I’ve been a casual Japanese learner for several years. From Genki to Mondly and Lingodeer, I’ve tried my fair share of language learning apps, and I’ve often jumped from one app to the next the second it got hard.
With Wanikani, it gets hard fairly quickly–around the first paid level, in fact. But unlike many other apps that I’ve tried and dumped, Wanikani kept my interest, and I keep returning.
I first purchased Wanikani three years ago. I had completed the first three free levels and wanted to see what else it had to offer. Those levels gave me a decent idea of what to expect, but they didn’t quite cover the sheer intensity of all the added kanji and vocabulary. As usual, I quickly gave up and moved on. But this time, I returned the following year.
I dabbled in Wanikani a few more times before committing myself to an annual plan last May. I’ve since reached level 7, which is actually slower than the pace set by most learners but quicker than what I’d been doing before.
Now that I’ve committed myself more earnestly, I’ve learned that it is possible to keep up with the material; however, doing so requires advanced planning, flexibility, and self-discipline.
Created by language learning company Tofugu in 2012, Wanikani strives to make kanji and vocabulary learning entertaining and easy.
In order to do this, the site supplies daily lessons on radicals, which are the building blocks of kanji; it also provides lessons for the kanji themselves, which are then used to create vocabulary words.
You won’t necessarily receive content at the same time every day, and the amount and newness of that content will vary greatly–this is because Wanikani determines how well you know your learning materials and spaces them out based on its SRS feature.
If you’ve recently mislabeled the sun kanji several times in a row, for instance, you can expect it to appear sooner and more frequently than a kanji you’ve recently labeled correctly.
In total, Wanikani offers 60 levels of content.
Each level has a different amount of radicals, kanji, and vocabulary. Additionally, each level plays off of previous levels–while you’re learning new radicals, for instance, you’ll also be tested on past radicals until you “burn” them.
Burning occurs when the site’s SRS determines that you know a radical, kanji, or vocab piece so well that you no longer need to be tested on it. In other words, it’s essentially been “burned” into your memory, so it will no longer appear in your daily lessons.
Along with burning, there are several labels to show your progress with individual learning materials.
These labels are Apprentice, Guru, Master, and Enlightened. In order to go up in levels, you need to raise all the previous level kanji and radicals to at least Guru level. Doing this requires that you correctly name or define and spell that learning material multiple times in a row.
So what exactly will you be learning? Who chose these ~2000 kanji and ~6000 vocab words?
The kanji primarily consist of Joyo kanji, which are common kanji that Japanese students are expected to learn by middle school. In turn, the vocabulary is comprised of words created by these kanji.
While it can take traditional or college students years to learn, Wanikani attests that, through its method, you can learn in a year or two. Numerous users back this claim, showing near or complete fluency when reading Japanese.
In order to get started with Wanikani, you’ll want to sign up for its free version.
This version unlocks the first three levels, and you can work your way through each level before deciding whether to continue. Once you hit level four, you’ll be prompted to sign up with a paid account.
The first few days, you’ll only have a few radicals to learn, so you’ll actually have some downtime before new lessons. While this pace may seem slow at first, it quickly changes as you go up in levels.
For radicals, you’ll only need to learn names, but for kanji and vocab, you’ll need to learn the spelling and definitions. Additionally, kanji require you to learn both the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, meaning the readings derived from China and the original Japanese readings, respectively.
Whereas Japanese students often learn words based on meaning, starting with concepts that are easier to understand, Wanikani structures its lessons around the number and difficulty of strokes.
This means that some important, basic words might not be covered until later, but on the plus side, you won’t have to deal with their difficult construction. Still, you may reach a word that doesn’t quite stick, in which case you can take Notes or even add a synonym to help you remember next time.
When learning these new materials, make sure to pay attention to the mnemonic stories and example sentences. The former will help with remembering definitions and spelling; the latter will provide examples of practical use.
Simply looking at the spelling and definition before moving on may seem quicker, but this method goes against the spirit and intention of the application, and ultimately, it will only set back your progress.
Wanikani does an exceptional job teaching the readings and definitions for a variety of kanji and vocabulary.
However, a common complaint about the system is that some of the mnemonics are so complex that users ignore them or make up their own. For this reason, many users compare the material and lesson plans to “Remembering the Kanji,” which uses less-complicated mnemonics but doesn’t have an SRS.
The SRS is great if you keep up with it, but should you fall short in your lessons, you’re looking at a mountain of reviews.
And this mountain can be difficult to dig your way out of–say you’ve been slacking off, so you have 300 apprentice-level radicals and kanji in your reviews.
You sit down, work hard, and get them all correct in one session. That’s great, right?
Sure, until the following day, when you’ll have to do the same thing all over again. That’s the downfall of SRS–if you get behind even once, it can throw you off track and make reviewing a long and arduous task.
However, the good side of SRS is that it’s constantly challenging you while also displaying tangible progress. Burning a once-difficult kanji is surefire proof that I’m improving, and it makes me want to devote even more time to learning Japanese.
Wanikani won’t teach you all there is to know about Japanese.
Some obvious gaps are in grammar and writing. Still, the forum allows you to practice your grammar and vocabulary with other learners, as well as experts, and what you’ll lack in writing abilities you’ll make up for in vocab retention.
Plus, Wanikani’s teaching method provides long-term knowledge; you can always go back and review materials you’ve burned, but in my experience, you’ll remember them so well, you won’t have to.
The different plans all offer the same materials, except for the free 3-level plan, which restricts you to the first three levels. Still, that plan is worthwhile to help you get an idea of what to expect from the system.
A paid subscription would then cost $9 per month, $89 per year, or $299 for lifetime access.
Unfortunately, there’s no test-in feature, so everyone has to start at the same level and with the same radicals.
Also, there are several unofficial apps, but they require internet in order to function, so you might not be able to use them on-the-go.
Wanikani is a reliable, entertaining way to learn essential kanji and vocabulary. While it won’t teach you everything about Japanese, it provides a strong foundation for reading, and you can easily find learning partners and links to additional resources.
There are certainly downfalls to Wanikani’s SRS and mnemonics, but when they work, they have long-lasting effects on retention.
If you’re a beginner, this site will provide all the essential kanji and vocabulary you’ll need. If you’re further along in your studies, the site is still useful, but it may take time until you reach words you don’t already know.
Either way, you’ll have to work on your reviews daily or else risk falling behind–and once you fall behind, it’s difficult to start back up.
If you’re trying to learn how to speak Japanese, Wanikani is only a stepping off point. And if you’re attempting to write the language, the program doesn’t offer much.
However, if you’re serious about learning Japanese kanji and vocabulary in order to read, Wanikani is an ideal application. Fun, fast-paced, and challenging, Wanikani is a leading application in both the learning and retention of kanji.
This post was originally written by Marisa – an amazing freelance writer and experienced language learner.
It was edited by me – Nick Dahlhoff
I’m the creator of All Language Resources, but not some super polyglot who speaks 20 languages. I’m not here to teach you how to learn a language – countless people are more qualified to do that than me. But, I have tried out an insane number of language learning resources. I aim to make this site the most comprehensive and least biased place to figure out which language learning resources are worth using. To learn more about myself, the site, or our reviewing process, check out our about page.