A few months ago I wrote about starting to learn kanji. I’ve been using WaniKani consistently since, and hit level 10 out of a total of 60. I know a little over 300 kanji and around double that number of Japanese vocabulary.
WaniKani makes a difficult task as easy as it could be, but it’s certainly not easy. There’s enough exceptions and inconsistencies that I still have difficulty remembering readings for words I learned months ago and seen dozens of times since. Reviews from previous levels compound to the point where you’re doing 100 to 200 every day, and that takes time. Getting to level 10 has been a lot of work, and I’m only a sixth of the way to the finish line.
It does get a little easier beyond the first few levels. At first, kanji readings seem cruel and unusual, but after you’ve seen dozens of them, you start to see that there’s a lot of patterns and repetitions in their use of basic Japanese fragments. Combining them to get words is an incredibly effective way to learn Japanese vocabulary, and the kanji meanings usually give you just enough of a hint to recognize what a word you’ve forgotten means 1.
A key to progressing quickly in WaniKani is to really make sure you learn the radicals and kanji. Each level is broken into learning radicals, kanji, and finally vocabulary, with the last being by far the most numerous. Upon unlocking a new level, it gives you roughly half of its kanji to learn right away, but withholds the second half until you’ve hit guru (five correct answers in a row) for every radical. Vocabulary unlocks according to kanji learnt.
This all makes sense, but even making a few mistakes on radicals or kanji can hold you back by days at a time as you can’t access the rest of the level, or can’t progress to the next one. WaniKani doesn’t require that you learn every kanji to level up, but it does require that you learn a supermajority (the exact number depends on the level, but it’s always a high number like 29 out of 32).
I’ve adopted this routine:
WaniKani claims that you can hit level 60 in a little over a year at a rate of a level a week. This is technically possible, and some people on the community forums are able to keep this pace. For me weekly leveling is unimaginable – I’d have to supplement WaniKani with additional memorization tools or something – but I’m pretty happy with my current rate of one level about every two weeks. This means that if I did make it to level 60, it’d be a two-year project. That’s a long time, but taking a little too long to learn the entirety of the core of Japanese vocabulary is a good problem to have.
1 Recognizing a word from its source works to varying degrees of effectiveness. e.g. Neptune (海王星, meaning “sea king star”) is pretty obvious, whereas Saturn (土星, meaning “dirt star”) is less so.