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‘Gamified’ language app Duolingo finally adds Japanese

by

Staff Writer

Just as many readers are swapping paperbacks for tablets, many language learners are trading in their textbooks for apps so they can study on the go.

One of the most popular language applications on the market is Duolingo, a program that “gamifies” learning by rewarding players with points and new levels after they memorize vocabulary words and grammar points.

The app, which has over 170 million users around the world, currently offers over 20 language courses, including Spanish, Vietnamese and Turkish. But Japanese had been notably missing until this week, when it was released on Friday by the Apple store for iOS.

Duolingo’s landing page for its Japanese course showed that more than 60,000 people signed up to be notified the moment that lessons were finally added. Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn said in a news release that Japanese was the most requested lesson in the company’s five-year history.

“No matter what we’d share on social media, tons of people would respond with, ‘That’s nice, but when are you launching Japanese?,’ ” he said.

Senior software engineer Hideki Shima told The Japan Times by email that pop culture was a major reason behind the high demand.

“Many of those who had been requesting the Japanese course on Duolingo are particularly big fans of subculture like anime and manga,” Shima said. “That’s why at the end of our course, we offer bonus lessons themed around subculture that help you learn phrases like ‘I cosplay on weekends’ and ‘There are many department stores in Akihabara.’ ”

“For many people, learning Japanese opens up a whole new set of opportunities for appreciating the culture,” he said.

Duolingo’s Japanese course is targeted at absolute beginners by teaching them all hiragana and katakana characters, and about 90 different kanji. The lessons will also focus on the grammar points and vocabulary words people will need to know to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test’s N5 exam, the most basic level.

For people trying to relearn Japanese, the courses may feel different from lessons they took previously in school or online. Duolingo emphasizes recognizing symbols, not learning stroke order. And characters are not introduced in any particular order but instead as building blocks so people can create new words with every new hiragana character.

Software engineer and research scientist Masato Hagiwara said it was a big challenge to add Japanese to the app, which features mostly Western languages.

“Japanese is widely known as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, and it is even more difficult to teach effectively,” Hagiwara said. “We designed our curriculum from scratch according to research-based teaching guidelines.”

Hagiwara also said that it’s possible for Duolingo to add more lessons for intermediate speakers.

“In the future we may decide to build on it and add more advanced content, but we don’t have concrete plans for this yet.”

One of the reasons Duolingo is so popular among language learners is the fact that it’s free. The company has received revenue through its translation services and language proficiency tests, and recently added a paid-subscription model. But Duolingo stays free, unlike other memorization software — such as Memrise — which requires payment to unlock all features.

Duolingo will release the Japanese courses on Android in one or two weeks and on its website later.

As for the company itself, Duolingo plans to keep on learning and growing. Developers are already working on other languages, including Hindi, Korean and even Klingon, one of the tongues spoken in the sci-fi series “Star Trek.”

Live long and prosper — and study.