It’s only been about a year and a half since I reached lv60, so, inspired by @icefang97’s description of his journey, I figured it’s probably about time I tell you mine. Using words. So very, very, many words. (Honestly, even I didn’t expect to write this many words!)
Taking a leaf from Mr. Fang’s book, this will be split into expandable subsections so that you can more easily read only what seems interesting!
It only makes sense to start from the beginning.
One autumn morning 40 years ago in the cold, northern kingdom of Sweden, I came into existence. Little did I know that it was my destiny to learn 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary words in just over a year, as prophesied by the great Lord Crabigator and His holy marketing department!
This is the tale of how this came to be so.
So, I guess Japan is a thing?
I’m not quite sure how my interest in Japan and Japanese got started, but I think it’s a combination of several factors.
First of all, I was there pretty much in at the ground floor of Nintendo’s great world domination in the eighties. My very first game console was an NES and the next was a Playstation (we were too poor to justify a SNES). I’m not sure how great an effect this had on me, but I certainly knew right from the start that all this goodness came from Japan.
Secondly, during my teenage years I had a friend at school who was super into anime and manga, and introduced me to it. One of the few manga I’ve actually read was two volumes of Ranma 1/2 that I borrowed from him.
Thirdly, during my late teens I played my first JRPGs (Suikoden I, Followed by Final Fantasy VII), and they were quite powerful experiences for me.
The exotic nature of everything about Japan and Japanese was probably a big factor as well. The writing system itself looked so awesome and cryptic!
As a result of this, basically from my early twenties onwards I had an interest in Japan and Japanese. I even learned to handwrite my name in katakana, although I didn’t understand that I was supposed to write it phonetically as クリスチャン and instead transcribed it as クリスチアン. I thought this was super cool and awesome, but for some reason this was the extent of my “Japanese studies” until…
Into the Crustacean Embrace of the Lord Crabigator
I actually have no idea why, but just a few days before christmas eve three years ago, I decided that this Japanese thing should stop being “something I’d like to do someday” and instead become “something I am doing right now”!
I googled for a few minutes and run into a site with the promising name Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. I started by learning the hiragana, using some kana drill website to drill them for hours on end.
After about a week of this I figured I’d probably overdone it and spent one (1) day learning katakana (which I to this day slow down to crawl whenever I encounter).
Encouraged by my progress I bravely ventured forth into Mr. Kim’s guide proper, only to hit a wall when I realized that it was very frustrating to me to try to learn grammar when every single word had to be looked up before I could start parsing the sentence.
So I started making flash cards of the words that would appear in the next lesson and drill them each day (I didn’t know of SRS at the time). I did this for a while until one day I came across an article written by some Koichi dude titled The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Learning Kanj.
In the end of the article there were some recommendations, little did I know that he was actually plugging his own product with Wanikani, but at least he was also kind enough to offer some alternatives.
I started with both Wanikani and iknow.jp. In the beginning I really liked the latter, since it not only taught me vocabulary but also included listening practice and spoken context sentences.
However, with time I started noticing that I didn’t really feel like i “knew” the kanji until I’d learned them in Wanikani. So eventually I gave up on iknow.jp completely.
Leaving the Temple
About a year and a half later I had plugged through all that Wanikani had to offer. I did most levels in about 7-8 days, and the shorter ones quicker, but not always optimally.
My initial thoughts were that I would put about a year of intense study into Japanese and then just absorb the rest of the language through exposure.
I have always been very project-driven, and I felt that this was about the amount of time I could keep the flame alight and study intensely.
For reference, my previous project had been going to the gym and getting in shape, which I had been doing quite zealously for about a year until I suddenly couldn’t bring myself to do it any more and stopped. I expected something similar to happen with Japanese.
As you can tell, I was wrong on both accounts. One year of active studies was way too little, but the studies are still going strong!
Anyway, I have always felt that the risk of burning out from overworking myself was less of a worry than the risk of losing motivation if I didn’t see regular progress (this is what happened with my gym-going project, for instance).
Wanikani has never been the only means of study. Here’s what I’ve also been doing during and after my service to the Lord Crabigator. This is roughly in chronological order.
Anki has pretty much been a staple throughout, and I’ve been using it to study small amounts a time whenever I get the opportunity during the day.
I studied the core6k / iknow.jp sample sentences deck in anki. This was a great introduction, but eventually I felt that there were too many times when I ran into grammar I couldn’t understand.
Before starting with Japanese, I used to watch a lot of Let’s Play videos in English. (For the uninitiated, these are videos of someone playing a video game while commenting).
Early into my Japanese studies I figured I’d check if Japanese people weren’t doing these as well. After a bit of googling I learned they were called
Watching it for the first time I only understood a few words each episode (I remember being able to pick out 新しい after some thinking!). But since watching someone play a game I like is entertainment in and of itself, I didn’t mind that I understood so little!
This has since been something I’ve been doing as relaxation when not actually studying. Each time I watch a given series I’m picking out new words and sentences!
I actually don’t often learn new words this way (although recently this is happening more and more), but it does help me pick out words I’ve only seen written.
Tae Kim Take II
For a while I had thought that I’d just learn grammar by exposure, like I did with English. However, this proved too frustrating, so eventually I caved in and went back to Take Kim’s guide, this time finding myself better equipped to actually focus on the grammar itself.
I managed to find an anki deck with all the sample sentences from the guide and used that to reinforce what I’d learned.
The step from reading sample sentences to reading actual Japanese materials seemed quite daunting to me, so I was quite stoked when I found the (quite expensive) graded readers that plugged this gap perfectly. Actual stories that I could understand and actually understand the meaning of. In Japanese!
Don’t do what I did and buy too many at once though… because as soon as I could read actual native materials I found them super boring and have never touched several of them.
From time to time I’d been trying to read samples of various Manga I’d been hoping to read, and eventually I noticed よつばと becoming at least broadly understandable. I bought this as my first actual Japanese reading experience intended for Japanese people and not dumbed down to suit us stupid foreigners!
A while after that, pretty much on a whim, I decided to give the Japanese version of my very first JRPG love, Suikoden a go. To my surprise this was actually doable and I actually played through the whole game, even though I ended up looking up almost every word.
Since then I’ve started a lot of games, but this and Metroid Fusion remain the only ones I’ve actually played all the way through.
My Own Vocab Deck
During my Suikoden playthrough, on @Sirvorn’s recommendation I started adding all words i looked up to my own anki deck. This has since pretty much replaced WK with even more WK. (I’ve even made my own styling so that it looks like Wanikan as welli!).
One tweak I’ve done here is to let anki generate 2-3 cards per word. One kanji → reading, one reading(kanji with furigana) → meaning and one kana only → meaning (only for certain cards though). I feel that I really prefer having to think of only one thing at a time when the card shows up!
Also, you can make anki not have several cards from the same word show up on the same day.
In addition to this, I made it so you have to type the answer when on the computer (when on my phone I just use it regular anki-style).
(Chronologically, this is about where I finished WK)
My Own Kanji Deck
After finishing Wanikani I’ve started adding every unknown kanji I encounter (incuding WK kanji that I’ve burned but forgotten) to my own deck, where I keep the torch alight by adding my own mnemonics and everything. Once again, more WK, just not in WK itself (and mnemonics made by me).
Also, in my experience, mnemonics don’t need to be good. They’re just a stepping stone after all, and I’ve found that going with the first one I come up with is good enough! (Even this can take a while at times though).
My Own Sentence Deck
Sometimes I added whole sentences from games and such for reading practice. This wasn’t something I did a lot of though.
Since listening is my weakest skill, I decided to make a deck with only a spoken word on the front side and translation, kanji and a spoken sample sentence on the backside.
I’ve always noticed how the spoken sample sentences from iknow.jp tended to etch themselves into my mind. This in turn means that when I hear the word, I can also often pull out the sentence and thereby understand the meaning. It also works the other way around, when I want to say something, I can sometimes remember these sentences and pick the word out from there.
This deck is pretty much built on that concept!
What I usually do is that I practice this with the screen light turned off and try to first just let the sample sentence confirm my understanding. If I’m not sure I look at the definition.
Also, while I do provide sample sentences for my single word reading cards as well, I don’t often read them. I’ve tried always having them read out, but that breaks the flow that I want from that deck (the whole point to me of having single word cards is that you can bust through a hundred of them in 15-20 minutes or so).
Here, since the sample sentence replaces the need to type an answer, it’s about the same time-wise so I like it!
I decided to start practicing actual communication using the Hellotalk app. Using this I got to know two Japanese people that I actually got to meet in person when i visited Fukuoka as part of my trip to Japan earlier this year!
I don’t actually use Hellotalk anymore though, but I keep in touch with at least one of them somewhat regularly using facebook.
A long while ago, @Sirvorn linked a sample from the No 6 novel series. At the time I couldn’t understand anything, and for a long while I always ended up getting hopelessly lost after a while when reading something without visual aid.
Last summer I ended up taking a second look at No 6 and it had become quite understandable. I bought the first book and decided to read it every day.
This eventually developed into a decision that I would read at least two pages pretty much come hell or high water, something I have kept doing since (with two exceptions, a week after I moved house and couldn’t find the books, and another week during my trip to Japan).
I find this is a good amount for me, since I can always force myself to do it, and once I’ve read those two pages I’ve often worked up enough steam and interest to keep going a bit more. Nowadays it almost always results in at least four pages.
I’ve since finished the nine books in the No 6 series, and am currently working my way through the second book in the Kemono no souja series. My pace has increased from five pages an hour to closer to ten. Still glacial compared to Swedish or English, but a big improvement nonetheless.
Since last autumn I’ve also been taking regular Skype lessons with teachers from the italki site. This was super scary at first (I remember sitting in a sweat seeing my own bright-red face in the Skype window)!
At first I pretty much just signed up for lessons without thinking too much about it and let future-me suffer for it. It worked!
This has obviously increased my ability to express myself, and words come much more naturally to me now, but the best thing with this practice is that I’ve lost that initial inhibition. Nowadays, even if I still make lots of mistakes when speaking, I don’t feel nervous!
I practice one weekday each week, and once every other weekend. To be honest, it’s still the thing I look forward to the least, but I have gotten to know my regular tutors and once the session kicks in time flies by, usually.
I have also had a lot of interesting conversations with these tutors and learned a bit about Japanese people and culture to boot!
Nihongo No Mori
Some time last winter I found myself again frustrated at the amount of grammar I encountered but didn’t know (probably a result of my reading books now).
I decided to give the japanese-only material on the nihongo no mori youtube channel a second look (I’d checked it out earlier, when it was way too high level for me to understand). It turned out to be perfect this time around!
Much like with Tae Kim, I followed the N3 (with Kento-sensei) and then N2 (with Yuki-sensei) video series, and created my own flash cards from all the sample sentences. I feel this once again got me up to a point where grammar is no longer frustrating!
Both of these teachers speak pretty clearly, so I’d recommend that anyone who feels that they’re beginning to understand spoken Japanese, and would like to know some grammar beyond N4 check these out!
Cloze Deleted Listening Practice
Another thing I felt was pretty useful was to gather sample sentences with audio (you can make them with subs2srs for instance) and then make a cloze deleted (fill-in-the-blank) question of it. Then when the card appears you need to type in what you hear.
The whole sentence is often too much to fit into my head, so what I’d do was to listen to type in about as much as I could remember and then make that into it’s own cloze deleted part, little by little splitting it into manageable chunks.
Anyway, I felt this was pretty useful, but it was also the thing most rapidly turning into a chore, so now I just maintain the current cards there and focus more on the single word + sample sentence listening practice mentioned above.
The most surprising thing with this was how often I found it difficult to tell the difference between は and が, as well as は and を…
Also, if you do this you may need to go easy on yourself with more colloquial speech, I settled for always giving me at least a partial correct (marked as “hard”) if I got the “normal” speech version right… like if it was transcribed as だろ but I wrote だろう, or I had written ~ておく instead of ~とく (Sometimes I also think the subtitles don’t actually get this right).
This actually was the last piece of the puzzle for me: now I could have the listening comprehension sentences sorted so that they gradually introduced new words +1 style!
Even though I no longer use the cloze deleted deck, I still use this to sort the single word → sample sentence cards so that the sample sentences themselves come in a sensible order.
This had actually been somewhat of a problem for me earlier. The context sentences wouldn’t be very useful if they just sounded like gibberish to me. Now they’re pretty much always understandable and help reinforce the word!
This autumn I had a period of a month or two when I’d watch japanese-subbed movies and anime every single day. I used a VPN to get access to the Japanese Netflix archive and was completely taken aback by just how much stuff was there!
This can be kind of a refreshing break from more intense studies… you can focus less on getting everything perfect and instead just be content with understanding what you can and getting the gist of the story.
You can also rewind and/or pause if you really need to. Especially the Netflix versions that have the 10-second rewind feature is useful for this. (Android, for whatever reason only has the 30-second rewind which is way too much if you just missed something they just said).
Eventually this started to feel like chore so I stopped doing it for now,
I Also Went to Japan
Separate from all this, during easter I also went to Japan with my then 11-year old son (I hope to bring my then 6-year-old daughter next time too, but she got cold feet and we decided maybe it’ll be easier when she’s older).
We were there for ten days and visited Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Going between each city by bullet train.
Before going I was worried that I wouldn’t get to use any of my Japanese, but this was of course pure folly! Within an hour of landing I was lost and confused in the Tokyo subway and had no idea how to get to the next train, so I had to ask one of the other people waiting at the station. He was super helpful and even walked us to the correct ticket gate!
This would probably had been a lot more difficult if all I had known was English! (I learned this from experience at the Beijing airport actually… not knowing Chinese I was very limited in who I could ask for help, even among the staff).
Listening comprehension still being my weakest skill did make it frustrating sometimes, especially when ordering food. (Two staff members at a yakiniku place tried in vain to explain to me that I needed to pay for a drink and not just get water in order to get the all-you-can-eat-buffet. Eventually another diner managed to explain it in simple enough Japanese for me to understand!)
This made me realize that I should put even more time into listening practice when I get home!
Nevertheless, being able to just ask people for directions and ask where the toilet is was extremely useful. And I was still able to use my Japanese to buy a JR card as well as get directions to the airport for the home travel even though both google maps and hyperdia.jp lied to me (although a poor station attendant had to leave his post and go to the ticket machine with me at one point).
The highlight of the trip was visiting my two chat buddies in Fukuoka. Weirdly, when meeting the first one my Japanese felt at a lower level than usual, which was a bit frustrating (she pretty much only speaks Japanese), but it seemed to get better as the day went on. I have good memories from the hotpot place we went to for dinner at least.
Meeting the second chat buddy, I was kind of expecting to not get that much practice, since she knows both Swedish and English, but it turns out she’s not comfortable speaking, so it was another day of pretty much nothing but Japanese, and in contrast to the last day this day speaking came more naturally than usual!
The high point of the whole trip for me was when we were taken to her friend’s Sakaya and treated to sashimi and local dishes. It was a really cool experience to sit there and be able to spend time together speaking nothing but Japanese! I even learned later that her friend had told her that he thought my Japanese was really good!
I had been a bit worried that my son would feel out of the loop when we weren’t speaking a language he knew, but for some reason it didn’t bother him.
Honestly, my plans for the future is to just keep doing what I do now until it becomes pointless to actively study because I already understand enough.
Maybe somewhat anticlimactic but there it is…
Breakthroughs and Milestones
For me, this is probably what has kept my motivation up over almost three years: suddenly realizing: oh? I can do this now? Awesome!
A Few of These Breakthrough Moments that I Remember Having
Being able to:
- read and understand a sentence written i Japanese (these were just scribbles a month ago!)
- read my first graded reader (I just read a whole story! In Japanese?!?)
- read my first manga (This was written for Japanese people and I just read it!)
- play my first game entirely in Japanese. And one of my old favorites to boot!
- understand a full minute of spoken Japanese in a let’s play video.
- have my first ever spoken conversation (voice chat with one of my Hellotalk buddies for two hours)
- read my first book (This used to seem so impossible, and it seems like the ultimate practice tool!)
- spend that day in Japan speaking only Japanese with the other chat buddy.
- watch a Japanese-subbed movie and understanding the gist of it.
Like I said, these moments give me a boost of renewed motivation, and also often open up new methods of study that keep things varied!
I’ll finish off by offering some advice that may or may not benefit other learners!
A Little Each Day
My philosophy is that something you do every day will pile up and become this awesome huge mountain eventually. This is my approach to reading, at least 2 pages every day took me through about 1800 pages in a little over a year (since it tended to snowball once I got started).
So my advice would be to find a pace that you can sustain every day and never do less than that. Depending on the task you can do more if you want (if it’s SRS that can cause an avalanche later on, but I can’t see why you couldn’t read 100 pages one day even though your routine is just 2)
Even just 10 minutes every day will be more time than someone who takes a one hour lesson each week.
Try to strike that balance between going too fast and burning out and going too slow and quitting from lack of progress!
(Almost) Everything Can Be Sampled!
On this forum people (I used to be among them!) often wonder at what level they should start reading [thing X], and my fool-proof method for this is as follows:
Read it when you become able to!
Check it out, see if you can do it, if not shelve it and check again later. It’ll even give you that sweet boost of confidence when you can see with your very own eyes how your linguistic prowess has increased since that one time when it was all scribbles and nonsense grammar!
If it’s a game, find a let’s play ([game title] +
If it’s a book or manga, look at amanzon.jp or search for [book title] +
You’ll likely notice pretty quickly if it’s for you or not.
Must / Should / Want
I tend to have this hierarchy where there are certain things that I feel are so fundamental to my studies that I always do them, others that are good but not necessary, and some that I just do when and if I feel like it.
In my case the musts are:
- Reading 2 pages each day.
- Studying kanji and vocab reading in anki.
- Studying listening in some fashion.
- Conversation practice
Some that I have done for a longer period of time but then quit:
- Watching jp-subbed material each day
- Practicing handwriting
- Practicing listening with cloze-deleted cards
The best example I have of stuff I just do if and when I feel like it is watching let’s play videos. But it also applies to various bigger projects I sometimes take it upon myself to do. (Most recently I got it into my head that it’d be a quick enough job to make anki cards with sample sentences from a bunch of the let’s player 弟者’s videos that people had recently subtitled, took about two weeks…)
Make Your Own Mnemonics, But Don't Overdo It
I find that the mnemonic system works well for me, so I almost always create my own whenever I learn a new kanji.
Like I said above though, I’ve noticed that even really bad ones do the job, so I think it’s perfectly fine to just go with the first one that pops into your head. Soon(ish) you’ll just remember the kanji on sight anyway.
I think that’s pretty much it actually! If you still feel the need to ask something, do not hesitate to do so!
TL;DR: I’ve studied Japanese for three years and learned and did a bunch of stuff.