I levelled up a couple of weeks ago but didn’t quite have time to write my celebratory post until now. I am happy to say though that, after I started over 8 years ago, I have finally made it to level 60!
It actually took me two attempts to finish WaniKani, I burned out the first time after reaching level 35 and completely lost motivation for learning Japanese for 3 years. I was eventually lured back in and, thanks to an opportunity to go back to Japan and inspired by finding out how much I had remembered, I decided to take it up again and created a more sustainable learning schedule for myself and improved my methods which led me to getting to level 60 eventually.
I am now more ready than ever to take on the gargantuan task that is learning Japanese and now feel more capable than ever to achieve my goals.
Also, thanks to this experience I landed a job at Tofugu (you’ll have seen me here as TofuguNico, cue all the Crabigator propaganda that is about to follow) in which I hope I’ll be able to help motivate other Japanese learners who like me are very keen but don’t always have the self-drive or the know-how in order to keep going.
I haven’t been super active within the forums but I have been a lurker from the beginning and really appreciate the great efforts everyone goes to to make this a really welcoming and helpful community. I am particularlly greatful for the all the book clubs and the scripts and apps that others have created.
I’ll now go enjoy my cake and leave you with my study backstory as well as a few study tips for those who are interested.
Why I started learning Japanese, where this has taken me and where I currently stand:
Like many kids in France I grew up with manga and anime, and like many other people, my interest in learning Japanese did to an extent stem from this. Although along the way, I also took a great interest in many other aspects of the Japanese culture; be it gastronomy with its cocktail and ferment culture, cinema with films by Kitano, Koreeda or Ishii, modern architecture like the works of Kengo Kuma, traditional woodworking, farming methods and philosophy, and many many more.
However what really pushed me to learn Japanese eventually was my experience with the shakuhachi, I had been exposed to and intrigued by some of its sounds in the Naruto soundtracks but I became fascinated with it when listening to meditative pieces such as these.
Not only did I want to learn how to play the Shakuhachi, I also wanted to learn how to make them, and, inspired by the fact that I learnt how to read a few of the hiragana on the pages of my shakuhachi book, I decided to take this further and learn Japanese properly. Sadly, my shakuhachi ‘career’ never really took off but my passion for learning Japanese and the Japanese culture remains strong to this day, a good decade later.
My journey then properly started in 2013 where I took daytime lessons (I was working evenings at the time) at Bishopsgate Institute in London, and I did this for about a year. We covered most of Japanese for busy people as well as a big chunk of 皆んなの日本語 . At this point, desperate to go Japan, I worked two jobs for a few months and saved up for a life-changing trip. I stayed for 3 months with a family near Fukuoka (in Imari to be specific) and I helped them on their homestead. They welcomed me a like a new member of their family and I got to learn so much not only about Japanese agriculture and gastronomy but also about many other aspects of the culture. I walked the Kumano Kodo, I stayed in a traditional mountain hut with a beautiful Goemonburo (a heated bathtub named after Ishikawa Goemon who was boiled alive), we went to sento together and barbecued mochi and fishbones from fish we had fished together with the extended family the night before. Also and mostly, my conversational skills skyrocketed, it felt great! It was also around this time that I actually discovered WaniKani and was really taken with it straight away.
I was immediately impressed with the speed and effortlessness that WaniKani promised to learning kanji. Within 5 levels, which probably took me just over a month, I was already learning kanji that I hadn’t yet covered in my year in the classroom setting. I was totally hooked.
Sadly though, a few months later, with my dream of going to Japan behind me and not knowing when I’d be able to go back, my motivation for learning Japanese faded and all I could make time for in terms of studies was WaniKani. I got to level 35, and, unable to notice my progress outside of the app and trying to go through the levels too quickly, I eventually burned out and quit.
It wasn’t until 3 years later when an exciting new opportunity to go to Japan again that my interest in the language sparked again. I actually didn’t pick up WaniKani straight away, but only did so after I realised I could still converse with my Fukuoka host family whom I met again, and after a really fun night singing karaoke in a bar in Naha with a bunch of oyaji who, I not only impressed by requesting Kuroi Hanabira, but also from the fact that I was able to read most of the kanji that popped on the screen! I don’t know if it was my near-perfect (ahem) rendition or whether it was all the beer we had had, but a few of them even joined me in my efforts.
In all seriousness though, I realised at this point how good a job WaniKani had done, I hadn’t studied anything in three years and yet here I was singing along as if I’d always known the words! On this same trip, thanks to the distillery I was working for in London at the time, I got the chance to visit two other distilleries in Japan (Cor Cor, a rum distillery in Minami Daito near Okinawa, and Chichibu, a whisky distillery in, you will have guessed it, Chichibu) and was given a tour which I could understand and ask questions about in Japanese. This was yet another great confidence booster!
At this point I figured it’d be a waste not to keep this up. I accepted learning Japanese would be a much longer endeavour than I anticipated and decided to give it a second chance. I learned Spanish and Italian when I was younger and I think the comparative difficulty of Japanese played a big part in me giving it up the first time round.
I signed up again then, had a go at reviews (which were in the thousands at this point) , and, using the re-order script went through each level to test where I was the most comfortable, I landed on 15. From there little by little, everyday I kept at it and got all the way to 60 today.
Learning from my mistakes on the first time round, I took it easy and only ever did as much as I could handle, I also tried to integrate a lot more grammar, listening and reading as soon as I reached level 35 again.
I now have a study routine that I am really happy with and I can really feel my progress, although it is definitely slower that I would like it to be but I’ve accepted that this a life-long endeavour. My goals with Japanese are actually more or less the same as when I started, to visit Japan as often as I can and consume Japanese media in its native format. All that has really changed are my expectations and my taste in films and music. While I still enjoy watching the odd One Piece episode as it actually helps with my studies, I am a lot more excited about going to the yearly marathon screening of The Human Condition in Tokyo.
My current weekly study routine:
- Watch a few episodes of shows I like enough to keep me engaged but not enough that I don’t mind missing out on some of the info. All in Japanese with Japanese subs.
- Study using Quartet
- Weekly lessons with a teacher on Italki (talking practice plus help ironing out mistakes, they also correct texts that I write)
- A few BunPro lessons per week (2-3)
- Read a chapter of １０分で読める伝記 (hoping to move on to 魔女の宅急便 soon)
- Read a chapter of よつばと！
- Listen to a few Nihongo con Teppei as well as Noriko and Nihongo Switch
- Upload vocab from all different resources to KameSame
My experience with WaniKani:
As someone who often tries to take on more than they can actually handle, I soon realised WaniKani was the perfect tool to help me learn Japanese, as it gave me the opportunity to keep studying even during periods of my life when I really didn’t have the time for it (personal difficulties or simply too busy like when I was training in a whole new career).
Despite the very busy or difficult periods, I was able to keep up with it every day, even if it was just 5-10 reviews at a time, and when the time finally came to step up my studies, I felt truly prepared. It was around level 35-40 that I picked up Grammar, Reading and Listening a little more seriously and it felt so nice to not have to struggle by having to look up each word or Kanji.
I learnt Spanish and Italian when I was younger and comparatively speaking, even though Japanese was fascinating for me, I found it really frustrating at first to not even be able to know what a sentence sounded like when reading it, let alone understand it. But WaniKani broke that barrier, it made the learning that much more accessible.
Now I know that the hardest is yet to come (I must improve my reading and talking abilities and this requires a lot more work), hence the Base Camp analogy in the title, but I definitely feel prepared, and if I’m honest, other than the fact that I had to persevere and keep the motivation going on for so long, WaniKani made learning Kanji actually quite easy, all I had to do was keep coming back and do those pesky reviews! Everything else in a way, was already done for me.
I suppose though this is also one of the downfalls of WaniKani, and a risk for a number of language learning apps (I see you angry owl!). Because it felt so easy, it meant I often favoured WaniKani over other aspects of the language and I probably could have made more of an effort early on to set up a studying routine for myself that didn’t involve only doing WaniKani. So maybe as a slight warning, it’s great if you are enjoying WaniKani, but definitely try to not neglect reading, listening, grammar etc…
Some WaniKani and extra-curricular tips:
Find a pace that suits you and stick to it. I started off like many people very keen to go as fast as possible and was doing all my lessons as soon as they were available but I think this is partly what led me to burning out and quitting at level 35. (Bearing in mind there were only 50 levels at the time and so I was way passed the half way point)
On my second round after resetting back to level 15 I focused on creating a WaniKani schedule for myself that was more manageable and compatible with my other life obligations and settled on 100 Apprentice, 500 Guru and roughly 150 reviews per day max. The Master and Enlightened categories didn’t matter so much as those reviews were more sporadic and I could manage the occasional increase in reviews, but on average I had about 500 Master and 1000 Enlightened at any given time. I quickly found that this schedule meant that not only I could keep WaniKani under control (but accept it will take me longer), I could also focus on other aspects of studying as well as have time for work and other hobbies too.
Read, Read, Read (Read every day, even if just a little bit, it’s the fact that it is every day that matters). This should have been more obvious to me at first but I found it difficult when I first started studying to find reading material that was perfectly suited to my level, everything either felt way out of reach or if it was for kids, it was all in Hiragana which I found really difficult. Now though, with my current level of kanji knowledge and the steady increase in learning material, I’m spoiled for choice. I am now quickly realising that what I once found extremely difficult is getting easier and easier to decipher, and as I now have the kanji knowledge, all I need to do is focus on my reading ability, and of course grammar, which leads me to my next point.
Start grammar early The year in the classroom which I started my Japanese studies with gave me a really solid base in grammar, but I failed to realise how much more I needed to learn. This resulted in me neglecting this part of the language for a little too long. I now use BunPro in conjunction with all the resources they offer and have found it so far to be a pretty good aid. I had covered most N5 to N4 in the classroom and learnt all of N3 through the BunPro system. My teacher on Italki is confident I could pass N3 which means I’m pretty happy with it so far, I’ve yet to see how well it’ll work for N2 and N1 but there is no reason it’ll be any different. So, if you like the way WaniKani teaches, I imagine you will be happy with BunPro too.
Listen, Listen, Listen (Same as for reading). This is something that is becoming increasingly easier and easier to do, there are now so many great podcasts where native Japanese speakers will speak for a few minutes on various topics like Nihongo con Teppei, and many will now even provide scripts like Noriko or Nihongo Switch. I have found these to be a really great way to cement my knowledge and they have been a real confidence boost as at first I couldn’t understand anything they were saying despite knowing all the vocabulary and grammar they were using, but little by little, listening every day I can now understand them pretty well 90% of the time, often without having to refer to the scripts. I also really like the feeling of hearing a word for the first time out in the wild after having recently learnt it on WaniKani, there is such a satisfaction to hearing meaning in what would have just been sounds a few days prior.
Finally (and this is repeating myself a little and maybe a little cliché) but don’t try to go too fast, although WaniKani with its levels does gamify Kanji learning a little and provides a certain sense of completion, you will not complete ‘learning Japanese’ so take your time and don’t forget to have fun. (Start doing the things you set out to do when you first wanted to learn Japanese)