Most things in life aren't nearly as difficult as they seem.
You take a few hesitant first steps, get the hang of it, and then laugh at your old self for being scared so easily when there was really nothing to worry about.
Reading Japanese, though, is every bit as difficult as it seems—and then some. At no point does it ever truly become a piece of cake, unless it's a cake made of plutonium.
But luckily, difficult doesn't mean impossible. All it means is that you need to be well-prepared for the challenge. You'll need dedication, grit, and above all, genuine love for Japanese. If you're reading this, you probably have all three already.
Reading is an effective learning activity in any language, but in Japanese it is a crucial skill.
Your reading skill determines the ceiling of how proficient you can potentially become in the other skills (listening, speaking, and writing).
For any serious learner of Japanese, reading well is not merely a byproduct of having mastered the language, but also an indispensable part of the way toward that goal. You don't just learn to read; you also read to learn.
Why reading is so important for learning Japanese.
As anyone who tries to move beyond basic Japanese soon realizes, kanji isn't just a quaintly insane writing system that (somehow) represents spoken Japanese: the characters are also the productive building blocks that the language relies on to express all but the simplest ideas.
Without kanji-associated meanings, it's barely even possible to think about complex things in Japanese, let alone say what you think.
Knowing what each character means in theory is one thing, and understanding how it's used in practice is something else entirely. You can memorize lists and stroke orders up to a point, but without getting massive and sustained exposure to real-life content in natural Japanese, it's impossible to develop the kind of intuition that would enable you to use the language naturally and freely on your own.
The problem is, you can't get this massive exposure through listening exercises, because voices don't use kanji.
It's only after you have absorbed accurate kanji usage by reading that you can visualize characters skillfully enough to decode the meanings of words and phrases from hearing.
In other words, your mind must be able to see everything you hear.
This makes reading a much more important skill to master than would normally be the case in most languages.
Why reading is necessary even for spoken Japanese.
Even if all you want is to talk, you should still invest in your reading skills.
Written Japanese is arguably the best foundation for understanding and using spoken Japanese, thanks to the unusually close relationship between how the language is spoken and how it's written.
In many languages, the spoken variety is not reproduced in writing accurately; instead, it is "photoshopped" and streamlined to make it fit the perceived prestige of the written form. In Japanese, on the other hand, it's standard practice to faithfully represent the spoken language in writing as it originally sounded.
It happens everywhere, from newspapers articles to TV subtitles to highbrow novels. Even textbooks do that when they nonchalantly write んです instead of のです in beginner dialogues (no textbook for learners of English would ever dream of writing "you know" as "y'know" or "going to" as "gonna", regardless of real-life pronunciation).While this makes it difficult to read at first, it has the substantial benefit of boosting your listening comprehension.
After you get used to reading and identifying the common twists and turns that happen in real-life speech, it will be immensely easier for you to understand them when you actually hear them spoken by natives.
The 5 tools you need for effective reading.
Most of the time, learning Japanese through reading will be a self-study activity, so you'll need to make sure you can fully understand everything you read.
There are three basic resources that you'll need to start reading on your own:
- A Japanese source text that you're interested in. The text should make you feel committed to read it all the way to the end.
- A translation of the same text into your native language or any language you're reasonably fluent in. This is the single most important resource you can possibly have, since the translation will be the only thing that ultimately tells you if you're interpreting the source text correctly in context.
- A dictionary, or combination of dictionaries, that you're comfortable using. At least one of your dictionaries should have good coverage of grammatical words such as particles, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, etc.
These resources are your bare necessities as a self-studying reader.Being able to read bilingually will remove the biggest obstacles to successful comprehension. But even with these resources there are still two big problems left: how to pronounce the text correctly, and how to understand the finer points that get lost in translation.
To solve these problems you'll need two more things:
- A second version of the original text that shows all the kanji readings, or alternatively, an audio recording of the text being read aloud by a native speaker. This has the great benefit of providing listening practice in addition to reading, but depending on your level, the extra input can also be distracting.
- Explanations of the tricky parts in the text. This can be either in the form of notes that are built into the text itself, or by direct access to human assistance—someone experienced who can provide definitive answers whenever you need them.
How to Read
When you have your resources lined up, you need a strategy to make good use of them.
First, let's go over the basic reading process; later we can look into more specific practical tips.
The most important principle of studying through bilingual reading is to work with manageable segments.
You'll be dealing with a lot of simultaneous input: kana, kanji, furigana or audio, translations, and possibly notes—and you'll need to stay aware of which parts in the source text and the translation correspond to each other.
To do it successfully it's important to avoid overwhelming yourself with too much information to absorb.
The ideal way to do this is to read the texts sentence by sentence, in pairs of one original and one translated sentence. As you'll see, Japanese sentences can be very long and run the length of entire paragraphs; if you feel disorientated, try focusing on individual clauses (the smaller parts that precede nouns or end in conjunctions such as as ので or が).
Don't move on to the next Japanese segment until you have completely understood everything in the current one. That point comes when you can reread the segment and fully understand and pronounce it without taking a look at any of your other resources.
How to choose the right text.
- The right length: Just as the text segments you work with should be manageable, so does the text itself. A text that is too long will wear you out, because not having the end in sight is discouraging to your determination to keep reading. It's best to use short stories or essays, with the text length not exceeding the equivalent of one nicely-spaced A4 page. Avoid novels and long stories until later in your studies.
- The right content: Find a text that has a subject matter you care about. Just because something is written in Japanese doesn't mean you should read it: a technically easy text on a boring subject will be much harder than an advanced text you're interested in. Feel free to ignore anything that bores you—reading it won't make much difference anyway. To find the right texts, start by making a list of your favorite books. Then look for Japanese works that have similar themes.
- The right translation: Use a text for which you can find a complete, faithful translation. Ordinary literary translations for the general audience are not designed to help people learn the source language, but to provide an aesthetic experience to their readers. This means that they can, and do, freely diverge from the original if it makes the translation smoother to read. You'll want to avoid such excessively creative translations.
- The right source: Avoid working with Japanese texts that are translations of foreign books; only use texts that were originally written by native Japanese authors. Translations tend to be outliers in their own language, and don't quite represent the natural usage that you as a learner should be absorbing. Plus, reading authentic Japanese literature is a far more worthy goal than reading a bad Japanese version of some book that has nothing to do with Japan.
- The right format: Studying will be much more effective with electronic texts than with printed ones. The text should be selectable and copyable, so that you can directly copy and paste words into a dictionary app without having to type them yourself.
- The right layout: While you can just go back and forth between source and translation, it's best to use a bilingual layout that shows you both texts together. These are either parallel (with the texts facing each other on different pages or columns) or interlinear (with the texts interweaved line by line).
- As a beginner, read one short text at a time and finish it before you start the next one. When you're more advanced you can alternate between different texts of varying lengths, dropping one for another to keep yourself interested.
- A great way to make rapid progress is to read the translated version of each text segment before the corresponding source text. By doing this you will intuitively understand much more of the source even if it contains many unfamiliar words. This tip isn't just for beginners; anytime you take a look at a text and feel intimidated by it, using the translation first will help you overcome the difficulty much faster.
- Stay focused by working on a desktop screen with everything conveniently arranged for easy access. Avoid printed texts or dictionaries in your routine reading work, and only use them for occasional reference. Unless you're a Buddhist deity, you don't have enough hands to juggle between all the resources you'll need.
- Be creative with online resources. For example, whenever you can't find a word in the dictionary you're using, look it up using a search engine; you may be able to find it in resources such as Wikipedia or Google's image search. Wikipedia is especially useful for finding the pronunciations of personal and geographical names, which ordinary dictionaries usually don't cover well.
- As soon as you're feeling somewhat comfortable reading Japanese, switch to a Japanese-Japanese dictionary (such as http://dic.yahoo.co.jp) as your main dictionary. The initial difficulty of understanding the definitions is worth the insight you will get in return. However, if the definition itself contains too many unfamiliar words, use your Japanese-English dictionary; you have enough to read without the dictionary itself distracting you with unnecessary reading practice.
- Use bilingual example sentences to get a better understanding of actual usage. This is especially helpful for figuring out frustrating grammatical constructions. A good online resource for such sentences is http://www.alc.co.jp.
- Many texts are available as audio recordings on websites like YouTube and Librivox. If your text is short and popular enough, go to YouTube and look up the title; chances are that some kind Japanese soul has uploaded an audio version of it.
- To get quality human assistance, your best bet would be to find another advanced learner—someone who has been through what you are now experiencing and understand your perspective. Native speakers, including professional teachers, often have trouble analyzing the finer points of grammar and vocabulary and explaining them to you in a helpful way.
- Don't worry about your level. As long as you have the right resources, it's definitely possible to read and understand texts at any level, even those that would otherwise have been too difficult for you. Aim higher than you think you can hit; your real potential may surprise you.
- There is no need to write down the new words and expressions that you encounter while reading or to do any other active memorization. Devote 100% of your time and energy to understanding the text, and the rest will follow naturally.
How to succeed in the long term.
As a reader, the name of the game is to keep going no matter what.
You need sustained, regular exposure for your reading to become effective: progress will not necessarily be noticeable from one day to the next, and some pesky words and expressions take many repeated encounters to be understood and memorized.
Don't be discouraged: it's all building up in your brain even if you can't see it yet.
When reading in Japanese, "a lot of a little" is far more effective than "a little of a lot": reading a paragraph every day will take you much farther than reading a page once a week. Find a pace you're comfortable with and then maintain it, so that your exposure is as regular and routine as possible.
And the final and most important thing is to enjoy yourself all the time.
Yes, you will sweat heavily.
Yes, you'll be repeatedly humiliated by elusive passages that sadistically lead you in circles.
But as long as you feel that the text is worth it, that it gives you something you can't get anywhere else, it will make up for all the difficulties.
Enjoying yourself while you study is the one thing that guarantees your motivation, so never lose sight of it by overextending yourself. You should always do the best you can at that moment—and never better than you can.
If a sentence gives you too much trouble, sometimes it's better to just let go and move on. After you repeatedly see similar sentences they will start making sense on their own.
Well, now you can stop reading this and start reading Japanese! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please leave a comment below. Good luck in your reading, and remember: we're all in this together! :-)