Last week Thursday it happened: I reached the highest lvl 60 in Wanikani.
Although there are still some lessons in the queue and I am far from burning everything, it is about time to make this post. I have never been that active in the Wanikani-forum, partly because I can be a little shy and partly because I did not want to get too distracted by it. Still, I think after almost 4 years I should share at least a few details. Actually, quite a lot of details accumulated over time that I feel like getting out somewhere. So, proceed with caution: this post will be full of my random ramblings and overlengthy reflections. I try to make it a fun read, but you’ll be the judge of that, okay? Ready? No? Neither am I…
1. Me and my motivations
Me: 37 year old male, born in Germany , living in the Netherlands , planning to move to Japan . I am your typical computer geek, with a strong interest in games, series, movies and all this type of fun stuff. My upbringing lead quite naturally to a study in computer science and mathematics and the jobs I do nowadays still revolve around those topics, with a dash of space mixed in for a more exciting work flavor . I consider myself more of a researcher than a developer, but I can hack together some code if needed (and it is usually needed a lot) .
My mother tongue is German and I used it almost exclusively for over half of my life. Nowadays, because of international work and friends, I mainly think, talk and communicate in English. In school I learned a bit of English and Latin, but I never fancied learning any languages if I am being honest . For example, I have been living and working now almost 10 years in the Netherlands, but I speak zero Dutch and never put in an effort in learning it, despite everyone harassing me with “how easy it would be for me”…
So, how come that I picked up Japanese? Well, I am big fan of Japanese green tea . A really big fan… In fact, you might say I am obsessed with this beverage… so much that the normal tea you can buy here in Europe does not cut it for me any more. I need more… I need to go to the source of it all… I must uncover the finest and most exquisite tea leaves! There is this voice in my head that compels me to buy the tea only from the tea farmers in Japan. Without Japanese, I will never understand their secret offers and they will never understand my order. This leaves (pun intended) me with no choice: I have to learn Japanese!
What? You do not believe me? Good! I was just kidding: I am here because of anime, manga and the games just like the rest of you weeb-bunch! Honestly now, what did you expect?
Putting the jokes aside, my admiration for Japan as a country and place of fascinating culture goes a little deeper . Over the years, various japan-related interests of mine compounded and spending some time living and working in Japan has become an important point on my bucket list . There you have it: sounds more reasonable, right?
It seemed to me that kanji are the number one motivational killer when it comes to learners of Japanese. While researching this topic, I got the impression, that most people regard them as the most difficult and time-consuming aspect to learn. So rather than starting with the easy stuff, I wanted to get this obstacle out of the way first, in the hope that acquiring the rest of the language would become much more pleasant afterwards. Or, if kanji were really that difficult, hopefully they would kill my ambition. Maybe a naive way of thinking, but if you do not want to do just half-measures, you have to get kanji done rather sooner than later, given their occurance and their unreasonable amount.
As a second motivation, I developed this weird, hypochondriac notion that my memory was deteriorating, since I frequently could not recall most of my tremendous wisdom when I needed it . This resulted in me feeling quite stupid and anxious about my brain. I had to put this weird feeling to the test, convince myself of something, so the whole Anki/SRS-stuff caught my attention. I do not know why, but I was extremely sceptical about it and almost certain that this would not work and there was no hope for me. Luckily, this did not stop me from trying.
I quickly discovered Wanikani and was quite surprised about the effectiveness after the trial period . After some contemplation, whether I should commit to the full program, I bought a lifetime subscription when it was on sale and started my journey for real. Fast-forward 4 years and… oh boy… where do I even start?
Well, I don’t regret it, but there are some stories to tell, in particular when life is throwing you curveballs. More on that in the next section? Put your seat belt on first, it will be wild…
2. My journey was a bumpy ride
One heatmap tells the story better than words, so here it is:
A few comments on that: I started somewhere end of September 2018 taking kanji seriously and just did as much as I could effort. Being a little naive about the SRS I did not see the tide rising and suddenly in March/April 2019 large waves of reviews attacked me , often more than 300 a day. To make matters worse, I had to devote a significant amount of time to work from May to July, which was like a 24/7 crunch-time project I burdened upon myself . As it was clear that I could not keep up the speed I stopped lessons and tried to survive the review flood which went down to a reasonable amount.
The work project was very stressful and indeed, in June it made me lose two days for my streak, which infuriated me . Afterwards, I was pretty drained and annoyed that I had not been able to make progress on my lessons, so I tried to kick it up again. What a bad timing? The towering wave of enlightened items that were slumbering before this 3 month gap came crushing down right to hit me ! Soon, I was drowning in kanji and vocabs.
This was not gonna work out, and even though the project was done, my work was still taking up a lot of time. Over the last three months, I pushed myself to at least reach level 30, after which I took a break. Was it actually worth going for lvl60 ? Would it not be better to spend my energy in learning grammar or other aspects of the language rather than burning myself out over kanji ? Of course it was ! In retrospect, I think that lvl30 is actually a good place to “stop” or at least shift priorities. So I did that which resulted in 2020 basically being completely lesson free. I stopped swimming and started floating, like the corpse I was. Neverever did I stop doing my reviews though and the waves of enlightened items were soon getting much calmer and things got manageable .
When my reviews dropped to like 10-20 per day and I had more time at my hands, I started swimming again . Full-speed of course, though I tried to have my reviews somewhat balanced between 100-200 items per day and never really spiking much higher than 200. I was back in the game , and you know who was also back in the game? the bloody 24/7 crunching work project from June to September 2021!
So here I was back again: floating. I admire the folks here who have such a clean and uninterrupted progression… but part of me is also afraid of them . Anyway, crunchtime happened and the project was over at some point. Unfortunately for me, this time all the effort, did not pay off and I was at the end of my energy. Perfect time, for another kick on my back, as things went rapidly sour in my local social circle, leading to some big implosion and a lot of grief.
I learned all those grief-kanjis way too late (lvl55, I am talking about you!). Without going too much into detail, end of 2021 I had my big 憂鬱, but eventually I picked myself up and with my goal of moving to Japan coming closer, I regained motivation . By now, all this floating and drowning in the kanji ocean taught me how to surf the waves . By now I knew how to deal with my peaks and how to pace myself. When it was time to hit the brakes, I hit the brakes, but I kept swimming, sometimes faster and sometimes slower . With a last stretch starting in September 2022 I finally reached this milestone, looking back at a review streak of 1213 days .
3. Reflections on my learning experience
This is the part for more statistics and a few insights that I learned from my journey . Now me is me and you is you: we all learn different and what worked for me could help or hinder you, so you must make your own experiences after all . However, I hope that my humble report might guide you a little, especially if you have the suspicion that you might be a bursty, busy and sometimes compulsory obsessive character like me…
Let’s start with more statistics? This is my level-up speed, including my hilarious gap of 400 days at lvl30 .
Was this gap-year really a good idea in retrospect? If you are struggling with your motivation and need a break, I think you should try stopping lessons for a month or two and see how that helps. And if you need more time, half a year or even a year: so be it! During 2020, I could have started with kanji earlier again, but for me this breather was feeling quite good. 2020 was also the year where I was putting more effort into bunpro, which was only manageable for me by reducing Wanikani to the minimum amount.
Now, I am not a killer at bunpro (yet) but it helped me with my Japanese and I am looking forward to giving it more effort now that Wanikani is mostly done.
The graph above reporting my wall-clock time spent reviewing is quite funny to compare to the heatmap . The gap-year is clearly visible and also the work-gaps and the drowning phases. I learned that more than 30 minutes Wanikani review per day is really not sustainable for me and this is what worked out for me in the end quite nicely (admittedly, I did a little sprint to reach lvl60, but under normal circumstances I would have taken an extra month for it).
As you see here, my Guru-items are way too many, at least for my taste. Usually, having 800+ Guru-items was my signal to hit the brake and stop doing new lessons. A sustainable number is 400-500 for me. Apprentice items should stay around 100, ideally less, however because of my bursty learning style when it comes to lessons, they naturally fluctuate a lot. So, in case you wondered: this is how my lesson heatmap looks like:
While I was able to forge an unbreakable habit of doing reviews every bloody day, lessons were a completely different beast . They required a lot more attention and care: rushing a lesson and getting something wrongly wired in your brain is really bad. I did them in huge batches, that sometimes costed me hours . This had the advantage, that I could “block” out time for it and tweak my expected review schedule to my circumstances. In retrospect, a more continuous approach with 2-6 lessons per day would probably be more sustainable in the long run and generate a much “smoother” experience. I would not advocate to do 100+ lessons a day like I did… but yeah, I mean this is what worked for me?!
Like with the reviews, any number other than zero made my skin crawl and I could not manage to just “stop” lessons. Also, motivating myself to do lessons, for which I needed a highly focussed state of mind, felt extremely difficult, especially after a review session when there is still bunpro and other things to do. Maybe my journey would have been much better if I was not so bursty, but on the other hand I am just a “bursty” person . I procrastinate a lot: most of the time I simply do nothing, but then - suddenly - I do really really a lot . Me getting caught up in crazy crunchtime projects is no coincidence: this is just how I roll. Some part of myself seems to enjoy the unreasonable challenge and intensity of it. Maybe deep down, I am a masochist?
Anyhow: if you roll like this as well, maybe give lesson bursts a try? If you are capable to create a daily habit for lessons though, it is probably more advisable…
Lastly, here are some accuracy numbers that I did not concern myself much with.
Some people seem to obsess about those numbers and when I was looking into some threads of the community board were people talking about their 95%+ accuracy, I could not help but feeling somewhat discouraged . If you are like that, try to block these influences out and try not to be competitive. In my humble opinion, there should be only one number you should obsess about and that is your review streak! Look, whether at one day you get 90%, 80%, 70% or 60% accuracy in your reviews is depending on so many factors. How many of those dreaded enlightened items were in your session? Did you got enough sleep last night? Is there a crazy deadline of some sort approaching and you have to rush your review session to maintain your mental sanity? All of this will twist and turn your accuracy in one or the other direction. Comparing with someone in completely different life-situations is pointless. Compare only to yourself: do not be lazy and do your best to improve your accuracy, but by all means: learn also to be content if you do not meet whatever criterion you think you should meet here.
The daily streak is a much better number to obsess about. This metric is nice and stable: no matter how your session went, one session per day is one up for this stupid counter! I always aimed to zero out my reviews by the end of the day, but if it was impossible because I was laying in bed with fever or hell broke loose, I still did at least some reviews! I strongly believe that this ironclad habit of mine was the most essential thing that enabled me to get to the end. Even when I was just a floating corpse in the sea of kanji, it floated me towards the right direction. So, if from this way too long text you should take one thing with you as a learner, the most important lifehack for Wanikani, it is this: under no circumstances stop doing your daily reviews.
Got it? Good. Now go: do them!
I bet you have a super long queue by now and you procrastinated long enough by reading this wall of text. The rest of my post is just the usual stuff about the scripts I used, how stupid some Wanikani mnemonics are, and so on… this stuff you heard already from others, I do not need to tell it to you as well, right? So, go and do your duty, soldier! Burn those durtles, NOW!
4. The Wanikani system: recommendations and critique
Still reading? This procrastination will lead you nowhere, you know that? I will not stop you though. Let’s give the typical answers for the usual questions. No lvl60-post would be complete without it after all…
Let’s start with something contentious: Wanikani could be so much better. Why is this system so barebones ? Here are the scripts I had to install in order to survive.
- WaniKani Dashboard Leech Tables
- WaniKani Heatmap
- WaniKani Keisei Phoenetic-Semantic Composition
- Wanikani Open Framework Additional Filters
- Wanikani Niai Similar kanji
- Wanikani Override
- Wanikani Self-Study Quiz
- Wanikani Show Specific RSR Level in Reviews
- Wanikani Ultimate Timeline
- Wanikani: Fast Vocab Breakdown
Now, I would have survived with one or two less, but still those scripts honestly helped me so much and saved me so much time! I want to make a big shoutout and express my gratitude towards the original developers and the maintainers here, mostly @rfindley of course.
I owe you all big time, but I think I should not? While the community guides for getting tampermonkey installed and the scripts running are good and I never had a serious problem with it, hacking your browser like that is quite some advanced and slightly shady stuff that one should not expect from an “average internet user”. However, you should expect that Wanikani would provide you at least some of these functionalities as options .
I believe that quick feedback during learning makes a big difference as disruptions will cause your brain to lose its focus. So why is it that Wanikani sometimes seems to waste my time almost on purpose ? Let’s say I got the vocab 西瓜 wrong because I did not remember 瓜. After waiting for the info to load, I have to scroll and find the kanji, wait for the kanji page to load, read the mnemonic and realize it references the radical. Now I have to find the radical, open a new page and can read the mnemonic again. As if getting something so easy wrong was not punishment enough. Argh!
Or should I just not care about it? After all, it becomes clear much faster that 瓜 means “melon” so I can just screw reinforcement and hope that next time I remember “melon” just from seeing 瓜 without the mnemonic? But weren’t mnemonics not one of the main features promised from Wanikani? I bought the subscription so someone more knowledgable would spoon-feed me kanji and vocabs in a sensible order with good mnemonics so I do not need to sit there and come up with my own. I have no time for this!
And since we are on the topic of mnemonics: why are some of them so lackluster?
The kanji 叙 means “describe” and is composed out of the radicals “surplus” and “stool”. Identifying those radicals is at some point no longer the issue, so you only need to come up with some quirky story of a surplus of stools that links to the action of “describing”. Now, what is the official Wanikani-mnemonic? “The surplus stool, please describe it.” Bruh?
So if radical A, B and C make a kanji D your mnemomic is literally A, B and C make a D? How is this gonna stick?!
傍ら means “while” with 傍 coming from nearby. Wanna guess the mnemonic? “You’re only nearby while you are nearby, that’s it.” - yeah, I got it… thank you very much Wanikani…
Additional issues arise if reading mnemonics are ambigous or inconsistent. 諭す means “to admonish” and reads “さとす”. The mnemonic tells you “Your mom started to admonish you so you instantly sat (さと) down”. I can see that “sa” comes from sat and “to” comes from a misspronounced “down”, but usually and many times before, “sitting down” has always been a mnemonic for the reading “さつ”. The misspronounciation that is sometimes necessary is also stretching it quite far: 粗い means “coarse” and reads “あらい” with the mnemonic telling me that the most coarse thing you can think of is a rock. Who pronounces “rock” as “rack”?
I wanted to collect a list of all those mnemonic issues for this post but in the end I gave up on that project. Could not be bothered at this point anymore, but I think it is very weak point and at least a partially unfulfilled promise of Wanikani . Now, to be fair, a good majority of the mnemonics are okayish, with some being borderline brilliant , but my expectations after the trial were higher to be honest.
One of the smartest features in bunpro is that there is a forum thread for each grammar point, where additional information can be parked by the community or where mistakes can be reported. I believe, given the amazing community behind Wanikani, that there would be a lot to gain by copying such a feature.
Don’t get me wrong: I am happy Wanikani exists and covers such a large number of kanji. It is hard to say were I would be without it, but all those issues make me wonder whether one is not better off learning Anki and creating personal mnemonics right from the start ? It would save you some bucks and probably enhance your learning experience. Sure, you would spent more time in customizing your Anki system, but how is that any different from getting scripts to run on Wanikani?
Maybe my criticism sounds a bit harsh, but I would really love if Wanikani was stepping up their game. For now it is to the best of my knowledge without serious competition because of the large number of kanji it offers, but it also wastes potential, which is always bitter to witness. Rant over.
5. So I can speak Japanese now, right?
Wish I could, but I think my focus on kanji was ultimately getting a little in the way for the bigger picture. While I had a strong habit of doing Wanikani reviews, I was very reluctant to pile any more tasks on it. Finding motivation to do 100 reviews every day is easier if you can say to yourself: “yeah, let’s do it and then it will be time for something else”. Even the occassional spikes of 200 or 300 reviews are bearable if the finishing line is at least clearly defined. However, when you start to chain Japanese learning tasks like “okay, I do my reviews and then I do my grammar and then I try to be faster in recognizing Katakana and then I try to read some sentences and then I learn some extra Vocab…” etc. the risk of reaching a point where this routine becomes so overblown that you collapse under your ambition is a threat . If course, this depends on your drive/willpower/resilience - call it what you like - at least I struggled a lot with it . I sort of managed to chain my bunpro grammar reviews after Wanikani and did some Katakana practice sometimes, but for anything more I lacked the motivation. Any spoken skills or active vocabulary are severly lacking on my side.
Nevertheless, I noticed that my kanji and grammar knowledge was at least sufficient to make sense of a good amount of the sentences that bunpro presents to me. Also skimming through Japanese textbooks like Genki feels pretty manageable. I would not say, I understand every sentence perfectly, but I usually get the gist of it, if I take my time to work it out . I am convinced that I would be much better by now, if I was doing that more often on the sentences in bunpro rather than rushing through reviews by sort of a “pattern-matching”-style . Building better reading habits is something that I intend on doing more in the future.
I also noticed that the passive vocabulary that I accumulated with Wanikani helped while listening to anime or spoken dialogue in visual novels/games. My ears frequently pick up a word that somehow sounds familar and by the context of the anime it usually leads to some delightful “gotcha!”-moments . This might be a little deceptive though, since without subtitles those moments suddenly become rare . Reading a manga or watching an anime without subs is still unsatisfying to me, so if you have the illusion that after Wanikani this will somehow work out, let me tell you: it won’t unless you dedicate extra time and deliberate practice to it.
Hey, but at least I know 2000 kanji now, right?
Sure sounds impressive, but what does “knowing” even mean? I never bothered with writing kanji or producing them, which means I can write only in Hiragana at best. And given this disrupted learning experience of mine, how many of those 2000 kanji would I actually recognize now?
This is an interesting question, but there is only way to find out: going to the self-study and reviewing them all. Crap, I do not want to do that. It would take an eternity… and what would happen to my ego if I was barely remembering any of those? Let’s not go there?
Okay, screw it, I have come too far to not do this now…
2 hours later
Okay, 2000 kanji is a little too much after all, so I set a time limit of 2 hours for myself . I put all unlocked kanji (so not only the burned ones, but everything) in the self-study script and gave myself per kanji a reasonable amount of time to think about them. When I noticed that I became impatient because I wanted to fail to get quicker to kanji I have seen in recent sessions, I took a breather and forced myself to slow down again. As expected, this exercise was difficult and a little frustrating . Old kanji that look suspiciously like new kanji were suddenly in the mix and for some I could not recall having learned them at all . Within those 2 hours, I managed to go through 480 kanji, so lets say roughly 25% of all. Out of those, I got about 60% correct, with the caveat that the self-study script mixes correct reading and meaning into that number. When it comes to kanji with both, reading and meaning, correct I believe I would be around 50%, maybe slightly lower. A sobering result, but not entirely unexpected . On the flip-side, this still means that I am somewhat familiar with 1000 kanji, give or take 100 and a reactivation of the ones I forgot should come easier by now. I am content with that.
6. Closing remarks and future plans
I guess it is time to learn the language now? Seriously though, my idea would be to move towards sentence reading, building up some active vocabulary and getting a cleaner grasp on grammar. As addictive as learning kanji and Wanikani has been for me, I should have decreased its priority probably years ago. Still, Wanikani will probably remain a tool for me. I was thinking of partially resetting some kanji now and then, in particular those that I encounter frequently or the ones I recognize, but too slow. However, kanji I want to learn that are not on Wanikani would constitute a problem, so I think I would be better off moving this type of knowledge reinforcement completely to Anki (once I get a grip on it)? Sometimes I also think that a full-reset on Wanikani could be an interesting project, especially to recover my nearly forgotten first 30 levels, maybe in combination with Kaniwani or Kamesame? I am still hesitant with resetting though, but I am open to suggestions. Also more general advice is very welcome! Maybe, I will become a bit more active in this community as well as I am slowly emerging from the kanji ocean.
With Japan open for tourists again, I am also looking forward to my journey in November. In the long run, also the job search in Japan should become a bit easier by now. Better get ready for that, right?
Anyway, this concludes my essay. I hope I contributed some interesting story and showed that you can get to lvl60 even if things are not always going smoothly for you, as long as you endure . Like you endured reading this wall of text, you know? That is also impressive. If the cake wasn’t a lie, I would share it with you, seriously ! Now, feel free to throw any questions towards me, that you might have. I have the feeling, I will be back each day…
x. Random ramblings
Still not enough? Okay, while writing it I had a few more thoughts that I could not fit in… so here is the bonus round, in case you need more procrastination :
- Remember, when I joked about being obsessed with Japanese Green Tea and you believed that? Well, now that you followed me through this unending flood of text, I feel confident enough to tell you, that this one was actually true. I am quite a tea geek, so ask me anything about it! My username “Karigane” is actually a special type of green tea, a form of “Kukicha”. Fun fact: if you have done your kanji and vocab, you should know which part the tea plant this tea is made of.
- I found it funny, how Wanikani tought me some new English words as well. For example, I knew the word “thorns” but I never heard of “briar” before. You truly never stop learning a language, do you?
- One more thing that bothered me about the mnemonics on Wanikani is that sometimes they enforce a negated meaning. For example: 預 means “deposit” and reads “yo”, using a “yo-yo” mnemonic which tells you a story about a kid playing with a yoyo preventing you from depositing money. While that story is okay, it implies to me that the kanji does not mean “deposit” because something is preventing “deposit” from happening. Actually, quite a lot of times when I confused two kanji with each other, I developed a separate mnemonic for each kanji that had a negation included to enforce that kanji A is not B and kanji B is not A. This mutual exclusion works really well for me, but when mixed with the official Wanikani mnemonics, it creates a lot of confusion . This often leads to a situation where I think “Mhh… it either means A or it means not A”, followed up by me tossing a coin . Am I the only one that struggles with this negative mnemonics?
- The memes and the emails I got after each killed level were honestly really motivating. I was looking forward to this pat on my back every time, so thank you a lot for this feature!
- Maybe you wonder, how I think about my “brain issue” by now? Well, I came to the conclusion that my memory is just fine: if I can remember hundreds of random moon runes, I can remember anything . The ominous feeling that I struggle to remember certain facts is probably more linked to increased sources of diversion and less engagement when it comes to learning new things: it is no longer as exciting or emotionally impactful as it used to be during my school or student years. This ultimately led me down to an interesting route regarding mental health and increased awareness, something that I am slowly picking up as well . When combined with the power of the SRS, whose effectiveness still surprises me, should be enough to come to better terms with it and be more quick in my overall thinking .
- Talking about thinking: thinking in Japanese must be so weird. They often say that the grammar of Japanese is comparatively easy and while this is arguably true for some aspects, I still think it is mindblowingly reverse to European patterns of thinking . Hopefully, one day I reach a point where I can do inner monologues with myself in Japanese… it will be wicked!
- Man, I surely forgot a lot of kanji? I know it has been almost three years, but how could I forget 弱, 狙, 員 and 朝?! On the other hand, how did I manage to remember 庁? This is so weird…