Languages vary a lot in how they use writing to represent sounds and words. For language learners, this can mean an extra challenge for learning to read and write.

For some languages, learners might have to learn a new alphabet of individual letters, like in Greek and Russian. For other languages, the rules about writing could be totally different from how we think about letters in the Roman script used in English. For example, in Korean, letters are combined into blocks that might look like one character, but they actually correspond to syllables (multiple sounds together, like bu or di). In Chinese, characters are based on meanings instead of being purely sound-based (诗 'poem' and 湿 'wet' are pronounced the same). That could mean learning vocabulary, pronunciation, and writing all at once!

In this post, we'll be sharing some of the newest features we're working on to help Duolingo learners gain important reading skills in languages that use writing systems different from their own. Read on to learn about one of our favorite new features for the Japanese course!

What’s in the new feature?

Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn to read, so we made learning fun by adding new exercises that allow you to practice tracing, spelling, and reading the characters. You can find an icon for this new feature at the bottom of your home screen. When you tap it, you’ll see a chart that shows all the characters you’ll learn. You can tap one to hear what it sounds like or tap “Learn the Characters” to start a lesson that focuses on just a few characters from the chart at a time. We select the characters you see in each lesson so you’ll start with characters that are easier to tell apart and gradually add harder ones. We keep track of which characters you’ve already seen and help you alternate between practicing new characters and reviewing those you’ve seen before. As you keep using the feature, your literacy will get better and better! After completing each lesson, you also earn XP, and the chart lights up to show your progress.

Image of the home screen for learning Japanese characters. At the top are two tabs for the two Japanese writing systems taught in the feature, hiragana and katakana. The hiragana tab is active, and underneath it is text that says "Let's Learn Hiragana! Get to know the main writing system in Japanese." Below the text is a large blue button that says "Learn the Characters." Below the button is a reference chart with five squares across and many rows down, with a Japanese hiragana character in each square. Most of the squares are white with a gray progress bar at the bottom, but four have a partially gold bar to indicate progress, and ten squares are completely gold. At the very bottom of the screen is the set of tab icons for navigating around Duolingo. From left to right, there is a set of three circles for the home tab, a Japanese hiragana character which is currently highlighted in blue for the characters tab, a face for the profile tab, a shield for the leagues tab, and a treasure chest for the shop tab.

In the new lessons, you'll trace the characters so you gain more familiarity with what they look like. Even though this may feel like writing practice, these exercises are actually helping you learn to read by teaching you to recognize the shape of each character! You’ll also answer multiple choice and matching questions to practice connecting the written symbols to the sounds they represent. In addition, you’ll get to spell what you hear by tapping one character at a time.

Image of a pre-lesson tip. The text says "Let's Learn Hiragana! Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. In hiragana, each character represents a syllable. For example, ushi (written in hiragana and highlighted in blue) is pronounced ushi. It means cow. Can you figure out what sushi (written in hiragana and highlighted in blue) means? Below the text is a table with two columns and three rows. The left column header says "Character" and the right column header says "Pronunciation." Each row has a hiragana character in the left column highlighted in blue. Each row has a pronunciation description in the right column. The characters and descriptions are as follows: su like in "super" (in parentheses, sometimes sounds like just "s" at the end of a word), shi like in "she," u like in "too."At the bottom of the tip is a large green button that says "Start Lesson." Image of a tracing challenge. The top of the screen says "Trace the Character." There is a small blue speaker icon with a small hiragana su character next to it and the Roman alphabet text "su" underneath the hiragana. There is a large hiragana su character in the middle of the screen drawn in gray with a blue arrow and dotted directional line indicating the first stroke for learners to trace with their finger. At the bottom of the screen is a large grayed out button that says "Check." Image of a spelling challenge. The top of the screen says "Tap what you hear." There is a large blue speaker icon and a smaller blue icon with a turtle on it for hearing slower speech. Underneath the speaker icons is a solid line on which are two individual tap tokens for the hiragana characters "su" and "shi." Below the solid line are two grayed out squares indicating where the "su" and "shi" tokens were previously answer choices and two more tap tokens with the hiragana characters "u" and "ko" on them. At the bottom of the screen is a light green band that says "Good! Meaning sushi" and a large green button that says "Continue."

Why Japanese, and what’s next?

We started with Japanese because it has three different writing systems, all of which can appear in the same sentence! Since this can be challenging for beginners, we wanted to help you focus on one thing at a time. Now, when you complete lessons in the main part of the course, you can devote your attention to learning meaning, and when you do lessons in the new tab, you can concentrate on learning how to read the characters. Currently, the feature teaches hiragana and katakana, which are both writing systems in which every character represents a pronounced syllable (like “ka” or “su”). In the third writing system, kanji, there are over 2000 characters, each representing a meaning. That’s a lot to learn, so we are continuing to explore the best way to teach all of the kanji.

Writing systems in other languages do things that Japanese doesn’t, so we’re also planning on adapting this feature to address some of those differences. In Korean, for instance, some syllables put letters together from left to right, but others do it from top to bottom. For example, combining ㅁ m and ㅏ a gives you 마 ma, but if you combine ㅁ m and ㅗ o, you get 모 mo! We are working to make sure our lessons reflect how various languages represent text and help learners get used to reading in a new way.

Duolingo gamifies character learning!

Writing systems are as diverse as languages themselves. At Duolingo, we’re always thinking about the best ways to teach reading and writing for all of the languages in our app. The new character feature is currently available on Android in our Japanese courses for English and Chinese speakers. We're working on lots of improvements, so stay tuned for more reading and writing exercises on all our platforms (iOS, Android, and web) and in even more languages with non-Roman scripts.