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How we invented new ways to teach Japanese (duolingo.com)
254 points by jrehor 6 days ago | hide | past | web | 139 comments | favorite

"To show just how complex this can get, let’s take a simple English phrase – “I love you” – and dissect the many ways in which it can be said in Japanese. Spoiler alert: it’s not such a simple phrase in Japanese. One of our course contributors, Sho, estimated and found that there can actually be as many as 248,026 ways to say “I love you” in Japanese!"

These kind statistics are a kind of lie in themselves. You can say something like "omae wo aishiteimasu", but that's no more a normal way to say "I love you" than "I'm bonkers for that shithead". That has nothing to do with the grammar, it's lexical. "omae wo aishiteimasu" has a different meaning from "anata ga suki da yo".

This seems like a modern version of the old claim "Inuit have 100+ words for snow". I've found that's true for most of the claims of "X language has Y words for concept Z!!!" Inevitably it comes down to one of two things: -language X has a slightly different concept of 'word' than English does (such as allowing for conjugations to refer to past or future states) -The english word is question has a variety of context specific meanings or applications (such as 'love'), and each one of those meanings, even though their context-specific meaning would never be misinterpreted by an english speaker, has a different word in language X.

It's a widely known myth, but I'm pretty sure that Inuit absolutely has 100+ words for snow: it's just that's a meaningless and unsurprising assertion. The Inuit languages are polysynthetic and can say in a word what European languages need a sentence for, so Inuit can sidestep Zipf's law on word frequency.

But also, English has plenty of words for snow, here's 50: https://www.thoughtco.com/snow-terms-types-3010117

Yes, I think we agree. Thank you for the additional info / detail.

"I'm bonkers for that shithead" is gonna enter my daily lexicon for sure.

This is pretty close to a direct translation for the feelings I have for my young children.

> "omae wo aishiteimasu" has a different meaning from "anata ga suki da yo"

That's exactly the point being made - that there are lots of permutations whose individual words mean "I" and "love" and "you", but most of them wouldn't convey what the speaker wants to say, so it can be hard for the learner to choose correctly.

I mean, a set phrase like "I love you" is probably a bad example, since it's more or less idiomatic. But for the general case - a learner wants to say something involving "I" and "you" and a copula - I think the point being made in the article is valid.

It can be just as simple in Japanese as in English, and just as complex. They refer to ways of being implicit + grammatically encoded social deixis, which Japanese is good at (not exclusive to Japanese, though). Grammatically it's quite covert.

But on the whole, no. Just no. I think what's said in the article on this is bullshit. As for wa/ga, one can not necessarily replace the other, so you'd lose a few permutations on that alone. Also, there are more personal pronouns to choose from if that's the game.

I also did not know that just because speech level is grammatically encoded in Japanese, one is not allowed to generate similar meaning in other languages.

Or rather: I'm sure I can find 248,026 ways to say "I love you" in some other language as well.

What is it with Japanese that triggers this kind of ignorance and Sapir-Whorf-ism...?

I've been told by a friend of mine that speaks Japanese that the most difficult aspect is that how you speak changes due the social setting. It's not just the syntax, you must learn how to speak in each different situation.

Here is Richard Feynman talking about the same problem:

While in Kyoto I tried to learn Japanese with a vengeance. I worked much harder at it, and got to a point where I could go around in taxis and do things. I took lessons from a Japanese man every day for an hour. One day he was teaching me the word for "see." "All right," he said. "You want to say, 'May I see your garden?' What do you say?" I made up a sentence with the word that I had just learned. "No, no!" he said. "When you say to someone, 'Would you like to see my garden? you use the first 'see.' But when you want to see someone else's garden, you must use another 'see,' which is more polite." "Would you like to glance at my lousy garden?" is essentially what you're saying in the first case, but when you want to look at the other fella's garden, you have to say something like, "May I observe your gorgeous garden?" So there's two different words you have to use. Then he gave me another one: "You go to a temple, and you want to look at the gardens..." I made up a sentence, this time with the polite "see." "No, no!" he said. "In the temple, the gardens are much more elegant. So you have to say something that would be equivalent to 'May I hang my eyes on your most exquisite gardens?" Three or four different words for one idea, because when I'm doing it, it's miserable; when you're doing it, it's elegant.

This is a very salient point on the difficulty and nature of Japanese.

Japanese language is very tightly integrated with Japanese society, to the extent that I would cheekily argue it doesn't even count as speaking Japanese outside of the context of a Japanese social setting or structure.

To elaborate on your point regarding the proliferation of vocabulary from honorific synonyms, consider how much of the grammatical gamut is wrapped up in identifying the speaker's relationship with the listener. Who is the in-group? Who is the out-group? Is the speaker a man or woman? What is the relative social position of the speaker and listener? Is the utterance written or spoken?

Japanese is a language that identifies the answers to all of these questions with explicit grammar markers, while omitting number, case, conjugation, and employs only two tenses (realis and irrealis).

Learning Japanese in a classroom outside of Japan, or heaven forfend, through individual study alone, is an awkward and disconnected experience, since there is scarce opportunity to practice the major components of Japanese grammar in a real way.

Also kanji.

I used to work a job in Japan that involved a bunch of foreigners fluent in Japanese from different countries (so Japanese was the only common language, but none of us were Japanese) gathering for regular meetings. If there weren't any Japanese bosses present, we'd just drop all the cultural/social restrictions on the language and use it as a tool with our international frame of mind.

Of course we all operated in Japanese in a professional setting daily, so knew the "correct" way to speak, but also had the ability to just drop all that when we wanted (which Japanese people basically never do). Totally different way to use the language, and if any Japanese people happened to overhear, it kind of blew their minds.

I found it very interesting to unpick all the different levels of linguistic, cultural, and social meanings and conventions in the language.

Regarding the Feynman quote:

1. It is told in a sensationalist way that either is or is close to being orientalism. I believe Feynman was known for his story-telling skills (sometimes with some hyperbole for effect), and I think this case is no different.

2. That said, for someone doing a crash course in Japanese, I can see how this can come across as being confusing... but it's not terribly complicated for a smart person like Feynman. Maybe the teacher wasn't particularly skilled...

3. That said, if Japanese is learned in context over some period of time, using the wrong verb form in these contexts just intuitively sounds wrong to the point that it makes me (and others) reflexively wince.

4. That said, the deeper levels of keigo (not the minor stuff mentioned by Feynman) can actually be challenging to learn, even for Japanese people. This is mainly because the content is unfamiliar since the contexts are not experienced regularly (or ever)... until they are, then the keigo becomes natural.

5. That said, someone like Feynman (and in fact most westerners) would get a pass for using any form of "see" if it is in Japanese. Most Japanese I know have low expectations (rightly or wrongly) for foreigners speaking Japanese, so using the wrong verb form typically doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

I'm going to disagree with your friend. The hardest part of Japanese is reading it. You can train all that social stuff through usage and watching a lot of TV. But reading? It's a nightmare.

The simple elementary school stuff isn't hard. But the highschool and college-level stuff? Ugh. Thousands of characters with multiple pronunciations each, sometimes with very tiny differences between them.

Heisig's book for recognizing characters worked well for me.

Picking the right pronunciation on the other hand...ends up being totally reliant on if I know the vocab word or not.

I only took a couple courses in japanese, but I'm pretty sure that this quote vastly overstates the difficulty of politeness levels for verbs.

Each verb has different forms for formal/informal/very formal, but they're highly regular. For example "iku" is "go" and "ikimasu" is "go (polite)". "wakaru" is "understand" and "wakarimasu" is "understand (polite)". It's not like you have to learn four forms of each verb, you learn the basic one and then you know the rest. The ultra-formal versions, which are more rarely used, are also regular - they involve the infinitive of the verb plus a conjugated auxiliary verb IIRC, like saying "presume to go", "presume to understand" etc.

I believe Feynman's quote is not referring to politeness of the "miru" verb but of using different verbs entirely. For example meeting someone is both "au" and "(o)me ni kakaru" with similar difference of formality.

There is Polite Language (丁寧語), Respectful Language (尊敬語), and humble Language (謙譲語).


見る -> 見ます -> ご覧になる -> 拝見する

That is a lot different than just learning four different conjugations for 見る - it becomes an entirely different word!

I learned hiragana and katakana using the "Kanji Study" app by Chase Colburn. On the google app store.

I don't know the guy, but the app is simply amazing. Repetion, through fun methods, I learned hiragana as I rode the Tokyo metro and katakana too. (It also helped that everywhere was both Kanas)

Since we're all talking about how we all picked up some Japanese, I thought I'd throw it out there. I normally never donate to apps, but this is one app that is amazingly well polished, has a beautiful UI and the UX makes me guility that I don't sit down and do it daily.

Hell, thanks to it, I can transliterate japanese songs into kana and with the Kanji learning moudles I had fun translating last names into english and saying them. Nothing helped me more in making friends at random mixers or networking events then seeing someones Japanese name, properly addressing them and embarrassing myself by talking horrible Japanese.

But, Reading it, it's amazing. The manga too, I can read all the manga now if it has nice usage of furigana. Hentai manga, does not, though.


Really, I don't know the guy, the app is great and, without it my time in Japan would've been greatly not as quality. I made friends, thanks to this app, that I know I will know forever.

If you need audio I would also recommend: http://www.pimsleuraudio.com/pimsleur_search_result.php?lang...

I've been using it in a similar manner on the train. 30 minutes per day and I'm holding my own ordering food, having basic conversation,.. (I live in tokyo)

I learned hiragana and katakana simply by writing each character over several pages, and also writing out the 10x5 tables numerous times. It was a week or two out of my life.

That app is one of the best I found, but it's sadly based on data that is flawed at fundamental levels IMHO. The even more sad part is that it's actually hard to find good data. In fact, the data that I would like to exist doesn't exist, or is so hard to find that I haven't found it. But there's probably some matter of taste in there, so I won't bother you with that, but I'll list my gripes with the data a lot (if not most) apps use.

- Jim Breen's JMDICT/EDICT. While very valuable, its "word priority marking" data is based on word frequency from old newspapers. That makes it both outdated and biased (newspapers don't use the same range of vocabulary as conversational japanese or books or other forms of expression)

- Jim Breen's KANJIDIC: It contains all sorts of readings for characters, some of which don't even appear in many japanese dictionaries, without any kind of differentiation whether they're rare or not. I also recently found that the Kang Xi radicals it contains don't all match the Kang Xi radicals contained in the Unihan database from the Unicode consortium (I reported the discrepancy to M. Breen).

- KanjiVG: Used in many apps, including Kanji Study, to show stroke order, and document radicals/kanji parts. Sadly, that last part is full of fantasy. To give a couple examples:

- The parts it gives for 息 are 自, 目, 心. Yeah, 目. Because, you know, if you remove the small stroke at the top of 自, you can see 目, but that's highly irrelevant. Furthermore, the only meaning listed for 自 is "one's self" except in characters like 息, 臭, 嗅, 鼻 it's "nose".

- The parts it gives for 専 are 寸 and a vertical stroke. Sure, there's barely a character for the top part of that character (many fonts don't have it, but it exists: http://glyphwiki.org/wiki/u24c14), but a vertical stroke? really?

Consequently, when looking at characters associated with a radical in Kanji Study, you end up with lists larger than they ought to be if you look at simple radicals like 目, because everything that contains 自 or 首 is listed as well.

Maybe that helps beginners in some ways, I don't know, but feeding them with useless information doesn't sound very useful on the long run.

Now, another problem I have with all these resources (and others you can find on the web) is that the most comprehensive data tends to be in English. Which is great for native English speakers, but really, studying a language in yet another language that is not native to you is not the greatest experience.

Finally, past a certain level of japanese (from my experience), it's better to use japanese-japanese resources. Because things don't map 1:1 between languages, and past a certain point, you get a sense of how some japanese words differ from what you would normally find in dictionaries to your native language. And it's then better to have other words defined in terms of those you already know than in terms of yet other not-quite-matching native words. Sadly, I haven't found good online (or in-app) japanese-japanese resources, except for Kanjipedia.

OTOH, I realized a while ago that I'm completely useless at translating japanese into my own native language. I'd take a japanese sentence I understand fully and be completely stuck trying to convey its meaning in my native language. This may or may not be related to the fact that my japanese abilities grew mostly through japanese than through non-japanese resources. Either way, translation is definitely a skill that is acquired separately.

Looks like you went to the same hiragana/katakana school I did!

Anything similar on iOS you'd mind to recommend?

I liked this bundle: https://appsto.re/us/u8wS2.i

I just noticed that Duolingo also released Hiragana and Katakana stacks via their spaced repetition flashcard app, TinyCards.

I shameless self-plug: As a successful Japanese learner (and since then, a Japanese teacher and recently a software engineer in a Japanese company), I was interviewed recently about learning Japanese: https://www.koipun.com/blog/learning-japanese-by-listening-a...

Why should you possibly be interested: because not only did I learn Japanese and taught it, I also did a fair part of reading about the research on language acquisition and neurolinguistics as a part of my master's studies, so I know what I'm talking about.

From what you say in that article about the importance of listening to language used in context, you might be interested in a method of language learning called TPR (Total Physical Response). I've written about it before here:


It's been super effective for me at learning vocabulary and grammar (in context), and I much prefer that method over things like flashcards, Anki, supermemmo, etc.

TPR has its strengths and weaknesses:

1. It requires a healthy ego. Some people feel like it's childish since it is more like playing games than language learning. Other folks don't like making mistakes all the time.

2. It is great for languages that do not already have documented grammars and/or dictionaries. I believe the Summer Institute of Linguistics uses this method in some areas.

3. It naturally caps out in utility at around CEFR A2 / ACTFL intermediate. While many Americans call this level of proficiency "fluent", it really just scratches the surface of a language.

Regardless, I'm glad you found this method and that it works for you. Congrats!

Yeah, I would certainly not characterize TPR as a magic bullet, claim that it would fulfill all your language learning needs, or that by using it alone you will achieve complete fluency.

I view it just a great way to jump start vocabulary and grammar learning and comprehension. TPR will need to be supplemented with other techniques, especially for production of spoken language, pronunciation, reading, writing, cultural sensitivity, social cues, etc. Also, in my experience, TPR has been most effective in one-on-one sessions with a tutor, while there's something to be said for classroom instruction where the student can interact with other students, and something to be said for interaction with native speakers of the languages outside any kind of formal instruction.

So, yeah, TPR is just another tool. A tool which I've found useful for certain purposes, but not the ultimate be-all-and-end-all of language learning. Is anything?

I know about Total Physical Response and I think that it has all the elements that good (beginner level) language teaching should have. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to participate any TPR sessions in any language.

Btw. there's another good teaching method, which has a confusingly similar acronym: TPRS – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.

Then there's "task-based teaching".

They all share some basic features: parsing input for meaning, context-dependence, concreteness, communicating to achieve some extralinguistic purpose instead of just "demonstrating/exemplifying this and that feature of the language", having a strong aural component and so on. This isn't by coincidence.

I think that language teachers should in general acquaint themselves more with the concurrent research results. Knowing the basic principles of how brain learns languages gives teacher the expertise to assess, tweak and choose teaching methods. Not to say that the researchers know everything about it either, but they certainly know a lot more than 50 years ago, yet I feel that much of the teachers' knowledge and preferred teaching methods are decades behind.

Fascinating read, thanks for sharing!

One thing that I notice is missing from most (all?) online language courses is wider context. Not cultural context, but basic grammatical context. Most of them on focus on learning words or sentences.

This is fine for similar languages. When you learn French you can learn that 'the' equals 'le' and 'la' and apply some extra rules to smooth over the differences.

It totally falls down on languages that have less in common. Almost all Japanese natives who speak English struggle with 'the' and 'a'. (this isn't a criticism, just a fact of life). I wonder if part of the problem is that most people learn languages on the sentence level. Read the following sentences:

The man went to the store.

A man went to the store.

Which one is correct? Well, there's certainly nothing grammatically wrong with either, but depending on the situation one or the other could be very misleading, confusing and unnatural. Most people, at least in Japan, learn from textbooks showing examples like this. It tells you absolutely nothing about 'the' and 'a'! So they end up reading huge explanations in their native language and come away thinking 'Wow, foreign languages are hard'.

I agree, I think that an online course on its own is not enought to really learn a language, I view them more as a vocabulary and grammar source.

The context or everyday interactions have to be learned in some other place like forums, conversations, movies, etc

Great point! That's one of the reasons that I designed SuperCoco (app for learning Spanish) to teach in full context.

I started learning Japanese around 8 years ago, and I've never been a fan of saying it's "the most difficult language to learn." It's like learning anything else, if you enjoy learning it and are motivated enough, you'll get better. Also I'm surprised when people assume the grammar is difficult - to me, the "flexible grammatical structures" as mentioned in the article are a good thing because it gives you more leeway to make "mistakes."

If you're learning Japanese in school, or even if you're learning it on your own, I recommend the Genki I and Genki II books, and the corresponding workbooks. If you really enjoy it and want to come to Japan to use your newly acquired language skills, I'm confident that after getting through those 2 books you'll have enough Japanese to get by and you can have fun wandering around, reading signs, chatting with strangers, etc. Don't be discouraged by people saying that Japanese is so difficult to learn.

Edit: also, I hope this comment didn't come off as too negative. I think it's great that Duolingo is doing this, and if it gets more people to enjoy learning Japanese then that's fantastic.

It is worth saying it's an extremely difficult language to learn because most people are not prepared for what awaits them even if they learned another language before. Anyone can pick up how to read kana in a week or so, so it's easy to assume that you're almost there, and you'll be reading manga or whatever in no time. But it's just the beginning. The language is completely different. You must commit a huge amount of time every day and change the way you think. One must be mentally prepared to give up a chunk of their free time for the foreseeable future (years!), because it won't be easy.

Also IME, you barely need to speak any Japanese to wander around Japan and read the signs (because they're all in English anyway). Definitely recommended regardless of language proficiency.

The katakana words are often English, but it still takes some time to realize that to-re is 'toilet'

I think every native English speaker in Japan has had the experience of carefully deciphering a long string of katakana in a restaurant menu, only to realize that they've just successfully translated Japanese to Italian...

ズボン is definitely one of my favorite katakana words.

It's actually トイレ which is toire in romaji and is pronounced toileh roughly in English. I actually never had trouble with it personally. Although I struggle with other katakana words...

> Also I'm surprised when people assume the grammar is difficult - to me, the "flexible grammatical structures" as mentioned in the article are a good thing because it gives you more leeway to make "mistakes."

That makes speaking the language easier, but it makes understanding sentences harder in the beginning, because you get a bucket of word soup dumped on your head and have to figure out what is supposed to go where.

Of course, articulating yourself correctly is the bigger (or more long-term) challenge when learning a second language, but in the case of Japanese you have a higher up-front learning curve than with most other languages.

Yes, the grammar of Japanese has a very simple internal logic and is easy to learn, although quite different from European languages.

The problem is all the words, and there are no cognates.

Exactly. The claim that Japanese grammar is very difficult seems bizarre to me because the morphology is so regular, and I don't subscribe to the idea that flexibility and omission of words makes it harder either, more that you just have to attune yourself to it. No, the elephants in the room are (a) the vocab and (b) Kanji.

That's a good point. I can imagine it might be difficult for someone new to Japanese to understand who is the subject of the sentence, when pronouns are dropped so frequently.

It's part of the language I enjoy (I find myself dropping pronouns, usually "I", in written English anyway, so it feels oddly natural), but dropping "watashi wa"/"anata wa" even in something as simple as "I am <name>"/"You are <name>" (both can be said as "<name> desu"> definitely makes it more difficult to get started. I've found it to be more or less a non-issue once I got used to picking up on the context clues, but there's no easy/quick way to get there other than listening to a lot of the language.

You are correct that it's like learning anything else. If you put the time in and are motivated and go about it the right way you can learn it.

But it's still "the most difficult language to learn". So it's worth taking that difficulty into account. For example one can learn Spanish, Swedish and Vietnamese in around the same amount of time it would take to learn Japanese.

What about Chinese? As someone who's learning Japanese already, Chinese looks more difficult to me. To me it seems very subjective, some people will be better at learning one language vs. another.

I spent 3 years learning Mandarin in college, and then spent a full 13 months at Beida in 96. I've had significantly less training in Japanese: one year in CC, but decades now of regular subbed anime, a Japanese wife, and two Japanese-speaking-first children. I think their relative complexity is broadly equivalent, but in different ways:

Phonologically, Japanese is easier. No tones, and no retroflex consonants to worry about as in Mandarin (unless you don't mind sounding southern/Taiwanese). There is a pitch accent in Japanese, but apparently it varies wildly from one end of the country to the other, and it's not generally critical to comprehension, unlike Mandarin tones.

Lexically, Japanese is easier, at least IME. Don't know a word? Given all the borrowing in Japanese, I've had very good luck just to mangle the English word into Japanese phonotactics, and 90% of the time, the person I've spoken to immediately knows what I mean.

Syntactically, there's a lot more similarity in Mandarin's basic SVO word order to English.

But Kanji. OMG. You need to learn roughly the same set of Kanji as hanzi to be high-school literate, but the Japanese set will generally have a minimum of two pronunciations per character, which vary wildly in context. Mandarin generally has one pronunciation per character, which becomes far simpler to learn.

From the contact I've had with (Mandarin) Chinese, the basic grammar has the same word order as English. You have to teach yourself to interpret tones as lexical information, instead of just emphasis/emotion/flow. You need to learn more characters in Chinese than in Japanese for equivalent proficiency. Deeper into the language, there are more "two birds, one stone" kind of metaphors that are widely used (basically, cultural points that you need to learn, even if you understand the literal meanings of the constituent words).

Those are a mixture of my impressions, and the opinions of friends who speak the language (both learned and native). Overall, I think the most difficult part of mastering Chinese and Japanese is the same: Lack of shared cultural context, if you come from an English-speaking or European country.

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, Chinese and Japanese are in the same category of difficulty (2200 hours).

But, there's an important distinction. Japanese is singled out as "somewhat more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category."

Tones are tricky in Chinese, on the other hand, there is no conjugation which I really appreciate.

For me, and from a mechanical perspective, the only truly difficult part of learning Japanese was kanji. The really annoying part is that Japanese doesn't use spaces and instead relies on transitions between the three writing systems to separate words, so even if you can get a hold of a page all in hiragana, it'll look like a wall of text. I still don't recognize much kanji, so for the most part I can only understand written Japanese after glossing it in WWWJDIC [0]. Furigana is a life saver.

Spoken Japanese, though, is easy. Well, at least from a mechanical standpoint. Japanese grammar is dirt simple and minimalistic, and I found it shockingly easy to learn. However, as someone else mentioned elsewhere in the post, Japanese is very big on inferring as much as possible from context and only speaking what can't be inferred. It can honestly be a chore just to determine whether a sentence is in the first person, the second person, or the third person, because Japanese is so aggressively pro-drop that most of the time, that information has to be inferred from context. And if you intend on speaking Japanese yourself, there's a lot of subtlety when it comes to picking the appropriate register to speak in. Use the wrong verb endings or the wrong pronouns (in this case, I'm glad Japanese is so aggressively pro-drop), and you'll stick your foot in your mouth.

[0] Most people use it as a dictionary, but it also has a really awesome glossing mode: http://www.edrdg.org/cgi-bin/wwwjdic/wwwjdic?9T

Look at Rikaichan/Rikaikun (Firefox and Chrome extension names). They're great tools for aid in reading.

We used Genki I back in high school, and recently I picked it up again. Now I'm through Genki II and can definitely recommend them. They were both updated a few years ago with more contemporary examples and really useful culture notes for each section. Working through the listening comprehension exercises was particularly fulfilling.

The one downside is that they are still meant to be used in a classroom, so there are a lot of exercises that expect you to work in groups or pairs. Of course there are plenty of ways to find a study group online these days.

I took Japanese in college, and the worst thing wasn't the writing system, vocabulary or grammar. They were hard mind you, but far from impossible, nothing flash cards couldn't fix.

What was (and is) very hard for me is how (in general) the bulk of Japanese communication happens in what is unsaid. Even trying to work through patio11's Stockfighter course, I found it very hard to 'read between the lines' in what he was saying to find out what I was supposed to do. I also have zero low-level programming experience, so that probably didn't help.

I hope Duolingo mentions this and has training for "what do they really mean", as trusting what they say at face value seems like a good way to cause an incident. This may also be useful in understanding American Southerners or cop dramas, where direct communication is strictly verboten.

I met my wife because sometimes I "can't read the air". We were pen pals and she wanted to tell me about a graduation trip she was going on across the country. I didn't know it at the time, but just to be polite she invited me on the trip with her, expecting that I would understand and decline. I didn't, instead I accepted! We went on an amazing trip and fell in love.

One thing about learning languages that works for me. Don't look at them as a bunch of rules to memorise. The article is talking about thousands of ways of saying "I love you" to indicate how complicated Japanese is. In reality, this complexity is somewhat artificial because you are considering way too many rules and variations, the vast majority of these combinations are almost never actually used. To use an crude analogy HN might be comfortable with, a Japanese language compiler could optimise away most of the language.

I'm glad the course seems designed around this consideration. It's goal-oriented: talk about everyday human things, clothes, weather, food, family. It's never been helpful for me to memorise vocabulary lists without a context to say them in. Instead, putting myself into situations where certain things must be said or understood greatly improved my competence.

After a while, your language instinct kicks in and you start to generate your own internal rules for the language, which will approximate or match the rules that native speakers have internalised.

I suppose this is can all summarised as, well duh, of course immersion works, but I wanted to say it anyway.

I've been learning japanese (and living in japan) for the past few months, and tried out duolingos new course when they released it yesterday. I've used quite a few different apps and books, and I must say I was pretty unimpressed. Their lessons give very little info on what you're learning, and with things like kanji it only teaches you the sound and not the meaning. I will experiment with it a bit more, but I've already done the first 6 or 7 lessons (chapters?) and am not impressed.

If you want to see an incredibly well built japanese learning tool, look at Human Japanese http://www.humanjapanese.com/ - i am in no way affiliated, just a happy student

I second this and add Satori Reader (by the makers of Human Japanese, I think) for learning to read and grammar by example. I would also strongly recommend WaniKani for anyone learning kanji.

There's no substitute for immersion and classroom time, though.

I've been using Human Japanese fairly consistently for the last 6 months or so. I have a few chapters left so can't speak to the Kanji sections but I've really enjoyed the app as a whole. I found hiragana/katakana to be a little rough because the sets of characters were spread out so I recommend a flashcard app for the characters instead. But the context and style of presentation the app has makes it so easy to understand what you are actually trying to accomplish. Big fan.

> with things like kanji it only teaches you the sound and not the meaning

Damn, that's precisely the opposite of how you should learn them.

My Japanese ability pretty much exploded after I set aside two months to study the kanji divorced from their readings with James Heisig's method. Totally worth it. The readings come with time.

Indeed. It's my understanding that the success of kanji in China was exactly that some lord on the borderlands could write with kanji what he wanted to convey, and then, at the heart of the empire someone could read it back in mandarin. While the border Lord might only speak some local language.

The parallel is to teach everyone Latin language and how to read and write Latin letters, rather than just teach everyone how to read and write kanji.

Who is James Heisig, and what is his method? I'd like my Japanese ability to explode too!

I found that to ask to answer to a question to a word that you never saw in your life, and just try to figure it randomily is not an efficient way. I tried Duolingo way to teach Japanese and found it very frustrating ...

ex : what is the word for "read" ? and then to have to choose between 4 words written in hiragana or translate "ろく” having 6 choices ...

Thanks. I recently purchased the Human Japanese app, and I took a 2 year subscription on japanesepod101.com. I wasn't sure whether duolingos would have been a better choice. Probably not. But I'm still happy to have read your message. I'll stick to the two tools I've paid for.

The guys at Language Log have a (series of) very interesting posts about how to learn Japanese and Chinese. The comments are a gold-mine as well


I'm not criticizing Duolingo, but I'm wondering if language apps are like gym memberships -- people sign up enthusiastically but after the first month, 90% don't or can't continue.

Learning a new language as an adult is an incredibly difficult undertaking; much more so than persevering with the gym. The dropout rate must be huge.

I've been living, working, studying, playing in Japan for the last 8 years. I came here with no knowledge of the language (except "ohayou" because of that Sesame Street where Big Bird goes to Japan). Learning katakana and hiragana took an afternoon of riding the train and reading signs. The first 3 years I didn't really study much, but talking to old men in bars and spending time in the hospital boosted my communication level a ton. By year 6 I had business level spoken Japanese but had never been able to get into kanji, so I was basically illiterate, but stilled managed to get hired by a Japanese company (with no use for my English skills). I've been using WaniKani for the last half year and it has massively improved my kanji level. It's definitely aimed towards native (american) English speakers, but if you want to learn Kanji, I can highly recommend it. It's actually the only online service (other than Netflix) that I've ever paid for ($50/year with a coupon). Most of the other free apps I've used have been like gym memberships, but for some reason this one sticks.

Where are those coupons? :-)

Fair enough. I guess I should have posted it. If you do some google searches you can find a bunch, but a lot of them dont work any more. The one that worked for me was CRAB YORI GATOR

I tried Duolingo for French and Russian, and dropped both after a week.

Part of it is that I have nothing invested in either language and was just curious, but I also think Duolingo itself is a bit flawed; it repeats way too much material and makes you jump through too many hoops. I was busy and it was a hassle.

I think if you're going to study a language, a textbook + Anki is the way to go. If you tell Anki you know something, the algorithm believes you and shows it to you less often so you have more time to focus on what matters. It doesn't make you translate "the black cat" five times in one sitting.

Duolingo uses spaced repetition. It's like Anki, except that Duolingo will give you some time after you successfully remembered a word or expression in an answer.

Don't know if that is your case, but if you get the "the cat is black" sentence and translate it wrongly, it assumes you are having difficulty with this expression and repeats until you get it right.

When you come to the point of commiting some words to you memory, it uses them to incrementally build grammatical concepts over there (like adjectives and verbs).

It's a pretty complex system going on behind that simple interface.

I tried using Anki, but creating/formatting index cards was a total pain (especially for Mandarin), and I didn't feel like doing a graphic design project for every character I wanted to learn.

If there was an easier way to auto-generate flash cards, I could see Anki being more interesting.

Gabriel Wyner has some good strategies for speeding up flash card generation in his Fluent Forever book and website. The primary one for me being a simple AppleScript that took a word and opened up several safari tabs with google image search, pronunciation (forvo.com), a few online dictionairies, etc. You could take the scripting further, but manually picking the best image to represent an idea adds a lot. Another big help was a script for Anki that bulk-generated text-to-speech for words (which for German was incredibly reliable using Apple's built-in voice fonts). Adding an audio component to vocabulary cards gives another pathway for memory to become established.

The unfortunate truth is that the mental connections that come from building your own deck is a good portion of the benefit that comes from using Anki.

I suspect it depends on why you're learning. As you say learning languages is hard, especially as an adult.

I couldn't imagine learning a language for "fun", but I know others do. I can easily imagine a lot of them dropping-out and giving up, once they've either learned enough to be useful or decided it is not for them.

But me? I've moved from Scotland to Finland. I'm very slowly learning the language. I don't expect I'll ever be fluent, but I need to try. People who move abroad, and avoid learning the language are not so well respected, and rightly so.

Thus far I've managed to have medical treatment, buy a flat, and do lots of complex things in English, but it would still be better for me to learn Finnish. If only so people don't need to switch languages, solely for my benefit, at parties, etc. (That's appreciated, but also a constant reminder of how much I suck!)

I've been learning Japanese for fun for like 10 years now.

IMO, you have to have a reason for the language. Mine is that I wanted to read and watch anime/manga/tv/books/games that weren't being translated. Of course, these days they're all being translated faster than I can read them. But it was enough to get started, and I definitely enjoy them more than if I didn't know the original Japanese, too.

But I've tried to learn other languages that I don't have a use for, and I've found it nearly impossible. There just isn't enough motivation.

I certainly dropped out of learning spanish with duolingo a couple of years ago (after maybe a few months). All that is left is how to order a beer, but with such a horrible german accent that at least one native speaker burst out into laughter when I attempted... Anyway, I went into it with a "let's see this works" attitude and looking back I'm surprised how far I even got. Low barriers to entry mean low barriers to exit. I guess without loss-aversion, say from investing in a private tutor, or some other form of skin in the game (distant relatives at the place, intense affection for the culture of the place, actually living there) it's hard to keep the motivation up. But I guess duolingo works for the later group.

I'm sure lots of people drop out, but I stuck with Dutch for 400 days in a row - only 10 to 20 minutes a day. I'm not fluent, but I have a basic vocabulary. Duolingo does a very good job helping you learn. Now I'm working on trying to fix up my high school French, but will be switching to the Japanese.

Where is the Japanese course on Duolingo ? I can't find it in their language list : https://en.duolingo.com/register ?

From their list of language courses for English speakers [0], it is about 67% developed, so its just not ready yet.

[0] https://www.duolingo.com/courses

I'm as confused as you are. After this very interesting and tantalizing blog post I wanted to get started. But no such luck. Disappointing.

Was just coming here to ask the very same thing!

Its only available on ios at the moment


hideki Japanese beta course available on iOS! 15 hours ago We are thrilled to announce that our Japanese course is now available on iOS. It's coming to Android in a few weeks, and web will be next! Find more details at

https://www.duolingo.com/comment/22676285 http://making.duolingo.com/how-we-invented-a-new-way-to-teac... https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/6bxr2v/i_am_luis_von_... https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurenorsini/2017/05/18/japanes...

Any simple reason why it's delayed for Android? Do the devs prefer the ios development environment? Do they have more iphones to test on? Are iphone users prioritized because they have a higher median income?

They always release for a subset of the users by making it available at only one platform. Other languages were only available at the web interface first

In my experience iOS users are much more likely to pay for your app. Android apps seem to do better when they're ad supported.

This is anecdotal, so YMMV.

From a pragmatic point of view Chinese would be much more useful, but there are a tons of good resources for that already, so dunno. Congratulations anyway. I've used Duolingo to refresh my German some time back.

The usefulness of a language depends if you are going to use. I got your point, China is HUGE and extremely important at the moment and future.

But at the same time japanese can be seen as very useful because:

- its a very important ally of the USA;

- introduce you to the ideographic writing system;

- be very similar to korean grammar (and particle system).

Another thing with Chinese is that even though the writing system is universal the dialects very so much that someone from Hong Kong might not be able to understand someone from Beijing, Shenzhen, or Shanghai(not familiar with what dialects are spoken where). That said they're all fairly similar and can be picked up more easily once you already know one.

I still wish Duolingo would make a course on Chinese :(

Currently my favorite app is "Decipher Chinese". I read one story a day, save words I want to remember and get quizzed on them periodically.

> I still wish Duolingo would make a course on Chinese :(

What kind of Chinese? Mandarin?

Linguistically Chinese is not a language, but a family of languages that is united by a (mostly) common writing system. The reason that these Chinese languages are called "dialects" is mostly political.

A language geek I know, who taught himself various Chinese dialects and in particular Cantonese up to a very high level told me that Mandarin, though referred to as the "official" Chinese language that is used in TV, it is in his opinion rather an artificial language (he compared it with Esperanto).

So when learning some of the Chinese languages he recommended that at least after some time learning the ropes (writing system, tones, common words), one should really consider for what purpose one is learning Chinese and learn the appropriate language of the respective province (he was really into electronics, so he continued his study in particular into Cantonese).

Honestly, when people say they want to learn Chinese, they usually mean Mandarin Chinese. If they don't, they'll probably refer to the specific dialect they'd like to learn. Also, without any Chinese exposure, learning anything other than Mandarin is harder since their are so fewer resources.

Calling Mandarin an artificial language is bogus, it is the native dialect around the Beijing area, and that is the reason it became the official dialect of Chinese. There are many people in China who only speak Mandarin.

> Calling Mandarin an artificial language is bogus, it is the native dialect around the Beijing area,

Read https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mandarin_Chinese&...: Mandarin is a Koiné language (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koin%C3%A9_language) of various Chinese dialects (as I wrote above: What is called "Chinese dialects" is rather "different languages"), which has been standardized "artificially" (just as Zamenhof took words from various European languages and created a new artificial language (Esperanto) out of them).

Being the 'official' language, is this also true for Chinese business — or is that dependent on the dialect of where an office may be located?

I think by law they must speak in Mandarin. Check the law here and grep for "putonghua" http://www.gov.cn/english/laws/2005-09/19/content_64906.htm

If you travel in regions where Mandarin is not as predominant as it usually is, you will often see signs telling you "please speak in mandarin".

The only exception really is Hong Kong.

Interesting. So it seems like if someone wanted to do business with, or work in, China (not HK) — learning Mandarin would definitely be the most useful?

Generally, yes. There's still places liked Shanghai where there's a very strong local language culture, but Mandarin should always suffice.

I've travelled in parts of China (Xishuangbanna in particular comes to mind, in southernmost Yunnan) where they have truckloads of non-Han minorities, and Mandarin was the lingua franca, and got me around, but I frequently spoke it better than anyone around me on the street.

OTOH, if you travel out to say, Xinjiang, I'm told you might be better off speaking Russian - the people out there are not Han, and really don't want to be part of China. Speaking the language of the empire out in the colonies might not make you many friends :)

> What kind of Chinese? Mandarin?

The official Chinese language yes.

Your story is really not representative of China, Mandarin is nothing like Esperanto. It's a real dialect and it became the official language of China a long time ago. People speak Mandarin everywhere now (except maybe HK).

I also use and enjoy Decipher Chinese. Another thing I would recommend is reading the books posted at https://www.reddit.com/r/chinesebookclub/. It's really difficult at first but I find that reading actual Chinese books (with frequent word lookups in Pleco) has helped me improve my Chinese rapidly.

(I don't get through the books in a month... I'm actually only 70% through the first one I picked up several months ago).

Actually another service I would recommend if you want to work on your listening comprehension is http://www.fluentu.com/. They take various clips (music videos / dramas / youtube shows) and subtitle them in a slick player (you can add vocab words straight from the videos).

The problem with actual book reading is that looking up words is too slow. I really wish there was an application like Decipher Chinese for longer texts, and also a bit better on the translations.

I found this one on the web, but it is pretty limited http://justlearnchinese.com/chinese-reader-for-adult-learner...

I have Du Chinese and I like it a little more than Decipher. I'm always excited when I get a notification for a newbie or elementary lesson. Chinese Skill and Hello Chinese are lesson quiz format and pretty interchangeable. Line Dictionary is cool cause you can draw in it. I also have Pleco for the Outliers dictionary which shows etymology, but it's still in development. HSK Magic is another one that looks decent, flash card style learning.

The closest thing I've found to Duolingo for Chinese is an app called ChineseSkill (Android and iOS). It's pretty good for the most part. My learning stack so to speak consists of HSK textbooks, Skritter, ChineseSkill and recently I've added ClozeMaster. This is all for Mandarin btw.

I don't know of a more useful app than Duolingo till date and This is just another feather in the cap.

The only thing i don't understand about it is how it makes money? Yes, i read somewhere that they use it to translate news sites and documents but I've been playing it for almost 300 days now (uninterrupted streak) and still my French proficiency is nowhere near to make a worthwhile translation like any professional. This one really boggles my mind because it looks like they have a huge team and invest a lot of time and resources and so must have a lot of expenses.

There were optional in-app purchases and they have introduced Duolingo Plus recently - which enables users to download lessons for offline learning & removes ads. It's Android only for now and the price is $10 month. [0]

[0] https://www.duolingo.com/comment/22202238/Introducing-Duolin...

I've been learning French for years. After having finished the course on Duolingo you have no reason to come back to the application. Memrise, for example, offers numerous courses for French, other languages, and other areas of knowledge. The repetition algorithm is superb and the ability to add your own courses as community contribution is killing.

They offer English certification and now serve ads after each lesson

I started a project to be able to conjugate as many languages as I could and I'd love to accept Japanese if anybody is up for the challenge: https://github.com/llipio/conjugator

So far, I've managed to understand enough korean, spanish, and french grammar to review merge requests. Its interesting reading stories of how HN community picked up Japanese, some of the suggestions are pretty helpful.

I've been learning some simple Korean, and the biggest stumbling block is romanization. 한글 is so simple to learn that there is no reason to romanize it. To make matters worse, Korean vowels are very specific, and quite different from English vowels. My instinct is to find Korean children's books, and learn to read like a Korean. Either way, romanization is harmful.

Japanese does not have the same problem per se. Romanization of Japanese is quite effective. All you need to understand are a="ah", e="eh", u="ooh", o="oh" and i="eeh". That being said, it is still very important to learn kana; else, what would you read?

I studied basic Japanese at school. I've been waiting for this to refresh my skills. I didn't think the speaking and listening part of learning the language was that hard.

Hiragana and Katakana are pretty simple and straight-forward. As for Kanji, I haven't studied the Kanji to deeply, but to me it comes down to pattern recognition and memorization.

My wife is Thai, and I've been trying to learn the language on and off for a few years now. For me it's the complete opposite of Japanese difficulty-wise. The reading and writing part is straight forward once you learn the alphabet and the special rules. The part I have trouble with most is the speaking part since there are multiple pitches and using them correctly is important. For instance "khao khao" is white rice, "now" can mean either means either cold or disgusting. Luckily, if you don't speak or hear the pitch correctly, most of the time you can get by using context.

Thai is a really hard language to listen to in my mind, I've been learning for 3 years. Japanese I could start hearing words nearly immediately. Thai has far more sounds + tones.

As the they say in the article, Japanese is classified among the most difficult languages for English speakers by Foreign Service Institute and this is widely cited as a fact. But interestingly, no research data on this was ever published. (The institute presented the facts as based on their internal research, but no methods, results or anything was ever published. Nowadays the original page has disappeared from the internet.)

Bill VanPatten, a linguist that specialises on second/foreign language acquisition lamented this on his podcast, Tea With BVP. According to him, there isn't any published research that shows that one language as a whole would be more difficult as another one for speakers of some other language. (He is not speaking about writing systems but about spoken language there – Japanese has obviously very complicated writing system.)

> Japanese is classified among the most difficult languages for English speakers by Foreign Service Institute

I briefly took Japanese lessons from someone who teaches full time at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, CA. She confirmed Japanese language's status as "most difficult for English speakers". She also said that DLI groups foreign languages into 4 levels based on how difficult they are to learn for English speakers:

Level 1 (Easiest): Spanish

Level 2: German

Level 3: Russian, Hebrew

Level 4: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic

A more comprehensive listing is here: http://aboutworldlanguages.com/language-difficulty

A hidden gem of a resource that I uncovered at that time: audio + textbook lessons produced by NHK World Radio Japan as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. These lessons are in 17 languages, so they help those who are not native speakers of English too. http://www.nhk.or.jp/lesson/

Anecdotally, it seems true, even if only because learning Kanji is a gargantuan task.

Huh, I've just started learning Japanese after spending several weeks there and looking forward to visiting many more times, and I would never characterize it as especially difficult. There are some challenges, but nothing mind-blowing.

The kana and kanji may seem intimidating, but identifying fragments and context through repetition has been more rewarding and entertaining than frustrating.

I understand there are many subtleties, but after having hung around some native speakers for a while and hearing the patterns and starting to pick up on pronunciation, rhythmic patterns and key words, conversation topics start to become intelligible and communication possible.

I also found it fun to learn a few basics on a recent month-long trip, but the US State Department has rankings of language difficulty based on hours of instructions required for foreign service employees, amd puts Japanese in the most difficult category, with a note that it is the most difficult within that category[1]. Mastering it to a diplomatic level seems incredibly time consuming for native English speakers.

[1] https://en.m.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wikibooks:Language_Learning_...

I enjoyed the series produced by public television called "Irasshai". The lessons are available on the Georgia Public Broadcasting site and texts can be purchased from Amazon. For those who have fond memories of "French In Action", this will give you a similar vibe even though it isn't quite the same thing.


I made a Windows application for drilling oneself in kanji meanings and readings.


It is browser-based. It runs a tiny webserver, controlled by an icon in the system notification area.

If you go through the license workflow, you get full use of the program for a limited period. Put in "hackernews" into the promo code field and I might provide a generous extension.

I am still waiting for Mandarin, IIRC it was announced a few years go but still not available last time I checked. If they release Japanese now there might some glimmer of hope.

When I was learning to read and write Japanese, I used the iOS app "Learn Japanese with Tako" by Grogshot games. They use gamification to make it fun. Very cute, check it out! (I'm not affiliated with them)

To improve your vocabulary while on the go (hands free) I heartily recommand the "Nemo" apps by Nemo Apps (e.g. "Nemo japanese"). They're available for both iOS and Android and for many languages. You can usually train the first 200 words for free.

I'm a fan of the "Japanese" app on iOS for studying vocabulary - they have lists for each JLPT level. It's a great dictionary as well.

Shameless plug: I made a small webapp to memorize Japanese vocabulary through spaced repetition and a Tinder-like interface: https://core.cards/

I made it for myself, but someone else might find it useful. It is the alternative of carrying a huge stack of cards as I used to do. Requires Github login though to syncronize through devices.

Check out Michele Thomas or Paul Noble Audio language learning - absolutely no reading or workbook required.

I highly recommend trying a Duolingo language, especially if there is a country you want to visit. If you set your daily goal for 10 points (maybe 5 - 10 minutes) and build a 10 day streak there is a pretty good chance you will be hooked on it. (Dutch level 16, French level 7).

A1 and 88 kanji. That's sad. I hope there are plans to develop it further to cover at least A2-B1.

So they should have waited until they had more Kanji before releasing it?


I am really looking forward to learn Japanese with Duolingo ever since I came across the site.

I'm in Canada using Android. I don't see Japanese option yet. My app is up-to-date it seems.

Been waiting for this one for a long time


How can you measure which language is most difficult to learn? It is not an universal fact. It depends on many factors. Title is click bait obviously.

Some of the ways to determine how difficult it is to learn a language is to compare how different the motherlanguage of the learner is to the language which is learned. In addition, you can compare how long it takes a person on average to reach a general ability to speak and write in a given language. The Foreign Service Institue publishes a ranked list if you are interested. http://www.effectivelanguagelearning.com/language-guide/lang...

The study they cite is for monolingual English speakers. They concluded that the easiest language to learn was Swedish/Norwegian IIRC, and the hardest was Japanese by a factor 10.

It certainly is subjective, but it seems that Duolingo focuses on reading the language, so from that perspective, Japanese (and related languages such as Chinese and Korean) will be more difficult.

Unfortunately, I find learning the written portion of languages to be the easy part - learning to speak and hear the language is much harder.

I've actually heard that Polish is more difficult to learn. It all seems fairly subjective.

I'm not sure how Polish could be considered that hard for English speakers. The writing system is completely phonetic, there are a ton of cognates (more so than other Slavic languages I think because of its proximity to Western Europe), and the ways of phrasing things are definitely more similar than your average non-Indo-European language. OTOH, I've heard the other Slavic languages have simpler grammar with fewer exceptions.

Measure the average amount of hours to reach a certain proficiency.

That is a false metric. Different for me, different for you - assuming we come from different countries.

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