[Long Read] Self-Reflection and Intelligent Learning


I may have accidentally written more than I was planning to, but this is something I feel so passionately about, that even if only one person reads it in its entirety I will be happy enough. For those who want a single sentence summary though: be an intelligent learner, not a fast one.

Self-Reflection and Intelligent Learning

Yesterday was a special day for me; I had finally reached my first anniversary of using WaniKani, and which coincidentally also happened to be the same day I reached level 24 :sparkling_heart:

It’s not an understatement to say that finding WaniKani had played a significant part in helping me move from hopelessly trying to learn Japanese without learning any kanji, to now me being able to read NHK easy articles and a fair amount of manga, and being able to hold somewhat meaningful conversations on HelloTalk.

Who would have though learning kanji would be so helpful. The answer might seem obvious to other people, but to me, at the time, it seemed like a reasonable way to approach the language; “kanji is difficult, so I’ll leave that until I’ve learned some grammar and vocab”, was the idea. Of course, for me, that was futile. Sure, I learnt some grammar from Genki I, and a knew some words, but I couldn’t read anything, and that was very frustrating. Far worse, I wasn’t having any fun. I wanted to learn Japanese, it just wasn’t very fun. At all. This leads me onto the main topic for this thread; self-reflection and intelligent learning.

During my time here I haven’t posted much, but I do often check the forums to see what the current hot topics are, which undoubtedly includes a thread about wanting to go faster or how to level up in those oh so precious 7 days. This irks me to no end. I have only ever leveled up in ~7 days twice, my first and my most recent levels (for those wonder why I have only reached level 24 after one year):

Why do these topics infuriate me, you might ask. Personally - and you might disagree - I think it is a very single-minded approach. Studying, itself, is a skill; it can’t simply be defined as either you are studying or you are not. We all study in different ways, for varying amounts of time, and with varying amounts of success. Some can focus with Godly intent, and others - myself included - get distracted very easily.

I don’t doubt that I am an intelligent person; I did fairly well at school and was in the top 5 on my course at university. I have even published a legitimate research paper (though to my own admission it wasn’t particularly good). However, I’m not a quick learner - I often struggle to process large amounts of information quickly; I simply don’t have the processing power. There were plenty of people on my course who I thought were far more intelligent than me. They could go to a lecture and absorb the information as if it were child’s play. Yet, somehow, I always came out on top. I think this is due to a few reason - partly because I was more dedicate, partly because I cared more, but most prominently because I a took the time to look at myself and see what I was doing that was either helping my studies or hampering them.

This ability to be open and honest with myself isn’t a trait I always had. Through determination and consistent effort I learned how to analyse myself. It enabled me to asking questions like “what can I possibly do to improve” but also “what am I willing to do”. This is something I applied to my studies at university, but can also be applied to life in general, and of course, Japanese studies.

As previously stated, I began learning Japanese with the intention of first learning grammar and vocab, and only dealing with kanji after that. This, of course, didn’t work; I had reached my first hurdle. Rather than giving in to frustration and quitting, I opted to analyse my studies and see what could be done. The answer was fairly simple - learn kanji. The reality - and I’m sure most of you will agree - is that learning kanji isn’t easy. Spurred on by my enthusiasm to tackle this obstacle, I purchased a book containing 2000 core kanji and planned to go through each kanji one by one and learn all the meanings and readings and stroke order… I almost immediately gave up on this solution. It was impossible for me to memorize all of this, a statement no one will be shocked to read.

However, I didn’t give up - I sought another solution instead. I began using Memrise, with which I had a notable increase in success learning vocab. Sure, I learned the readings for some kanji, but many have multiple meanings and readings, and I would quickly forget one reading as I learnt another. An improvement, but not near good enough if I wanted meaningful progress.

At this point I was feeling fairly defeated. I was a sore loser and I don’t take defeat lightly. I had spent many months attempting to learn Japanese, but had almost nothing to show for it. Although I still didn’t give up, my studies had declined dramatically for almost a year to the point where I was only studying enough to not forget what I had already learned, but made no additional progress.

It was then, a year ago, I happened across WaniKani. I don’t remember how, but I did, and it gave me a lifeline I desperately needed. I dropped all existing grammar studies and focused entirely on my reviews and lessons. For the first 14 levels, I personally think everything went fairly well. Sure there were a few long levels, but I was at university at the time, so my time needed to be appropriately divided. Levels 15 to 19, however, on the surface, might seem abysmal. How could someone claiming to be intelligent take so long to level up? The answer is 42.

Around level 15 I had just left university, had moved into my own flat and had started my first job (games programming, for those who are interested). Naturally, my Japanese took a significant hit, as starting a new job is tiring and having to look after yourself takes up a lot of time (washing, cleaning, shopping, and all the other things adults are supposed to do), especially when you live alone and have no one else to rely on. Furthermore, due to the near perpetual anxiety I suffer from, I am frequently left fatigued. All in all, during this particular time I was feeling rather drained, and forcing myself to studying in spite of the fatigue was a sure way to total burnout.

Of course, I didn’t give up. What else were you expecting? During the Christmas period just gone, I took some time to yet again analyse myself. What could I possibly do to keep my Japanese studies going? The solution might not be entirely what you expected it to be.

I became more efficient at work.

I didn’t originally use WaniKani at work because I was always busy with deadlines every other week. Programming and Japanese together were very strenuous for me and I couldn’t do both without affecting my work; I didn’t want to get fired or produce unsatisfactory work. After work, however, I would often go to the gym, then go shopping, and then finally when I arrived home I would cook my dinner. Only then could I begin my studies, and honestly, I just didn’t want to. My brain wouldn’t remember a thing because I was so tired; I had returned to my original state of not finding Japanese fun, and yet, I had made so much progress this time.

The only solution seemed to be getting through some reviews whilst at work, so when I returned home I could do some reading or study some grammar, instead of facing a wall of reviews which we all fear. To do this, I started incorporating the Pomodoro Technique at work. For 25 minutes I would focus entirely on the work at hand, and then for 5 minutes I would do 5 - 10 reviews, as well as taking a small break for food, or drinks, or just a little rest, before repeating the process. The Pomodoro Technique is popular for studying, and I had used it quite a lot during my time at university, but this time I was using it for my everyday work instead. Surprisingly - or perhaps not so surprisingly - it worked quite well. So much so, that my work has maintained, if not, improved, since incorporating it, and I have been able to do around 100 reviews whilst at work, allowing more more time to start integrating more grammar studies and reading into my schedule, all without feeling burnt out. I even managed to get my first ~7 day level up since starting WaniKani.

But I didn’t get to this state because I tried to get through reviews as soon as they appeared. I couldn’t personally do it. I got here because I took the time to find out what worked best for me, given my circumstances. I may have been studying Japanese for over two years now, and only just made my “breakthrough” a year ago - and some people may mock me for taking so long to get to the state I am at now - but I know that even if it takes me 10 more years to become fluent, I will not give up. I wholeheartedly refuse to become another mark on tally of people who gave up learning Japanese - or any language or skill for that matter - and I don’t doubt that there are many others who are just as determined.

I know that at some point I will reach another hurdle again; but I also know that if I don’t give up, if I give myself time to find what works for me, that I will overcome it, and as a result, develop myself further.

I therefore invite you to no longer be a fast learner, but an intelligent one.


Rock on! Yes!! I am wholeheartedly with you on this one! I tried too hard to rush level six and reset myself back to the beginning of it because I was overwhelmed and not learning anything. It added another 10 days, but it was worth it. I love the feeling of actually knowing the review as soon as it pops up. I hate sitting there puzzling it out and guessing because then I don’t really know it. So I prefer to take my time and have them all be instantly known. If I rush through I end up with momsterous review stacks and abysmal percentages.
I like this method of studying you mentioned. I learned of it from a fellow coder when I was in school, but I never tried it. Reading your success has made me want to try it out though!
Congratulations to you on your journey and thank you for the inspiration. I was feeling really overwhelmed lately and I think you’ve really helped me :smile:


WOW - that was really long. But also really interesting. Thank-you for taking the time to share your experience. I think one of the wonderful things about Wanikani is the community, and to be able to hear and relate to other peoples experiences / problems.

I totally agree that speed is not everything - there are a few people who are in the position to be able to blast out seven days levels, and still finish - but you are absolutely right that the speed at which you go, and the strategy for learning should depend entirely on the persons circumstances. The important thing is that the strategy chosen is one that gets the person as far as they can get with the language.

Also totally empathise will the how frustrating learning Japanese is WITHOUT knowing Kanji - also, why ignore it when it is so much fun. :smile:

See you at reality ? :face_with_monocle: :blush:



Thank you for taking the time to read it all :grinning: I know most people wouldn’t bother but I don’t blame them!

I find the technique good if my concentration is poor. Sometimes I might just do 5 minutes of focus and 1 minute rest. Sometimes I’ll do the full 25 minutes and just feel like I can keep going, so I do, until I notice my attention wondering elsewhere. As with any technique, your mileage may vary, but it’s worth a try if you haven’t used it before. Just make sure that during those X minutes of focus you are honest with yourself and don’t allow yourself to start procrastinating. If you do, then you may want to focus for a shorter amount of time, which will require some experimentation.

Good luck! :sunglasses:


There was a lot more I wanted to write… But I was aware than nobody is going to read a post the length of a thesis :sweat_smile:

At the time kanji didn’t seem appealing. It wasn’t until I started WaniKani that I realised how fun they could be to learn, given the correct learning methods (i.e. funny mnemonics).

I’ll see you at the finish line - however long that requires!


Interesting read. Just like everyone else, I agree with you.Some people are lucky to be intelligent learners as well as fast ones. The trick is to know how you learn. How your brain absorbs information, and what the most efficient way is, and learn that way.

I did the same thing: learn kana and grammar, then pick up kanji later on. One year later, I had learnt a lot of grammar, and I could understand how words worked grammatically, but I had no idea what the sentence meant.

Regarding reviews, I found out doing them during commute is best. I have ~2hrs to do reviews, 1 hour in the morning, and one in the evening. Enough to do about 150 reviews in total. I couldn’t do them at work, too much work to be done, and I don’t know how my colleagues/boss would react if they saw me on WaniKani instead :stuck_out_tongue:

Learning Japanese is taking a lot longer than I thought it would, but I guess it’s because I’m lazy and slacking off all the time. But one day! One day we shall converse fluently in Japanese!


I am fortunate enough to have my own office with my monitors not visible to anyone else, so in my case I can get away with it :laughing:

For anyone interested, there was a Coursera I took about learning how to learn a long while ago, which initiated my change to ‘intelligent learning’. There is science on how the brain works and how you can build up connections in your brain over time to help remember things, and is part of the reason why SRS work as well as it does.


Thank you for the insight. I will do this!

This is very interesting to me, I wonder if I can find it. All of my hobbies are learning how to do “stuff” so I think this would be really useful to me.

How do you go about learning grammar? I try to get my reviews done in the mornings and when I get home from work, concentrating on grammar is also pretty hard and that’s why I don’t manage to do that every day. Any motivational tips there? ;w;
I use Genki mainly for grammar.

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I’m struggling to study GENKI as frequent as I study wanikani as well. I found a YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjRZpOiz3vjXNqAyjcIGwEw
I watch this when I can’t or don’t want to do the book work. Then I work on the workbook.


I appreciate this is not the same for everyone, but I find SRS allows me to remember a monstrous amount of information as the point is simply just to forget it less every time you see it rather than remember it.
My memory is absolutely terrible generally.

I think if you think of the point of WK is not the remember the kanji, but just to not forget them, then you will be able approach it more easily.

I also find that because I simply have to forget something less than last time I saw it, and I’m very good at forgetting things generally, I can forget a lot of things a lot and ironically end up being able to remember them very quickly.
In addition to WK I also do about 50 new vocab words a day and find that for the most part, they are all sticking.

My WK level average is just over 7 days a level.

Incidentally, I have found that mnemonics do not work for me because remembering them is more hassle that just not forgetting the thing I need to remember.
The only mnemonic thats ever really been effective for me is “Richard of York gave battle in vain” for the colours on a rainbow, and I would actually have to write it down before I could tell you which each of the colours actually are.


A lot of my hobbies requiring studying too! I’m trying to improve my maths at the moment too, but I also used to play the piano. I recognised that I was taking on too much and dropped learning the piano - but only temporarily. Once my Japanese has progressed to a level I deem sufficient - what this is I have decided yet - I will take up learning the piano once again.


Recently I’ve been using BunPro, as many people have. The key here - for me at least - is to not have too many reviews each day. I prefer not to have any more than 30. I personally don’t recommend having the same amount of BunPro reviews as you do in WaniKani, simple because grammar is inherently more difficult than learning a single kanji, and therefore requires more time and effort to learn.

If I find that a particular grammar on BunPro is causing me problems I will first go back through the reading list. If I’m still having trouble I will either refer to Tae Kim or search for additional resources on the Interwebs. Better yet, if you join, for example, a Japanese Discord channel, then asking other people to explain can sometimes be helpful.

If after all this a certain grammar point is still problematic, I just ignore it for a while. Sometimes, for whatever reason, your brain simply can’t comprehend a certain grammar point, or even a kanji reading or meaning. This is okay. Move on to something else and allow your brain to figure it out in its own time. After a few days, or perhaps weeks, you might revisit the grammar point and magically understand it significantly better than you did before. The brain does that sometimes, whether we like it or not.

Another points I’d like to mention here - and I’m frequently guilty of it myself - don’t allow yourself to become unnecessarily frustrated and angry at your lack of progress or inability to comprehend a certain grammar point. If you’re angry and frustrated you’re certainly not having fun, and if you’re not having fun it will only make studying that much harder.

Finally, don’t rely on motivation to get you through your studies. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing - you should be motivated - but more importantly you should be disciplined. Sometimes you don’t feel like doing those reviews, but you know you should. As Shia Labeouf says, just do it - even if it’s just 10 reviews, or just one grammar point. Be disciplined enough to just do a little everyday.

Edit: Make sure you’re reading to make use of the grammar you’re learning - NHK easy, manga - or better yet, get on HelloTalk and write whatever your feel like writing about and have natives correct it for you. Note that sometimes they correct your sentence even if it’s not wrong, just because it doesn’t sound like how they would personally say it!


Thank you so much for sharing your experience! My journey has been largely the same as yours, with the exception that I’m a UI/ux designer instead of a game programmer (cool, btw.)

I was fortunate enough to get to take a year of Japanese while at University. What I learned during that time stuck very well, but progressing beyond that I came across all of the same hurdles. In the end, I took a long break because I felt as though no matter how much grammar I was able to learn, if I couldn’t apply that to reading even simple materials. I could watch and understand things meant for very young people, but that didn’t require me to speak and also didn’t go slow enough for me to process and learn new information. Reading seemed the key. Since finding wanikani, the amount of progression I see is astonishing. I’m learning, but also gaining a tool needed to learn in other ways.

I’m glad that wanikani has been a success for you! I can only hope it keeps being as awesome for me. I think it will!

Also, your post makes me feel way better about 7 day levels being a distant dream. I must take longer, but I also feel really solid as I move forward. I rather that.


God I hate programming user interfaces.

WaniKani really has been the catalyst in my studies, I’m not entirely sure how I would have got by without it -
being able to read kanji and slowly getting into reading simple articles and then some manga is what I really needed to keep me going.

I do hope it helps you as much as it has helped me!

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Regarding mnemonics, I use the ones I can easily remember and forget the rest. I think it was George from Japanese From Zero who said he didn’t like mnemonics which hurt the learner. In this case, if a mnemonic is difficult to remember then I don’t waste the time learning it because it’ll just making remember so much harder.

My thought is, if I can’t remember 青 then I’m not going to remember

Start by thinking of something that’s very blue. What’s the bluest thing you can think of? For me, it’s the Blue Man Group. Imagine the Blue Man Group, but instead of the regular members, you have Hard Gay (sei) and a Shogun (shou), both painted from head to toe in blue paint. They are playing for you an amazing concert. It’s fantastic! It’s blue!

I realise this is the point, but its what works for me

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So many people say they do reviews during their commute but we unfortunately don’t have public transportation around here ;_; (I assume you’re not reviewing while driving, at least.) I envy those with access to public transportation so much. *sigh*

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I try do some reviews while I commute to work on the tram, but sometimes it’s so packed there isn’t room for me to have my phone out in front of me without punching someone in the guts. People don’t like that, apparently.

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