After 560 days, I finally leveled out of level 60! I know posts like these are overdone—hell, I’m looking at the “Your topic is similar to…” sidebar as I type and even mildly self-deprecating topics like this are old hat—but how often do you stick with an app for a year and a half and actually hit its terminal point?
I don’t know why that darn number to the lower-right of my avatar hasn’t turned gold for me yet, but I’m eagerly awaiting when it happens. I actually had one kanji to go for 26 hours. It felt like that third Lord of the Rings movie or that Hart brothers cage match in Summerslam '94: I kept thinking it would end and it just wouldn’t end.
I can’t thank Koichi and the Tofugu crew enough for this great app. I don’t know their usernames, but I’d like to give a shout-out in particular to Jen, Rachel, and Mami. I’m one of those users who actually does send submissions for every idle thought I have as to how to improve things. Those three had the patience of saints to put up with all my unsolicited feedback.
Who I am
I’m a 39-year-old mathematics professor. I first started learning Japanese in high school when I was 14. I went on to minor in Japanese in college. I took my last Japanese class in around 2003, I think? I took a quarter of Spanish and a quarter of Chinese as well.
While education is important to society in general (I mean, I am a college professor), frankly, I take a dim view of learning a language in a school setting. I have differences with Dogen, but he correctly pointed out that you hear more “bad” language from classmates than “good” language from your instructor. Plus, after three years of high school Japanese and two years of university Japanese, I can confidently say that the goal of those classes was to get a native speaker to say, 「日本語上手ですね！」
You know, the “it’s cute that you tried” reaction.
I’ve maintained Japanese on and off since then, mostly just translating video games… sloooowly. Looking up every single kanji and every single word and just hoping I could get a coherent sentence out of it.
I made the decision to hit Japanese hard again when worked with a Japanese student tutor. He’s one of those guys who’s a jerk, but a fun jerk, you know? He thought my Japanese was pitiful… and told all the students he was tutoring, so I became known as The Professor Whose Japanese Sucks. At the end of the year, he wrote me a nice card—in handwritten Japanese—that basically said that if I keep studying, then someday, I won’t suck. I’ll never forget how he ended it with a Japanese proverb:
A year and a half later, I really do have to credit WaniKani with giving me enough dust to make a modest mountain.
I initially started with the Heisig Remembering the Kanji method. That’s what my school used when I was a student.
Really, it was my third time trying RTK. Ten years ago (after I graduated but before WaniKani), I’d made a gigantic Anki deck of over 2000 kanji, with the RTK words on all of them. But I was relying on visual memory without even trying to make mnemonics or break down the kanji I was looking at. I did OK for a while, but I fell off the wagon and that deck became a disaster. I was just pushing “Again” dozens of times between getting one right by accident.
I noticed the WaniKani tag when I looked up a random word in Jisho and I was intrigued. I almost didn’t bother. What convinced me was interacting with WaniKani staff on Twitter. They openly said their method isn’t for everyone. That transparency impressed me and convinced me to try it out.
I definitely prefer WaniKani to the RTK method. I appreciate the work that Heisig did, but I didn’t gain enough for it to benefit me in the moment when I was reading Japanese text. I went from looking up every kanji to looking up every kanji slightly faster.
Having said that, Heisig’s emphasis on handwriting kanji is good advice. All of you should be writing by hand more.
Another crucial detail: as with a lot of users here, I have ADHD (along with half a dozen other mental illnesses). WaniKani could be frustrating sometimes because I could think of the concept but not the word… or occasionally, the other way around. It took a lot of willpower and counteracting my own executive dysfunction to make it this far. That’s another reason I felt a need to make one of these posts even as I know they’re done to death.
What I did
I don’t have much advice on how to use WaniKani “right.” If you practice enough, you’ll find what works for you. You don’t need me to tell you what that is.
I use the desktop site and Tsurukame in tandem. I have to admit that I used Tsurukame to cheat a lot, but it’s mostly been when I felt like I had an ADHD moment rather than actual forgetting. Or when I knew the word but typed in the wrong conjugation.
I started using the Self-Study Quiz around lesson 50 and that turned out to be just the missing ingredient I needed to go the distance. I only use it for leeches and enlightened items (I get really frustrated and tempted to cheat when I miss an entry that I would’ve burned).
Another key to my success was that I don’t just use WaniKani. I also use Bunpro, japanese.io, and my own Anki decks of anime cards and the rest of the jōyō kanji. I can’t overstate the importance of doing other learning activities concurrently with WaniKani.
Even when you’re doing well, WaniKani doesn’t work half as well unless you’re letting the knowledge cross-pollinate with studying that you do elsewhere. Whenever I see those “here’s why I’m quitting halfway” posts here, I’d bet a steak dinner was that they thought WaniKani would make them fluent by itself and blamed the site for their own narrow understanding.
I consumed as much native content as I could get my hands on. In retrospect, I did a lot but not enough. I should’ve read more and listened to NHK more (now I can’t even get NHK to work for me on any of my devices). I plateaued on purpose several times, but if I had to do it over again, I’d have gone at half the speed and read a lot more.
How I'd have made WaniKani differently
It’s no exaggeration to say that this site transformed my Japanese. Even after speaking a little Japanese for over half my life, WaniKani broke me out of the plateau that I’d been in that whole time. I’d recommend this site to every Japanese learner I can find (I’ve actually offered to buy the first few months for friends and they’ve turned me down—their loss!).
There are a few things I’d have done differently if I’d made this site.
- I think WaniKani should transition students into looking up words in a Japanese → Japanese dictionary like Meikyо̄ or Daijirin. I’d like to see more words that appear commonly in dictionary definitions, like 物事 or 様子.
- On a similar note, I would have a definition on every vocab item (except maybe the extremely obvious ones like “cat” or “window”), even if it’s just a straight translation of a Meikyо̄ or Daijirin definition.
- I like how those dictionaries have not just example sentences but example sentence fragments. I’m looking at the entry for 金額 right now and their example usage is 「莫大な─」, which is a tiny thing that already tells me something about when to use both 金額 and 莫大.
- I’d also include more linguistics terms like 接尾語 and 五・一段動詞. It’s good kanji practice and this’ll also help students get to that state (様子!) where they can study Japanese in Japanese.
- I remember the site stating at some point that students don’t have to handwrite to use WaniKani, but I disagree. Handwriting Japanese forces me to remind myself to break kanji down by radicals, especially in the back half.
- Another area where I agree with Heisig: I’d decouple the “winter” radicals: 夂 and 攵.
- Similarly, I’d throw in some pitch accent information. MattVsJapan is another YouTuber whom I have a lot of differences with, but he suggested color-coding words by pitch accent and I wish I’d thought of that a year ago. The audio here is wonderful but I think even minimal pitch accent info on WaniKani would save me a lot of the re-learning that I know I’m in for as I focus more on production.
- WaniKani should point out more patterns between right-side radicals and on’yomi. I know those patterns have a ton of exceptions, but when they work, they save a lot of hassle.
- I’d add more radicals for cases where groups of radicals recur a lot. It feels like wasted effort to think of 朱 as “slide + jet” every time I see it.
- Would it be too lenient to do a gray-shake rather than mark it wrong when my only mistakes are rendaku or confusing a transitive verb with an intransitive one? Maybe it would be, but yet again, when it’s something I would’ve burned, it’s demoralizing to wait four months to try for another burn.
- After level 15 or so, I’d get rid of the する on all the する-verbs. When there are two notes and that’s the only difference, it feels redundant.
- I’d like to see all the vocab that I’m qualified for in the same level as their highest-level kanji. It always felt onerous leveling up and then seeing 50 more vocabulary that I could’ve started on a level ago.
- Since one of the design principles is gamifying learning, I’d love to see some “post-game” content of some kind. Maybe a “boss rush” of lots of random items?
- More collocations.
- More yojijukugo.
Finally, while it is possible to complete WaniKani in about a year, I can’t think of any user for whom that’d be desirable (unless a native Japanese speaker wanted to sign up for some reason). I’m not saying it’s irresponsible of Tofugu to advertise that way, but even after almost a year and a half (and with a lot of prior experience), I went too fast.
Feels good to get all that off my chest!
Anyway, WaniKani is to my Japanese what Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards was to my drawing skills: I feel like I’m really doing the thing now instead of just hoping I’ll git gud someday. Not just as a Japanese learner but as an ADHD haver, knowing that I have it in me to see this all the way through counts for a lot. Not just in Japanese but in life. I have tangible proof of my discipline and willpower, and that means even more to me than knowing I can play more video games!
And now that I’m stuffed full of kanji, it’s time to play a lot of video games.