Do you subvocalize kanji?

I’m not at the point yet where I’m reading full sentences of kanji, but I’m curious since I do subvocalize when reading kana. When you read a kanji character, do you think through the pronunciation in your head, or do you simply recognize the meaning and move on? Is it common to forget the reading of a kanji but still be able to read words or sentences that use it? Do you bother looking up the reading if it doesn’t come to you but you’re still comprehending well?

I don’t do this much when reading English since I can sometimes recognize the shapes of words at a glance, which I assume is also how native Japanese speakers read. But since kanji aren’t phonetic, I’m sure I’ll start forgetting what gets rendaku and what gets long vowels once I stop reviewing them.

What’s it like to read Japanese? Do you ‘read’ every syllable?


When I read something to someone (in reality just to my family) it can easily happen that there is a Kanji I can’t read, in that case I try not to catch attention and murmur something in the approximate length.
I do the same thing in my head if that happens while I am reading a text. Sometimes I can imagine what the missing part means sometimes not, often what I think is wrong. If it is important for the context I look it up or if I am reading to learn. But if I understand the overall meaning I don’t look it up when I am not actually learning.

If I see a large Kanji somewhere like 茶 I have the imitate concept and smell etc. of tea in my mind without vocalizing it.
It is faster and more immediate than things written in alphabet or hiragana.
I think that is the strength of a pictorial writing, if you see 蛇 it is like seeing the real thing.
Looking at 鰐蟹 is a bit like walking through a terrarium, humidity, smell, maybe disgust everything included. Nothing WaniKani could ever invoke. I think that’s maybe the reason why 書道 is an entire different thing from calligraphy.

I misread 大量 for the longest time おおりょう.

I asked my husband why many people write and say ミルク instead of 牛乳.
He said, that is to make it more decent.
To see 牛乳 in large letters on a milk package could really affect your appetite.
There are many words in Japanese that got exchanged to Katakana words for a similar reason.
Eg. that’s a bit hard to eat for me:

but if the package would say in large letters 蝗 I couldn’t eat it at all.

Interesting is, that if you know some Kanji, than you can anticipate more or less what it is even if you have never seen it before, because not for making up the whole thing the people who made them wanted to give it a certain vibe.
Like this one 蝦蟇.
Entire different vibe from this one 蛙 even it is the same family of animals.


I’d say at this point for me it’s pretty much the same as English - I can switch between different levels: skimming where I’m not really taking in anything as sounds and just scanning, reading more carefully where I’m generally tracking every word, or reading everything fully out loud.
And do all three at different times for different reasons just like I do in English.

At highest speed, not remembering a reading doesn’t really matter, at the middle speed it’ll bug me unless I look it up, at the slowest speed it will actively trip me up.

Same ultimately goes for an obscure word in English (or phrases in say, French, sprinkled into a novel in English, or fantasy names with unclear pronunciations), the main difference to me is just that for kanji words I’m not sure about I’ll usually have one or two guesses for a reading that are completely different. Whereas usually in English guesses for a pronunciation are at least always going to vaguely be in the ballpark.
It’s fun to read with someone else, though, because 95% of the time when the other person makes a mistake you can see and relate to how they made the mistake, either because you see the similar kanji they confused it for, or you thought it might have been onyomi too but you know it’s not, etc. So it helps you to feel better about all the mistakes you’ll inevitably make.
In a way it’s just another dimension or two to make small understandable mistakes in, I suppose.

It takes plenty of time to be able to speed up though. It was only some time after wanikani that like, the ability to not just read but casually read kicked in for me, and it felt a bit like a long pent-up dam bursting.


You read out loud in English to yourself? Interesting! What are specific situations when you would do that?

I usually read aloud when I’m reading. When I’m tired or on public transport I read silently, tho.

And yeah, sometimes I forget the reading. If possible I check it with Yomichan. If not, I just skim and move on.


When it is written in a beautiful language and you want to enjoy the text.


Yep! I really love reading out loud to myself. It’s easy to feel distant from a text, but reading out loud means you have to interact with every word. And for me at least, when narrating it’s impossible not to feel at least a little of the emotion involved, since I need to to vocalize it properly.

It was one of my favorite things to do to focus on a book in more stressful conditions, so I paced around a lot of study halls and train platforms reading to myself. Haven’t done it quite so much recently but that might just be because I haven’t been reading that much in English with how fun Japanese has gotten. I’d say at least a page or two of anything usually ends up out loud early on while I’m still trying to get used to the voice of the book though, almost without my noticing it.


That’s an interesting point about 茶, I’ve been able to visualize more simple kanji like 川 or 山 that more closely resemble something, but nothing like tea. Are you able to visually recall more complex or abstract kanji the same way? I haven’t thought about milk being unappetizing, is it because of the association with cows?

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Not unappetizing, but more decent. The use of “breasts” in there I guess puts some prudish people off! :joy:

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Reading with someone else sounds really helpful! Thinking back, I had to do that a lot in elementary school so it makes sense that it would help with second languages. I can’t imagine reading casually yet. Just recognizing 茶 in the first comment was exciting for me.

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This is the only way I can read poetry.


I don’t visualize the Kanjis. Most of them I can only recall with thinking of the mnemonic.
I mean the other way around, if I see the Kanji written, printed etc. somewhere that really kicks in like a full sense memory (sorry I don’t have a word for it).

Here the cow is not the problem.
To explain that, other words with 乳 are:
母乳、乳首 etc.
If you grew up on a farm and it’s normal for you to drink the warm milk directly from the cow than you wouldn’t have a problem with seeing 牛乳 I think, but many people don’t want to imagine an udder when they are drinking eg coffee. :sweat_smile:


That is very interesting!
In my case, it’s the other way around. When I read out loud, I don’t listen to myself. I can read pages and pages aloud, with intonation and voices and everything, without registering what it is I read. Maybe because I automatically focus more on the performance than the content?
It’s a great skill when you have to read the same book again and again to your toddlers …

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Thanks for the explanation! I’d only seen the onyomi reading for 乳 and hadn’t seen the second definition yet :joy:

That adds some additional cultural subtext to certain scenes…


What’s that? :pleading_face:
But yes, that’s a bit outside of the range of connotations I would like to evoke by using that Kanji… :rofl:

I don’t subvocalize, but I noticed that in my thoughts, I ALWAYS read “out loud”, and it drives me CRAZY when I don’t know the reading for something…I will just “skip over it”, unless I forced myself to go back and try to look at the kanji and guess it’s meaning. I also do this in my WK reviews and while I type out the answer.

For this reason, I like to read on Satori reader and play the recorded audio; or listen to the audiobooks of books I’m reading, or have subtitles that match the audio in anime/films/video.

Some WK-ers have a discord server for reading book club books “out loud” together. I have enjoyed this greatly in the past. It’s helpful to hear people discuss grammar and other words with that kanji and stuff that I had totally missed/not known.

I’m doing this (group study sentences/read out loud/listen to and watch at native speed) on Episode 1 of “Midnight Diner Tokyo Stories” Wednesday at lunch on Discord these days. It’s been 4 weeks on the same episode. (Gtg… Is in 4 minutes)

And when I “intensively study/listen”, I often try to visualize the written words in my mind and mentally try to write out the kanji super-fast.

But I’m also trying to “just listen” to attempt to comprehend. Sometimes, you can get really good mnemonics for yourself this way…

I can only comprehend less than 40% of what I listen to (so far), unless I study the writing. Then, upon re-listening several times with checking, I can get up to 90%.

EDIT: That’s only 90% for short passages that I am freshly studying. Months later, I’ve forgotten and am back to bits and pieces (but each time, recognizing a little more)


I love Midnight Diner! I can see how you can talk several weeks about one episode. What wonderful characters they introduce in every episode!

Thread digression about 'Midnight Diner'

We can only analyze the grammar and vocabulary and kanji of about 15 sentences in an hour session. Plus, I’m trying to listen to each sentence several times over once it’s “digested” to help try and “hammer it into my brain”. The technique is agonizingly slow, but effective. If I do what I keep wishing for and make a Memrise deck for that episode, I’ll post on the WK board somewhere.