So I guess there’s something of a trend on this forum to make a post when you reach level 60. That strikes me as a little weird; I mean, there’s a whole 'nother level left at that point. Reaching Level 60 means you’ve just finished level 59. It should really at least be when you’ve finished level 60 (that is, Guru’d 90% of the kanji, like every other level). Which, it just so happens, I’ve just done. Here’s my post. Be warned, it’s a long one.
To start off with, here are some stats:
Looking at those statistics, you’ll probably notice a few things, like those two levels that look very out of place (1 and 4), or how few days I’ve missed since those two, or how I did some of the so-called fast levels at top speed and others not. Well folks, the story of my journey to Japanese competency has been a long one.
With that said, let’s start from the beginning.
My Japanese Story
Part 1: College
The story of me learning Japanese started nearly 10 years ago, and it’s far from over.
One of the core requirements at my college was some kind of foreign language study. I picked Japanese, and starting out, let me tell you: I was terrible. By far the aspect of the language I struggled with the most was the memorization – the vocabulary, and of course, the kanji. But, I also ended up making some good friends in that class, and I’m incredibly stubborn, so I stuck with it regardless.
Jumping forward a few years, I was presented with the opportunity to actually go to Japan and do some volunteer work for a summer. Obviously I wasn’t going to pass up a chance like that. Without getting too into the personal details, let’s just say that summer in Japan was incredibly moving for me. I continued to be terrible at Japanese, but I was actually getting the chance to use it to speak with Japanese people (instead of just my classmates). As a result, I found that, while my technical skills with Japanese were awful, I could, at times, communicate. There was one moment that stood out in particular where I heard a word I didn’t know, but was able to piece together what it might mean, based on what I guessed the kanji might be. That word, for the record, was 感動する – to be emotionally moved. And, well, I think it’s safe to say that I had been moved by my experiences in Japan.
Thanks to that experience, I decided that moving to Japan was something I wanted to try. It just felt like the right next step for me after college. So I did.
Part 2: Moving to Japan
I did it. I moved to Japan. As for learning Japanese? I continued to be terrible. Every day was a struggle. But, I pressed on. Stubborn, remember? But the thing about every day being a struggle is: every day, you’re learning.
For the first year-and-a-half to two years of living here, that continued. And you know what? I got better.
It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again here – you know your Japanese has started to get good when you stop hearing “日本語上手!” all the time. People say that because they expect zero effort from non-Japanese folks to learn the language, so literally anything exceeds those expectations. When the people around you stop feeling the need to praise you for saying “good morning” and “excuse me,” you know you’ve gotten decent.
After more than two years of living here, my Japanese had officially reached “decent” level – well, my spoken Japanese, that is. Just living here was enough practice when it came to speaking and listening, but my reading and writing remained mediocre – I was picking up things I had enough exposure to, things I saw at work a lot for instance, and had all the basics down, but I knew that I needed to expand my abilities beyond that. I needed some kind of additional external pressure, a reason to study things besides what I saw every day.
Part 3: The JLPT
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is often criticized for not actually testing proficiency in the Japanese language. This is partly because it only tests input (reading and listening), and has zero opportunity for output (speaking and writing). These criticisms are valid. But, since reading, particularly individual kanji reading, was the area I was weak in and wanted to focus on, I didn’t care. That made it the perfect motivator for me at the time. Also, I had a deal with a friend, a 先輩 of mine, if you will, where he would take N2 and I would take N3, and then we could celebrate/commiserate together afterwards.
At this point, my kanji reading abilities were still pretty dreadful, so I needed some way to study kanji. Naturally, I turned to the internet, where I found this service called “Wanikani” that promised to do exactly that. See that little blip in June of 2018? I went through those first twenty-six lessons. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes as I did so; kanji I had known for years, and made-up names for other parts of simple kanji? Yeah, all right. And then:
“What the…? I have to wait hours to review these things I already know?” I thought, like apparently many who came before me and still more since. “And there’s no way to test out of the things I already know? I need to get better at kanji reading in time for the test! I need to study now!”
I went back to studying kanji on my own, leaving those reviews undone.
I took the JLPT. Some time later, my results came in. As expected, I did very well on the listening section, kind of okay on the long-form reading section, and kinda bombed the grammar/vocab section. My sub-standard kanji reading skills dragged me down, and as a result, I failed the JLPT N3. By one point.
I want everyone reading this to imagine, just for a moment, how infuriating that would be. If I had passed, that would’ve been great, obviously, and if I had failed by a wide margin, well, then at least I would have known that I just hadn’t been ready for that level yet, that I simply had a lot more learning to go. But no. One point away. (That friend I made the deal with passed N2 no problem, by the way.)
Well, if nothing else, this clearly meant that, if I just studied my kanji more, and learned their associated vocabulary, I could have N3 in the bag. So, naturally, I went online, pulled up a “JLPT N3 vocabulary list,” and went through, word-by-word, writing each and every word I didn’t already know on individual paper flashcards, kanji on one side, reading and meaning on the other. Writing them, I thought, that’s what I need, that’s the missing piece of the puzzle. Writing each and every one of them by hand. That’ll drill them into my memory. Meanwhile, I ignored the regular emails I got reminding me of those undone Wanikani reviews.
The time came for the December JLPT, which, naturally, I took, determined this time to pass the N3 exam, cramming my kanji cards right up until the exam started, furiously reviewing as I waited for the test to begin.
My results came in, and…my grammar/vocab score was even lower than before. But, my listening score had risen even higher – high enough to make up for my abysmal grammar/vocab. I had passed…and yet. I couldn’t help but feel like all that forced furious kanji studying had been for nothing. Again, I found myself thinking: if only there were a better way…
Some more time passed, and that same friend approached me with a new proposition. He had passed N2, and now I had passed N3, so the obvious next step was for him to take N1, and me N2. This could be my chance to catch up, or his chance to pull further ahead – neither of us were really ready for those levels yet, but our competitiveness could drive us forward. I agreed to his terms – but deep down, I knew I wasn’t close to ready for N2. I found myself thinking back to that Wanikani thing I had tried the year before.
Part 4: CrocodileCrustacean
Well, I needed to learn to read kanji, and this was something I hadn’t tried, not properly anyway. Why not? I gave it a go. That’s why it looks like Level 1 took me 276 days. So, I went through the first three levels, and…I mean, I’ve talked about how bad I was at Japanese, how my reading was still poor given how long I had been learning, but still, I did manage to pass the N3. It’s not like I knew zero kanji, and this service was clearly designed for people who had no knowledge of kanji.
Nevertheless, I pressed on, reviewing time and again items I already knew very well…and, even in those first three levels, a handful that I didn’t. There were some words, like 公用 and 外れ, that even in my four years of formal study and at that point three and a half years of living in Japan, that I just happened to have not encountered. And, perhaps even more importantly, there were some words that I had encountered countless times but kept getting mixed up on, like the various counters for days and items. I found myself constantly saying things to the effect of, 「来月の、あの、ナナニチ…ナナニチは何だっけ？ナナカ？ナノカ？忘れた。」(Next month, on, uh, day seven…how do you say day seven, again? “Nanaka?” “Nanoka?” I forget.)
That brings us to that second little anomaly, where it looks like I spent 50 days on level 4…which, technically I did, but with good reason. I spent a month or so debating with myself whether the later levels were worth paying those kind of prices for, casually reviewing the items from the first three levels as I did. Finally, I decided, if it was doing a good job getting me to remember the handful of items that had been new to me in the first few levels, it should do a good job once I get to the harder stuff. All right, fine, AlligatorCrab, after far too long of deliberating, I’m in. Game on.
You can actually see on my level-up chart the point where I hit new-to-me stuff around Level 9 to 12. Before then, I did all my reviews and all the lessons about as soon as they became available, which led to almost top speed level ups. After that…well I kept doing all the reviews and lessons as soon as possible, I just started getting more stuff wrong.
It was also around that time that the JLPT came up again. After getting less than a quarter of the way through Wanikani, mostly reviewing stuff I had already known, was I ready for the N2? No, of course not. I failed. Like I knew I would. But not by as much as I had expected. My grammar/vocab section was still my lowest score by far, but my ever-improving speaking/listening skills carried me to almost scraping by. The two lessons I took away from that were: one, N2 wasn’t as far off by this point as I might have assumed; and two, I was right to continue to try and focus on my kanji reading. Especially once the test results had come out, I was thoroughly into the material on Wanikani that I didn’t know, and had had enough experience with the mnemonics and the SRS to know that it was working for me. Oh, and that friend I took the test with didn’t pass his N1 exam either. Haha, point and laugh. (It’s okay, he’s cool with it.)
I’m going to gloss over some of the middle parts of my learning journey. You’ll see some missed days in August and December when I was on vacation, but other than that, the rest of 2019 was pretty much just spent constantly zeroing out my reviews and lessons. Bit of advice: don’t do this. Spread your lessons out. It was a habit I got into because I started out already knowing a good chunk of it, and not one I recommend.
JLPT time came again, I took the N2 once more, and to my pleasant surprise my grammar/vocab section score had skyrocketed. Wanikani was working. (Okay so my grammar getting better had nothing to do with Wanikani, but I’m trying to spin a narrative here.)
With that in mind, I’ll kind of skate over the beginning of 2020 as well, where I discovered more and more the glory of userscripts and wondered how I had gone so long without them. Never used any of the do-over/ignore answer scripts, though. I’ll also just choose to ignore that glaringly annoying blank spot in early April when I was just starting a new job and neglected my kanji studies for one whole day – which should really go to show my level of commitment by that point.
That brings me to the last chunk of Wanikani, the so-called “fast levels.” Like I mentioned above, I did some of the fast levels at “full speed,” leveling up in 3 to 4 days, and some of them at what approaches a more “normal” pace, leveling up more on the 6 to 7 day range of things. That wasn’t exactly a conscious choice, but a result of the pretty unhealthy study habits I had formed this past year. Like I said, I was constantly grinding my reviews down to zero and blasting through all the lessons as soon as they became available. I’ll be the first to admit my “strategy” (or lack thereof) only resulted in occasional top-speed level ups because it happened to coincide with the whole “work from home” period. And, since I refused to use scripts that let me undo mistakes, sometimes one failed Apprentice 4 review doubled my level-up time. I was okay with that, though. If only I could have told pre-N3 me why taking your time to really learn these things is necessary, I might’ve kept with Wanikani, and would’ve been finished much sooner.
Speaking of which, now that I have N2, I would’ve been attempting the JLPT N1 this summer alongside that friend if it hadn’t been canceled due to, well, you know. Guess it’ll have to wait for December. And on the subject of the future…
Part 5: What’s next?
So I “finished” Level 60, that means I’m done, right? Well no, obviously not. Still have some vocab to get to, and countless reviews of the stuff I’ve learned so far. Does that mean I’m going to burn everything? …Eh, maybe not. I’ll try to. Probably won’t be renewing my subscription again next year, though. That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on learning leftover items; it just means I’m going to have to keep studying them on my own.
As I burn more and more Wanikani items, I’m planning to focus on drilling the vocabulary that Wanikani doesn’t cover (not a criticism, just a fact), keep throwing myself at the JLPT N1 as many times as it takes like I mentioned (maybe only once if I get really lucky this December!), and most importantly, consuming more and more native Japanese material to make use of all that I’ve learned. I mean, I have been doing that already, but, y’know, more. That has been the goal all along, after all.
If you had told me back when I was starting my first Japanese class in college this was where I’d end up, I never would have believed you. Am I native level? Well no, of course not (yet!). But Japan is my home now, and I’m determined to keep getting better at the language. It’s been almost ten years since the start of my journey, and I know I’ll still be learning new things about this language another ten years from now. My Japanese-learning journey doesn’t begin or end with Wanikani, but it has been an important step along the way.