Learning Japanese on Duolingo before my trip was effective, if only in short bursts

Intensive courses may be more effective than five-minute sessions, but don't say sayonara to consistency

Language learning apps teach users how to pronounce basic and nuanced words and phrases, which can help on a trip abroad. Unsplash
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I love Japan. If I had to move anywhere in the world, there would be very little hesitation; I would be there before you could say “konnichiwa”.

Having been there twice, once in 2016 and once in 2018, I was very excited to visit again last year, but with my wife this time.

On my first two trips, I was accompanied by friends. They are from the Gulf, but have studied and worked in Japan for the better part of eight years and, as such, were able to communicate easily with locals, and understood all the nuances and contexts required.

Their ability with the language was not only linguistically capable, but also meant they understood the culture well.

When the time came to planning for our sojourn to Japan, my wife and I decided it could be helpful and fun if we learnt the language. After a quick search, we settled on Duolingo, a free language-learning app that has become popular in recent years.

During our first week, we spent time on the app every single day. Our sessions ranged anywhere from five to 30 minutes (although, admittedly, five minutes was usually more doable). As we picked up new words and quotidian phrases, I got the feeling this might be easier than we thought.

Even though the classes started to become more difficult a month in – with more complex words thrown at us – we persevered in our quest. A few minutes a day is no hardship.

About 400 days later, it was time to travel east. We landed in Tokyo feeling confident and ready to communicate. We didn’t know how to read the language, but knew enough to ask for directions, order food or compliment something or someone.

The first couple of encounters were great; we managed to make our way to the local konbini to pick up water and other utility items, and dispatched some phrases that ensured we were viewed as knowledgeable, not just your average tourists.

We were riding a high, feeling like we’d accomplished something miraculous. Like we'd somehow “mastered” a completely new language just by spending five minutes a day on it.

Reality caught up soon enough, though, as it was quickly proved we possessed only what probably amounts to 0.5 per cent of the knowledge needed to properly navigate and use the language.

What I like about Duolingo is its gamification of education. There’s a daily tracker that tells you how long your learning streak is. There are also daily goals to achieve, which if you’re competing against friends, family or colleagues, you’ll want to do well.

However, in retrospect, picking up the language might have been more effective had we enrolled in hours-long intensive courses a couple weeks before the trip.

Luckily, Japan has come a long way in terms of using English, and many people, especially in the service industry, have a very capable command of the language.

We were not deterred for the rest our trip, either, using a word here and a phrase there. We would not waste almost 13 months of lessons just to revert to English at the drop of a boshi.

After returning, there was a moment when I considered stopping and picking up another language. Maybe Finnish, because I would like to visit Finland someday.

I didn’t succumb, though, and pushed through, reaching and surpassing 500 consecutive days of learning Japanese on Duolingo.

There will be more trips to Japan in the future, and I hope that my knowledge and ability is improved with every visit.

I don’t think the experiment was a failure; on the contrary, I think it showed what can be achieved with just learning for a few minutes each day, as well as how much better it would be with more time spent on the task.

Updated: January 12, 2024, 6:02 PM