Because if ever there was a reason to celebrate with cake, this is it.
Oreo cookie cake (vegan) ordered from a local bakery. (I wonder if they thought this was for someone’s 60th birthday?) This cake was so rich we had to enlist some friends to help us eat it.
- Signed up on July 27, 2015
- Started on November 29, 2019 (Bought a lifetime subscription during the holiday sale.)
- Reached Level 30 on August 14, 2020 (Decided to slow down to avoid burnout. Started 14 days per level plan.)
- Took a break from lessons for 4 weeks on June 27, 2021 (Allowed me to enjoy vacation with fewer reviews per day.)
- Reached Level 60 on November 12, 2021
- Completed Level 60 on November 27, 2021 (730 days after starting. Hey! That’s 365 * 2.)
- Ate cake on December 4, 2021
- Wrote Level 60 post from January 2 to 3, 2022
- Read 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami in 20xx
Some thoughts about the experience of WaniKani, what it was like for me and what I think I learned along the way. If you have any specific questions, even on topics not covered in this post, I’m happy to answer them, just ask.
I love learning. The strange thing is that I don’t know if I started with this love of learning and it brought me to studying Japanese or if I finally stumbled into this love of learning after trying a bunch of different hobbies over my lifetime. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which came first, but it does matter that I found this love of learning while studying this language. It’s far more important to my progress in Japanese than anything else. Because the love of learning Japanese provides the energy to figure out how to study in a way that works for me when there are so many setbacks and obstacles.
While I started WaniKani at the end of 2019, I first started studying Japanese in 2001. I was working part-time at a grocery store and taking a few classes at a community college. This was a time when I was trying to figure out my path. So I took an intro photography class and an intro Japanese class. Neither of those classes were for a credential or a degree, they just seemed really interesting to me. They were both subjects that I pursued purely for intellectual curiosity and creative expression. Maybe I had some dreams of traveling to Japan with a camera, but mostly I wanted to explore new territory without worrying about the destination. There’s something special about starting a journey without a map or a plan.
A year later, it was photography that took me to a new path for my education and then later my career. I’m not a professional photographer but photography opened the door to a creative career. And as my education and career demanded more, those took priority over other interests including Japanese.
For more than a decade, I didn’t study Japanese at all. Of course I thought about it often, especially when watching a Kurosawa movie or reading one of Murakami’s books or replaying Final Fantasy VII. Sometimes I would open up the old textbook to see what I would remember. But I had other priorities: school, career, relationships, life.
Then in 2014, one of my co-workers learned that I had studied Japanese in the past and he was looking for a study partner. He suggested that we should team up to learn the Jōyō kanji together. We tried to find a way to study independently and then quiz each other but we couldn’t seem to align. Eventually, his interest faded. But I found I was enjoying the rediscovery of the language.
I thought I could do it on my own. In a way, I was somewhat right and somewhat wrong. I picked up Andrew Scott Conning’s The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course and began working through it with a daily plan. I studied 4 kanji per day and I made it all the way to kanji number 904 before I burned out. KLC was great and I give huge credit to that system for the progress I made at that time. Turns out I needed more than just kanji to stay engrossed in the language. So I signed up for a class that was finishing the last few chapters of Genki 1. The teacher and the other students were just what I needed to sharpen up my approach to Japanese. I started broadening my areas of study: listening, speaking, reading, and even a bit of writing.
When our class got deeper into Genki 2 and more kanji were introduced, I needed a more structured way to study and a few classmates mentioned WaniKani. Since I had signed up years before, I figured I could at least try the free levels. By the time I got to level 3 I knew that I could keep going and I could see the path all the way through. That was enough to inspire me to buy the lifetime subscription. What I didn’t know was that a few months later the COVID shutdown would cause us to work from home and I would get some extra time in the day because I no longer had to commute. I was very lucky I could work from home and I wanted to make the most of it. So I poured that extra time into WaniKani. Even with that extra time, I would need a lot more. I would still need to dig deep to keep going, to change up my schedule to find balance, and to go beyond WaniKani to practice my reading skills.
So then, 20 years after starting my Japanese study, I reached Level 60 in WaniKani. Now I can see the whole path behind me and I realize that I had to find my own way to the language. And for all of the delays, the amazing realization is that I have momentum now that seems unstoppable. I can see the path ahead.
Start, stop, start again. Take a break. A month, a year, a decade, or more. But when the opportunity arises, go for it.
This is all my way of telling you to find your own path to love learning Japanese. Your reasons might change, your methods might change, but your love will persist.
(Originally I put this in the tips and tricks section, but now I see that this is more of a reflection.)
Often I take this all too seriously. I get frustrated. A lot. Mostly because this is important to me and I’m putting in a lot of effort so I expect that I should become better faster. Along the way I would fixate on my failures, even the small ones like a mistyped answer, but I would brush right past my successes. I’m sure many people do the same.
I doubted myself and I thought about quitting. Even after reaching Level 60 I still doubt myself and think about quitting! At this point almost all my reviews are “hard” items, either leeches or obscure vocabulary or kanji that are only ever used in one word in WaniKani. (While writing this I just did some reviews and go 5 wrong out of 6! 紫, 臨時, 削除, 相撲, 隣国. Yep. Even 紫. I confused it with 柴. Sigh.) I think to myself “wouldn’t I be better off using this time reading rather than reviewing?” But then I look at all the time I’ve put in so far and the progress made. Of course this is harder now because I’ve come all this way. I’m stronger so I need to lift heavier weights. So I take the same approach as before, I tell myself I can go a bit further before I take a break, then I keep going.
But there are points where it’s better to move on. I’m trying to get better at knowing when. Pretty often, and I mean at least a few times a day, I will stare at a review item and try to force myself to remember it for minutes, furrowing my brow or gritting my teeth as if that physical discomfort would dislodge the memory from the depths of my mind. Even as I did this I could hear my own voice in my head telling me it’s okay to get it wrong and then try again later. But another voice, also my own, would tell me that I should know this so I should keep trying now. When I’m calmly reflecting on all of this, I know that first voice is right in the moment. But that second voice, the one telling me to keep pushing, I need that voice for the larger purpose of persevering over the long term. The trick is figuring out which one to listen to at which time.
My study after Level 60 is pretty similar to before. Only less reviewing in WaniKani and more reading.
- Keep doing reviews.
- As I encounter words and kanji while reading that I’ve forgotten, resurrect them to revisit them in reviews.
- Goal is at least 15 minutes a day.
- Keep a list of vocabulary and grammar points.
- Listen to a short podcast several times throughout the day. I like Nihongo con Teppei. Figuring it out without a transcript is a good challenge.
- Japanese Class
- I take a class through Japanese Society of Northern California. The teacher and the other students are a great community for learning the language.
- Watch Movies and TV
- I try to watch a movie or a show at least once a week
Just a few favorites that deserve a highlight. I’ve used lots of other learning materials, but these are standouts.
- Satori Reader is worth it if you can afford it. I struggled to start reading at first, but the integration with WaniKani to hide furigana for the kanji you’ve already learned was a big breakthrough. I like the series Akiko’s American Foreign Exchange. I started using Satori Reader before WaniKani and I feel like I really grew into it over time.
- Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 1 by Roger Lake and Noriko Ura. Basically they did all the sentence mining for you. Then grouped all of the sentences into an order that builds progressively. I started working through this book after I got to Level 60.
- I recently found the learnnatively.com site and I like the idea of grading the difficulty of books so I made a list and bought a few books.
- Genki is a great. We used this in the classes I took.
- Japanese for Busy People is good too. I used this series for self-study before I joined the classes.
- An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese is… only okay for grammar but there’s lots of good reading practice. We’re using this in the class I’m taking now and the material is appropriately challenging for the intermediate level.
- Nihongo con Teppei for Beginners
- TV Shows
- Terrace House on Netflix
- Midnight Diner on Netflix
- One Cut of the Dead - If you like clever horror movies.
Create a daily habit that works for you. The daily habit is more important than anything else. For example, if you can only do 1 hour day, then put 30 minutes aside in the morning and in the evening, go at that pace and stay consistent.
Make up your own system or pick one of the many people have written about on WaniKani. My 14 day schedule is here.
Do *All* Of Your Reviews Every Day
Okay. Put everything else aside. This is the most important habit.
If you miss a few days of reviews, then you’re facing a big pile of reviews and it’s so much harder to get going again. Use the momentum that you gain from establishing a daily habit. When it seems like it’s too much and you’re tired, give yourself a pep talk about how you’d rather do the reviews now and get a bunch wrong than to delay until you’re up against a mountain of reviews (that you’re also likely to get wrong because more time has passed).
You can do this.
If there are too many reviews to do in one day, then you need to pause your lessons for a while. See the next section.
For what it’s worth, I found that about a 100 reviews a day was challenging but not overwhelming. But when the daily review count went over 100, then I would feel too much pressure because of time.
It’s okay to stop doing lessons. But keep doing your reviews every day! After a couple weeks, the review pile will shrink and the pressure will ease up.
This is a great way to prepare for actual vacations. Start the lesson vacation a couple weeks in advance and then your daily reviews count will become manageable enough that you can continue doing reviews without disrupting your vacation.
While I understand that some people want to go fast, the research shows that the speed comes at the cost of retention. So even if you get to the end, you forget more than if you had gone slower.
I get that sometimes the issue is the cost of a subscription, but it’s very likely the financial savings from going faster is undermined by the loss of value as you forget more. If you’re committed and you can figure out a way to save up, go for the lifetime subscription when it’s on sale during the holidays. Perhaps that means waiting a while before starting, but there’s lots of other great material that you can study in the meantime.
Overall, there’s no rush. Japanese isn’t going away. And WaniKani isn’t either.
(I really want WaniKani to drop this line from their landing page: “2,000 kanji. 6,000 vocabulary words. In just over a year.” It may get more people to sign up but it sets an expectation that leads many people to disappointment when they realize they can’t go that fast.)
Add User Synonyms
If you get a meaning review marked wrong that you think should be marked right, go ahead and add a user synonym.
Example from today:
峠 wants “peak” but I wrote “summit”. Even though there is a slight technical difference, in my mind “summit” is close enough to “peak”.
(One feature I want is the ability to list and search my user synonyms.)
Make Your Own Mnemonics
Even though WaniKani includes mnemonics for radicals and kanji, many of them quite good, the learning and memory research shows that creating your own mnemonics is better for recall.
I started out using the WaniKani mnemonics for the first 10 levels or so. Later, during lessons I would read the WaniKani mnemonic first to see if I liked it before deciding whether to write my own. But by the time I got to level 30, I was writing my own mnemonic for every character without even looking at the WaniKani ones. It took more time during lessons to write these but it paid off a lot as I created my own stories and linked them together.
Use the notes section for each item to store your mnemonic. Create them during lessons but also update them during reviews when think of improvements.
By the way, I mostly only made my own mnemonics for the kanji. For the radicals I found that I used the WaniKani ones most of the time.
(Another feature I want is the ability to list and search my notes on items.)
Make Your Own Radicals
As others have noticed, if you see a character inside another character, you can make your own radical. This is incredibly useful in the later levels.
憤 Resent is soul + cross flower shellfish
墳 Tomb is dirt + cross flower shellfish
噴 Erupt is mouth + cross flower shellfish
Maybe “cross flower shellfish” could be “buried”? As a radical that could work with each of the above kanji.
Keep Notes (Or a “Study Log”)
Especially about the items that you miss. First of all, writing down the items that you missed is good for reinforcement in the moment. Later, you can review a few days of missed items to practice recalling them. Then, you’ll start to see patterns that will help you adjust your mnemonics.
Here’s an example from my notes for Saturday, March 20, 2021:
WKR 2 wrong of 2
- 頭痛 . Vo R:
- 精度 . Vo M:
After I review those:
WKR 2 wrong of 2
- 頭痛 (ずつう) Headache. Vo R: You get a headache at the zoo because the geoduck ate too many beans and the gas at the zoo gave you a headache.
- 精度 (せいど) Precision. Vo M: Your degree of spirit is measured with precision by a saber.
When do I review these? Anywere from 2 to 10 days later. Lately, I’ve been trying to review them about 1 week later.
Does this “mess up” the SRS? In my opinion: No. I am putting them in a list that I will review exactly once after a few days. This is similar to encountering the kanji or word in reading, only I am guaranteeing that I will see it after a delay. I do think that putting these missed items in a deck for frequent reviewing could possibly interfere with the WaniKani SRS, but on the other hand, if you’re investing more time in studying, then that seems like a win in the end. (See the section below on the somewhat related issue of dealing with leeches.)
Otherwise, just make notes about your progress, the easy days, the hard days, whatever comes to mind. While you may never return to these words, writing it down helps you think through it all.
There might be a better way to do this but here’s what I did.
The leeches started growing problematic for my daily review counts after level 30. So that’s when I started thinking about how to chip away at them. However, you could start doing this at any time.
Look back at the items that are still not burned from levels 10 or more lower than your current level. If you’re on level 20, then look at the items from levels 1 through 10. Use the filters on wkstats to show only items in Apprentice, Guru, Master, and maybe Enlightened. Copy those items into a deck, about 100 at a time, and study them over the course of a week.
I did this a couple times and it helped trim down the list of troublesome items.
I do look up items while doing reviews. But I reject the claim that this is “cheating”. Read on and decide for yourself.
I started this around Level 30 when I felt like I was getting so many items “wrong” that were synonyms that should have been marked correct. Perhaps I could have persevered by just adding more and more user synonyms, but the frustration was growing at the same rate as my review pile and I was risking burnout. The idea of slowing down just for an overly pedantic algorithm was too annoying. And I was determined not to quit. So I needed a way to lower the stakes just a bit and to keep going forward.
I needed a “spotter”. In weightlifting, the spotter is there to provide just enough support to allow the lifter to complete the reps. (And to prevent injury.) If you can do 5 reps unassisted, but then 5 more with the assist of a spotter, then you develop strength and expand your limits. The next time you go a little further. Similarly, notice how in a classroom the teacher first asks the question, then gives a little hint, then gives a bigger hint, and finally gives the answer if no one gets it. The trick is that you have to try to get it first, I mean really try.
Still, I wanted to keep challenging myself so here’s what I did:
- Always try to answer every item without an assist.
- If I have no idea, then I have to guess without an assist and accept the results.
- If I have a vague idea, then I type in my guess but look it up first to confirm.
- If my guess is wrong then I accept that I got it wrong.
- If my guess is slightly off but close enough, then I make the change so I get it right and maybe add a user synonym.
- If my guess is right then I accept that I got it right (unless I decide that I need more practice in which case I change the answer to get it wrong).
- If I have a strong idea, then I usually just go for it unless I’m trying to check the exact phrasing for a meaning.
- When I get these wrong it’s usually because I’ve confused one item for a similar one. I make a note in my study log about the confusion so I can look at them side-by-side.
For all of the above, if I look up an item, I always make a note of it in my notes to force myself to review it when I am going over the items that I missed. This list is important because these are the items that I need to practice more.
Kanji Meaning: 昇
I know the reading is しょう
Try “ascend”. Ah ha. Got it.
What benefit would I derive from getting the meaning wrong here? Not much. When I see 昇 in a word and I know the reading and I know it means something about “going up”, then I have all the information I need to figure out the word.
Do I wish that I could remember the exact English meaning assigned in WaniKani? Yeah. But only the small part of me that likes to get the right answer on a quiz. When I step back and look at the overall goal, the exact English meaning assigned to a kanji in WaniKani is only a stepping stone, so if I can still move forward with my reading skill development, then I will happily skip over it.
Of course, there are some special cases too. For example: I encountered 心身 from level 8 again while on level 51. Still not remembering it. And I’m sure this is at Enlightened so if I get it wrong then it’s busted back down to Guru. Sigh. I don’t want to continue working on this word for another cycle from Guru back up to Enlightened. I want to move on. I look up the answer, punch it in and let it go. If I run into 心身 while reading, I’ll work it out then.
Oh. I also started using the Japanese IME around Level 30 too. This definitely provides an assist sometimes when I type the reading and the word doesn’t show up since that indicates I probably have the reading wrong (but not always!). And if it does, then I usually force myself to get it wrong.
So how does all of the above impact learning? Well it certainly lowers the difficulty and in some cases I probably don’t learn some items as well as I could. I made my peace with the tradeoff however because I don’t want to overemphasize mastering WaniKani, I want to use it as a tool to launch me into native reading material. That means as long as I continue into native texts, I can always come back to WaniKani to resurrect items to review them with SRS.
Now is this a tip? Do I endorse this practice? Let me simply say that if you can do without the lookups and the IME, then definitely do that. However, if you are already putting in multiple hours per day and you need a way to lower the difficulty just enough that you can keep going, then give yourself the assist because if you burn out and quit then it’s over.
Short version: You don’t need them.
Slightly longer version:
Scripts are tweaks to the tool. The WaniKani system is already strong and the bulk of the work is still the time you put in working through the lessons and reviews.
Go ahead and explore though. The community has done impressive work customizing the experience. I respect that.
Certainly some of the recommendations I’m making here could be implemented via scripts. So here’s what I think: get to Level 30 before considering scripts. At that point, you’ll know what matters most for your learning and you can make an informed decision.
Don’t worry about these. Find a daily pace and stick to it. Since there are fewer items in some of the later levels, I took a day off from lessons when I could. But I still kept my 14 days per level schedule. Such a pleasant change of pace as the lesson counts go down as you approach Level 60.
Finishing matters. Finishing fastest does not matter.