(Re) learning Japanese, 3.5 months later

How far I've come, what habits I've established, what has and hasn't worked.

I started relearning Japanese in earnest about 3.5 months ago. Where am I now?


Here I'll detail things I'm immersing in and consuming that is Japanese native material.

Listening Comprehension

I try to watch at least 30 minutes of something in Japanese a day. I first try not to use subtitles (字幕). But if it's clear I'm not grasping at least 40% of the material, I turn subtitles back on. I also to try to listen to stuff while doing some chores.

I am regularly rewatching my favorite anime, Inuyasha on HBO. Annoyingly, I can't actually turn off subtitles as some odd limitation in the app. But in truth it's probably too complicated for me not to watch it without subtitles. Still, I try to ignore them and then rewatch parts to see if I got the gist.

I watched My Neighbors the Yamadas (ホーホーケッキョとなりの山田) without subtitles! A few parts I rewatched with them on. I understood, I think, at least 50% of the dialogue without subtitles and overall maybe 80% with the visual cues.

I watched My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ)! I had a similar strategy with My Neighbors the Yamadas. Totoro was more difficult for me to understand everything, maybe only 40-45% listening comprehension; but with visual cues, more to 80%.

I watched When Marnie was There (思い出のマーニー) with subtitles on for the most part, and then I listened to it again while playing video games. I really liked the listening follow-up: I picked up even more stuff and was able to understand maybe 80% of it! Obviously it helps that I was very familiar with the story. I will keep doing this sort of thing in the future.

I found this podcast Learn Japanese with Noriko. Noriko has short (5-40 minute) episodes where she talks about random topics, often citing letters from her listeners or talking with another person. She uses simple vocabulary, enunciates clearly, uses polite language, and repeats some of her points, but speaks at a generally natural pace. Maybe a little slower than natural, but it doesn't sound too forced or artificial to me.


I started reading the first volume of 聲の形 (A Silent Voice). At first I had a strategy of looking up every vocabulary word or grammar structure I didn't know, but that pace was so slow and a bit demoralizing. I then changed that strategy to just read straight through as much as I can, only stopping when I see a vocabulary word I don't recognize but it keeps showing itself repeatedly; or it's a word I have seen or heard in other contexts (like the listening comprehension material). I try to read at least 20 minutes a day.

The strategy change was inspired by some online material I found from polyglot Olly Richards. The material suggested to only read through without stopping, accepting that you won't get everything. Then, reread the same thing, and then do it again. Each time you do, you'll pick up more things you missed. It's like a puzzle.

Clearly I'm not exactly following his advice, but I don't want to be super lost in comprehension – in truth, this manga is probably still several levels above me in terms of grammar, let alone many levels in terms of vocab -- and I also like this way of acquiring vocabulary that I am encountering over and over.

After about 3 weeks, I've gotten halfway through the volume on my first read-through. That's super slow compared to me reading in English... But I am proud!

Once a week I read easy short stories or easy NHK articles for 30 minutes with my coworker(s). This has become a lot of fun for me as it's a non-work activity I can do with my coworkers.

I have tried doing NHK articles on my own, but I quickly lose interest or get frustrated because there's just too much vocabulary and kanji I don't know yet. :(


Here I'll detail things that are purely for study, designed for language learners.

Duolingo (vocab, some reading)

I mentioned this in my first post. I still have a streak of 74 days or so. It's probably my least effective tool in my study kit, but I think at this point I keep it around out of habit. The gamification keeps me loyal. I do the bare minimum to keep the streak, occasionally adding a bit more. The most interesting parts are the grammar tips and stories. I initially used Duolingo to pick up additional exposure to common vocabulary, but I think that use is starting to wane. As a bonus, the animations and cute sounds make me happy.

For other cons, some of the voice recordings don't seem natural, so I could be getting incorrect pronunciation. The content outside of the stories is just boring. I still dislike translating to English. I find that tedious and less valuable and possibly harmful as it keeps that habit (of translating) in me rather than trying to think in my target language.

I may eventually drop this app altogether. While I keep my time to it low, even that time is precious, isn't it?

Fluent Forever app (vocab, some grammar, listening)

For the most part, I like this app. Its SRS simplifies and automates a lot of the clunkiness of Anki for the 625 most frequent words in languages. It lets you quickly and easily add pictures, includes built-in audio with native voices, and uses sentence card structure so you're not learning words outside of context. You learn words in context and also pick up grammar. Each word is actually a group of flash cards: to fill in the blank in the sentence, to recall the word from its written form, to recall the word from the pictures you used, and dictionary form of the word. That's hella awesome.

It's not limited to just these things, though: I do have the ability to add individual word or phrase cards, too, with audio from Google Translate (which is usually but not always good). I have done that many times, and it's nice overall. There is also support for custom sentence cards, but it's not as sophisticated as the setup for the 625 built-in ones.

Of course, the other positive piece of this app is it is directly tied to my FF coaching sessions. My coach designs sentences from our sessions to be used as flash cards, too, for me.

Beyond that, I like that the review experience has been simplified to just Pass or Fail for a card, rather than in Anki where it has 4 options (Again, Hard, Good, Easy).

However, the app is sometimes buggy. Pictures randomly get lost. Edits I make don't persist sometimes. Other edits need to be manually requested to specific cards for the support team to fix. Sometimes the screen freezes if you use certain swiping gestures during review. The coaching flash cards don't show furigana, which can be hard for me if I want to pick up pronunciation more accurately. There are several basic features like a card search bar that could be super useful but just aren't there yet. It's a relatively new app, so they're adding features and improving stuff all the time, but as a software engineer I am a bit suspicious of the robustness of the code long-term...

At regular price this app is $9.99 a month, though I technically get it for free with the coaching. There are also occasional sales to get this cheaper.

I do find the fee a downside in that Anki is just straight up free, and there doesn't seem to be a way to export my SRS cards from FF now. That means I must keep paying for the app to access my cards. I'll keep at it as long as I do coaching with FF and am still going through the first 625 words. If they add more words, that would continue to make the cost worth it should I quit or take a break from coaching sessions one day.

The FF philosophy on grammar is you learn it intuitively through sentence flash cards. However, I have found just flash cards alone not enough – maybe a smidge for reading comprehension/input, but not much, and definitely not enough for speaking/writing/output. I basically knew what I knew with regard to grammar based on my poor memory from college classes, and the sentences not helping me enough led me to revisit grammar in other ways (detailed in Bunpo and Tae Kim's guide below).

Fluent Forever coaching (speaking, listening, grammar, vocab)

3 times a week for 20 minutes a session I talk with my Japanese coach 1 on 1. These have been a lot of fun, and I've learned a lot from them. They're a little expensive at $289 a month.

Coaching sessions improve my listening comprehension and let me practice speaking. I am unsure how much my speaking has improved as a result of coaching sessions. I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes, but my vocabulary and listening comprehension have improved. Overall, I hope coaching is not a negative... Right? Some may argue it could actually be a negative if your input from immersion and non-speaking study is still low, such that you're incorporating bad habits from translating in your head from your native language or relying on too limited vocab or understanding of grammar or word nuances. It's also stressful to speak and make mistakes, or listen to a live person and not understand everything.

Coaching sessions have definitely helped me keep a strong study habit.

However, because of the recent stuff I've consumed on Mass Immersion Approach, Stephen Krashen's input over output, etc. for effective language acquisition, I do plan to reduce my coaching sessions to once a week. While money isn't currently an issue for me, I'll also feel good about cutting costs.

But, I am beginning to also approach the sessions differently to be more effective. I read another thing recently that examined the effectiveness of immersion and no output (speaking, writing) vs. a balance (more like what traditional schools do) vs mostly immersion and a little output. The article concluded that having mostly immersion with a little output for feedback seemed most effective as a way to practice the understanding of the consumption of your input.

With that idea, I want to be more intentional with writing sentences ahead of my coaching sessions to practice saying during conversation. Initially I would just look up key vocabulary and note them, but then try to freely speak. I want to do more and write out entire sentences.

I am also trying to focus more energy on dedicated grammar study (see Bunpo and Tae Kim's guide below).

Remembering the Kanji, vol 1 (kanji)

I started RTK this week. I'm on lesson 4 out of 56 (?), 57 kanji and primitives in. I haven't established a pace yet on top of my other habits. My current goal is to learn 10 new kanji and/or primitives a day.

It's super interesting... I love the mnemonic stories so far. They're really effective in helping me remember kanji components, and I also am enjoying writing kanji again.

I hear folks get burned out eventually with this system but feel super satisfied if they stick through it.

Edit: I've written some thoughts on this approach after about 2 months doing it.

Anki (vocab, kanji)

I am primarily using Anki to review RTK stuff. I also want to start putting my ad-hoc vocab words and sentences there from my immersion and Duolingo, but I haven't yet figured out a streamlined approach.

I noted in my first post that I dislike how tedious it is to create good cards in Anki. Maybe I need to just refrain from my phone and create them in one go on the computer once a day or week?

I initially tried using the integration with the Takoboto dictionary app, but I don't like all the cards it creates for one word.

I think my distaste is starting to wane as I get more re-familiarized with SRS and better understand what's effective and valuable for me.

Bunpo app (grammar, some listening)

This is a grammar app I found that has a pretty streamlined and simple interface with just enough detail and nuance in its explanations. The grammar is organized by JLPT levels. The downside is there isn't a lot of free content, and paid it's $7.99 a month. Still, that's not bad, and so far it's really helpful for me.

Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese

This is a famous website a lot of Japanese learners like. All the content is free there. Tae Kim also released a very cheap $5 book version. I considered getting that since I don't like reading through websites for long content, but I read mixed reviews on the quality of the book port. I thankfully found an Android app (there is also an Apple version) of the website, which seems to be have been a labor of love from a separate person/developer. It's so awesome seeing the work of passionate folks give free, good stuff to the community.

I'm reading this in conjunction with using Bunpo for relearning grammar.

Other stuff

I found this the Renshuu phone app week. It is chock full of resources!! The part I'm most excited about is the grammar lessons. There are a ton of things for vocab as well, but I am unsure how to handle all the disparate vocab things (Anki, FF) on top of Renshuu... The upside is there is a lot of free content, in addition to a paid content tier. I am still happy with Bunpo and Tae Kim for grammar, and other sources for vocab, so I am pausing on further exploring this app for now.

I still have my old Genki textbooks and kanji dictionary from college. However, I'm finding RTK and the other online resources to be more compelling for me at this point. But maybe I'll recheck the textbooks for nostalgia...


I've been watching a lot of Matt vs Japan, Dogen, Japanese Ammo with Misa, Olly Richards, Stephen Krashen, Onomappu, and other folks talking about Japanese language and general language acquisition strategies or journeys. These have been fun to listen to while playing a mindless video game and continue to shape my own language acquisition journey.

I should use YouTube for native language immersion as well.

Concluding thoughts

Every day, how much time do I spend on Japanese?

  1. 2-5 minutes Duolingo
  2. 20-30 minutes reading A Silent Voice, noting some vocab
  3. 5-50 minutes reviewing Fluent Forever SRS, adding new vocab
  4. 15-20 minutes reviewing Anki SRS for RTK, other vocab
  5. 30 minutes RTK learning new kanji and primitives
  6. 30-50 minutes Bunpo and Tae Kim grammar review/learning
  7. 3 days a week, 20 minutes with coach and 20 minutes prep
  8. 1 day a week, 30-minute short story / NHK article reading at work

Total: about 3-5 hours (?). My mental math is questionable. I would like to further refine my schedule to be more predictable and manageable.

This experience so far is so different from learning Japanese in college. I'm much more self-motivated and can direct my learning in whatever way I want. I also am not as overwhelmed with other simultaneous classes or social activities. I wish I had all these tools when I was in school.

Here's to the next parts of my Japanese relearning journey!