WaniKani is a kanji learning web application and community that I began using years ago. I have recently completed the final stage, and it’s time for me to reflect on what I’ve learned.
I started this process a few years ago, at around the same time that I started studying for my PhD. (My PhD will hopefully be completed in a few months time too.) It’s been over 3 years from start to finish.
I Initially started learning Japanese using an app / digital textbook called Human Japanese. I would recommend that as an introduction to the grammar and general context to the language. But even in the later chapters HJ was incredibly sparse when it came to introducing the Kanji — the characters words are written with in Japanese. I realised at some point I would need to become familiar with 2000 individual characters, each with at least 2 ways of reading them, and I found it really daunting.
I found WaniKani over a Christmas break and decided it would make for a good new years resolution. Some people pay to join a gym and beef up, I paid to join a weird online cult that learns to read strange pictograms. Each to their own, I guess.
WaniKani is a spaced repetition system tool, essentially digital flashcards with a built-in timer to reinforce learning at defined intervals. I found it a good way to memorise the characters before then reinforcing it by reading native text. I remember a short while after I started, one night I dreamt in strange strokes and characters, as my brain started to make sense of what I was learning.
Initially I was a bit sceptical of the approach WaniKani took. It breaks down into 3 components – Radicals, Kanji and Vocabulary. The radicals were often given visual mnemonics, which works well to begin with but after a while I felt it got in the way of my learning. The kanji teach the on’yomi reading, but not all the time, and the Vocabulary reinforce the on’yomi while teaching kun’yomi reading… except when the WaniKani lesson editors decided to do it back to front for some words.
But then I found there was a strong presence in the online forums dedicated to modding around an API provided by WaniKani. Familiar after having used Vivaldi since the early days I jumped in and found some really useful scripts. Some of the most useful for me were:
- Semantic-Phonetic Composition — Breaking down the make-up of kanji. This helped to reinforce the radicals, as well as ascribe them some meaning, rather than using a purely pictographic mnemonic. For example, kanji containing a 月 radical often refer semantically to parts of the body, and 貝 to money. And some radicals like 且 suggest a family of shared phonetic pronunciation like そ・しょ・じょ (So/Sho/Jo).
- ConfusionGuesser — Showing more explicitly when I got something wrong, and crucially explaining why I got it wrong. This helped to reinforce readings and help point out visually similar kanji that I was getting confused between.
- Rendaku Information — One of the most frustrating points learning how to read Kanji is knowing that it is sometimes a coin-toss as to how something is going to be pronounced. Getting a bit more guidance as to the hidden rules and exceptions was incredibly helpful.
- Jitai — A font randomiser. Much like latin script has its serif, sans-serif and cursive font families, there are broad font families amongst CJK languages. Seeing a mix of simple, stylised and hand-written style typefaces is very helpful in reading comprehension. Plus, it revealed to me where Unicode fucked up the CJK block.
- Vertical Reviews — I made a script that shows vocabulary reviews vertically. Given this is a common way of reading Japanese, it seemed prudent to get some practice. Alongside the font randomiser, I feel this deepened my reading comprehension.
Once I had customised it to my liking, and learned when and where to add my own mnemonics to help my study, I really started to get into WaniKani. After a year or so I really got into a groove, studying twice everyday, and during lessons finding myself guessing meanings and pronunciations correctly for characters I had not even learned yet.
As I progressed, I was very happy to see the lesson editors and admin team engaging with the community of learners. Nearly every week there were new additions or modifications to lessons to help make the process more engaging and useful.
I learned a lot of things beyond just the Kanji meanings and pronunciations:
- A lot of words and phrases I was already familiar with, and now I have a deeper understanding of what they mean. arigatou (thank you) is 有り難う. It has the characters possessing and difficult. Although the word is essentially just “thank you”, I can now see where it came from. You have done something difficult, so thanks.
- I’ve understood more about English and Japanese grammar. Though WaniKani does focus on Kanji they do a decent job of teaching verb pairs. In Japanese often verbs have different forms depending on whether they are transitive or not. English doesn’t have that distinction. 挙げる vs 挙がる would both be “to raise” in English, but one is to raise something, the other is when something is raised.
- I’ve started to think differently about the language I use and the way I think. This is probably true when learning any language.
Now, 2000 characters and many vocabulary words later, I’m getting to the end of what WaniKani has to offer. Before, it took me an age to get through a single page of a manga comic, and now I can breeze through understanding, almost without having to think. I’m very glad I undertook this as a project, and grateful for the value WaniKani brought me.
But there is still a lot for me to learn:
- There are more obscure characters that could crop up in day to day use.
- While my reading has matured, I never learned to write the characters, which is a discipline and artform all of its own.
- There is still much vocabulary and grammar necessary to fully understand the language.
- I haven’t done much at all in the way of practicing speaking.
There’s a long way until I “graduate” and fully say I have “completed” Japanese. Indeed, when it comes to learning another language, you’re never really finished. It’s a lifelong endeavour.