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!