The Psychology of Leeches

I think a lot has been discussed here about what a leech is and what to do about them (Study more! No, that’s too much! Study less! Less, you fool!), but I wonder if anybody’s ever given much thought about what makes a leech a leech in the first place. What is it about that one item that causes it to not stick?

An item can be “hard,” or maybe easily confused with something else, but I feel these are not true leeches. For me, a real leech is an item that, when you see it, you know you’re going to get it wrong because you ALWAYS get it wrong. You first learned it a year ago, and since then it’s been bouncing back and forth between Guru and Apprentice, occasionally making it to Master if you’re lucky. When it pops up in your review, you have a Pavlovian reaction to it: Oh no, it’s this thing again.

You can use a self-study extension or an Anki deck or whatever your preferred SRS “cheat” is, but you know as soon as it’s been more than a few days it will just go away again. It’s not just that you can’t remember it, it’s more like there’s something specific about that one item that pushes a “forget” button in your brain, as if you had some deep, personal reason to keep it away. What is it about this one item? Is there really something about it your brain just hates on some level?


When this happens to me, I try to take a step back, maybe come up with another mnemonic for it. Or if I’m getting 2 words/kanji mixed up for a while and just can’t seem to get them straight, I’ll write them down, and try to come up with a mnemonic that will help me differentiate between the two.

I totally get the “is there really something about it your brain just hates on some level” thing. My brain has a hard time with words that are not concrete/physical things :confounded: Or words that have a completely different meaning than the kanji alone by itself. I get scared even during the lessons thinking omg I’m never going to remember this


Some of them are also just a bad choice of words or a bad choice of placement within the levels.
My favorite example is still level 17 Honor vs Glory.
Those 2 should never have been in the same level, thats just asking for people to confuse them.
In the end i just said f it and crossput their meanings.

Its all well and good that those scripts are useable but the site itself should present solutions for this.
If i dont care about a particular Vocab why cant i throw it in the bin?
Why is there no way to mark items for a special list from which you can pull a special set of reviews at your leasure?


When I get two or more kanji confused, I call them “fraternal twins.” I have a text file on my desktop full of little “poems” I write to help me notice the differences. I should start a new thread and share some of my good ones:

害 If your life is damaged, then
童 stand up, kid!
量 Measure the grass in the sun and
喜 rejoice! The beans
豊 (there are plenty of lower beans)
善 are wearing their horns of goodness!


When I realized that I‘ll confuse honor and glory. I just thought: e is closer to g so 栄光 is glory :joy:
I don’t know if it would have helped if you‘d learned them a few level apart. That might have been worse for some.
By having them in the same level you can compare and therefore differentiate them more easily.


It’s a fair question you ask. Personally, I think it has to do with some items being more “surprising” or “ill fitting” in relation to my previous knowledge of Japanese, in other words, I fail to connect it properly to previous knowledge.

It’s well-known in pedagogy that when we connect new knowledge to old knowledge - it’s easier to memorize it.

Thus, items I’ve encountered before in some capacity clearly have a vast advantage over the rest. That’s especially true for all items I’ve learnt through immersion learning before WK, when I just “intuitively” know the reading of a vocab item at this point, even when it’s an oddity.

All those items become “easy” to learn how to read/write. Also items that follow the general rules of just putting the onyomi together are “easy” as you don’t really have to memorize them, just know the rules and apply them.

But, then we have those special case items that I haven’t encountered in the wild, nor do the normal rules apply, nor do they “sound” like what they mean (in my mind). They are square blocks I try to fit into round holes as they don’t connect to my previous knowledge of Japanese. Yeah, these items are “hard” and frustrating.

BUT, that being said, I have been working hard on getting rid of my own leeches for the past months and made quite a bit of progress at it (see my study blog if you’re interested).

So, in that sense I don’t think leeches are special in any way. I just lacked a good foundation to learn them, compared to the easy items. But, there’s a first for everything and leeches can be mastered like any other item, they just require more work and effort.

For me, that has meant keeping at it with the Self-Study Quiz, Leech training, using @prouleau’s Item Inspector script! Yeah, hard work.

I’ll keep it up until I know them well enough to burn them all! :fire:

(which I’ve already done for some of them, but it’s a long-time commitment with how the WK SRS-works)


Interesting. Because I read so much about how much people hated 光栄 and 栄光, I developed a really good mnemonic for them so I’ve only messed them up once.

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I wonder if it has to do with the emotional reaction people get to leeches. See, if you memorize 外 as in “outside”, then spend every successive level remembering it as “foreign”, when 外 comes in as a vocab word, it’s way too easy to forget the first definition because you’ve never used it. Similarly, take a leech, say 望, where the kanji definition is hope, and the most used definition is wish. If you spend your time reading it as wish, every time you get it wrong, and have a strong emotional reaction, you may actually be increasing your chances of failure. Why? Its the same reasons that mnemonics work. Info+emotion=memory. Thus, when people get upset because they typed the wrong word, they are actually increasing the chances that they get it wrong again because they are training themselves to remember the wrong word. The only solution to this (if I happen to be correct), is that people calm down when the word comes up, Find a new mnemonic, and srs it hard until the right definition sticks. Rewarding yourself for right behavior tends to be more effective than punishing for wrong behavior, so be kind to yourself.


Well, I managed to get 礼 (it’s level 3 or something) back into Apprentice status along with 札.

I’m now forcing myself really hard to check if it’s the “spirit” or the “tree” radical :smiley:



there are some leeches i can study/re-mnemonic/clever trick myself free of and then there are those hateful ones that cause me a small breakdown the moment they appear on the screen. i usually know one component, either reading or meaning and i can get them right once and wrong the next randomly. if i change what i input last minute, it’s almost always wrong but my first thought could also have been wrong.

things like honour and glory are easy: find a trick and you’re set!

my mean leeches escape all the tricks. i could self study the heck out of them i suppose but deep down, i just don’t get them.

if i hear one in context, it helps the most.


光栄 is honour because 光 = (hikari) and so 栄光 is glory because it doesn’t start with H is my convoluted way


There’s a lot of different reasons for something to become a leech for me. Sometimes I literally learn the wrong reading because sometimes I keep giving the same wrong answer. Sometimes, it’s, as hannah218 mentioned, two similar things that I have trouble differentiating, or as Vulkandrache said, words that are the same two kanjis except in a different order… I’d also add to this list words that don’t have the same reading as their kanji, and it’s something wildly “irregular”. 羨む(うらやむ)、for instance. Or an actual irregular reading such as 反省(はんせい)- it should be はんしょう、if it were regular.

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I don’t know, I think it would be worse to have one up for apprentice and the other up for Master on the same day. This is what the later levels feels like to me: a bunch of similar meanings distributed across levels. lol

For me, it’s usually because there are competing readings/meanings that I think it might be and I haven’t solidified one as the answer yet.

I think this happens with the abstract items more often because of this.

The worst for me is when it goes like this.

“I know this one is ABC. But wait, I always get it wrong. So if I know it’s ABC, that means I keep entering ABC and getting it wrong. Therefore, it must be the other one that came to mind, XYZ.” Thus I enter XYZ, only to find out it really is ABC.

I’m still trying to find a solution that works for me. I need to test where/how the Flaming Durtles app shows notes during reviews, and start adding notes that hopefully will help me out over time.


Not only is that extremely unlikely, youd also have the first one already established by the time the other one comes around. So the second one would be a simple case of reduction or somesuch.
“I know the other one so it has to be the leftover word”.

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I don’t know about unlikely. I have a few pairs like that. For example, there will be a noun in Guru or Apprentice and the same noun as a する verb in Enlightened or even burned, or vice versa. Same goes for kun-reading kanji and the same kanji as a vocabulary word. Same kanji, same meaning, same pronunciation, one is at one end of the SRS progression and the other’s at the other end. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it happens.

For a single pair? No. But as the levels increase you start running into more and more Kanji with one radical difference or something flipped and it’s inevitable you’re going to mix up something recent with something from several levels ago.

I’d rather see them all on one level so I can tell them apart rather than getting something wrong and trying to remember the one I thought it was from months ago.

But then, this may be only something you find as you learn more Kanji. I’ve had to reevaluate several things as I got into the last 30 levels.

Sure i have items that a similar but hey usualy have some form of grammar that can help distinguish them like say the early ageru/agaru.
But that can also easily help with remembering the right thing.
The most extreme example:
I have an item in a lesson and i wonder if its this or that.
“Nah, cant be that. I got that right 3 days ago, shoving it into master. So it cant be back yet. Has to be this.”

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I think you may be underestimating the long tail of Enlightened/Burn reviews that are going to be chasing you around. :wink:

Although I think level up time also plays a factor. If you’re doing 20 days per level then it’s much more likely you’ll be clearing out that queue more than if it was 10 days per level.

Plus, you might just be better at remembering stuff than me. :smiley:

Neither of those number are relevant right now.
Thanks to a several months break i was sitting at level 20 with 1500 reviews up.
My burned items are just slightly less than the other 4 combined. 1250 to 1700.

Before that i was doing ~12 days per level.
But i also might not be using the system entirely as intended, since i overload lessons into reviews intentionaly. So i never run out of reviews i case i want to do another session or two that day.
In numbers thats 770 apprentice items currently.