Holistic Japanese Learning Advice Thread

I’m going to try to offer some comments and helpful suggestions. I hope I don’t sound harsh at any point, but if I do, please rest assured that I really don’t intend to direct it at you, and I’m probably just criticising some tool or method that I feel is inadequate (i.e. it’s not that ‘you’re doing it wrong!’ so much as it is that ‘I have a feeling that approach isn’t going to work’).

For context, I’ve been learning Japanese for about 3.5 years (since July 2018), and when I take the N1 in July, it’ll be the end of my fourth year. I hope I achieve my goal score (full marks), or at least something close. You could call me a native Chinese speaker because I’ve been speaking Mandarin since I was a baby, but the fact is that English has always been my main language, and I’ve used Chinese a lot less overall. Nonetheless, I’ll acknowledge that knowing Chinese characters is a huge boost for navigating kanji in Japanese, because most characters are identical or almost the same, and some readings are similar. One last thing: I’m here for the forums, not the SRS – I’m fluent in three languages (though my Chinese fluency is fading fast) and I haven’t used any sort of flashcards in almost ten years. (I’m laying all this out so you know how my experience might differ from yours, and why.)

I’ll start with some comments:

One issue is that tangible progress may take a while to materialise for any language, because there’s an amount of knowledge you need to be able to understand most of what’s going on around you. However, that aside, I think it has to do with how each service works:

  • WK’s focus is learning kanji, so vocabulary choices are geared towards that. WK vocabulary isn’t ‘useless’ as a result, but it’s not necessarily widely used, especially at the beginner level. Plus, take it from me as a Chinese speaker: for a lot of complicated-looking words of Chinese origin (kango), there are at least slightly more common everyday Japanese (or katakana-ised) equivalents. Some of them are even written using the same kanji (plus okurigana), so they basically mean the same thing but are just pronounced and conjugated differently. (I’m thinking about verbs.) In particular, the words Japanese children typically learn and use are not kanji-based, even if they can sometimes be written with kanji, so it’s really no surprise that you see unfamiliar words in children’s books. (I self-studied Japanese for the first three years, but after starting formal classes in university, let’s just say that while I’m not learning many new words, my teacher has already made jokes about the times I give lines containing kango to kids in simulated conversations. Almost no child would have that vocabulary because they don’t know kanji. It’s not normal.) In other words, you’re not ‘dumber than a kindergartener’ – you’re just learning words that kindergarteners wouldn’t know, and for which they might know alternatives.
  • Duolingo honestly doesn’t teach much grammar, even if it has a few grammar sections here and there. I personally think of it as a sentence memorisation tool that teaches you vocabulary along the way. It doesn’t really present you enough information to understand how Japanese sentences work, so it’s really no surprise if you get stuck when trying to interpret other stuff. Really, don’t panic because Duolingo doesn’t seem to be improving your comprehension. I’d say it’s only to be expected. The biggest problem is that Duolingo – due to a lack of explanation – is really best suited for language pairs with similar grammar, sentence structure and word order. Otherwise, you have no idea which bits of meaning correspond to each other.

In short, my message here is this: it’s not that you’re not improving or that you’re lacking in language ability; it’s that the tools you’re using aren’t enough on their own. They’re not teaching you enough for you to use the abilities you have as an adult – already speaking at least one language – that would allow you to deduce what a new sentence means.

I think you should really consider getting a textbook. The ones that are most commonly recommended are Genki and Minna no Nihongo. Those two provide pretty detailed explanations of grammar. For me, my favourite – and the one I used to get me started with Japanese – is Assimil’s Japanese with Ease:

It uses kanji straightaway, which can be intimidating, but it also provides complete literal and natural translations for nearly everything in the book, along with rōmaji and hiragana for quite a bit of the book, meaning you can work out everything that’s being said and figure out why those bits of meaning and grammar come together to convey what they do. In other words, it’s Duolingo, but more interesting, less repetitive, and with explanations and context. Plus, in terms of price… let’s just say that no other course on the market brings you to a comfortable lower intermediate level for this price. Genki and Minna no Nihongo would only bring you to the end of the beginner stage for the same amount of money. However, some people find that Assimil doesn’t explain grammar enough; I found it sufficient most of the time, but your mileage may vary. In any case, if you download an Assimil app, you can try out the first lesson, so you’ll get a feel for their teaching style before deciding to buy or drop it.

This is really anecdotal, but I spent six months watching the same anime on loop while also going through a textbook on the side. (I could only do it because I thought the anime was absolutely hysterical and super entertaining.) I understood very little – 30%, maybe? – but at the end of it, when I moved on to an intermediate textbook and listened to the recordings, I was shocked to find I could pick out almost every single syllable despite how much faster the audio was. (Note: I didn’t understand everything; I could just distinguish syllables from each other, enabling me to attempt to understand.) Based on that, I’d say that doing this sort of stuff does work, but it’s best to have an aid somewhere that allows you to structure what you’re hearing – in my case, it was the English subtitles. What I aimed to do every single time – even though I often ended up falling asleep with the episode still running – was to pick out words I already knew. After a while, I started to hear more and more of them: おれ、あたし、わたし、けど、が、は、から、する etc. I didn’t understand enough to piece together entire sentences myself, but recognising the little bits of grammar I knew and some familiar words helped me to get a feel for what I was hearing, and I eventually realised that the overall sentence structure I was putting together in my head often matched what the subtitles said. I sincerely think that that’s how to ‘build mental recognition’: you need something to give you hints so you know what to look out for, and to help you understand a bare minimum of what’s going on so you don’t get too frustrated. Subtitles do both, and if you’re watching something visual like an anime or a drama, visual context can give you clues too.

For this, I… don’t know WK well enough to really help you, but I believe there’s vocabulary (purple) and kanji (pink) readings, right? The problem is that it really depends on what WK chooses for each, but the general sense I have is that kanji readings are usually on’yomi (which appear in compounds using that kanji), whereas vocabulary readings are usually kun’yomi (often used when the kanji is alone). How to know which is which? Well, to know which is used when the kanji is alone (i.e. a fully-fledged word), you need context. You need to have seen the word being used. I guess WK’s context sentences might help with that? You’ll have to see if that’s true for you. If not, you might want to search for example sentences online (on Jisho.org or https://ejje.weblio.jp) or in a textbook.

As for how to remember what each colour means, that’s a little easier:

  • ‘Pink’ is shorter than ‘purple’, and ‘kanji’ is shorter than ‘vocabulary’. Matching the words by length should work fine.

OK, so, for this… yes and no. It’s ‘easy’ in the sense that there are relatively few basic building blocks. However, it’s complex in the sense that it’s fairly nuanced, and beyond a certain point, you’re no longer learning grammar; you’re learning idiomatic expressions that can be inserted into various sentences, and when to use each one. I’d say that no language – other than maybe constructed ones? – is actually ‘easy’, even if I don’t think any one is actually ‘hard’: it’s all relative to our experiences with other languages and how its grammar is presented to us (along with other aspects of the language).

This is a bit of a shameless plug, but while I think nothing can really replace a textbook (or at least a body of knowledge that provides both context through usage and explanation), I’ve been trying to break Japanese grammar down for beginners in a way that allows them to interpret and break down new grammar later on. Here’s a link to a PDF version of Part 1:

The rest of what I’ve posted (which includes the beginning of Part 2) is on Twitter under the hashtag #AAPgrammarJP, and I’m posting new information almost every day. Here’s the first post of the series:

and a more recent Tweet:

I intend to turn them into videos that will provide more context and depth. I just need to find the time to do so. (I’m in engineering school, and I’m a little overloaded with projects at the moment, so it’s not the best time.)

Other grammar resources I’d recommend include Maggie Sensei and Wasabi. But once again, I think you’ll have a much easier time if you start with a textbook because knowledge in textbooks is usually structured so you can use it in a particular context, which will make it more useful to you than random words with no particular relationship to each other.

I’m sorry for how long this has got, but I really hope that at least some of it was helpful. In summary, I think you really should try studying with a textbook in order to structure your learning in a way that might be easier to follow and remember (because really, I personally hate contextless words and find them a pain to memorise), and also to immerse yourself with content you’re likely to enjoy with a comprehension aid like subtitles. Also, try to find a grammar resource that works for you if you find that your textbook isn’t thorough enough. There are YouTube channels out there as well that might help you like Japanese Ammo with Misa, Real Japanese with Miku and Cure Dolly. (I’m hesitant to recommend Cure Dolly’s channel because of controversial terminology, but it’s true that her explanations are fairly intuitive, so they may help.) Of the three I’ve just mentioned, I think Real Japanese with Miku provides the best balance between comprehensiveness and conciseness.

I wish you all the best, and don’t hesitate to ask questions if you have any!


That is a great way to use Duolingo :relaxed:

I am really not anti-Duolingo at all, I just see its main purposes as either 1) introducing someone to a new language for free/cheap so they can see if they then want to study it further, or 2) as a supplementary tool alongside other learning sources, which is how you are using it :grin:


Yes, I think its main advantage is that it’s fun. It’s a way to expose yourself regularly and not feel like it’s a chore, and especially if you’re not surrounded by the language, any little bit of exposure is helpful.


Keep in mind that anyone who tells you they know the “one true best way” to learn is trying to sell you something. You’ll find the best method that works for you, and my best advice is, if what you’re doing right now doesn’t feel like it’s working, change it up.

If duolingo and wanikani feel too confusing, try a textbook. If the textbook feels too boring, try watching some anime or working with native material. If that feels too overwhelming, look into a beginner class, etc. There are a lot of ways to learn, just some of them will feel fun and exciting, and some of them will feel like a real drag. And the secret is, the fun and exciting ones will always be the best, because they are the ones that will make you want to actually spend time with the language.

There isn’t any one best way, and there isn’t any one person who knows the secret and will guide you to the promised land, just try things and see what you like. You’ll get there eventually, focus on the everyday successes and not the summit of the mountain, and have fun along the way!


Hi all,

I’m really psyched by all the assistance that has been offered. I’m going to go through your comments and try to respond, but in case I run out of time or the like I just wanna say thanks for coming to my aid <3


Hi mate!

Thanks very much for this, I read it when you posted it but haven’t had a chance to get back to you indepth until now.

I could respond to everything you’ve gone over, but yeah I’ve so many people to respond to here I’d better try to keep it short.

  • I’m intrigued by the ‘LVL 0 stories’ you’ve linked, that’s a DEFINITE on my list of things to do now.
  • I’m really looking out for the moment you describe, going from "geez i have no idea’ to ‘hooray’, it just hasn’t come just yet and, as i mention, i’ve lived here a while. Ultimately though, ‘persistence’ clearly needs to be my mantra here.

I understand the pink/purple distinctions alright, i forget which one is chinese and which one japanese spelling, but it was only when i saw a youtuber mention that the chinese pronunciations tend to be mono-syllabic (this helps me because i learned mandarin as a teen, and recgonize a lot of the chinese pronunciations) that i really started to have ANY kind of hint as to which is japanese and which is a chinese pronunciation… lots of people missed a trick in failing to tell me that earlier i feel…

Your last paragraph was dead on point, you really picked it, i can’t ignore how impenetrable everything is, and i’m getting slow results from wanikani at this early juncture, so i feel like it’s really impossible… but your kind words reinforce this idea that , again, my mantra aughta be ‘persistence’.

thanks <3

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hey mate

lots of great suggestions there

i really appreciate your suggestions on anime. i’ve tried that repeatedly… i don’t really like watching anime or subtitled TV shows because they speak such a slurred, colloquial, rapid brand of japanese that i feel like i’m wasting time, glossing over the real fine points of the language and just trying to parrot native speakers… I mean, for one example, they always put a “no da–”, “da ro”, or “dakero–” or similar ending on a lot of sentences which, in text books, would never end like that… It’s distracting and hard to understand…

I have got an ‘oshiritante’ (butt detective) children’s book, and i am happy to report that i do actually get some joy out of it, but it’s intimating again because i feel like a fool when i can’t understand what goes on…

I’ll check out this ‘natively’ link, and yeah my wife and i constantly try to speak only japanese forever more :stuck_out_tongue: haven’t quite taken yet…


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Hey there :slight_smile:
I actually got a lot of use out of Japanese Ammo With Misa, i like her videos for N5 and N4, etc, and I actually came to understand a few of the more annoying concepts - ni vs. de, etc - from her videos… but i don’t really get much joy out of it because she, well this sound silly but she’s always all made up and clearly trying to charm western men with the way she presents her videos, and it is hard to focus when my wife says “what the hell kinda pervy video are you watching” loll

i hear you on duolingo… i think it has helped me build some degree or fluency, maybe even more than wanikani so far, and after i’ve paid for it i think i’m making much faster progress with it, but yeah again i’m not speaking japanese yet, am i? ehhh

pink chinese, purple japanese, pink chinese ,purple japanese , okay. they may have explained that in a wall of optional explicatory text but i didn’t manage to see it. Though it helps knowing that chinese pronunciations are usually monosyllabic, that’s a good tip i heard recently that helped me a lot (i learnt manadrin as a teen)


i like your optimism. okay.

I’ll try to keep it up. i’d really love to be able to play a simple japanese game or the like on a cheap handheld console or something, but i’ve tried those in the past and even the most basic games have kanji i just have no hope with lol

I would just briefly point out to anyone in general that my japanese actually does exist on some level, i’m able to send pretty decent voice messages to my mother in law or wife, but they’re got huge gaps and only cover a narrow range of subjects.

thanks so much for this again :slight_smile:
I’ll take the test on tsunagarujp after i post this i think :slight_smile: great lead

i’m an architect by trade, finished my studies some years ago - my wife is in the same industry which is why she’s too busy to really be a japanese teacher for me. the content on our industry is, usually highly academic, or else extremely idiosyncratic… i dunno it just feels like a pretty hard entry route to learning the language, if u know what i mean…

teaching english is the industry i’ve tried to escape from, i have a master degree in architecture and have had numerous offers to work in the indsutry here, but they all kinda flared out once it became clear that my japanese is pretty nonexistent - especially during covid, when jobs that require english speakers are at a premium.

I’ll hold you to your promise :slight_smile: and look at your recommended sites. Thank you!

hey there :slight_smile:
can i ask exactly what you mean be ‘sns’?

i am definitely going to look for an international center or chat meet in my area after your recommendation, i live pretty near to nagoya university and a few other Unis so it seems likely that they might be groups of students looking for this kind of stuff.


i’m happy to say i think i’ve just about got a handle on those verb conjugations, though i do still get a bit stuck on the differences between ‘arimasen’ an ‘nai’ and ‘jyanai’ and stuff…

using a dictionary is something i’ve struggled to do because of the confusing way they replace alphabetisation, but i’ll try to double down on it and give it another good try on the back of your suggestion here :slight_smile: thanks, and thanks for your kind motivation

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hey mate, thanks for ur suggestions

i’ve been trying to wipe out my reviews, it’s undoubtedly a pretty good system, i felt like it was really working well, but as i mentioned in my OP i’m 4 levels in (tofugu says i should have level 10 before i start their ‘learn japanese’ masterplan) and i’m already struggling to soak up and remember everything… hard to believe that i could just shove another few hundred more characters into my mouth, so to speak, without choking :stuck_out_tongue:

Ah, but as i’ve mentioned earlier in my replies, persistence must be my mantra, or so seems to be the prevailing advice…

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thanks, that’s a really interesting lead, i’ll search them out on the play store thing on my android asap :slight_smile:

i think your input here is pretty priceless, the reflections of someone who may have been in the same boat as i, i hope i can take ur reflections and turn around my problems.

i don’t know if it’s that i hate looking like an idiot, it’s probably more that i hate Feeling like an idiot, internally, which prevents me from starting - or occasionally actually finishing - conversations. i sometimes find myself saying "you know what, daijourbou’, smiling meekly and bowing as i back away lol

fuuuudge i really gotta just buckle up and knuckle down…

i like ur tip for writing down gaffes… i find this to be impractical whenever i do it, but that doesn’t mean i should give up… just haven’t found the right text book/pen combo yet ey :stuck_out_tongue:

thanks so much for your help.

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By “srs” I mean spaced repetition study sessions, such as wanikani. I like the way they are structured, and I feel I can get a lot out of them with very little startup cost, which I appreciate.

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i love this comment, thank you so much.

i am inspired by what you suggest, but at the same time there is the reality that i need to learn it asap so i can move into my chosen industry (architecture) so i need to someone supercharge this process… but you have given me a different perspective on what my goal should be when i’m watching japanese tv or the like - associate words etc - which i already think might change the way i can bring in that info.

thanks very much for your help!

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roger that, okay ,i’ll check the other ones u mentioned because i too find this method to be pretty good

gosh i’ll have to look this up! sorry she’s passed…

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wowzah, what a comment

thanks very much indeed.

I actually learned mandarin is a teen, and built up some level of conversational ability, but i never studied kanji so it offers limited benefits - i like how water is ‘sui’ when it’s not ‘mizu’, if you know what i mean.

i’ve looked up your recommended textbook on amazon, it sounds good. for the record i have a little clutch of text books, including a few genki books, but they’ve never really worked for me so they’re collecting dust on a bookshelf… come to think of it though, they might help me more now that i’ve started to really try and achieve this language, so yeah.

i’m going to end my subscription to duolingo, for 99% of my lifetime there i wasn’t subscibed, and all subscription lets me do is ‘legendary’ all the topics and score big points in the leagues :stuck_out_tongue: a typical mechanism… i do feel like duolingo helped me to develop fluency and a sense of structure, certainly at lvl 4 i’ve yet to think wanikani is much more helpful, but yeah it is fine without a sub…

i’ve heard this suggestion to listen to stuff over and over again before, ive said in an earlier comment that i kinda dislike the slang’y, colloquial, slurred way characters speak in anime because it distracts me from comprehending what they’re actually trying to say between all the louche additions… but yeah i am currently watching some shows on repeat in pursuit of this kind of gradual improvement as you describe it… i’ll see how i go.

Thanks for triyng to help with pink vs. purple. i think i’ll get it sooner or later, but i love your suggestion about the lengths of words - actually it was recently pointed out to me that chinese pronunciations are usually monosyllabic and, being a onetime mandarin speaker, i do kinda see that logic in that and it is helping me something… not always though, i’ll need some other tie-breaker to know which of ‘ko’ and ‘shi’ is the chinese pronunciation for child…

i’ll give your pdfs a look, and kudos on your hard work on both them and this post :slight_smile: thanks a TON, mate. i’d mark ur post as ‘the answer’ but i’m worried that might lock my thread or something and prevent others from benefitting from it.

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