Photo of chart showing katakanya characters, on my fridge door

Katakanya has joined hiragana on my fridge door

Fifteen days, usually one ‘lesson’ a day, further down the duolingo Japanese course from my post with beginner’s comments, I can say that the claimed “5 minutes a day” is optimistic, certainly for me. I did complete each of the first ten ‘lessons’ in 5 minutes or so but as they became more difficult that extended considerably; I did not time this morning’s lesson but it certainly took me 30 minutes or more. On the other hand, I thought long and hard about each question and made only one mistake.

In my previous post on the subject I wondered whether I should compare the Japanese course with one for a language In which I am reasonably fluent. Let me clarify that: I can read it without a problem, understand it spoken with few problems, but have many difficulties attempting to write it. So, I decided to do the Romanian course alongside the Japanese. In four days I have completed many ‘lessons’, certainly more than 40, with very few mistakes. And I have begun to understand the complexities of Romanian articles, singular and plural, and the use of the diacritical marks, for the first time. So far so good. I’m hoping that soon I will not be asking Petronela “is it ă, â or a in …?”

Romanian on duolingo

Romanian prăjituri

Romanian prăjituri

Cupcakes. Good for children

Cupcakes. Good for children

What is clear is that the Romanians constructing this course are heavily influenced by American English so that there are some bad, misleading translations (eg, ‘prăjituri’ is said to be ‘cup cakes’; the wonderful small Romanian cakes and pastries bear no resemblance to those silly over-decorated buns (as we would call them) which have become fashionable. In fact there is no good English word for the Romanian creations (there’s probably one in German or Austrian as they have similar things). The best I can come up with in British English is ‘fancies’ but it would be better to describe them.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Romanian course developers seem never to have heard of ‘present continuous’, which would often be a more appropriate translation than the present simple given. Admittedly, correct use of simple and continuous was usually difficult to grasp for my Romanian students as they don’t make the difference in Romanian.

Back to Japanese

I wonder if the lack of explanations is deliberate in the Japanese course. If so I think, as a former language teacher, it is rather misguided as when I first began the course many things were totally confusing. I mentioned in my previous post the overall title of the first lessons being ‘hirigana’, with no explanation of what hirigana is, was confusing to me.

Even more confusing was, having completed the hirigana lessons, I was suddenly confronted with the title ‘intro’. Only after I completed a few lessons did it become clear that the ‘intro’ was to a totally different writing system ‘katakanya’. Rather late in the day I’ve realised that ‘intro’ is probably not ‘introduction’ but ‘introductions’.

Then there’s the wonder of large and small characters and diacriticals, which change the pronunciation, meaning or both.

And I haven’t got to the kanji, the Chinese characters, yet! Or I don’t think I have. In fact I don’t really know what I have got to as I have no idea  what some of characters introduced are. But, at last, some kind of logic has begun to appear and I made only one mistake in this morning’s lesson, by deduction. As I said last time, a really good thing about duolingo is the collection of forums, populated with people who are only too willing to help. Without them I would probably have given up.

An important word of warning

Beware of the advertisements. There are all sorts of inducements to view advertisements but some are hiding some well known ‘scams’. Avoid particularly those offering ‘free trials’. They will usually eventually ask for the cost of postage and packing, thereby obtaining your bank card details, and lock you in to automatic reordering of the product at a ridiculous price. At the end of each lesson you are invited to obtain some advantage by watching an ad. I now never do. Duolingo would do itself a great favour by excluding the ‘scam’ advertisements.


As I wrote in a recent post, I have begun to learn a little Japanese using Duolingo. What attracted me in the first place was the promised ‘Learn Japanese in 5 minutes a day’. I cannot usually read the blogs I follow, let alone comment on them as I like to do, over my morning tea (Yorkshire tea of course!); the same often applies to messages received on Messenger. But something ‘useful’ I could do in those few minutes appealed to me so I installed the duolingo app on my iPad.

Ten lessons completed I can say that ‘learning Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ is not quite true; ‘Learn a little Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ would be more true.


In the first two or three lessons I was repeatedly clicking the ‘report’ button when what I was hearing (the ‘characters’ are vocalised, which is great) did not seem to match up with the ‘spelling’, in English characters, of the sound. There did not seem to be anywhere any explanations of this, or of many other things encountered in the lessons, which further confused me.

Hiragana, hirakana – let’s call the whole thing off!

At the most basic, each of the groups of ‘5 minute lessons’ is titled ‘Hiragana #’ but what on earth is Hiragana? It’s not the obvious ‘Lesson’ but a Japanese syllabary script, one component of the Japanese writing system. Note the “one component”!

However, there are only 48 Hiragana ‘characters’, so that doesn’t sound too bad. So, we are learning one Japanese syllabary script – Hiragana. Fine. Once you get the idea of using sounds rather than consonant plus vowel it’s not so bad, so vocalises as hi-ra-ka-na. I’m not going to get into the ‘ga’ being ‘ka’, there is no ‘ga’ as such, but you can understand why I was confused at the start.

Then, for some reason I cannot remember, I opened duolingo on my Macbook, not the ‘app’, and discovered another world. In particular I found there was a forum for each of the languages. So I posted a question on the Japanese forum, something like ‘Why are there so many mistakes in pronunciation?’. Almost immediately my question was answered (they were not ‘mistakes’) by other users. These answers made me trawl through many forum postings, by the end of which I knew much more about the Japanese language, and duolingo Japanese. That probably took me 12-24 5 minute lesson times.

Hang on! In the forum words like kana, kanji, katakana, are bandied about; what on earth are those? It turns out with research (thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia!) that kana are the syllabic Japanese scripts, including hiragana; katakana and kanji are others (note I didn’t say ‘the others’). I understand that to find your way about Japan, or to read a newspaper, you will have to learn about 2,000 Kanji ‘characters’, more complex like this 漢字 – that is ‘kanji’ written in kanji.

Put off?

I haven’t been but how much better it would have been if there was a short ‘introduction’ explaining these things, before you begin the lessons.

I don’t know whether some similar confusions exist for beginners with other languages; I could check with a language I know well – Romanian – or a few I know a little – French, Spanish, Italian – but to be honest I’d rather spend the time exploring other sources for the Japanese.

Not a classroom learner

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

I have never been good at learning languages in the classroom but picked up the essentials rapidly when living in, or visiting frequently, the respective country (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), but forgot them equally rapidly when that was no longer the case. So a little further down the road I’ll take the opportunity to speak with other learners or, if possible, Japanese natives.

When it comes to learning kanji, I’ll resort to what I did for my Romanian wife when she first came to the UK with no more than 8 words of English – cover the fridge in stickers, in her case common words, for me kanji ‘characters’. I already write the hiragana in a note book as I’m doing the lessons and I’ll begin to do that correctly following the guide I’ve found (see picture above).

It’s unlikely I’ll visit Japan again (I was there for about 2 weeks in the late ’60s). However, even now, ten lessons in, I see why I came to the conclusion instinctively, as I posted here, that ‘haiku’ written in English are not haiku at all. If my learning efforts allow me to write a haiku in Japanese with which I am satisfied it will all have been worthwhile.

My love affair with the fountain pen has continued and having written my first poem with it I’ve now hand written my first story with it and, what is more, read from the exercise book draft at our writers’ club (Writing on the Wharfe) meeting earlier today. I’m not sure I’ve finished with the story yet but I’m putting it below.

The result of my first couple of Japanese lessons, written in the same exercise book as the story posted here

The result of my first couple of Japanese lessons, written in the same exercise book as the story posted here

As I’ve also just begun to attempt to learn Japanese, having used the pen has given me an urge to write the Japanese characters with a calligraphic brush. Maybe later.

My writers’ club colleagues asked me why I’d suddenly decided to try to learn Japanese. Two motivations: a bit of new brain exercise; as followers of this blog will know I sometimes try to write haiku but recently came to the conclusion, as I posted at the time,  that they could only be written in Japanese so I don’t think any of the large numbers in English on internet are haiku, including my own.

I digress. Here’s my story:

The warm feeling flooded into his throat. He was surprised when it spread to his groin. He tried to see if the rather lovely young radiologist was touching him but he could not; the giant doughnut machine was in the way, just his head out on the side he could see.

“Are you feeling the warm sensation?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s rather pleasant,” he answered.

“Good. I’ll be back in a minute. Any problem just say; I can hear you.”

He strained to look to his right and could just see the cannula taped on the inside of his elbow, his blood making a pretty pattern under the transparent tape holding it in place.

“It’s just a dye,” she had said.

“Just!” he said to himself with a smile; “I reckon they’ve mixed it with Viagra.”

“Breathe in and hold your breath.” A different voice, female, gentle but with some authority.

A short time passed. “Breathe normally,” said the voice.

He slowly let the breath go and sank into a sleepy torpor as first his chest then, one by one, other parts of his body relaxed.

He sensed the table on which he was lying moving back through the doughnut until the whole of his body was outside the machine.

He felt someone lifting the flimsy surgical gown and sliding down his boxer shorts, which he’d been told to keep on.

“What’s going on,” he asked as that warm feeling began to return, not in his throat but in that place lower down. His throat was becoming dry . He swallowed hard as he felt something soft and warm cover first one of his thighs, then the other. Skin on skin he thought.

That gentle voice again.

“Don’t you move,” she said.

“My God, it must have been Viagra,” he thought.

“Hey, wake up, you’re not supposed to go to sleep in there.”

That gentle voice again, a little more urgent, penetrated his dream, just as it was getting interesting.