This is a reflection coming from someone about 7 years in and level 20.
I went through an unconventional language learning journey and just wanted to share my story.
I'm completely self-taught Japanese other than one semester in high school. I realized how much free time I had in college and thought to myself that, "I will never have as much free time in my life as I do now until I retire. So, I might as well do something productive!" I am half Japanese from Hawaii and was already invested in anime/manga. I was forced to take French in high school from my parents, but I was always jealous of my friends who were in Japanese. I really wanted to watch raw anime, look at kanji without seeing gibberish and so my journey began.
I had no idea how to learn Japanese, and admittedly starting without guidance was tough. I bought a kanji book and read Tae Kim daily. Learning kanji without learning everything about it, the readings, meanings, alternate readings etc. was a huge mistake. I went breath instead of depth and it resulted in me knowing too little in too many things and resulted in really poor reading efficiency. I often used Google translate to assist instead of a proper dictionary (shout outs to jisho.org) and stumbled through my language learning infancy by making making (bad) kanji flash cards and reading grammar guides. I knew I needed help at some point and came across WK.
While everyone learns differently, there's a certain level of diligence and hard work required that is inescapable. Don't try to downplay this effort as "not working for you" and push through. Its important to know when it is actually not "working for you" though. This is a mistake I would constantly find myself in. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.
I started WK and bought the lifetime sub when it was on sale and I don't regret it. I looked at the promised numbers and 2 years seemed reasonable, but after a while I realized it was going to take me much longer. The beginning sucked if you already know the basics and all you want to do is start at your current level. Hindsight said it was fine but I'm certain in that moment I wanted to quit with the snail pace I was making through levels 1-5. This is a common forum complaint and I was assured it would be fine later, and it was.
My biggest frustrations with WK were the following: learning vocabulary I had no interest in learning, and really bad mnemonics. I also hate how its really hard to get to your "true level" if you studied before WK, but it eventually is not an issue, but deterred me for a while. These points would alleviate this issue though. Let me explain and feel free to skip if you already share the pain.
- Useless vocabulary
I can only manage to do 100 reviews a day. It might have been different in the past when I was more ガツガツ but 100 is a really good pacing for me. Its too little for an energetic day but not terrible for a tired day. Consistency is key, so its much better to do the same thing every day than bounce between 50 and 150.
Its so frustrating to learn outdated words like "answering machine", several synonyms for the same word that confuse you further, and way too many counting vocab. Once you know how to count it transfers easily, but I really don't need to know 四十二回. Learning月曜日 and other days of the week in the teen levels is almost insulting as this is something any beginner Japanese learner would know.
Teaching too many synonyms too quickly also makes them blur together and you don't understand the nuances they have until much later.
Teaching 光栄 and 栄光 in the same batch is a little mean.
It seems insignificant, but these things add up to sometimes 50 extra vocabs you don't care about and it really kills motivation when you just want them to go away but get them wrong sometimes because you have no enthusiasm. WK is a tool that is supposed to make you go down a set path whether you like it or not and its good, but I really like how BunPro lets you manually burn items. You can "cheat" yourself sure, but sometimes I don't feel like learning 別、別々、別の etc. I got it…別 means separate and I can pretty much infer the rest.
Learning these readings, while not useless are an opportunity cost for my daily budget and I can't stress how I wish I could skip them.
- Bad Mnemonics
- I think this has gotten better recently with new radicals and updated mnemonics to be fair. Early on I remember the "Hard gay likes to せいせい" one and I hated it. I saw the video and kind of had an idea of who this comedian was, but I really just couldn't accept this mnemonic and its constantly repeated. People are different and some things stick better than others. Most kanji should have at least two different mnemonics incase one just didn't work for you or you don't get the pop culture references. Sometimes they are so random (which can be good for learning I know) but you can't conjure up what it originally wants to say. Even if I remember the mnemonic it, I focus on a particular word sometimes. For example: 徒 "stubbed his toe on a jagged rock" I just think じゃ in jagged instead of と in toe. Its just how my brain worked and if I had a different mnemonic, I could see the common denominator in both and struggle a bit less. I often make my own with the radicals if the given one is bad. I also think that readings and meanings mnemonics can be linked better.
I often found it more useful to learn the word in context than the mnemonic. Using the same example as above, I learn "徒 as in 生徒"which is a word I know from anime seeing as student council or生徒会 is a really common thing to have.
Anyway, back to my story. I made good progress, but reviews get exhausting after a while, especially because of my complaints above. I eventually pushed through, but I was beginning to lose the joy in learning. I instead focused on speaking. I made Japanese friends online and worked at a Japanese owned restaurant. During slow days I would read my textbook in the kitchen and ask questions to my coworkers. I was making so much progress that I got cocky and studied less and less. I stagnated at this lower intermediate level for a long time because I was going down the hill only to see a mountain ahead.
I found more value in speaking than I did learning kanji. While kanji helps you read, it also teaches greater vocabulary and also recontextualizes words that you know how to say but not spell. I think everyone knows だいじょうぶ as "okay" but seeing it as 大丈夫 puts it in a really different light.
I was hungry for quantity and ended up using reorder/forgiveness scripts to forgo vocab and plow through levels I was not ready for. This is a huge mistake that I don't recommend anyone do. I dug myself a hole that was too deep to climb out so I quit WK instead.
One thing I do like and recommend though is 1x1 mode. That is, grouping reading and meaning back-to-back. Having it together makes it so you are not constantly swapping gears or subconsciously thinking you already did that item. It also is good motivation to see the review number go down steadily instead of 15 minutes in and it barely moves until the end when you finish the meaning-reading pairs. Forgiveness on synonyms and true typos should be fine, but its really hard not to abuse so be careful.
After graduating college though a connection I made I was able to live and work for Japan for one year as a software engineer. My Japanese was only officially tested in casual conversation and I was insured I would pick it up once I moved.
This year was very demanding. Being in actual Japan for even one week really humbles you. While I do not regret my time there, my job demanded me to think and work in Japanese at a level I was not yet comfortable at, and as I was pressured to complete tasks only understand half of the instructions at times, this stressful environment was not contusive to learning. Making business reports is different than asking someone about sports. It's true I learned a lot by living and working, but living is no substitute for studies. I was often at my mental capacity and could not find a lot of time to study because of the burden of self-translating everything around you all day every day is more demanding than one would think.
This experience taught me that knowing a language, and internalizing a language is very different. When you are fluent, you don't think about thinking, you just think. An unfiltered buffer to every action gives you freedom and intelligence that one would often take for granted. I don't think about the next word I'm going to say any more than I think about breathing or standing up. Thinking in pure Japanese is a real treat sometimes, but if you're not at the correct level you can't sustain that "zen" mode. You'll know when you are here when you dream in Japanese and this auto-translate feature in your brain starts to have zero latency.
Another thing I want to add about this experience is about confidence. People in Japan don't correct you and will often infer what you say even if you make mistakes. I'm sure it's no different the other way around, but you don't always get corrected and could be making the same mistakes for a long time. If you look foreign then you are given a pass for deficiency. Sometimes the best teachers are native English speakers because they know how to learn as opposed to just knowing the rules of a language. If you've never been to a Japanese McDonalds before, just ordering a meal can be stressful. They give you the whole 敬語 greeting. You can understand "何食べたい", but "いらっしゃいませご注文はいかがでしょうか" is just another level you have to prepare for. They are asking for your order, taking your money, converting it to change, giving it back, thanking you, and telling you to wait. It's a ritual that's repeated but not really spoken about often in text books. Half understanding all the time and not being 100% sure that you're speaking with correct grammar can be demotivating. I used to get stressed when people responded "何？" when they couldn't hear me. I just assumed it was that I said something completely incoherent.
Language learning is a life-long journey. English is my first language and on rare occasion I will still learn something new even post-college. WK isn't everything and there is so much content to consume if you look for it. After taking a 2-year break after coming back from Japan and getting an American software engineering job, speaking with some old friends re-sparked my interest in Japanese.
I am taking it slow and steady, making a difficult decision to reset my WK to level 10, but I don't regret it. Your "true" WK level is internal, and if you know something well, you can blast through the reviews no problem. I am currently sitting at level 20 much more confident than I was here last time. I do around 100 reviews a day, 10 lessons a day, and reorder vocab lessons first to ensure I am not overwhelmed. If you crunch the numbers this path is longer than two years to 60, but remember that your true level only goes up. I plan to continue to 60 the right way, and read a book without a dictionary, and play FF14.
I have a lot of fun playing games like Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and Monster Hunter in Japanese, watching raw Anime, and slogging through raw light novels/manga, and singing vocaloid karaoke.The more you know the easier it becomes. Keep climbing that mountain and eventually you'll hit the summit.
This is a story from a 7-year on and off Japanese learner. I hope you enjoyed my story and can learn from my mistakes.