And the trend will only continue to build until the Olympics. Frankly, I hope it never stops, because Japan has so much to offer the world as well as benefit from as it continues to open itself up to more and more travelers.

 

Taking Inventory

Alright, we’ve come a long way, so let’s a moment to look at everything Duolingo’s Japanese course has to offer.

  • Hiragana and katakana
  • Numbers (including 百, 千, 万)
  • Colors
  • Time of day
  • Basic food names
  • Basic expressions and greetings
  • Locations around town (bank, library, post office, etc.)
  • Basic self-intro (My name is…, I’m a student, I live in…, etc.)
  • Demonstrative pronouns (こ・そ・あ・ど・this one, that one, which one, etc.)
  • Basic questions (How much is…, Where is…, etc.)
  • Telling time
  • Home life (pets, names of certain rooms, stuff around the house, etc.)
  • Family members
  • Other opinionated banter (spicy, sweet, tasty, disgusting, hot, cold, expensive)
  • Basic hobbies
  • Days of the week
  • Comparatives (bigger than, smaller than, etc.)
  • Position words (left, right, up, down, next to, inside, outside, etc.)
  • Adverbs of frequency (always, sometimes, never, usually, often, etc.)
  • Transportation (bus, train, car, taxi, airplane, etc.)
  • Clothing
  • A few nature words
  • Classroom Japanese (actually quite a bit, too)
  • Expressing feelings (scary, in love, happy, having fun, etc.)
  • Health (headache, have a cold, various body parts, etc.)
  • A pinch of subculture specific to Japan (names of areas in Tokyo and things found in Japanese pop culture, like ninjas, cosplay, and manga–pretty nifty, IMO)
  • The following kanji:
    • 一、二、三、四、五、六、七、八、九、十
    • 月、火、水、木、金、土
    • 白、赤、青
    • 東、南、西、北

That’s 97 kanji in total. Honestly, you know what? That’s not too bad.

In terms of JLPT levels, that puts you right around an N5, and the grammar forms and vocab (which I’m admittedly too lazy to count), just from eyeballing things, are similar to what’s covered in Genki I. In other words, Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and would rather just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.

In that sense, I think this course is pretty successful. (yay)

All that glitters is gold, baby.

 

And with that said, I think we can finally start getting opinionated. My favorite part!


The Good

  • It’s fun. Duolingo makes learning fun thanks to the effective and subtle use of gamification. Motivation plays an important role in learning any language, especially for self-learners, and Duolingo does a great job of keeping you coming back for more.
  • It’s smart. It knows where your weakest points are and gives you more practice in those areas.
  • It’s repetitive. You’ll revisit topics and retrain skills to keep them sharp thanks to its use of spaced repetition (SRS).
  • It DOESN’T overly rely on rōmaji, which is great. Rōmaji isn’t really used in everyday Japan, and when it is, there’s almost always English right next to it, so you never really need it. Best to kick off those training wheels early!
  • It’s free. Can’t beat that.

The Bad

  • Computer-generated audio clips and sentences, while not terrible, means you’re not listening to authentic spoken Japanese, and you end up getting a lot of nonsensical sentences that you would never hear in real life. In my opinion, this can be a waste of precious time that should be spent listening to, you know, actual Japanese speakers.

    Wouldn’t it at least make more sense to take your clothes off in the summer?
  • Duolingo is teeming with language errors. Every resource is prone to having mistakes, but content in Duolingo isn’t vetted as thoroughly as, say, a published and peer-reviewed textbook. Learning incorrect Japanese: also probably not a great use of your time.
  • It doesn’t teach you what you actually need to know to communicate. Given that things like travel are huge motivating factors for many learners, it surprises me how little Duolingo actually prepares you to use Japanese in real life situations. Bring your phrase book on your upcoming vacation; you’re gonna need it.
  • Duolingo relies heavily on translation and a practice-drill-practice-drill format for learning. There’s no spontaneous creative output and there’s hardly any emphasis placed on communicative aspects of the language.
  • It doesn’t teach grammar. Duolingo assumes you’ll pick up on grammar rules via its inductive approach to teaching. If you liken it to learning how to drive a car: Yeah, technically, you can just get in, turn the key, play with some buttons and knobs, and you’ll probably figure out how to make it go. But if you’ve never driven a car before, it’s probably best to learn about the rules everyone follows and a little bit about what’s going on underneath the hood. This way, you’ll become less likely to get in an accident or break down in the middle of nowhere. Duolingo does almost nothing to prepare you for the language learning equivalents of these situations–which will happen to you at some point–and Duolingo may even be working against you by being overly reliant on multiple choice. The inductive approach to learning can be a powerful tool, but it tends to suit more advanced learners who already have a decent grasp of the language.
  • As mentioned above, it’s currently only optimized for iOS, which leaves Android and web users in the dark for now. This is problematic for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that Duolingo is best experienced in a web-based (desktop) format. I imagine that other platforms will be supported after beta, but it’s still unfortunate that only iOS users have the chance to take Duolingo for a spin.
    • *Update #1: According to an AMA on Reddit with the Founder/CEO of Duolingo, Japanese for Duolingo will be coming to Android in 1-2 weeks! There’s no available estimate on the web version, but it is confirmed to be on the way.
    • *Update #2: As of June 1, 2017, the Android version is confirmed to have begun rolling out! It’ll be a gradual process, but at least it’s finally here and should be making its way to your Android device without much further delay. Still no ETA on the web version, sadly.

 

…but hey, it’d be a bit depressing to end the article on that note, don’t you think? After all, any schmuck can sit there and point out what’s good or bad about something. And while I may be your average Joe, I certainly ain’t no average schmuck.

So let’s be constructive. Rather than talk about if you should use Duolingo (because the fact is, many people are going to anyway), let’s talk about how to use Duolingo to enhance your learning.

 

How to Make the Most of Duolingo

We’ve established that Duolingo isn’t enough on its own. However, I think Duolingo has a lot of potential to make Japanese, which is a notoriously difficult language, more accessible and enjoyable for new learners. And honestly, let’s face it: Anything that makes you want to study is a powerful motivational tool that should not be underestimated.

The key to using Duolingo effectively is to take advantage of its strengths and make up for its shortcomings.

Here are a few tips to make the most of your study time.

 

Tip #1: Study every day

Duolingo makes learning addictive. Meeting your daily learning goals will earn you some of those sweet, sweet Lingots, which you can exchange for things like power-ups and bonus content. Duolingo also seems to be rolling out achievements (still limited to the Android platform as of May 18, 2017). I hope they continue to expand on the achievement system in the future, as it’s one of the more compelling aspects of gamification, in my opinion. (Everyone likes having nice, shiny badges to show the world how hard they’ve been working.)

Duolingo also keeps track of how many days in a row you’ve reached your daily goal, represented by the fiery “streak” mark that appears at the top of most screens. Set a reasonable goal and get cracking. Find some time to study every day–no exceptions. Even 5 minutes is usually enough time to knock out a quick session.

 

Tip #2: Keep your basic skills strong

Like I mentioned before, Duolingo is smart. It knows when you’re starting to get weak in a certain skill and will push you to review things you’ve learned in the past. Before you start tackling new content, make sure your skills are freshly topped-off. Everything you learn in the early stages of Japanese ends up being the foundation upon which you continue to learn. It’s like Bruce Lee always said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Take his advice and don’t skip leg day–er, your reviews.

 

Tip #3: Use the desktop version over mobile when possible*

While the mobile app is impressive in its own right, it’s lacking one major component found in the browser version: the ability to hand-type answers. Instead, the mobile app features questions in which you drag and drop answers from a finite set of options, few of which actually make sense in the context of the question (thus often making it mind-numblingly easy to guess). With the browser version of Duolingo, however, you’re giving yourself more of a challenge–this is a good thing–because by typing in the answers to every question, you’ll have better retention of vocabulary over the long term. In addition, the web versions of most languages on Duolingo include at least some degree of grammar explanations, and I’m sure Japanese will be no exception.

*Edit: After finding out that Japanese for Duolingo is only optimized for iOS and Android for the time being, I had to add an asterisk to this tip. Thankfully, until the web version arrives, there are plenty of ways to supplement your Duolingo study. Read on!

 

Going beyond Duolingo

Now that you know how to get the most out of Duolingo, what should you be doing outside of the app to get the most out of your study time?

Plan for success

Having a solid goal in mind and a roadmap to help you get there will do wonders for you as a learner. The 6-step study plan here on Kuma Sensei is a good place to start. It’s chock-full of study tips and important factors worth considering for anyone wishing to learn Japanese.

Vocabulary

I recommend a hearty helping of flash cards every day, even on top of the daily reviews that Duolingo asks you to complete. Anki is a great option that’s free (except on iOS) and comes with plenty of room for customization and pre-made, shared decks that you can download. Try out the Core 2k (and eventually Core 6k) deck–though I prefer the much more user-friendly equivalent found on iKnow!. The Duolingo stream on Tinycards might also be a decent place to keep an eye on as the course becomes more popular.

Kanji

If you’re interested in improving your kanji reading and writing abilities, Skritter is a good option. There’s a plethora of study lists spanning from absolute beginner to advanced Japanese, and a number of these lists are taken directly from widely-used and popular textbooks in the field, which is a boon for self-learners who may find textbooks daunting without the guidance of a teacher. Skritter uses the power of SRS to feed you content only as much as you need to see it, and its beautiful and intuitive writing interface makes for a great user experience. It’s available on both iOS and Android, so give the free trial a shot and see what you think.

Grammar

For additional grammar explanations to supplement what you’re learning in Duolingo, there’s a number of resources you can turn to.

First and foremost, I have to recommend getting a textbook if you want to take your learning seriously. Genki is a good place to start. Make sure to also pick up the accompanying workbook for extra practice!

Having reliable points of reference can also make a world of difference.

  • Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide is a free resource that can come in handy for explaining certain grammar concepts.
  • Perhaps the most useful grammar resource I’ve ever used is the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui. I’ve dubbed this 600+ page monster the “Yellow Bible” for a reason. You can read more about it on my Learning Resources page in the beginner section.

At the end of the day, grammar is best learned through exposure to lots and lots of input, so while these resources are useful for getting into the nitty-gritty of things, you should also be inadvertently coming across new grammar forms in your flash card program of choice and pushing yourself to learn at the i+1 level.

Speaking

Nothing beats a living, breathing teacher when it comes to learning a language, and conversing in a new language is indeed something that takes practice–and lots of it.

italki gives you access to private tutors for as little as $10/hour. You could do a monthly or even weekly lesson to touch base with a native Japanese speaker as a way to stay motivated and monitor your progress. italki boasts a wide selection of teachers and price ranges, so you’ll likely find something that’s a good fit for you. Using that link, you’ll even earn a free $10 in lesson credit to get started!

Join a community

Joining a community like the one found on Reddit can be a good way to get involved in the learning process with others and help bring Japanese to life. You can often find interesting discussions about learning methods and resources, as well as ask questions of your own!

You can also join a study club right in the Duolingo app. It’s a nice little way to team up with others learning the language. In fact, you can even join club Kuma Sensei!

Here’s the club code: XRCVWN

There are only 14 slots, so it’ll fill up fast, but feel free to make your own club and invite others! Leave a comment below with your club code if you want others to join.

 

Closing Remarks

I know that some of the language in this article has kind of an edge to it, but consider it tough love. I’m saying these things because I appreciate the hard work the creators have put into the course and want them to keep striving for greatness. I also want to encourage learners to be critical of the resources they use to learn.

In any case, Duolingo is a well-made app with a smooth, clean user interface. It does a great job of keeping you motivated and hungry for more learning, which should make it a popular study resource among beginners.

However, the reality is that Duolingo’s Japanese course leaves a lot to be desired for serious learners.

Frustrating though they are, the abundant errors found in hints, acceptable answers, audio, etc. are forgivable, as the course is technically still in beta…

…but the course’s biggest downfall is perhaps the format of Duolingo itself. As I mentioned before, Duolingo falls short in teaching you how to actually communicate in the language. I would be legitimately surprised if someone could even manage to order food at a restaurant by the end of the entire course. It also teaches grammar from a top-down method, lacking detailed explanations about how stuff works under the hood. This is a matter of teaching style, and I personally prefer to think of grammar structures as tools in my language toolbox; I want to know what each tool is capable of and how to use it. Disappointingly, we can probably expect none of these aspects to change in the full release.

 

At the end of the day, Duolingo itself is a tool, and while you shouldn’t solely rely on it to learn Japanese, I think it’s still one of the more enjoyable ways to begin your language learning journey.

 

Kuma Sensei says…

 

Duolingo is a fun, free way to get your feet wet as a Japanese learner. While it can help you build a foundation for more serious learning, it ultimately won’t leave you with the skills you need to make your way around in the language.

 

What do you think of the course so far? Share your thoughts below!

SRS: The Lifeblood of Learning Languages

How can harnessing the power of spaced repetition make you a more efficient language learner?

 

I know you don’t want to hear this, but if you want to get good at Japanese, then you’ll need to invest some time in flashcards. Your knack for languages and the degree to which you want to excel in Japanese in a given amount of time will determine how hard you need to hit the SRS.

What’s SRS?

SRS stands for spaced-repetition system and it’s pretty much all the rage among language learners nowadays.

Here’s what it boils down to:

Using SRS, the more often you get a certain flashcard “right,” the less often you see it. This means that more difficult cards, the ones you keep constantly forgetting, will show up more often.

Thanks to this initial drill-like high frequency, you eventually start getting them right, and once you start getting them right, you won’t see them as often. This also means that a card you haven’t seen in days might pop up and catch you off guard, and if you get it wrong, the algorithm will (rightly) assume that you haven’t quite committed it to long-term memory yet and will shuffle it back into the deck for more short-term review.

Of course, the kicker with this whole system is that you have to be honest. If you didn’t totally nail an answer right off the bat, you probably shouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that one, duh!” and then count it as being correct. While you should never doubt yourself, don’t overestimate your ability lest you waste the potential the program has to offer.

That sounds great! How do I get started?

Anki (暗記) is the Japanese word for memorization and happens to be probably the most well-known and widely used SRS application/software out there, with a sweet price tag to boot. (The desktop version is free!)

The iOS version is obscenely expensive, so if it’s your only mobile option, I would hold off until you know for sure you’re going to invest enough time to get your money’s worth. For dedicated learners, it’s worth it, considering it’s one of the most convenient ways to get some studying in during your commute or between classes (and it sure beats wasting time on your Facebook newsfeed). Android users, rejoice; your version is free.

Android version of Anki using night mode.

 

Alright, so how do I use SRS effectively?

Algorithms used in SRS have multiple degrees of accuracy. For the sake of example, I’ll use Anki’s design.

After an answer is shown using Anki, you can choose from “Again,” “Hard,” “Good,” and “Easy.” The first suggests that you had no idea or completely forgot the answer. You will likely see this card again in the next minute or so. “Hard” implies that it was, well, hard to come up with the answer, or maybe you got it mostly right but not quite 100% (although personally, I file anything I didn’t get 100% right in the “Again” category). “Good” means you got the right answer, and “Easy” means you knew the answer as soon as the flash card appeared. In other words, it took virtually none of your mental resources for the answer to pop into your head.

Now, linguists like to define fluency in a couple of ways (stay with me here).

  • Broadly as “overall speaking proficiency”
  • Narrowly as the “smoothness and ease of oral linguistic delivery”

Of course, you can spit out random strings of Japanese words like 花見, スカート, 牛乳, and 根性焼き all day with smoothness and ease, but you might get some pretty weird looks. Using the right words in the right contexts with the right constructs is important, as you can imagine (bonus points for anyone who can come up with a coherent sentence using the above).

But accuracy means nothing if it takes you 30 seconds to come up with the right answer.

Just as the key to unlocking the full potential of your Japanese is the marriage of fluency and accuracy, so does the formula for good studying and SRSing lie at the intersection of speed and correctness.

You can’t pause a conversation and make the other person wait for half a minute while you think of the exact word you’re trying to say, so why get into such habits during practice?

Imagine you’re a professional baseball player under the lights. If a baseball flies past you because you were distracted, or you simply weren’t prepared for its direction, pace, or spin, you can’t just ask the pitcher for a do-over. You have to learn and adapt and be ready for the next one. And the more balls you hit, the better you get at it. Here, though, you get the advantage of hitting the most difficult balls the most often. Eventually, the hard ones become easy, and before long, you’re knocking them out of the park.

I know you aren’t a robot and you probably think of language as a fluid, living thing that is probably the most amazing thing humanity has ever come up with.

It is. It totally is.

And it’s even more enjoyable if you get the chance to partake in that language’s culture and learn about the ways other people around the world live their lives. That kind of experience makes you more human, and we need more people like you.

But at the root of it all, language is basically a tool, and some people get way better at using that tool way faster than others depending on the frequency and method with which they hone their skills and train with it.

You can compare various SRS programs in the Resources section.