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Let's try to learn Japanese for the 87th time. Plus a WaniKani review.

I've been trying to learn Japanese for a looong time, with varying degrees of success. It's hard in ways that might be surprising. The main problem is motivation. This is a tale of my minor successes and major failures, and then a review of my latest flavor-of-the-week, WaniKani.

A big bootstrapping problem.

One of the hardest parts of learning Japanese is getting started. The initial learning curve is murder. As I imagine most people know, Japanese doesn't use the English alphabet, but rather uses its own alphabets. Two of them (katakana, hiragana) are small syllabic alphabets and very easy to learn; you can pick them up in a week.

The other (kanji) uses borrowed Chinese characters, and these are not easy to learn. There are thousands of kanji, and a kanji's meaning and pronunciation may or may not have anything to do with how it looks. Minor changes can completely change the meaning; combining two kanji that you know the meaning of can result in something you'd never guess in a million years. Each kanji also usually has many different pronunciations, some borrowed from Chinese and some back-ported from existing Japanese pronunciations.

Say you're an English speaker learning Spanish. By talking to a Spanish speaker or hearing it spoken aloud, you've picked up that "amigo" means "friend". If you see "amigo" written down in a sentence, you say it in your head by reading it out, and realize that you know this word based on its pronunciation. Maybe now you can use context to figure out the whole sentence. Maybe you figure out that "Te amo" means something like "I love you" because "amo" looks like "amigo" and is probably related to people and liking them. You can use what you know to help you learn more and to help you remember new things. It's self-reinforcing in this way.

In Japanese you might know that ともだち (to-mo-da-chi) is how to say "friend". But then you pick up a book and see 友達 and have no idea that this is in fact how you write ともだち properly, using kanji. This is a word you "know" but you don't recognize it in writing. You have no idea how to even figure it out, short of a kanji dictionary.

A sentence this word appears in is probably beyond you too. Take this sentence: 犬は人間の最も親しい友達である. Knowing kana, but not knowing kanji other than "friend", you call tell the structure of the sentence; it means A is B's C friend where A & B are probably nouns, C is probably an adjective... but their meanings are beyond you. It means "Dog is man's best friend" but good luck figuring that out in the dark.

So you need to memorize that the two characters 友達 are pronounced ともだち and mean "friend". Let's say you do memorize that. One day you see 友人 and think to yourself, OK, 友 is from "friend" and 人 just means person, so maybe this one means "friend" too. And it does. But this time it's pronounced ゆうじん (yu-u-jin)! Turns out 友 has two different pronunciations, and 人 has about a billion. So you need to memorize that too.

OK, you've solidly learned that a word including 友 usually has something to do with friends. One day you see 湲. After squinting a bit, you notice that it's made up of a bunch of parts (called "radicals"), one of which is 友, on the bottom right there. Maybe this kanji has to do with friends? Haha no, it means "flowing water". You need to memorize that too.

So it's really hard to practice Japanese. You can't pick up a book and work out the meaning until you have a critical mass of kanji memorized. You can't even read a grammar book unless it uses hiragana/katakana for you as a crutch, and then you get to learn everything twice: once to learn vocabulary and grammar, how to say something and what it means, and then again later to learn how to read and write it.

So how the heck do you learn Japanese, as a non-native speaker?

University - the best option

Of all the things I've tried, classes in college are what taught me the most. I took Japanese classes at university for two years, learning from native Japanese speakers. Most of the weekly classes were Japanese-only and the total immersion helped a lot. The University of Pittsburgh had a top-notch Japanese program back in the day, 15 years ago, and I imagine they still do.

Motivation wasn't a major problem; I was paying a lot of money to be there, and I was graded on my work, and had peers I could work with and had to keep up with. Japanese class was hard but once momentum picked up and I got my footing, it wasn't too hard to keep going with it.

I was never fluent, but I could hold my own and probably would've been given a few more years. I felt so good about myself the day my professor told me I "sound Japanese". It was also insanely stressful and time-consuming to learn, and I had to stop taking those classes after two years so I could, you know, learn programming and stuff.

So university is a great option, in the sense that having it drilled into your brain by experts daily for two years will probably teach you anything pretty effectively. But back then I was a full-time student, and I had the ability to go to two hours of lectures and 3 hours of labs every week, plus time to study and do homework. Now I have a job, and this isn't possible.

A sad thing about language acquisition is that you need to keep practicing the language constantly, or you'll lose it. And lose it I did. Ten years later, I found that I'd forgotten everything I once knew about Japanese. And for the past 5 or so years I've been trying to get back to where I was (let alone advance further!).

Self-study: clunky tools and lack of motivation

Since university, I've tried a lot of self-study. Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) is apparently the best thing since sliced sushi rolls; basically, think flash cards, but spacing out how often you review each one, so that you build long-term memory and not just short-term. I've tried lots of variations of SRS, with varying degrees of pain.

There's something I like to call the Emacs Problem, a lesson I've learned the hard way. One day I tried to learn Haskell and Emacs at the same time, with hilariously bad results. Never, ever, ever try to learn a programming language AND a new text editor at the same time. Programming is hard enough to learn without throwing the distraction of a complex tool on top of it. You should use a text editor you already know how to use very well, so it stays the heck out of your way and you can concentrate on the thing you're actually learning.

I've had the same problem learning Japanese. Clunky tools make an already-difficult task nearly impossible to keep doing. Learning a language requires constant, consistent, long-term practice, a bit of time each day. An unpleasant tool makes it so very easy to skip a lesson here or there, which turns into skipping a lot of lessons, which turns into giving up.

The quest for a pleasant tool has been long and arduous.

Flash Cards

First I tried flash cards. Actual wood-pulp index cards with ink on them, like cavemen used. They're messy and destructible and easy to lose and hard to keep in order, and they take as much time to create as to use. They're also kind of hard to practice with on a bus or in the bathtub or what have you. I wouldn't recommend flash cards when we have these newfangled computation devices to do the same thing better.



The de facto standard free option for generic SRS is probably Anki. It lets you lets you build decks of pseudo-flashcards or download decks others have built, and it'll manage the SRS for you.

Anki's user interface is unpleasant. Can you tell what any of this means? What is "1 20"? 250% of what?


When you finish daily reviews and want to go on to do more practice, you get this window. What is "Review Ahead"? That's an oxymoron. Just give me more cards to look at!


Another example: Why do I click "Browse" to edit a deck? Why not "Edit"? Another example: cards in Anki have a "front" and a "back", and while studying, Anki shows you the front and you try to remember the back. What if you want to see the back and guess the front instead? It's useful to practice both kanji -> meaning and meaning -> kanji. But I can't for the life of me figure out how to get Anki to reverse the cards. Anki also syncs your decks and progress to its server, and has a mobile version, but it's slow and very clunky and I've managed to de-sync my account a bunch of times.

Don't get me wrong, Anki is free, and very powerful, and possibly a great option if you have the patience to figure out how to use the thing. But I don't.

Another problem with Anki is making a good deck. The order you learn kanji is really important. Like, you'll want to learn 日 pretty soon, which means "sun" or "day"; it's both useful, common, and easy to remember. On the other hand, 脾 (spleen) can probably wait.

There's a kind of horrible paradox of choice in finding a good Anki deck. Search for kanji decks and you'll find hundreds, of highly varying quality. You can also build your own decks, but throwing random kanji in a list is probably not going to work out for you.

Remembering the Kanji

The book Remembering the Kanji by Heisig is pretty well-recommended, so I tried to go through this book using Anki. It's popular enough that there are many Anki decks for download that use Heisig's system.

Heisig uses mnemonics to help you remember the parts (Radicals) of each kanji using a little story, and continue to learn new kanji using the building blocks of things you've already learned, which is a great technique.

My main problems with Heisig are summed up in this article by Tae Kim1, which I largely agree with. Heisig is a good way to learn "something" but that something doesn't resemble Japanese in a lot of ways. I want to learn how to pronounce the kanji.

Another big problem I had with RTK is that it was written in 1977 by a college professor, and it shows. The mnemonics are quite frankly a bit stuffy and boring. Lots of Biblical references and "mouths with flapping tongues" and so on. It made it a bit hard for me to get things to stick.



If you do want to use Heisig's RTK, Koohi is WAY better than Anki, IMHO. It's an SRS system built around RTK and it's very slick and easy to use. The interface is exactly what I want: It stays out of your way. I used this for quite some time until I became a bit disillusioned with Heisig's system.

Koohi is tied very closely to RTK, so when I stopped doing Heisig, I sadly stopped using Koohi. But this isn't a bad thing. I like the "do one thing and do it well" vibe from that website. It does Heisig very well.

Kanji Damage


I've also tried some other websites that do SRS. One of them is Kanji Damage. This website uses mnemonics like Heisig's RTK, but uses a different ordering of kanji and a very different set of mnemonics. The examples it uses are deliberately a bit outrageous, silly and/or profane, using the theory that the weirder something is the easier it'll be to remember. On one hand I can see the logic in this, but on the other hand I found it pretty distracting. Does one of the first ten kanji I learn really need to be "rape"? There are probably more appropriate kanji to spending my time learning.



A couple weeks ago I discovered WaniKani. It's early to tell, but this might be just what I'm looking for.

It uses SRS, and has its own ordering of kanji and series of mnemonics. The good thing about WaniKani is the mnemonics aren't boring, and they also aren't full of rape references. I can tell they're written by someone from my generation, with HHGTTG references and crab-aligators and ninjas. It's also got a high-quality Android app which handles Japanese text input and font display natively and perfectly. It's updated frequently and has active discussion forums.

I really like how WaniKani review involves typing a word into the app and letting it tell you if you're right or wrong. A lot of SRS programs just show you a question and then show and answer and say "Did you know it?", and you click Yes or No. It's very easy to cheat a little, especially when you're flying through a hundred cards at a time. Maybe you mooooooostly knew a kanji, what's one wrong letter? Of course you would've figured it out in another second or two. So you convince yourself it was good enough, click "Yes", and continue without really knowing it. But there's no cheating WaniKani. The act of typing the answers out is also a good reinforcement on its own. WaniKani is pretty good at recognizing synonyms and very minor typos, though more on that below.

It's not all roses and gumdrops. One problem is that you can't skip ahead. The kanji are split into Levels, and you start at Level 1 with no option to skip forward if you already know some kanji. So have fun learning your Japanese numerals for the 800th time in your life. It does pick up pretty quickly after the first couple weeks, but it was awfully annoying to start off so slow.

I also found some of the presentation of new material and quizzes a bit confusing. When learning kanji you have radicals, kanji, on-yomi, kun-yomi, and vocabulary to learn, and sometimes WaniKani will be quizzing me for one of those things but I can't easily figure out which one to give it. Does "kanji" want the on-yomi or kun-yomi? Usually whatever WaniKani decided to teach you first, which is arbitrary.

If you make a mistake in a quiz, you can't undo, even if it's something you genuinely know and simply didn't know how to communicate to the app properly. You also can't undo typos. I found it frustrating to have to re-review kanji I already know well, just because my phone auto-completed a word incorrectly.

Another "problem" is that WaniKani is not free; it's a subscription model, $10 USD/month currently. This might be a problem for some people, but personally I'm more than happy to pay for something if it's good. It'll take the $10/month version over the free version if the paid version is significantly better, and WaniKani does seem to have a high degree of polish.

So far I've gotten to Level 3 and it's been mostly smooth going, and stuff is actually sticking. I was playing a Japanese video game the other day and picking out kanji here and there, not only able to remember the meaning but also the pronunciation, which is excellent.

The Future?

Part of me fully expects to come back to my blog in 6 months and post another failure story. But maybe, just maybe it'll work this time!

I find it weird and a bit depressing how I have to play these psychological tricks on my self, to make things as pleasant as possible for myself in order to do something I actually really want to do. Why can't I decide "Learn Japanese!" and just do it? But I guess humans are animals, and this brain is surrounded by flesh that needs to be cared for. Headaches aren't conducive to learning anything.

  1. If you want to learn Japanese grammar, Tae Kim's website is highly recommended! 

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