REVIEW: Kanji in Context


It’s the reason I’m so bad at retelling funny stories. (Seriously–you just had to be there.)

But when it comes to language learning, while it’s important to have guidance, the context in which you learn new information has a major impact on your ability to recall that information later.

Let’s take flash cards, a common learning aid, for example. Beginners will find it simple and effective to put a word like「図書館・としょかん」 on a flash card, slap “library” on the back, and call it a day.

Again, simple and effective–especially if you’re just cramming for a test.

But eventually, you’re going to start coming across onomatopoeic words like ガラガラ and ヒリヒリ. After a while, words like this start to pile up, and keeping track of what they all mean without relying on context will quickly become a truly special kind of torture, and indeed, an exercise in futility.

Or, for another example, take「診る・みる」. Yeah, you can just give it a 1:1 translation and say “to examine (medically)”, but it’s far more effective to pair it with something that makes sense in context. Instead of having 「診る」 on a card by itself, try 「脈 / 患者を診る」on the front, while highlighting–as I have done here–the main word to be focused on.

See? Now you’ve exposed yourself to a couple of ways in which 診る can be used, and you’re more likely to be able to use it in a sentence (i.e., a real situation — context!) later.

Pretty neat, huh?

Kanji in Context – Overview

This is where the star of today’s show, Kanji in Context, comes in.

It’s a series of three books–one reference book, two workbooks–originally created in 1994 by the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, which itself was established by Stanford University in 1961. The Center is one of the most prestigious Japanese language schools in Japan and is currently administered by a consortium of 15 American universities which have strong graduate programs in Japanese Studies, including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and a number of others.

The original edition set out to cover all 1,945 常用 (jōyō or “everyday use”) kanji, as well as a couple of others like 誰 and 賄. However, as a new revision of the list was released in 2010, Kanji in Context was updated in 2013 to meet the new standards–now 2,136 kanji–along with nearly 10,000 vocabulary terms that incorporate those characters. Indeed, mastering Kanji in Context is one of the best ways to prepare to pass the current N1-level proficiency test.

Just for good measure, let me say that again: Get the newer, revised edition of Kanji in Context, not the old one. Otherwise, you won’t be covering the current jōyō list of 2,136 kanji. Here’s a visual reference:

Revised Edition (get this one)

Old Edition

The series is written with four key points in mind, as found in the introduction:

  1. The text is specifically designed for intermediate and advanced learners, with clearly stated objectives
  2. Kanji can be learned in a systematic fashion
  3. Focus of study is not on kanji only, but also on kanji-based vocabulary
  4. Kanji can be easily acquired by repeated exposure

To expand each point:

  1. The book doesn’t focus on things like stroke order or radicals (although you can look up the stroke order in the reference book’s entries for each kanji). Indeed, starting this text at the intermediate level or higher will probably allow you to appreciate its contents more as it’s not really beginner-friendly. You will have to read and interpret the contexts in which they appear without being able to rely on any direct English translations, which may prove difficult for a beginner (but it’s a great way to kick off your training wheels). Here’s an example from lesson 2: 「アメリカの景気が日本や東南アジアの国々の景気を左右する。」 Here, the focus is on the two words 「東南・とうなん」(southeast) and「左右・さゆう」(here, to influence or control), but for someone (especially a self-learner) who has only just begun to learn these kanji, it’s perhaps inefficient to be trying to learn these more advanced readings (and meanings) alongside the simpler, more common ones. But once you know that 「左」means “left” and「右」means “right,”  the meaning of「左右」makes more sense.
  2. The book’s authors understand that the number of kanji needed by learners rises sharply at the intermediate and advanced level. They present kanji in a systematic way based on frequency and similarities found in the form, sound, and meaning of characters. Other methods often result in exercises in learning individual characters, which makes it difficult to understand that kanji belong to a system, thus slowing down the acquisition process. Kanji in Context, however, teaches kanji in an order that makes sense from the standpoint of an adult learning Japanese as a second language–not as a native Japanese speaker.
  3. The books go beyond the mere study of kanji to include the acquisition of vocabulary as one of its objectives. The main book contains an abundant collection of essential vocabulary words, all of which have been selected with the different stages of learning in mind. The usage of the vocabulary in the main book can be learned in context through the example sentences and related words found in the workbooks.
  4. The book repeats target vocabulary to a certain extent instead of presenting an item once and then never again. Gaining an understanding of basic words and the system of everyday use kanji, and then at the next stage expanding vocabulary while reviewing the basic words, you’ll be able to make orderly progress through the books, with each stage building on the previous one.

The 2,136 kanji appearing in the books have been divided into seven levels corresponding to the following stages of learning:

LevelNo. of KanjiStage
1250These are elementary kanji that a learner who has completed a beginning course is expected to have already studied.
2100 (subtotal: 350)These are kanji that an intermediate learner is expected to have already studied.
3850 (subtotal: 1,200)These are kanji that are generally taught in an intermediate course.
4220 (subtotal: 1,420)These are kanji that may be covered in certain intermediate courses but are not necessarily common to such courses, or kanji that are generally taught in advanced courses.
5412 (subtotal: 1,832)These are kanji that may be covered in certain advanced courses but are not necessarily common to such courses.
6110 (subtotal: 1,942)These are special kanji which appear only in the vocabulary or terminology of particular fields.
7194 (subtotal: 2,136)These are kanji that were added to the list of Jōyō Kanji when the Ministry of Education revised the list in 2010. Note, however, that in Kanji in Context the character 誰 is presented in Level 1, and the character 賂 is presented in Level 4.

According to a study by the National Language Research Institute, the 500 most often used kanji represent roughly 80% of the kanji found in newspapers, and 94% of newspaper kanji can be covered by 1,000 characters. According to the authors’ reasoning, if you have learned the 1,200 characters in Levels 1-3, you’ll have knowledge of around 95% of the kanji that are used in newspapers today. Tack on Level 4 for good measure, and you should be well-prepared to pass the N2 level of the current JLPT.

The book goes into a lot more detail about how/why information is presented in the text, how to look up unknown kanji/vocab in the indexes (with flow charts and everything!), more statistics, etc., but I’ll let you discover all of that goodness on your own.

What’s Inside

The reference book is beefy and wonderful, but the heart of the content is what’s found in the workbooks–this is where the series truly shines.

There are 156 lessons found throughout both workbooks. Each lesson focuses on about 10-15 kanji (about 10-30 for Levels 1 and 2), providing a variety of approaches to help you master the usage of the target vocab and expand your overall understanding of kanji-based vocabulary. It does this by splitting each lesson into three major sections (I’ve included some examples for clarity).

Section I: Double compounds 「和平交渉」, idiomatic expressions「平和を守る」, and sentence patterns that use the vocabulary「議論が平行線をたどる」.

Section II: Related vocabulary and other related words「管理職・平社員」, contrasting expressions「収入・支出」、「ビールを冷やす・ビールが冷える」(the last being an example of transitivity/intransitivity).

Section III: Example sentences using the vocabulary「慌てて家を出ると、必ず何か忘れ物をしてしまう。」.

Another thing I like about the book is that it will let you know (via special markings) when it’s OK to not worry about studying certain words or characters yet, as you’re guaranteed to pick them up later on. It also marks historical terms with (歴) and specialized terms with (特).

The first volume of the workbook covers Levels 1-3 (kanji numbers 1-1200), and the second volume covers Levels 4-7 (kanji numbers 1201-2136).

How to Use Kanji in Context

Of course, what would a comprehensive review be without a little how-to?

The book assumes you’ve “mastered” (in their words) the 300-500 kanji normally taught in a typical beginning course. Seeing as how the Genki series introduces a little over 300 kanji total, it’s safe to say that you could begin Kanji in Context after completing book 2. However, you will probably want to take it slow, as jumping straight into KiC after Genki might prove to be a daunting task (there are no shiny pictures, and Mary and Takeshi are both sadly absent).

With that said, even if you’re a veteran learner, I suggest starting from the beginning of the series. Although you’ll probably already be familiar with a lot of the content found in Levels 1 and 2, it’s important to note that the material presented at these levels is not confined to elementary vocabulary words, and as I mentioned earlier, the series will continue to build on what you’ve learned in previous lessons. Starting from the beginning will serve as a nice refresher and you’ll be up to speed on what you need to know before digging in to the advanced stuff later.

The authors suggest that you go through the series three times. The first time, you focus on learning the basics (denoted by “key words” printed in red along with other specially marked items). Doing this alone will net you about 3,700 vocabulary words that are considered to be of high importance.

The second run-through covers words unmarked by symbols, but these words still incorporate the kanji you’ve already learned. You will, however, study words marked with an asterisk (*). These are typically words that are important to know but somewhat difficult to use. Since you already have a solid foundation of key vocabulary words at this point, however, you should be able to pick up these new words quickly enough.

On the third time around, you’ll focus on the words marked with the symbols ◊, 歴, and 特. This will get you up to 100% coverage of the jōyō kanji list. As you can imagine, this third stage won’t take as long.

Now, as for how to actually study this material, well, that’s up to you. The books don’t actually have any exercises, per se, but rather a ton of examples of kanji appearing in–wait for it–context.

If you’re familiar with any of my content on Kuma Sensei, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of SRS-based programs (SRS stands for “spaced repetition system”). It’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of your language-learning problems, but it’s a great study aid for moving stuff you’ve learned from short-term to long-term memory for more effective retrieval.

Indeed, my strategy with Kanji in Context was to fire up Anki and start cranking out flash cards. On the front of the card, I put the whole “context” in which the item was to be learned (e.g. the compound, expression, or example sentence) and bolded and underlined the item, mimicking the book’s presentation.

Scan of Kanji in Context
Turn this…
Anki screenshot of Kanji in Context
…into this!

On the back of the card goes English translations of the item being studied — not of the whole sentence itself. You don’t want to get into the habit of translating entire sentences in your head as a learner. Rather, it’s better to train your mind as early as possible to start thinking in the target language.

And when I say “item,” I mean every single item.

Is this excessive? Probably. I think I could have skipped some of the items I had already committed to memory prior to picking up KiC. But being the perfectionist that I am, I just couldn’t bring myself to skip any content. The end result after inputting new items at a rate of about one lesson per day (156 lessons / 30 days avg. per month = 5-6 months) was over 5,500 flash cards, hand-typed, many of them full sentences.


And to be honest with you, I didn’t actually follow the method the authors provide. Rather than going through the book three times, which I’m sure helps with pacing and avoiding flash card burnout, I just went through and created everything in one go. This meant that content started to pile up rather quickly, as I was studying 20 new cards (along with only 50 reviews) per day. My schedule didn’t allow for much more than this, especially considering the time sink hand-typing cards can be.

The reason I mention this is because I don’t want you to burn yourself out using this method. Yes, learners getting tons of input makes Krashen a very happy man, and this method certainly falls in line with popular methods such as the “10,000 sentence” method touted by AJATT-enthusiasts (which I can’t link to here as Google says the site may be infected — you can look it up on your own).

But at the rate I was going, I started to get overwhelmed after a while. You may want to take things a little more slowly depending on your learning goals and personal schedule. After all, learning Japanese is not a race, but a marathon.

Kuma Sensei says…

Kanji in Context is a wonderful resource for ambitious learners who want to take their kanji study to the next level. Whether you’re an intermediate learner looking for a way to break into more advanced material, or a veteran learner preparing for the JLPT N1, Kanji in Context will have something for you.

You can purchase the books below.

White Rabbit Japan

Reference Book – Workbook Vol. 1Workbook Vol. 2


Reference Book – Workbook Vol. 1Workbook Vol. 2

Are you a fan of Kanji in Context? Do you have any questions about using the text? Is there something you wish the book did better?

Leave a comment below!

If you’re interested in further reading, head over to the extensive study path I’ve designed for Japanese learners. If you’d like to see more reviews, check out my popular post on the Japanese course for Duolingo.

As always, thanks for reading.

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!




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.


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.


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.


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.


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!