I stumbled upon WaniKani less than a month after taking my first tentative steps up to the edge of the bottomless chasm that is learning Japanese. Therefore, my journey through WK and my journey through learning Japanese have gone hand in hand.
About a year ago, I wrote a post that was partially a study log and partially self-reflection. I don’t have much to offer in the way of specific advice for conquering WaniKani, as others have both accomplished that and written about it far better than I ever could. I also don’t have much in the way of advice for studying Japanese, as after two years of dedicated study I’m still only at the precipice of this enormous undertaking without nearly enough experience to guide others down the most direct path. What I can do is make my experience and reflections public in the hope that others might avoid the same pitfalls, discover some good resources, or at best walk away feeling a little more motivated and ready to tackle the challenges of language-learning.
I’ll also apologize in advance for the length of this post as it also serves to some degree as my own personal (apparently annual) study log, and I don’t expect anyone to read it in its entirety. Stop by for the and skim what you’d like ! I can’t promise your time wouldn’t be better spent getting back to reviews
Some Words About Motivation
I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe in “motivation”. At least I don’t believe in motivation in the sense that a lot of people seem to mean it. I don’t believe in the type of motivation that strikes out of the blue on a sunny day, the type of motivation that arises from a glance at a quote on a poster or through reading the latest trendy self-improvement book. While I can’t deny that this type of motivation exists, I don’t believe that it can ever be enough to drive somebody to achieve a goal as difficult as reaching fluency in a new language. It will, without exception, fizzle out within a few weeks of the New Year.
Without exception? But what about those seemingly superhuman few who find such a spark and stick to it? What about the people who do go on to run triathlons, write novels, or achieve true fluency?
I guarantee that the spark alone is not what carried them to their goals. Far more likely, it was habit.
Good or bad, habit patterns shape how we live and how we spend our time. On a day-to-day basis, they have power over us. But we also have power over them—the ability to sculpt them to our advantage. In almost every case of the triathlete, novelist, or polyglot, I can almost guarantee that she worked hard through days when the motivational spark was dim, carried through by habit alone.
Over the course of the past two years my motivations for studying Japanese have changed substantially. Initially, the motivation was goal-oriented. I could be paid more in the military for maintaining proficiency in a second language, my career might take me to Japan, I wanted to replace social media time that I considered wasteful with something more productive, and I wanted to experience media that I enjoyed in its original language. All of these goals still contribute to my desire to improve, but I don’t wake up two hours before work every day and reflect on these reasons before sitting down for some coffee and SRS. I just sit down to reviews every morning because it’s what I do.
Before I really knew how powerful habit could be, the thing that helped me turn a spark of motivation into a habit was gamification. Both WaniKani and Duolingo (yes, I started on Duolingo. I’m sorry.) provided the dopamine hit that kept me coming back every day to level up and increase my streaks. I think it is extremely important, especially over the course of the first year of habit-shaping, to never miss a day. While I won’t lie and say there weren’t a few days where my studying was nominal at best, I can proudly say that I have yet to go a day without studying at all.
While habit has primarily driven my progress so far, in the past half-year or so I believe that for better or for worse the nature of my habit has changed. I’ve always enjoyed studying Japanese enough to dedicate hours per day, but lately it’s become what I enjoy the most. It’s no longer work, but a way to relax. If given the opportunity to fit in some extra study time or play a good video game (a hobby which I always have, and still do, love), nine times out of ten I’ll choose to take advantage of the study time.
This has had several positive effects on my life. For example, I drink less than I used to because alcohol interferes with my focus and study time. I read more often. I’ve worked harder in my career to improve my chances of getting to live in Japan (and successfully applied some lessons I’ve learned through language-study to my profession). There have also been effects that some might consider negative. For example, as my focus has narrowed some of my other hobbies (like writing music or coding) have all but fallen by the wayside. There have been several occasions where I’ve turned down social invitations because I’d prefer to catch up on reading or reviews.
A few days ago I came across a blunt piece of advice in a WaniKani thread that resonated nearly perfectly with my experience, and sums up what I would say to anybody struggling to maintain the “motivation” to study regularly (with some paraphrasing to maintain generality).
I’m not saying that one should discard “sparks” of motivation altogether. I’ve used such moments to make significant strides over the course of particularly productive weeks. But the thing that’s kept me “motivated”, and the thing that’s driven me to become truly passionate about all of this, is habit.
I started WaniKani with a sprint out of the gate. For the first 27 levels or so I went as fast as I could without using reorder scripts or adjusting my daily schedule to hit reviews the hour they became available. The slower times during this period were probably from some missed level-up reviews because for a while I refused to “cheat”. I definitely don’t regret the initial fast pace–I think it was essential to get me to the point of reading as soon as I could.
I always intended to slow down around the halfway point because the kanji became slightly more obscure and the time would be better-spent immersing, considering I already had a foundation that let me tackle things I wanted to read, albeit with a healthy amount of patience. I ended up starting the process a bit early when burn reviews started, leeches accumulated, and my accuracy took a nosedive that it never quite recovered from.
The 61 day break came from the holidays rolled into a move across the country followed by purchasing my first house. It’s kind of crazy thinking about how much my life has changed over the course of just the two years that I’ve been studying. I’m a very different person now than when I started, but Japanese has been a constant. At the end of the day though, life comes first whether you want it to or not.
As you can see, my accuracy was not stellar. For the first twenty-some-odd levels it was fine, closer to the lower to mid-90s that I’ve seen on some other level 60 posts. On a bad day if I’m tired or distracted or just get hit with a lot of difficult vocabulary at once, my percentage at the end of a review session might be as low as 50%. Hopefully this can help motivate others who see posts of stunning accuracy and wonder whether level 60 is an achievable goal. Ultimately, one shouldn’t compare oneself to others on their own language learning journeys. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses as well as different goals, study preferences, and life factors.
I’m still looking to improve my accuracy so I’ll reflect a bit on how I might fix this.
First of all, there are a few things that, surprisingly, didn’t really work for me.
- Leech Reviews: While my accuracy did go up, the amount of time I spent reviewing leeches in a flashcard-quiz style was probably every bit as much work as ironing them out over time using the SRS would have been over the course of the 10 or so levels when I did this regularly. It was also mentally painful to sink so much time into something so boring that didn’t have tangible results (i.e. an SRS-stage advanced or a level up). This might work well for some people, but for me doing flashcards to practice doing flashcards just wasn’t worth it.
- Reading: By level 45 or so I was probably spending about three times as much time reading as I was on WK. This was absolutely the correct decision for the sake of other benefits, but it didn’t improve my SRS accuracy as much as I would have liked. This is probably due to the many kanji and vocabulary on WK that are rare enough that at my current reading speed I can’t reinforce them often enough through books, and because reading cuts in to SRS time. Or perhaps I would have gone from mediocre accuracy to abysmal accuracy had I not read so much. Who knows.
Here are some techniques I tried that definitely had a positive impact on my accuracy when I managed to sustain them habitually:
- More daily review sessions: During stretches of time when I managed average three (or even four) review sessions per day as opposed to one or two big sessions, my accuracy improved drastically. This is probably due to a combination of hitting cards closer to their ideal review intervals and being able to stay more focused over the course of shorter review sessions.
- Doing more lessons: If you’re getting overwhelmed with reviews this is clearly not the best option, but I found that when I was actively trying to level up quickly I would be more focused during review sessions and my accuracy would go up.
- Saying the meaning and reading to myself before typing anything: I mostly stuck to this rule but there were times where I would get lazy and try to speed through review sessions, or try to experiment with different review techniques. These sessions along with follow-on sessions dealing with the newly-demoted apprentice items would typically see large drops in accuracy.
- Spending more time on lessons: This is probably the most important point and the main piece of advice I would give with regards to accuracy. I’ve seen conflicting opinions on this, and many seem to think that if you don’t know something, the SRS will “deal with it” for you. From my experience, this is NOT the case. Or at least if it is, it happens on a time scale long enough that it can’t be encompassed by the two years I’ve been studying. SRS is not a means of learning information, but of reviewing it. This is why, initially at least, mnemonics, context, or muscle-memory building are so important. My primary plan for dealing with leeches going forward is to create my own mnemonics if the WK ones don’t stick, build Anki flashcards with words in context, or learn how to write particularly troublesome kanji.
Some Feedback for WaniKani
I don’t have too much to say. WaniKani has proven to be the ideal tool for me, especially through its allowance for userscripts and through the bookclubs that have grown out of its forums. I don’t mind the obscure vocabulary considering it reinforces the kanji and my goal is fluency anyway. I imagine most educated Japanese adults would know every one of these words. Some people complain about useless kanji in the later levels, but even into the high fifties every level has had several kanji that I’ve encountered at least once in my reading.
My biggest complaint is the lack of tools for dealing with leeches. Bunpro has ghost reviews. Anki has adaptive intervals. To the best of my knowledge the WaniKani API doesn’t grant developers the ability to alter interval timing (nor should it), so in order to find a solution more powerful than self-study quizzes or manual SRS stage-demotion, this is something that ought to be built-in. The most legitimate complaints I’ve read regarding some of WK’s more obscure vocabulary words is that they can become leeches, thus taking up an inordinate amount of study time to little benefit.
WK: Perhaps some people feel a bit lost after finishing WaniKani, but I suspect I’m in the majority in feeling liberated. I intend to continue doing my reviews every day not with the specific goal of burning everything, but just to retain the kanji and vocabulary that I’ve learned in later levels. I have no intention of ever resetting, unless I find myself returning to Japanese study after a long hiatus (which I also have no intention of ever doing).
Kanji: I probably won’t prioritize kanji study in the near future, although I plan to set up an Anki deck in a WK style to review kanji that I encounter in my reading. Unfamiliar kanji still pop up frequently enough to be a hassle. Perhaps someday I’ll learn to write kanji, but I have no intention of doing so in the coming year at least.
Grammar: I’m about 80% through Bunpro N2, and I intend to finish Bunpro entirely by the end of the year. Since ~WK level 50 I’ve only been adding grammar points as I come across them in reading, but I plan to pick up the pace so I can “finish” Bunpro as well. Other than that I don’t intend to do any more formal grammar study other than what’s required to support my reading and speaking. If you haven’t used Bunpro because you don’t plan on using their SRS, I highly recommend you consider utilizing it as an encyclopedia of grammar points. This aspect of the site is free. While Bunpro itself offers concise information about Grammar Points’ meaning and structure, it also includes links to references for more in-depth reading. I also have all three volumes of A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar, which fill a similar purpose and do a better job at explaining most grammar points, but are not as comprehensive and lack the convenience that comes with an online resource.
Speaking: Several weeks ago I posted regarding my first Japanese conversation. TLDR: It was not pretty. However, it motivated me to get on iTalki where I’ve been taking at least two lessons per week. It’s been extremely rewarding so far and I intend to start taking 3-4 lessons per week as my WK reviews decrease. Not only have I managed to make significant progress in my speaking, but perhaps expectedly, my listening ability has taken a massive upturn from nonexistent all the way up to quite bad. I was already doing a fair amount of passive listening (anime, podcasts, Youtube, etc.), but I believe learning to listen in a conversation has also accelerated my ability to improve passively as well. I know many WaniKani users are primarily here to improve their comprehension (myself included), but taking the (scary) dive into speaking if you haven’t done it yet may improve other aspects of your Japanese faster than just listening or reading more would. Having to think through constructing my own sentences has also improved the depth of my reading comprehension, and the two skills reinforce each other to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
Reading: See Bookclubs section. I also intend to start playing more games in Japanese. I’ve already played most of Cave Story as well as some shorter titles. I might also try picking up some visual novels, and I’m open to suggestions.
I figured I’d mention a few other resources I’ve used that I haven’t mentioned elsewhere in this post. Some have been quite good and are worth checking out if they strike your interest.
Natively: This site has users make side-by-side comparisons of the difficulty of Japanese books they’ve read in order to produce a relative difficulty scale in order to guide readers to books of the appropriate level. It’s also an excellent place to track the Japanese books you’ve read and plan to read. Marking books as finished feels very satisfying. The utility of the site depends to some degree on user buy-in, so I would strongly encourage anybody who has read or intends to read any Japanese books to make an account!
Pimsleur I paid for a one-month subscription to do the level-five Pimsleur course on my commutes in order to prepare for speaking in my iTalki lessons. It was a bit jarring to go from reading native books to listening to basic conversations about plane rides, but my speaking and listening skills were so non-existent that I swallowed my pride and gave it a try. The lessons are very well-done and include a lot of interesting cultural and historical content. I don’t know how this resource would work for a beginner, but I found a surprising amount of value in it.
Comprehensible Japanese: This is my favorite Japanese education Youtube channel I’ve found since Japanese Ammo with Misa. Yuki speaks slowly and uses emphatic gestures and drawings to help viewers follow along. The videos are extremely well-done and help learners hit the 80% rule for listening practice.
V-Tubers: They’re not something that I ever thought I would get into, but zoning out watching some of these talented streamers play classic video games has proven enjoyable passive listening practice.
Without a doubt, for me the most rewarding thing about WaniKani has not been the product itself but the Community Bookclubs. If you get nothing else out of this post, then let it be this. Go check out the Book Clubs RIGHT NOW. My proudest moment so far in learning Japanese is not reaching level 60, but finishing 魔女の宅急便, my first Japanese book.
I want to thank @Aislin, @Belthazar, @softlyraining, @NicoleRauch, @Phryne, and everybody else who has asked, answered, reacted or discussed in any of the WK bookclubs I’ve joined. If it weren’t for all of you, I probably would have finished WaniKani a lot faster and been a lot worse at Japanese.
Graded Readers: These are kind of a necessary evil. There are some good ones out there but they’ll never be as interesting as native content. A lot of them are based on Japanese folklore though, so some of the graded readers I’ve read actually gave me a bit of cultural knowledge that proved useful background for other things I went on to read and watch.
よつばと!: Yotsuba, where would the Japanese learning community be without you? This is the first native manga I ever read, and one of, if not the most often cited as the best entry point for reading native material. That being said, no matter where one starts the transition is still difficult. It’s full of casual speech that can be tough to parse for anybody whose experience is primarily with textbook Japanese. The characters and situations are charming and often hilarious. I’m on volume 13 and I still come back to Yotsuba any time I finish my reading commitments early in a given week.
ゆるキャン△ (Laid-Back Camp): This is the first bookclub that I joined concurrently. As the title implies, this manga isn’t very plot-heavy but rather provides a laid back experience full of beautifully-drawn vistas and cozy situations. @Belthazar has also improved the experience even more by doing some research to give us a small virtual tour of Japan each week as we follow the characters on their camping journeys. I’ve read up through volume 9 with the bookclub.
少女終末旅行 (Girls’ Last Tour): Probably my favorite manga that I’ve read so far, and perhaps an equally good starting point to Yotsuba. The story follows two young girls exploring a post-apocalyptic cityscape nearly devoid of life. It is beautiful and introspective without taking itself too seriously. It led me to laugh and cry more than a few times over the course of the 6 volumes.
魔女の宅急便 (Kiki’s Delivery Service): Perhaps nearly as popular a first novel recommendation as Yotsuba is for manga, with 魔女の宅急便 I saw huge improvements in my reading over the course of the 6 months that the club ran. The novel is episodic and lacks some of the emotional depth of the Ghibli adaptation, and the extensive use of hiragana made this book harder than it should have been, but overall it was a very enjoyable read and an experience I’ll remember fondly.
コンビニ人間: I read this book in English shortly after I started studying Japanese when I thought my goals of reading native literature were still a long way off. This short novel earns my highest recommendation for beginners to native material who have a few books or manga under their belt. Murata’s prose is direct and straightforward which is outstanding in its own right, but also lends itself to relatively easy comprehension for language learners. Murata’s characters and worldbuilding are intriguing in a manner unlike those of any author I’ve read, and she has quickly become one of my favorites. Others clearly seem to agree to the extent that there’s now a WK bookclub dedicated solely to Murata.
君の名は (Your Name): The novelization of the popular movie. The book was enjoyable and not particularly difficult (particularly after having seen the movie), but I think I would have appreciated it more had I not seen the movie first. The book does not add enough to the story to make up for the lack of stunning visuals and music that made the movie so powerful.
シメジシミュレーション: The second work by つくみず, the 漫画家 who wrote 少女終末旅行. The series is ongoing so I’ve only read through volume 2, but the surreal humor and strange setting have made for a very enjoyable read. It’s also fairly accessible language-wise, aside from a few dense philosophical tangents.
殺人出産: The second Murata book I read is a collection of four short stories in which Murata explores the answers to some interesting “what if” questions by building worlds and throwing characters into them. The titular story is excellent, and like コンビニ人間, the writing style is as accessible as it is powerful.
日常: So far I’ve read only the first volume. I intend to read more but it’s not very high on my priority list. The absurd humor is really fun, but leads to situations where it’s difficult to tell if you’re not understanding the language or not understanding the joke. I wouldn’t recommend this manga to beginners.
地縛少年花子くん (Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun): A cult-classic manga with gorgeous artwork. I’ve finished two volumes so far and am coming to enjoy the series more and more.
クビキリサイクル: The first novel by the now extremely popular Nisio Isin. This book is a locked-room mystery in the style of Agatha Christie. When I saw 化物語 for the first time, I came to love the dialogue and writing style so I decided to pick up a Nisio Isin book (opting for one whose story I was entirely unfamiliar with). It’s without a doubt the most challenging thing I’ve read so far, but I’ve been unable to put it down.
授乳: Murata’s first book and the third I’ve decided to tackle in Japanese, this short-story collection is a bit more difficult language-wise than the others I’ve read, and seems to lack some of the crisp style that comes through so strongly in Murata’s later works. That being said, it’s still distinctly Murata and a promising read so far.
Plan to Read
Aside from continuing the Manga series that I have in progress, in the near future I intend to read 地球星人, かがみの孤城, ヨコハマ買い出し紀行. A special note about 地球星人–I’ve read it before in English and consider it among the best books that I’ve ever read.
I don’t even come close to exaggerating when I say that learning Japanese has been a life-changing experience, and I can’t wait to see where this journey leads.