Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods


My parents and school teachers always told me that if I read a lot, I would pick up orthography and new words more quickly. It was especially true for Polish, my mother tongue, since its orthography and grammar are quite complex and difficult, and mastering them takes almost 6 years of primary school and the majority of your time at junior high (currently probably less, since junior high has been abolished in the recent reforms and instead of 6 years of primary school and 3 years of both junior high and high school, we reverted to 8 years of primary school and 4 years of high school). As a result, we, Polish kids, spent a lot of time just completing tons of grammar and orthography exercises during our Polish classes, in tandem with learning about our country’s literature.

So when I started learning Japanese and I first had to learn both hiragana and katakana – I wasn’t surprised that it was going to take some time. In fact, I kind of expected it and my Japanese sensei (teacher) only confirmed my speculations. So, learning both basic Japanese syllabaries was accompanied with hours and hours of reading and writing practice. And it still is, because after you open the door to that world of around 2000 kanjis (borrowed Chinese characters used in Japanese; you usually start learning them after you grasp hiragana and katakana) and their readings, you realise that mastering them is definitely going to take time.

Here’s another one of my quick remarks: I’m perfectly aware that not all languages use such a distinct writing system. Lots of languages people choose to learn use your typical Latin alphabet and I’m going to address reading in such languages further down in this post. But for now, I’m going to discuss the problem of reading in a language which has its own writing system.

I wasn’t surprised that one of the first pieces of advice that my sensei gave me was to “read as often and as much as you can, as it will help you recognise those characters more quickly“. Sensei‘s advice brought that slow acquisition of Polish orthography to my mind, so I adhered to her tip straight away, believing that it was going to bring the same results as reading in Polish did – and just as fast, too.

So I started to read. However, since Japanese writing system is far more complex, I immediately hit a wall – in opposition to Polish, which used Latin alphabet, I soon realised that simply “reading” sentences wasn’t going to be THAT easy! The reason for that was that a Japanese sentence consists of characters written with the use of hiragana, katakana AND kanji. Even if you can already read the first two, the latter creates many problems even for native Japanese – each character usually has several readings which only adds to their complexity and, as a result, makes it very difficult to read correctly, especially for a beginner. Yes, there are texts which use just hiragana (like most beginner textbooks use only hiragana and katakana at first, to get you used to those and then slowly exchanges words with their actual kanji that it teaches you over the course of the book) or with furigana (which is an annotation in hiragana, located above a word written in kanji, that shows how this word should be read) so if you’ve only started learning Japanese – go for kids books or special readers targeted at beginners. This way you won’t have to check for words you understand, but don’t know how to write them yet (this is perfectly normal with Japanese – you gradually switch from writing and knowing a word in hiragana only to their standard spelling in kanji). But there always comes a time when, even in beginners’ books, appears a kanji which doesn’t have furigana and you don’t know how to read that word yet. That’s when a dictionary should be the first “person” you go to.

However, checking that dictionary is a mundane and boring hold up that usually brings frustration, especially if you have to do it several times in a row (sometimes even a few times within ONE sentence), because you don’t know how to READ this and that word. It’s even more frustrating when the word turns out to be one of those you actually know the meaning of, but you just simply weren’t aware it’s written this way. And of course, after checking it in the dictionary, even if you encounter it just a few lines later – you don’t remember it anymore, because you checked so many words on the way that it becomes confusing. What to do then?

Keep a notebook and write down those new words, maybe?

I’m in strong opposition to keeping vocabulary notebooks. I’ve rarely done it at school (only because the teachers required it) and I’m not going to start now – well, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t tried to do so in the past. I had, in fact. Quite a few times. Was it helpful? No, because searching for a word written down on paper takes much more time than using an electronic or online dictionary’s search bar to get the same result. Not to mention the fact that it didn’t help me remember the words – as I said, if you write down too many new words at once, they get mixed in your mind and you have trouble recalling them. Time-wise, it’s much more effective to check them in your dictionary again.

But you can incorporate a little trick of mine into that dictionary search: try recalling the word first before looking it up. Think about the context in which you first stumbled upon that word. What was it connected with? What images did it bring to your mind? What was going on in the plot by then? Was this word used in a line a character said? If asking yourself such questions doesn’t help you trigger your memory, then go ahead and use that dictionary. But repeat the trick every time you see a word that you know you had encountered and checked before – after some time a memory of that word will pop up and believe me, there’s nothing more satisfactory than recalling a word on your own and then just making sure that you were correct (with the use of a dictionary).

There’s also another consequence of keeping a vocabulary notebook: the more new words you add, the more your frustration builds up and results in faster fatigue when reading and/or even leaving reading for some time altogether due to demotivation hitting in. Not to mention the fact that a mere thought of reading AGAIN puts you off and that’s something you don’t want to happen. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language should be a pleasure, not a burden.

After several times of enthusiastically starting a new notebook for a new manga or short story and dropping them when that fatigue struck and discouraged me too strongly, I did what I do best: I drew conclusions after observing my behaviour while practising reading in Japanese. You should do the very same thing. Just ask yourself:

What is the best and most rewarding way to read in TL for ME?

In my case it was manga, tv series (including anime) and… video games. Because manga is a comic, it’s much easier to understand what is happening. In novels, you have to read those (sometimes quite vast) descriptions and narration in order to fully comprehend what’s going on. In manga, everything is presented with pictures, the only bits left to read are the monologues/dialogues, minor narration (like “3 months later the protagonist did…”) and onomatopoeia. Consequently, you don’t have to worry too much about not understanding what the characters of the story are doing – you can deduce a lot just from the frames, characters’ facial expressions and mimics as well as their actions. Manga’s also a much faster read – in fact, I keep a daily routine connected with it. Around 2 months ago, I obliged myself to read at least 1 manga chapter a day – the shortest chapters, published weekly, are only 19 pages long, so if I have a very bad day in terms of reading, I choose one of those to keep my routine. Normally I read around 30-50 pages of manga a day – again, depends on chapter’s length. There are also days when I read more chapters, but that’s entirely up to me. What’s more, as my own rule, reading more chapters does not count towards next days – meaning that if I read 3 chapters in one day, I cannot slack off for the next two days because I “read those days’ ration”. No, I have to read at least 1 chapter anyway and I’m proud to say that I stick to this resolution most times (I usually give myself 1 day off a week).

Another great source of reading practice for me is video games. I’ve been playing them for years, ever since I was a child, and at first I played them only in my mother tongue, obviously, then I used them to learn English. Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t use them consciously as a source of language practice – I was too young for such ideas. But there were a lot of games I wanted to play and there wasn’t a Polish version available, so the only solution was to buy and play the English version. As a result, I acquired most of my English skills from playing games and because of that positive experience with them language-wise, I gave them a try with my Japanese.

What’s great is the fact that because they’re games, they tend to draw you in. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every 5 seconds when you don’t understand something that appears on the screen, you just say “Ah, screw it!” and continue playing it without taking breaks for a dictionary search. When you get into the game’s plot like you would while reading a good book, you automatically start to read more and more – simply because you’re curious what’s going to happen next. And that curiosity facilitates something I find a crucial skill in reading in your TL – guessing the meaning of a word/sentence from the context.

As a matter of fact, if you ask around, only a small number of people who are learning a foreign language do that! People tend to reach for a dictionary the second they encounter something they don’t understand instead of letting their brains do what they do best – fill in the missing information and use the context to fill that gap. Our brains are incredible in that department if you only let them! So, if you don’t understand something, read more, let your brain stomach the information it just received and let it try to give you the answer based on the context. It might surprise how much you can actually understand from the text itself, the arts (if you’re reading comics or playing a game) or your previous experience with a book (if you’d read it in your mother tongue before, for example).

What is more, if the languages you already know and the language(s) you’re studying are somehow related (e.g. they have words of Latinate origin, they belong to the same language family etc.), you can use their similarities to carry over the meaning of a word from the language you know to your target language. The same principle concerns different parts of speech – if you already know the adjective, you can figure out on your own that some word is a noun from the same word family.

Besides, the more you read this way, the more adapted to this method your brain becomes and, consequently, the more skilful in grasping what you’re reading about it becomes. Because as you read, your brain constantly acquires that new vocabulary without you realising it. And the more you come across a word in different contexts, the more your brain narrows down and specifies its actual definition. After some time you can notice that you essentially KNOW some word and even several uses of it!

This is how I learnt English – by grasping the meaning from the context rather than actual at-desk textbook studying. Funnily enough, when I’m asked what a word or phrase translates to in my mother tongue, I have trouble with this because I’d never checked equivalent of some words before, as I’d understood their meanings almost subconsciously upon encounter. However, I could provide tons of contexts and situations in which you would use a specific word/phrase and that, in my opinion, is more valuable than being able to translate the words. After all, when you’re speaking, you should subconsciously choose what words suit best in the conversation you’re having, rather than translating what you want to say from your mother tongue (AKA consciously creating a sentence). It is, unfortunately, what many people do. But that is an issue suitable for another blog entry.

Moreover, if you put your dictionary down and trust your brain’s instinct, you become that much closer to immersion in your target language – something that tremendously boosts your language acquisition and comprehension. If you don’t rely on your dictionary, you don’t force your brain to constantly switch between two languages. It stays focused on one language, only making that immersion easier. It’s like when want to cook something on two separate frying pans, but keep on jumping between them and switching off the one you’re not using at the moment because you don’t want your food to get burnt. When you get back to it, it has to heat up again. Similar thing happens to your brain when you switch between languages – it hast to boot and get into that „mother tongue” or „target language” mode all over again. However, if you stay immersed in one language (even if it’s just during your study or reading session) then that boot doesn’t have to happen repeatedly and, in consequence, your brain gets „better” at operating in the foreign language.

A lot of people say that for real immersion you should just pack and go to a country where your target language is spoken. It’s true, I’ve done and experienced it myself, but I believe that it can also be done (to some extent of course) within your four walls. That requires some dedication and free time, but it CAN BE DONE. You just have to surround yourself with as much language input as possible and limit your mother tongue input or any other distractions to a minimum. For example, ask your family not to bother you while you’re having a study session. On the other hand, increase that target language input to the maximum – read, play, watch something. Leave that dictionary alone (unless it’s monolingual dictionary – then you’re still staying within your target language) and let your brain do its magic and absorb as much language as it can (you will feel it overheating, just like you probably do when overstudying and your brain begs you for a break).

For instance, when I was playing a game called Prince of Stride, which is about a high school stride club (in the game, stride is a new type of team sport, a parkour-like relay on a prepared course), apart from the text, it incorporated some new mechanics that appeared only when the protagonist’s team was competing – like you had to pick the order in which your team would run or you had to perfectly time the runners’ relay itself in order to win and so on. Combined with the plot, the art, the characters (and their voice actors) and the soundtrack, it was so enjoyable, that I binge-played this game for 4-5 hours straight every day after work and it took me around 3 weeks to complete it in full (to get all the endings) and I basically hadn’t used the dictionary AT ALL (just a few times maybe, when I really couldn’t grasp the context). As a result, after a few days, I was in a total immersion mode and started DREAMING in Japanese. My mouth moved on its own to express myself in Japanese while having trouble to speak in my mother tongue – the exposure to TL was just so immense that my mind had to answer with me producing the language. Fantastic feeling and one of the many reasons I recommend gaming to any language learners. In fact, I’m going to write more on games in my next post where I’ll present my choices of game genres that are particularly useful and friendly to language learners even if they don’t have much gaming experience or skills. So stay tuned for next week!

Prince of Stride: Team order choice screen

As you can see, you don’t really have to use your dictionary while reading. As a result, you get much more pleasurable and smooth reading experience. Of course, if you come across a sentence or a passage so packed with new vocabulary or grammar structures that you cannot decipher it – feel free to use that dictionary! I do that too, but I limit its usage to those extreme cases. Apart from that, I use the context and I recommend this way to you as well, as I find it more satisfactory and, obviously, much faster. It also feels very rewarding to be able to understand more and more without depending on a dictionary. Many pleasant readings!

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