Should you do Multiple Japanese Decks Simultaneously?

You have a lot to learn. You have a lot of Japanese decks to conquer. Early on, you are confronted with a simple question: Should I work on one deck at a time, until I finish, and then move onto the next? Or should I do multiple decks at the same time, moving forward simultaneously through them all?

Tough choice to make as a beginner, right?

Decks usually fall into multiple categories: kana, kanji, grammar, vocabulary, production, cloze sentences, etc. There’s a lot you are dealing with. Where to begin…

Always do a kana deck first, by itself, before you touch anything else.

Kana will take you around 1-3 weeks to complete depending on your speed/time. There’s no question when you need it. You need it now for everything else. You could start another deck while doing kana, but you still need kana as soon as possible for everything, so you should focus on it.

Now you’ve finished kana. I’m going to use the Jalup decks as a major example of what people do next. You have a choice of 2 decks:

Jalup Beginner: grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure
Kanji Kingdom: kanji meanings

Both are going to take you a long time. Months. Which should you do first?

My original recommendation on Jalup was to do one deck by itself until completion. Then do the next one, dedicating yourself to it. While not wrong, this is not the recommendation I give now.

Current Recommendation

Jalup Beginner 1000 cards + Kanji Kingdom 1000 cards at the same time.
(Followed by):
Jalup Intermediate 1000 cards + Kanji Kingdom next ~1000 cards at the same time.

Why the change of heart?

Because you are more likely to be successful and reach Japanese fluency. Is that strong enough a reason?

Here are 2 scenarios:

Scenario 1: you do Kanji Kingdom first by itself.

Kanji Kingdom (or any other kanji-focused learning like RTK), is teaching you the core meaning of the kanji, separately from its readings.You aren’t actually learning Japanese you can use immediately. If you see a kanji, you understand what it means. If you are given an English word, you can write out the corresponding kanji (if there is one).

But you can’t read or create words or sentences. It feels different from learning actual Japanese. Being in this kanji isolated zone for an extended period of time can be lonely. You wonder when you are ever going to actually start learning real Japanese. You start to hate kanji. You just want to get done with it so you can move forward to something that actually has relevance. Rushing through kanji is a bad place to be, because learning Japanese is a slow process.

Scenario 2: you do Jalup Beginner first by itself.

Jalup Beginner is teaching you all the basics of Japanese. You like it (hopefully). You make amazing progress through the 1,000 cards. You feel good about the skills you’ve acquired. You can speak and read Japanese. You are excited (and a little worried) to move onto Jalup Intermediate, where you know the next challenge is waiting.

Now assume you made the decision that you want to introduce a separate kanji learning tool like Kanji Kingdom, before moving to Jalup intermediate. What do you do next?

Take all that you learned with Jalup Beginner, and stop the continuing progression. You are going to learn 2,300 kanji, without learning anything else. This feeling is often just as bad as if you just started with Kanji Kingdom by itself. You liked Jalup Beginner and the pace you were learning. You developed habits and progress. But all of a sudden, your pace completely changes, and you want to hurry up to move onto Jalup Intermediate. But Kanji Kingdom stands in your way.

Which scenario is better of the two?

If I had to choose between the two, I’d say you would be better off with scenario 2 (solo Jalup Beginner, then solo Kanji Kingdom). The risk of failure with scenario 1 is just too high.

Scenario 1 sounds good. Learn all the kanji first, then go to building vocabulary and grammar. You’ll be in a great position. Ideally yes. Realistically no. It’s just so hard to do all the kanji first before you ever get to the actual learning. A lot of hardcore RTK learners try this. Some are successful, which is great. Others are not, which is not so great. In my personal experience, I didn’t learn kanji before everything else. There’s no way I would have stuck with it.

However, scenario 2 is only slightly better than scenario 1. Because this high risk of failure is present any time you try to take on Kanji Kingdom by stopping whatever you were previously doing.

Why you should do them together

You get the best of both worlds. You are learning Japanese that is instantly gratifying. And you are building up your kanji. As you learn the kanji meanings, you start to see how they work in Jalup Beginner. The two compliment each other. You can choose whatever pace you want to go back and forth between the 2.


Learn 10 cards in Jalup Beginner
Learn 10 card in Kanji Kingdom

Or if you want to focus on one over the other, change it to:

Learn 20 cards in Jalup Beginner
Learn 5 cards in Kanji Kingdom

As long as you are doing both, you keep the momentum.

You can even decide midway if you don’t want to do Kanji Kingdom at all. While doing both, it is easier to realize that you’d prefer to stick with Jalup Beginner, and you don’t want to learn kanji separately.  If you had just been doing Kanji Kingdom by itself, it is harder to make that decision and know that you’ll be okay.

Definitely do them both at the same time?

There is no definite here. However, I’ve seen too many people fail the solo kanji route. I’ve had too many people asking me if it was okay to do both (or even drop separate kanji learning altogether) because doing kanji alone was too stressful. Even if doing kanji first followed by Jalup Beginner was technically more efficient, and you’d achieve your goals in a shorter time frame, if you fail, you lose. If you lose your motivation and you quit, you lose.

If you still have doubt lingering, try testing it out for yourself. See what happens if you work on Kanji Kingdom by itself for several days to a few weeks. If you find yourself constantly rushing, wanting to get through with it, switch to both. If you feel you can handle it and you like this separation, then keep going with it until you feel otherwise. No one says that you can’t be 1,000 cards into solo studying Kanji Kingdom and then start introducing a little Jalup Beginner. Or the opposite.

How do you deal with multiple decks?

Do you do them at the same time? How have you managed both successfully? Or do/did you focus on one at a time?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Should you do Multiple Japanese Decks Simultaneously? — 23 Comments

  1. I initially did scenario 1 with RTK. This was really tough and I am glad I managed to stick with it, because the burn out hit me very quickly, even though Japanese was still new and shinny. In the end I was so burned out when I finished that I didn’t do reviews for the deck and essentially lost most of it over the next 2-3 months. I would definitely not recommend scenario 1 to anyone.

    I then went through Jalup 5000 over the next year while essentially having no proper Kanji support as I wasn’t maintaining my Kanji deck. This is possible, but also very frustrating as it is really difficult to tell Kanji apart without dedicated study. No damage done, but I think I could have learned my decks faster if I had had Kanji to support me.

    For the past year I have been relearning kanji. I initially used Kanji Kingdom, but decided that I was too far past the J-E stage and have instead chosen to study it on my own using a self engineered J-J kanji system. This is definitely the sweet spot for me, as I now have the kanji knowledge necessary to better see the connections between vocabulary and a lot of readings and meanings of words are now obvious the first time I see them.

    tl;dr: I have essentially tried all 3 scenarios and doing kanji and vocabulary at the same time worked best for me.

    • Yeah, I think that was a good idea to try to figure out a way to relearn the kanji J-J, since you were so far into your studying already. You might have to share that self-engineered system sometime!

  2. That Topic is something I spend alot of time thinking through and through.
    And I came to the same solution of studying both at the same time.

    While I love Kanji, learning them is just a big hurdle for me.
    Kanji Kingdom and RTK make it easier and quite enjoyable, but Kanji-Flashcards just don’t ‘flow’ when reviewing and that drains my motivation quickly.

    But boy do they help if you actually know them, when learning sentences cards. For me it feels like meeting a familiar face in an unknown place. They are a great memory aid, and just make it more enjoyable.

    So in the End I’m doing both, using Kanji Kingdom, primitves from RTK and Jalup Beginner, even though the Kanji are a bit behind on my schedule.

    What also helps is that Kanji Kingdom is sorted by strokes, so when I encounter a unseen Kanji I can estimate when I’ll meet it in my Kanji studies and look forward to it.

    • It’s a topic a lot of people spend time on as it makes a major difference long term, so people don’t want to mess it up early on.

      It sounds like you found a nice combination using KK, RTK, and JB.

  3. I also tried different combinations of these scenarios, with varying success (and failure). I wouldn’t recommend going for all the Kanji first before learning actual vocabulary and grammar – I tried this and just as described in the article I felt it was too frustrating and really burnt me out. You simply do not see any purposeful progress in your learning – even though you kind of know that you ARE doing something. This frustration even caused me to quit Japanese entirely for several months.

    Funnily I ended up with the same conclusion that is proposed in the article, I currently combine Jalup Beginner (about 750 Cards in from my first learning attempt) with a deck from the Kodansha Kanji learner’s course (about 150 cards in).
    With a pace of 10 new cards form each deck per day, I just do fine and feel that I’m maintaining a good balance between learning frustration and feeling good for making progress. Also, the Kanji introduced in Jalup Beginner nicely match with those in the Kodansha course, so there are some satisfying synthesis effects :)

    Nice article, keep up the great work with this site! :)

    • The burnout rate is so high when someone tries it alone. Good combo with the JB and the Kondasha kanji course. I didn’t know they matched up so well.

  4. I agree with the article. While technically more efficient, the percentage of people who can actually learn all 2000 Kanji first without burnout, is probably pretty small. If you can do it, I think it’s wonderful and you did a good job. If you can’t do it, all that matters is that you pick yourself up and try something else. The real goal in this journey, is not quitting.

  5. My experience with the “only Kanji” road has not been successful at all. I did RTK cold turkey for 2 to 3 months and nothing else and severely burned out. I never did any reviews after that and ended up resetting the deck. It took 8 months to get back into Japanese.

    But as I’m stubborn, I did it again! This time I incorporated a little Japanese, but creating my own Anki cards took forever, so I didn’t add cards consistently, and ended up doing RTK most of the time. I burned out again after 2 months, and stopped for 8 more months.

    For my third attempt I decided to change things up. I reset everything again and I bought Jalup decks and did RTK starting from the end, so every day kanji were getting easier. Having pre-made decks has been a life-saver for me, or at least a “japanese-saver”. It took all the decision making out of the equation, and I had a clear path to follow.

    Thank you Adam for that.

    I’ve just celebrated my one-year Anki anniversary. I finished Jalup up to Expert 5 and everything went pretty smoothly.

    There are still days I’m fed up with Anki, but i know that even if i miss a day, I’ll get back to it. I’m not worried anymore about quitting Japanese.

    So I definitely agree that doing both at the same time was the key, at least for me.

    • Congrats on your one year Ankiversary :P

      And that’s a big comeback after 2 long stops. You’re doing great now.

  6. I largely did RTK and Jalup Beginner/Intermediate at the same time, but almost never on the same day/week/sometimes month. When I felt my kanji skills were lacking, I’d focus on kanji. When they felt sufficient I would focus on sentences.

    • That’s an interesting take on it. So rather than do one then the next, you would do a little of one for a while, and then switch to the other, and then back depending on your feeling of necessity. I like it.

  7. I did all of RTK before I even started Jalup Beginner, but there are a few reasons I believe for why I was successful.

    1. It wasn’t my first time trying to learn Japanese, so I already had some knowledge (about level 8), including kanji a typical student studying it in university would know. Even though I had forgotten a lot, just having been exposed to year 1 and year 2 university Japanese before probably helped me avoid nagging feelings to hurry up and start sentences.

    2. Because of 1, I understood very deeply just how important it is to know the kanji (and how big the wall is), as I had already tried learning without it. When I think about it, I was in a similar situation as James Heisig himself; that realization is why he wrote RTK in the first place.

    3. I couldn’t afford the Jalup decks yet, so I was doing kanji while I waited to get the money for them.

    4. Every few chapters, I looked at pages written in Japanese (usually song lyrics) to see how many kanji I recognized, and every time I knew a few more. It was very motivating.

    In my situation, RTK first was my best chance at success, but I think at any other time I probably wouldn’t have made it through. Even then I occasionally had to make myself do new cards, though I enjoyed it most days.

    • Number 4 is a great tip for those doing kanji first, as it makes you feel like you actually see some progress, even if you can’t “use” it yet.

      And thanks for sharing your story of how you managed to be successful with the scenario 1 route.

  8. I think that learning all the Kanji before starting sentences is not going to motivate most people. Japanese people spend years learning all the kanji, so it should not be necessary to know all of them first to read! I whole heartedly agree with this advice.

    That said, I think it is a good idea to go into the kanji deck for at least a few weeks before starting sentences, because you run into kanji very quickly. I found it was very discouraging and frustrating when I didn’t have enough kanji practice under your belt first. In earlier attempts at sentence-building (prior to finding Jalup), I had far too many unstudied kanji, and not enough experience to recognize them when they popped up. Therefore, it took me probably five times as long to do the sentence practice as it does now. Knowning the kanji in the sentence first takes the veil of fog off of the meaning.

    I’m currently about 1200 kanji in, and have about 700 sentences from the Beginner deck. I add four new kanji a day and that is about the critical mass for me now (since I do not want to spend more than 30-40 minutes practicing kanji per day). If I run into a new kanji in my sentence deck, I immediately thrust that one to the front of my learn pile to make sure it is reinforced. Though the “order by stroke count” method sounds wonderful, once you are a few hundred kanji in, I don’t think you need to follow order that strictly (since most kanji are phono-sematic compounds of simpler elements).

    Don’t underestimate how much kanji can help you, though, if you are wandering around Japan. Figuring out how the toaster oven and toilets work is much easier if you know the kanji. It makes life far more 嬉しい. ;)

    • Interesting approach. So go in with a kanji headstart, and then go simultaneously.

      And yes, I agree that if you live in Japan, just having kanji skills without the actual Japanese skills to go along with it can still make life easier.

  9. I think I have discovered a Jalup “hack” for getting through Kanji Kingdom as fast as possible with minimal reviews. The catch is that you have to sacrifice drawing/imagining the Kanji. Granted you are willing to only memorize the English meanings of the Kanji the following hack might be helpful to you:

    Jalup NEXT hack:

    As you proceed through learning the cards, read each sentence out loud as you normally would, except, after reading the card pay attention to whether or not the card is the last card in the series. 乙一. In this series, 一 would be the last card in the series.

    1. If the card is NOT the last card in the series, “freeze” the card.
    2. If the card IS the last card in the series, “add” it to your reviews.

    Once you are finished adding the cards for the day, immediately review them.

    The result is that you only have to review approximately 1/3 of the Kanji Kingdom cards, YET, you review ALL of the Kanji. Pretty efficient huh? I’m using this technique now to learn 100 kanji a day. The beautiful thing about Next is that it allows you to immediately review a forgotten Kanji, so did you forget a Kanji? Just click on it, review it, and then click the red x. Easy!

    If learning the kanji was this easy when I first started, I think I would have been able to tolerate RTK before starting other decks. Perhaps others might try this hack and let me know how it feels to you. Maybe some people need to draw the kanji to be able to parse out the kanji in order to identify it with its english meaning, but others might not and you might just be one of those others.

      • I have another 1300 cards to go. Will definitely report on the results afterwards. 13 more days if all goes well!

  10. As a quick comment on this, I run a language club for middle schoolers that want to learn Japanese. I’m an English Language Arts teacher, so I’m learning what works for my kids by trial and error and improve a little each year.

    This year, the kids had to “unlock” each next step. Finish hiragana in Memrise, then you unlock kanji. Finish 10 levels of kanji, then you unlock some vocabulary sentences.

    They absolutely hated it because there often wasn’t enough crossover to make things relevant. They learned hiragana just to not use it for RTK, then learned kanji that wouldn’t show up in their sentences. A very dedicated child was able to make it, but he’s also gifted in that he can just plow through things with a long term mindset, which, turns out, is rare in 12 year olds.

    Next year I’m having the kids work towards some of the simplest stories in the graded readers book series. I’m going to make them build through the hiragana, then only kanji and vocab that show up in the story, then drill through that story.

    All that to say many students I’ve seen over the past three years do best when they can actually use these interlocking parts of a language when they actually show up together.

    • You’re awesome for doing this by the way. I’ve thought about doing something similar for the youth manga/anime club at my local library but never had the guts to do it (or honestly the commitment, time-wise). You’ve given me some good ideas here.

      You might benefit from having some manga lying around for students to poke through that’s easy (slice of life or popular series kids would know) and age-appropriate. A small variety helps. I got my kana reading quickly up to speed mostly because I just read furigana in Yotsuba. I didn’t understand almost anything but it was really motivational and inspired me on. Same vein as what Adam and you mention – let students work towards reading and give them reasons to use what they’re studying.

      And again, you’re super awesome. Hope I can do something similar with kids someday.

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