Yes, you can “learn kanji”

“Don’t learn kanji, learn words!”

“you can’t ‘learn’ kanji lol”

Hang around in any Japanese-learning community for long enough and you’re guaranteed to see something along these lines. It’s advice that’s inspired by a long history of bad methods, and it’s given sincerely by people who genuinely want to help. It’s also something I happen to strongly disagree with.

Let me explain. I don’t think that the people who say these things, or the motivation behind it, are wrong. But I do think that “learn words, not kanji” is good advice, explained poorly, and that “you can’t learn kanji” is predicated on a bad definition of what it means to learn. I’ve tried to argue my case a number of times, and it never seems to go as well as I would like. This article is my attempt to put my thoughts in order.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can skip down to the summary at the end. However, I would really appreciate if you did read the whole thing, especially if you think you disagree. This is a topic I feel strongly about, and I feel like the very premise itself is fundamentally misunderstood. I’ve put a lot of care into trying to present my case in a way that will make sense, even to people who might completely disagree at first.

I would like to implore anyone reading further to read with an open mind. Be cognizant of the fact that everyone thinks in a different way, and that none of us are wrong — until we try to force our own thought process on another person who is incompatible with it. I’m only writing this article because I’m constantly told my way of learning kanji is invalid by people who don’t seem to even understand it in the first place.

With that out of the way, let’s get into it.

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Japanese output reflection

Yesterday my sister and I met up with a friend of mine and his family at a park in Japan. He’s originally from the US but has lived in Japan for several years now and is (from my perspective anyway) totally fluent. His wife (Aさん) can speak some English, and their nearly two year-old daughter knows an impressive amount of words in both languages (though she hasn’t quite figured out when to use them all).

Throughout the day I had a lot of opportunities to talk to Aさん about various topics, making this by far the most time I’ve spent speaking Japanese in a single “session”, and essentially (aside from my very brief “first conversation” in Kyoto in 2019) was the first time I’ve had any meaningful interaction in a face-to-face context. There’s a unique feeling that comes with looking somebody in the eye as you speak and while I definitely still struggled from time to time it was rewarding to feel like “I’m really communicating with another person here”.

As always I made a lot of mistakes, some of which I noticed immediately and some of which I totally missed until they were pointed out. Here are a few of the ones I remember:

  • When trying to say “when you went overseas, what was your favorite country?” I said 海外に行ったら、[…], when the obvious choice should have been 行ったとき. Fortunately my meaning came through and Aさん was able to correct me/confirm what I had meant to say.
  • At one point I was trying to describe my hometown and was struggling to remember the word, so I said something like 小さい頃住んでいたとこ (Aさん said 地元? which was the word I had been looking for). I also tried to describe it as 小さくなくて1I should have said 小さくないけど 、人が少なくい and she came back with 田舎. In retrospect, my hometown was definitely 田舎, but for some reason I had only ever thought of that word as meaning rural Japan.
  • At one point I was describing the general weather where I lived, and I gave the number in Celsius. When Aさん followed up to confirm that America uses “F”, I clarified using the phrase 郷に行けば郷に従え and felt pretty pleased that I had been able to pull it out of my memory in time. I realized after the fact that it should have been 入れば, but once again the meaning came through which is the main thing I guess.
  • On two occasions, describing my plans for the trip, I made two separate mistakes. The first was to say “16 days” instead of “until the 16th”, and the second (when I was trying to clarify, later) was to say 16月 — making up entirely new months! Fortunately this is the kind of mistake where it’s completely obvious what you meant to say and while it was kind of a funny moment it didn’t cause any confusion.

One last little story: at one point I noticed that the little girl had strawberries on her socks and I asked her いちご好き? Her response was いちごしない! which got a laugh out of me and her parents alike. Her father says she probably wanted to say いちごはない (since there weren’t any strawberries at the moment). Apparently this is a common thing among Japanese children; they’ll use する to replace all kinds of verbs, not just those where it would actually work.

I had a really nice time and while I definitely struggled to come up with words from time to time, I did feel like I was pretty functional overall. Looking forward to the next opportunity.

Japanese practice reflection

Last night I had my first-ever proper Japanese conversation practice session with a couple of members from the 日本語と英語 discord server (one native speaker, one fellow learner). It was a lot of fun and I feel encouraged by the outcome; I’ve often felt like all the input I’m getting was doing a great job of helping me develop strong comprehension skills, but not making a huge difference for my production ability. After this practice session, I feel more like my conversation ability is trapped in my head and just needs a little help getting out, like a rusty faucet that needs some encouragement before it can be turned on and off easily.


The biggest thing I noticed is that I rarely had to think hard about the words I wanted to use, but when it did happen it was like my whole brain had shut down. Since we were trading off languages, I was able to fall back on English to keep the conversation going, but I would obviously prefer to move past that.

Since I’ve never really had a proper conversation before, this was also the first time that my typical speech mannerisms had a chance to manifest in Japanese, which was pretty interesting. In English I tend to say stuff like “I guess” (when describing my opinions), and in Japanese I found myself using かな at the end of a lot of my sentences.

One moment I thought was kind of funny was when we were talking about another member of the server and I was asked for my opinion; my answer of 悪いやつじゃないと思う got a laugh out of our native friend and a response of “you’re talking just like a Japanese person!” Just a fun reminder that there’s more to language than just grammar and vocabulary.

Problem areas

Numbers have always been a pain point. More audio immersion would probably be a big help in this regard. At one point I was trying to report on the temperature (-5c) and accidentally said マイナスごじゅう instead of マイナスごど, which got a very surprised reaction. I feel like I made a similar mistake a little later, forgetting to use 回, and then again using ~人目 instead of ~番目 when describing my siblings.

On a number of occasions I found myself suddenly using polite forms (ですます, or saying はい instead of うん or そう) just for one sentence in the middle of a casual conversation. I’m not sure why certain phrases seemed to come out naturally in polite mode but it’s something I want to work on of course.

One more thing that sticks in my mind as a bit of a “regret” is that there were some words I used where I feel like a similar but subtly different word would have been a better fit. As one example in particular, I was asked “why take two trips to Japan instead of staying the whole time” and my answer was 仕事があるから. I feel like 仕事があるし would have been a more natural response in this case, but I thought of it just a moment too late. On another occasion, I was asked if I had heard of something, and I said 知らない at the same time as our native friend said 分からない. Obviously her response would have been more natural.

The last thing I’d like to work on is also a bit of a curiosity. I occasionally found myself code-switching back to English, but only for specific words. One repeat offender was that I would intend to say けど at the end of a sentence, but it would somehow become the English word “though” on its way out of my mouth; another was that I would occasionally just add “so…” at the end, but not with any particular Japanese word in mind, just an example of English brain taking over.

All in all, I feel like it went pretty well and I’m excited for the next one.

Breaking into reading Japanese

At the very beginning, reading can seem like an impossible challenge. No matter how many words you memorize up front, you’re essentially guaranteed to see something unfamiliar within moments of trying to read your first book. Looking up every new word and grammar point will grind you to a halt, but trying to maintain momentum can leave you feeling totally lost.

How do you strike a balance? How early can you realistically start reading without it feeling like a complete struggle?

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Thoughts about Wanikani

Wanikani has been with me since the very first month of my Japanese-learning journey, and I was a big fan for a long time. Over the years my opinion of it has gradually changed, and at this point I feel like I can’t recommend it in good conscience without some heavy disclaimers. I don’t think it’s a bad platform by any means, and there’s a lot to like — I finished the whole course and I’m quite certain it helped me avoid some common pain points — I just feel like if I’m going to say “wanikani worked for me, it’s pretty good”, it’s only right that I be able to point to a list of criticisms to temper that recommendation.

I’ll also be laying out the strategy and schedule I used to get through the second half of the course quickly and efficiently while also working full time.

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My best-guess approach to learning Japanese

I’ve been learning Japanese for a while now, but whenever someone asks me “how long has it been?” I always feel the need to say something like “between five and three years”. While I fully embrace the fact that language learning takes a long time, I also feel like I could have reached my current level of proficiency in much less time than it actually took me, just due to a years-long false start and lots of wasted effort before I had any idea what I was doing.

This is the guide I wish I could have followed from the beginning, compiled with the benefit of hindsight after much trial and error. It’s likely imperfect, and likely won’t work for everyone, but it’s essentially everything that worked for me without all of the stuff that wasted my time. I hope you find it helpful.

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How I fixed my listening comprehension

I used to have a really hard time understanding spoken Japanese, despite being (at the time) fairly comfortable with reading. I remember thinking I could improve by watching anime with Japanese subtitles, but if there was any benefit it must have been pretty minimal, and I realized eventually that I was just giving myself more practice reading, but when I tried watching without any subtitles at all, I just got frustrated and confused.

Fortunately I happened to hear about Subs2SRS around that time, which is a really cool tool that turns videos into flashcards by reading subtitle files. I didn’t exactly want to add a whole new SRS routine into my study routine, so I came up with a low-impact method that helped me out a lot in just a short amount of time.

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Google’s deliberate dishonesty about Translate

So, Google’s Fall lineup for their Pixel phones just dropped.

I use a Pixel 3 myself and I quite like it. I’m not in the market for a new phone right now but I will probably stick with the brand in the future. But for some reason every new update comes with a segment on how Google Translate will improve your phone experience, and it’s always quite frustrating. Google translate is bad, and it’s difficult to explain just how bad it is to someone who only speaks one language, or who only has experience with one language of a source/target pair — for example, if I see an English or Japanese sentence that was produced with Translate, I can identify it immediately, but I’d have no clue whatsoever when looking at a Thai or French sentence.

Sometimes I hear people say “Google Translate is a bad fit for Japanese, but it’s great at other languages”. I can’t personally refute this, so fortunately at times like this I can refer to this excellent article that shows how Translate isn’t necessarily better at dealing with other languages, it’s just that the problems it has are different problems.

The thing that constantly baffles me is that surely Google themselves would know that Translate isn’t a product that deserves first billing, right? They’re a global company that offers support in many many languages, and I can tell you for a fact that they don’t use Translate themselves when localizing their services for their target regions. It’s inconceivable that none of the higher-ups at Google have ever bothered to check to make sure that it actually works before pushing it so hard.

Well, today (thanks to the video above), it became abundantly obvious that they do know it’s broken, and it’s all thanks to Marie Kondo.

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