Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

Problems with English Language Supremacy

A lot of people who meet me and find out that I learn languages are quick to say “Why bother with learning languages? Everyone speaks English anyway.” or something to that effect. Aside from the very clear fact that not everyone speaks English, there are a lot of issues with advancing English as a universal lingua franca. I’m not suggesting that there is an alternative, and in fact, I argue that having a universal lingua franca is not necessarily a good thing. Also to clarify: I don’t think that English as a language unto itself is inferior to others, but rather that it does share an inherent equality with other languages.

Expedience is the name of the game in today’s globalizing world, and most people don’t want to spend the time necessary to learn another language. This seems to be true across the board, regardless of whether it’s for travel, business, or meeting newly arrived immigrants in a country. It is by far easier to just have everyone speak English, but as I mentioned, this is rife with social issues and a tendency to generalize, which can reinforce discriminatory attitudes about different communities.

I have always argued that languages are the base form of communication and culture before anything else, like food, religion, or music. Languages, in some ways, embody the lived experiences and collective memory of a people, and are often the only way that we have glimpses into our pasts. For example, for people who speak Mandarin, this takes the form of 成語 (chéngyŭ), four character phrases that are taken from classical Chinese literature, common idioms, or elsewhere. They are set phrases that preserve Chinese culture in the language itself. Many idioms in different languages function this way, to varying extents.

However much I say that learning a language is just a question of what method you use, there is no doubt that doing so takes time, energy, and commitment. I know that not everyone has those things to do so, but I won’t stop encouraging people to do so. It has long been demonstrated that multilingualism improves empathy and cultural comprehension. A multilingual society also ensures a robust quality of discourse, one that is multifaceted and nuanced. The exchange of ideas in the original language ensures as little dilution of those ideas as possible. This is the logic behind which it is said that there is always something lost in translation.

The pushing of English as a universal lingua franca is a massive act of erasure of both languages and the communities that speak them. To push English onto them is devalue their experiences, and disregard the humanity they inherently display through their language. Policies and beliefs that discourage multilingualism can manifest in forms of racism and other forms of discrimination.  No language, no matter how small, is representative of a particular worldview, and therefore helps form part of the larger picture that is the human experience.

I will be the first to admit that I cannot learn every language in one lifetime, and that it will always be exceedingly difficult to achieve this goal. I do not expect everyone to be fluent in ten different languages, but I do hope that they will make the effort to work toward learning at least one or two other than their own. As it is said in the Katha Upanishad, the wise seek the good, and the ignorant seek the pleasant. I urge people not to do what is easy, and embark on a path toward multilingualism. We have already lost so many languages due to the advance of English in the Americas and other parts of the world; let us not do a disservice to those that remain.