Is Wanikani worth the effort for learning Kanji? A re-evaluation

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Last updated on October 11th, 2019

Learning Japanese is a time-intensive task and you often have to re-evaluate where you want to focus on. Do you want to improve your conversational skills, build a good vocab foundation or work on your reading skills and Kanji knowledge. I’ve written about WaniKani on more than a few instances and use it since 2012. It’s even part of my Japanese self-study guide. But lately, I began to question the website and their way of teaching the Kanji.

Everything began with WaniKani’s introduction of new radicals. For those who don’t know: A Kanji is made up out of several (or just one) little symbols. You think about a fitting image for each radical and make a story for yourself that you can easily relate to. The further you go the more complex are the Kanji you’re learning and the stories as well.

The whole idea with that radical approach isn’t new and was first introduced by James Heisig’s fantastic book “Remembering the Kanji”. The one I actually started with myself. Just that book and my Anki deck. WaniKani is doing everything for you. The radical names, the stories and because everybody has such a different background I never really liked most of their radical names. And that’s where the convenience of WaniKani becomes a problem.

I don’t like their radical names. You can always change the stories about each Kanji and just write them as a little note under each card but you can’t change the radical names. And even writing your own stories on the note section is not really convenient because it’s just barely visible when doing your reviews. And it’s not intended to be used like this as well. I may work for many but it didn’t really work for me because the stories just became more and more abstruse the further I came.

Now on to the second problem: The time it takes to finish WaniKani. Like I previously wrote you have to be wary about how you spend your study time. You can’t do everything at once and of course, you want to see some results. If you don’t have the feeling of making real progress you’ll quickly lose interest and will probably quit.

Good things take time and it’s always better to study slowly and consistently instead of just rushing through the content. But WaniKani is taking hours over hours to teach you words which you probably won’t use. And when you actually encounter them in the wild you’ll probably have more than a few instances where you can remember the basic meaning you learned but it just doesn’t make any sense in that sentence.

My problems with WaniKani

WaniKani is full of Japanese vocab consisting of the newly taught Kanji. A good idea so that you can instantly practice what you just learned.

But how useful is learning vocabulary out of context? Not very much in my opinion. Yes, WaniKani has some sample sentences in the notes but I would really prefer to learn whole sentences instead. Or maybe an idea: Be presented with a whole sentence and you just have to input (that’s how WK works) the underlined word.

The vocab you learn is not always the most useful. Its main purpose is to improve your Kanji reading so that you can instantly use that newly learned Kanji and put your reading skills to the test. And while you’re at it you can learn the different readings as well. But never forget that this is all part of your study time. Which is limited. So maybe doing the Heisig approach where you just learn a meaning for each Kanji so that you can safely recognize it and in a second step when you’re studying vocab you learn the readings automatically.

After spending a good amount of time with WaniKani I have a few problems with it:

    • You need lots of time because you’re learning lots of Kanji and even more vocab of dubious practicality (which is more or less intended, I know).
    • The second quarrel is with their whole system: It works for many, yes, but I still think that making your own radicals and stories is the way to go. Because of triceratops, grain and yeah geoduck.
    • And the third one about time: I feel their SRS intervals are too intense. Something like 4h, 8h 23h, 47h. Answering the same item correctly four times in a row until you hit a two-day space.

Tofugu is a great website and taking the idea behind Remembering the Kanji and wrapping it up into a neat little pre-made package for the Internet-generation was a great idea. But for someone who has to be time-efficient, it’s not the best choice.

There is just way too much filler around your core incentive. Which is to learn the Kanji. I’m not working with a computer and my workdays don’t allow me to check WaniKani in between. I need something which allows me to just study for 20 minutes in the morning with a coffee next to me and maybe dedicate a few minutes in the evening as well. But that has to be enough.

What I’ll do after graduating in the summer

I’ll start with Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji again. That book I bought 7 years ago and a new Anki deck. I want to start fresh, from the ground up. With my own mnemonics and stories. Maybe I’ll use it alongside The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course which is another great way to learn the Kanji and is offering example sentences as well (which really is a must). More about all that in the summer when I’ll start again from scratch but I know for sure that WaniKani is just not perfect for me.

I want a simple approach where I’m making all the cards myself Just checking the deck each morning and then be finished with it. No silly vocab but real-world immersion afterward. With a manga here and there, Japanese magazines, Japanese podcasts, and Twitter accounts.

What’s your approach to learning Kanji? I know not everybody is using WaniKani and I’d love to get some tips. Maybe there are even some great pre-made Anki decks which you can then customize to your liking. 

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