My problem with mnemonics...(thoughts please?)

So I’ve been using WaniKani a couple weeks now. I wanted to give it a bit of a test run before making a post like this, so that I wasn’t just speculating about its effectiveness. I have a bit of an issue with the mnemonics strategy that I’d really like people’s thoughts on.

First off, I can’t deny that it works. Really well. Even though I find myself cringing at most of them, it’s that emotional response that helps me remember. My problem with it is just that… I don’t want to be learning kanji through English. I want to be able to look at a kanji and know what it means and what sound(s) it represents…the same way any English word just ‘looks’ a certain way to me. It’s intuitive; I don’t have to think about it. This is obviously something that happens over a long period of time and practice, but I feel like the mnemonics strategy hinders that, not helps it.

Like right now, every time I see 川, I don’t immediately think ‘river’ - I remember something about cows which makes me think of ‘kawa’ which I then remember means ‘river’. Sure, it happens quickly, sometimes instantaneously, but that’s not the point: I don’t want 川 to remind me of cows, I want it to remind me of a goddamn river. Won’t my brain have to ‘unlearn’ the cow association to make that happen?

I hope I’m making sense; it’s sort of hard to explain. I’d love to know what people think.

(Also, can’t decide if this should go under the ‘WaniKani’ or ‘general campfire’ category, but let me know if I picked the wrong one)


I don’t know how long you’ve been studying Japanese in general, but mnemonics aren’t meant to be a permanent thing. They merely assist you in getting something to stick in your ‘long-term’ memory. If you actively use or see those kanji regularly, the mnemonic should fade pretty quick.

It’s the same for kana mnemonics when a lot of people first learn kana. I only used a few mnemonics when I learned kana, but I have no clue what they are now. When I see the kana, I think of the kana. The more you use it (especially in context), the more you’ll associate it with the actual meaning.


The Mnemonics are essentially a crutch to help you intially recognize it. Once you’ve learned and seen the Kanji enough, you will stop thinking of the mnemonics, and that is absolutely the goal. Already happens for me, for the first couple levels.


I feel similarly. I enjoy learning about the meaning behind the kanji, and I’m excited when we learn a radical or kanji that gets its name from its true meaning.

However, I think the mnemonics help with words that I can’t remember on my own. I look at 川 and my brain straight up thinks “River” now. It didn’t use to do that. For words I get stuck on though, I have to bring up the story, but that’s better than not knowing it.

The theory is that one your brain starts storing these words, you slowly start to lose the mnemonics as a first reaction. If you can’t remember the word, then you fall back on the mnemonics to give you some help. But once you start reading a lot of Japanese, you’re not going to be stopping for every word to think about mnemonics. After a certain point, it’ll just be like reading this paragraph.


Personally, I feel I transition from using mnemonics to actually just recalling right around Guru in the SRS.


I feel the same as viet. The first few times I review the item I have to use the mnemonic. By the time it’s been Guru’d, I already associate it with only the reading and the meaning. I can’t remember the mnemonics for most of the items I’ve learned here. Sometimes, when I get an old item and my brain freezes, I have to try and recall the mnemonic. Then it’s like, my last effort to remember the kanji and that does make me remember it like 95% of the time.

I definitely don’t think the mnemonics hinder “proper” association. When I learn things without mnemonics, I’ll forget the word and only remember it after reviewing a few times (getting it wrong a few times). With WK mnemonics I have pretty much 100% recall right from the beginning, with the mnemonic aiding me for those first few reviews when it’s still so new. Without the mnemonic it would be a lot harder for me, I think.

When I see 川 my brain immediately goes かわ, lol. Your brain will too eventually.


I feel like mnemonics can help. I would never remember that 川 means river without an explanation on how it is river.

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I have been using Wanikani for approximately a month and I actually thought river when I saw this kanji, “川”.
I think mnemonics is a process. Inicially you have to think about cows to remember what this kanji means, but over time, you eventually start associating 川 with a river instantly, and its pronunciation comes easily (what is there in the river? Cows! KAWAS!).
You just need to give another chance to Wanikani, but if you really can’t get it, you’d better try other resource to learn kanji.

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Don’t see me as rude, please. However, you’re creating a problem that doesn’t exist. Every word, Kanji, feeling, etc starts with the creation of a concept. :slight_smile:

River => cow => かわ => 川

R => Ri => Riv => Rive => River

Letter by letter. You don’t read river like this, correct? You read the entire word at once. The letters just represent a way to reach your final destination: the definition of “river” and what it represents. But first, when you were little, you had to learn letter by letter, correct? :slight_smile:

It’s the same with your example. Cow will eventually disappear from your head because it’s not your final goal. Your final goal is 川 (かわ).

Now the question is: is it a good mnemonic for you? Only you can know the answer. The idea of mnemonics is to reduce the distance between concept A and concept B so you can create a bridge between what you know (river) and what you wish to learn (川).


Thank you guys! That helps a lot. I’ve been deeply interested in Japanese for years and have picked up a decent amount of the spoken language from, well, lots of anime mostly…obviously not enough to be fluent, but enough to pick up a bunch of words/phrases and develop a vague sense of sentence structure and grammar rules. I only started actually studying it a few weeks ago. I think what’s throwing me off is the cognitive dissonance I’m having between learning something and intuitively knowing it. I’m finding that the more I try to learn about how something works, the less I understand it naturally. I feel like I used to have a fairly instinctive grasp of when to use は and が, for example - I could never have explained it, but I sort of just did it naturally? Then I tried actually learning the difference between them and now I keep using them the wrong way because I’m thinking about it too much.

Anyway, tangent aside, I think I’m just frustrated because kanji (and any written kana for that matter) isn’t intuitive for me at all. So having to rely on mnemonics bothers me. I want to skip ahead to just ‘knowing’ it. But if the mnemonics naturally fade over time then I’m okay with that, and I’ll just have to be patient for now.


Wow, I didn’t think of it like that. That really helps, thank you. And you weren’t rude at all! The fact that I’m creating this problem myself makes me feel much better, not worse, so I appreciate you saying so :slight_smile:


As with any part of learning a language (or almost anything), the key to fluency and actually knowing it is to do it a bunch. With Japanese, this just means to use it a ton. If you’re going through dozens of example sentences every day, then after a while, everything (kana, kanji, grammar, sentence construction, etc.) will become a lot more intuitive and natural to you.

The more you do - the quicker it’ll become natural, the longer you do it for - the more natural it’ll become.


I been on wanikani a couple of months now, and you will eventually forget the mnemonic and just remember the meaning and pronunciations.


Just reiterating what everyone has said, especially viet, once I hit guru I just think of the kanji and not the mnemonic at all. Especially when you start getting into vocab, you don’t see two kanji next to each other and think okay, mnemonic mnemonic + mnemonic = kanji + kanji = vocab word. You’ll start to think Kanji + Kanji = vocab, then just like with mnemonics, youll start to see the vocab word and just think oh, thats blank. Everything is a support until the real learning starts to form.


If anything, the fact that you still remember the mnemonic is generally a sign you haven’t fully memorized the word/kanji yet. This has been my experience anyway. If I have to think through the mnemonic in my head, it’s because I still have a ways to go to instantly recognize the item. Once you see a word and instantly know it, the mnemonic never even comes into your thoughts.


My experience is pretty much the same as most people’s: the mnemonics (at least the good ones) have been a great help in memorizing, but I didn’t even remember that I initially learned かわ as cow until I read the initial post :slight_smile: So I think you have nothing to worry about at all!

I’ll add that the mnemonics are also useful for those times when you brain fart and just can’t quite remember a character’s reading or meaning, or can’t remember which of two similar kanji it is. Often it’s not even the full mnemonic, but rather “oh, that’s the one with king in it, so it’s so-and-so”.


Exactly this. How often do you look at a kanji in WK? For rarer things let’s say 10 times, even if you burned it. That’s not a large number.

It is easy to underestimate the effort needed to have a fluent feeling in a language. Like, “I studied WK two years now, why can’t I just read a text quickly like a Japanese?” Because the Japanese already studied for decades and reads every day.


@vargsvans has a good post including a section about mnemonics …it’s focus was different than that of this topic, but I think it’s still worth mentioning -

It does involve creating your own mnemonics, which takes effort, but it helps avoid mix ups when WK uses different mnemonics for the same sound (e.g. ぎ can be either guitar or guillotine), or the same mnemonic for different sounds (e.g. row for りょう and ろう). Anyway, it’s better and more thoroughly explained in the post…


A couple of years ago, I read up on a bunch of studies about this topic. There aren’t very many high quality studies for long-term language learning results, but I gleaned a few things from the ones I was able to find, along with some of my personal experiences.



  • You internalize (i.e. make fluent) the information faster, as long as you practice rigorously.
  • By internalizing the memorized info earlier, you can also internalize other aspects of language learning a little earlier (such as grammar and listening).
  • You may end up with very slightly better fluency in the long term, though not to any significant extent (this was the conclusion of the long-term studies I found, so no flames please :slight_smile: ).


  • Some people find that it’s more work (I think it depends on the strength of your memory).
  • The positive benefits are diminished if you don’t practice regularly.
  • You may forget more quickly if you don’t use what you learn.



  • You can memorize the information with less effort in the short term, which is especially helpful if you are short on time or your memory is not strong.
  • If you are learning at a more leisurely pace, mnemonics will help you retain the information longer. This is especially helpful for people who are busy or have to take breaks from learning.


  • Internalizing other aspects of language (like grammar and listening) may be more difficult while you are still relying on the mnemonics. But, of course, this gets easier over time.
  • Your long-term fluency may be very slightly negatively affected, though, again, not to a significant extent.


If you want the benefits of mnemonics, but with shorter internalization time, you can create shorter mnemonics that are specifically designed to fade away quickly, though it’s a bit challenging to come up with them. The main thing is to have a very short mnemonic, and put the Reading as close to the front as possible, followed as closely as possible by the Meaning. For example, for you might try “cows like the river” (while picturing cows congregating along the banks of 川 ). That way, the first thing you think of when you see 川 is ‘cow (kawa)’, and the second thing is ‘river’. Try not to use any words that could confuse or distract you, like “cows swim in the river”, because ‘swim’ gets between the reading and meaning, which distracts you from ‘river’. You want see 川 and immediately think “kawa river” (with reading always coming first, for reasons I’ve explained in other threads).


I don’t really see how you can make this complaint at level 1. I could see if you burned the item 6 months from now while still thinking about cows, but that seems pretty unlikely.