I’ve reached level 60! Yaaay!
And I managed to do it in under two years! Also yaaay!
Now that I’ve reached level 60, I would like to celebrate by sharing my journey and realizations with Wanikani during the last two years with a focus on how I learned to use mnemonics in a way that worked for me. Likely, you will not use these exact ways of going about things and that is kind of the point. To encourage you to try out different techniques and find what works for you, so that you may become independent in memorizing things efficiently. I’m not the most active person on this forum, but it has meant a lot to me during my time with Wanikani and because of this I want to try and give something back.
I wont write much about my history with Japanese before Wanikani, since this post will be very long even without it. If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about that when I celebrated my First Burn about 1,5 years ago - (Spoiler, it has cake).
Moonwalking with Einstein
The first thing I did when starting Wanikani was to read up on how memory works. I found the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer which is a very light and enjoyable read about a journalist who, in the course of a year, goes from having no idea about mnemonics or memory techniques to becoming the USA Memory Champion.
In this book you learn how to make a system for memorizing abstract things like a string of numbers or a deck of cards. To do this you train your memory to associate every card with something more memorable, something that sticks out to you. For example, “Ten of clubs” gets associated with “Einstein” and “Jack of Spades” gets associated with “Moonwalk”. When you then have to quickly memorize the order of a deck of cards, instead of remembering the cards you remember, for example, Einstein Moonwalking. This is, overall, a very similar to what Wanikani does for kanji.
Consistency with mnemonics
Reading this book made me realize how important it is for mnemonics to be consistent and that consistency is, atleast to me, much more important than if the mnemonic mimics the sound of the reading. After all, if “Einstein” can be associated with “Jack of Spades” there is nothing stopping “Einstein” from being associated with “そう”, “ほう” or “む”. The only important thing is that your memory, unfailingly, makes you connect the thing you imagine to the reading.
Wanikani somewhat tries to do this, but is sometimes far to inconsistent for my taste. I know that the radicals atleast are being overhauled, but as of this moment the problem is still present. Sometimes Wanikani uses a “Garden ho” to connect to the reading “ほ”. Sometimes they use the same “Garden ho” to connect to the reading “ほう”. Sometimes “す” is connected to “Sue”. Sometimes “すう” does the same. Sometimes “Sue” is the idea of suing someone, sometimes it’s a person named Sue. This creates confusion and is one of the things I would advice anyone using Wanikani to be aware of.
I am aware that some of these examples are also from lower levels, and I haven’t verified if they are still valid. Just now on level 59 though I encountered 浪 (Wander) with the reading ろう. In Wanikanis mnemonic I am suggested to associate ろう with a “Rowboat”. Until this point, countless other kanji with the reading りょう has had the connection of “Rowboat”. So the issue is atleast not completely solved.
Personally, I’ve taken Wanikanis mnemonics as a starting point, but when I’ve found that the mnemonics didn’t work for me I’ve, over time, tweaked them into things I have an easier time imagining. This is not really a critique against Wanikani, it’s just that people are different and thus what they find memorable is also different. I’ve found that living characters are really easy for me to imagine, much more so than “Suing someone” (す). Therefore “Koichi” for “こう” and “Mrs Chou” for “ちょう” have remained with me, while “す” has, for instance became “Suffragette”.
Some in-depth examples from my own journey to illustrate:
How い became Abraham Lincoln
Wanikani uses “Eagle” for the reading “い”. This was a bit to vague for me and I found that when I used “Eagle” in a mnemonic I often struggled to remember the reading. The connection was somewhat ingrained though, so I didn’t want to throw it out entirely, but I needed something more. Then I remembered watching this very cheesy Rap Battle where Abraham Lincoln gets carried onto the stage by a huge eagle. Soon enough I started using this image whenever I encountered the reading “い” until the eagle got dropped entirely, because Abraham Lincoln was much easier for me to remember. Even though his name does not begin with an “I”.
How たん became Ganguro
Wanikani uses the concept of “Getting a Tan” to associate with the reading “たん”. This was much to vague for me, so I sat down and thought about what could be more memorable without losing the, albeit vague, connection I had already established. Well, what is the most extreme form of having a tan I could think of? The Ganguro subculture. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganguro Now, whenever I imagine a Ganguro I also imagine the reading “たん”.
Bonus Example: How な became Batman
I loved this show as a kid (and as an adult). Batman is also very easy to imagine. Happy end.
Of course Wanikani uses mnemonics not only for readings, but also for the radicals of the kanji. Here as well, I have found that some radicals are easier to memorize than others, and when the radical doesn’t work for me, I have tweaked it. For example, the " Nailbat" radical has to me become “Negan” (a character strongly linked to a nailbat from the comic/show “The Walking Dead”) Ever since I did this and updated my mnemonics for the kanji I struggled with, they suddenly became much easier to remember, just because I have and easier time imagining Negan than just a nailbat.
There is one more thing to be said about radicals, though. The reason why Wanikani uses them is to break the kanji down into managable chunks instead of lots of lines. This is very powerful, but it could sometimes be used to much greater effect. My reasoning is that the fewer radicals we can chunk a kanji into, the more efficient the memorization is and that you should therefore try to avoid having more than three chunks in any given kanji. Two radicals is ideal. This can, usually, be done in one of two ways.
Combining radicals into new ones. One thing I’ve done is to create new radicals for myself when I notice that two or more radicals often appear together. One example is the combination of “Drunkard” and “Grave”, which appear together in 裁, 載, 戴, 栽 and 哉. So now, whenever I see them together, instead of using them separately to form a mnemonic I combine them. As a side note I’ve chosen to name this new radical after a former conservative Swedish Minister of Fincance who recently got really drunk at a party and therefore dug his own grave as for future political prospects. Whatever works, right?
Using already learnt kanji instead of their individual radicals. This is something many people have written before me, but I’ll add it nontheless. On level 59 I got the kanji “擬” with the meaning “Imitate”. Wanikani presents this as consisting of the following radicals:
匕 - Spoon
矢 - Arrow
マ - Mama
疋 - Coat Rack
This is much to many in my opinion. But then I remembered that on level 13 I learned “疑” - “Doubt”. So by using “Doubt” instead of “Spoon, Arrow, Mama, Coat Rack” I now had a kanji consisting of only “Nailbat” (or Negan, in my case) and “Doubt”. This kanji 擬 also has the same reading (ぎ) as 疑 from level 13, making the reading even easier to remember. The mnemonic I used was something like this:
“Someone tries to imitate Negan, but he does a bad job so his followers get suspicious. They challenge him to play the guitar (ぎ) like Negan, but he can’t imitate this.”
As a side note, on level 13 Wanikani chooses to use “Guitar” to remember ぎ. On Level 59 Wanikani chooses “Guillotine”. I repeat myself, but I really believe choosing one thing to associate to ぎ is much more efficient than having two. Which one you choose is not really that important as long as it is a thing you can imagine clearly but, to me, having several different connections to the same reading makes for confusing mnemonics.
Pros and cons of using Wanikani with English as a non native English speaker
Since my native language is Swedish and lots of Wanikanis users comes from all over the world I would also like to say something about my experience from the perspective of a non native English speaker. I have found one positive thing about this situation and one negative and a way to overcome that negative.
Positive: You have access to atleast one more language
This is great, because sometimes a word shows up that sounds really close to a word in your own language. An English example would be “禁忌” (Taboo) which is pronounced “きんき”. Kinky things are often a bit taboo, making the connection really easy. The more languages you know, the more of these easy connections you have the possibility of making. If you only know English, that’s your only pool of reference.
Negative: Some kanji and vocabulary may have definitions you do not know
As you climb higher in the Wanikani levels, it is somewhat likely that you encounter kanji where even the English definition is unknown to you. Here I’ve found that I can use similar sounding words that i DO know to enhance recollection of the word I am unfamiliar with. I want to illustrate this with two examples.
Example 1: 侮 - Despise (level 59)
Radicals: “Leader” and “Every”.
“Despise” is not a word I know well enough to trust that I will remember when it’s time for reviews with longer intervals. I would probably just remember that “this is a negative emotion” but not the exact word, since it’s only in my passive vocabulary, not my active one. So when I encountered this kanji I knew that I would have to make use of similar sounding words.
In my system, Leader has evolved into “Leonardo” from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s their leader after all. The reading is ぶ, which for me is someone wearing a sheet over their head like a classic ghost, screaming “BU!” which is the word for a ghostly “BOO!” in Swedish. So I have to create a mnemonic that connects “Leonardo” and “Every” to the meaning “Despise” and the ghostly “BU!”. I also have to use similar sounding words to “Despise” to help my memory.
This is what I came up with:
Every day Leonardo cooks dinner for the turtles, because he’s the best at using the spice (despise). He always cooks at the spis (Despise) (“spis” is Swedish for stove).
Every day the other Turtles try to scare him. They put on a ghost costume, sneaks up on him and yells “BU!” (ぶ). Leonardo always drops the spice into the food when this happens. Leonardo despise when the Turtles yells “BU!”.
Example 2: 騒 そう - Boisterous (level 30)
When I encountered this kanji I had never heard the word “Boisterous”, probably because I’m not a native English speaker. Here, we have a “Horse” and an “Insect” on a “Stool”. What I came up with was that the Horse and the Insect always fell in love with the same boys. Now, they sit on a stool trying to salvage their friendship. The horse looks at the insect and says. “We have to stop seeing boys. Boys-tear-us (Boisterous) apart”. I never had any trouble remembering “Boisterous” after this.
Finally I would like to give my personal answers to some frequently asked question on this forum.
How long did it take me to get to level 60?
I reached level 60 in just under two years (starting at November 12 2015). During this time I’ve taken a number of breaks from lessons, but I think there has only been two or three days in total during this time where I haven’t done reviews. Usually due to getting sick or prioritizing time with my family or friends.
During level 32 I had my longest gap without doing new lessons. The reason for this gap is simple: I just had too much fun reading stuff in Japanese. I started reading Manga, and playing games and Visual Novels. One that really caught my interest was 英雄戦姫 GOLD (えいゆうせんき GOLD).
英雄戦姫 GOLD is a game of World Domination with lots of historical characters, all portrayed as cute girls. It is also for mature audiences, so if you always wanted to get intimate with, for example, female versions of Oda Nobunaga, Christopher Columbus or Alexander the Great this is absolutely the game for you. All the intimacy is also consensual which is a big plus for me. The mature content aside, the writing is really funny and engaging (This is my “I only read it for the articles”-defense). It’s mostly story driven, but with light use of battles using Turn Based Strategy.
Using Visual Novels in combination with a Text Hooker like Chiitrans Lite for support with unknown kanji or words is a really awesome way of enjoying Japanese.
As I approaced the final ten leves I realized that I stood at least a decent chance of reaching level 60 within two years if I kept a decent pace of 10 days per level, so I decided to do this. It’s a very arbitrary motivation, but it worked for me with about two weeks to spare.
What can I do now that I am level 60.
I can read and understand the gist of most things I attempt. I am currently playing through Final Fantasy IX in Japanese, and even though there are tons of words and grammatical quirks I don’t yet know I have no trouble figuring out what I’m supposed to do or what the gist of the story is. It is also kind of rare for me to encounter kanji in the game I don’t recognize, just words I haven’t yet learned. Of course grammar knowledge is important here as well, but since Wanikani is a kanji learning site and your Wanikani level has no relation to your grammar proficiency, I wont bring grammar into this answer. Suffice to say I know enough to not be lost but not as much as I would like.
Also: Even though my passive vocabulary is good enough to play games or read things, my active vocabulary is much worse. This is to be expected, since I haven’t practised speaking or writing as much as I have reading. This is due to my personal priority where reading is by far the thing I want to learn the most. If you want to be able to speak, you must practise speaking.
As a conclusion, two questions of a more rhetorical kind.
Is Wanikani perfect?
No, and to me, maybe that’s a good thing. By not being absolutely perfect Wanikani kind of coaxes you into becoming independent. The goal is after all not to reach level 60, but to acquire skills to be able to learn new kanji and vocab efficiently outside of Wanikani.
Is Wanikani good enough?
For me, ABSOLUTELY. It’s actually much more than good enough for what is sets out to do and I am eternally grateful for finding it. Sometimes I get annoyed with some minor things, as do we all, but as soon as I raise my perspective to what I’m actually accomplishing thanks to Wanikani I’m always so impressed as to where it’s taken me.
When these inconveniences show up I try to shift my perspective. Would I rather spend my energy on something that, theoretically, could be done better/differently or would I rather spend that energy learning some more kanji? I mean, it works. It works great. So I would like the entire team behind Wanikani to know that I think they should be exceptionally proud of what they have created. Without them, I would never be able to do what I can today.
Thank you for reading this humongous post.