How do I become faster at reading Japanese?

Do you “think” what you read? AFAIK this slows reading speed considerably.

Wow, haha, then I’d say you are really being too hard on yourself! Definitely don’t be comparing how you are doing to other people. So what if others go 4x faster than you do on a VN, we’re all going at our own pace. This is a language you have not grown up with, it is still relatively new to your brain. Treat it like exercise – you can’t just expect those muscles to come automatically, and you still need to take breaks to really let things settle in your brain. With practiced effort, I promise, you’ll get faster!

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I just feel like when I got my first job, I’ve ran out of time. I don’t feel like I can spend hundreds of hours reading a visual novel anymore. Cause I could use the same time to read 3 or 4 more or finish 8 games, few dramas or animes and then some. If only time didn’t flow.

Personal opinion from someone who grew up speaking English and Chinese, and who almost definitely (barring relatively simple texts) reads faster in English than in Chinese even after 10 years of formal education reading passages and writing essays in Chinese:

  1. Practice is definitely a big part of it, because native speakers who grew up using the language for everything are obviously quite a lot faster (as opposed to someone like me, who started as a toddler and knows a lot of characters, but who probably can’t match someone from mainland China or Taiwan because he usually communicates in English). Reading practice, in particular, because when I came to France and joined a Chinese class so I could sit Chinese as a subject for certain entrance exams, I found that I could generally read a lot faster than my French Chinese classmates even though they speak Chinese at home. Many characters were more familiar for me than for them.

  2. I don’t think ideographic languages necessarily carry ‘more’ information per symbol, even though it’s true that each character is like a node in a network of possible associations. I think the greatest difficulty, especially if you’re attempting to read ‘aloud’ (that is, pronounce the words verbally or in your head), is that you can’t rely on the symbol to tell you how to pronounce it. Kana aside, you have to dig the correct pronunciation out from your memory, and that slows you down. I’ve been learning Japanese for about two years now, and I know the meanings of almost all the kanji I come across because I speak Mandarin. However, I generally read more slowly in Japanese than in Mandarin because I need more time to find the correct pronunciation. (PS: for your information, I can sometimes choose to just skim the kanji on the page in order to get a sense of what’s going on, so it’s really not just a ‘comprehension’ issue – I know what they mean anyway –, but I feel that such skimming is insufficient for me to ‘get’ the sentence. Research has shown that vocalising sentences seems to be a fundamental part of our ability to understand anyway.)

Is there a solution? Well, I think the answer is ‘practice’, but I guess that’s not very helpful or clear. Here are some of the things I do to try to increase my reading speed. Do they work? I’m not certain, but I think so, to some extent, since my reading speed has gradually gone up since the time I started:

  1. When reading a Japanese text, I force myself to go faster. I read aloud so I can track myself and do my best never to stop speaking unless I need to take a breath. I move my eyes to the next character as quickly as I can, and attempt to take in kana in chains. The objective is to train my mind to get the information I need more quickly. The other reason I do this is that I know that I feel a ton of inertia when it’s time to start reading information in Japanese, because I feel a sense of dread: I’m bound to get stuck on some word or have to check the dictionary at some point. Why not see if the same information is available in English? Well, the answer is that some stuff is available to non-natives. I discovered that with French, and forcing myself to plough through dictionary entries from monolingual sources accelerated my learning.

  2. When listening to Japanese, I attempt to visualise the kanji I hear. I may not have the time to write them out mentally, but I do my best to make them flash through my mind. I do this a lot with anime. If necessary, I pause the video and repeat the section I’m not getting over and over (even 10 times if necessary) until I feel like I’m processing what’s being said at the same speed as the speaker. I’m pretty certain that this has a knock-on effect on my reading later, because I’m learning to associate kanji directly to their Japanese readings.

I could be wrong, but I genuinely think that this sort of ‘association practice’ is key. My listening and speaking ability in French is generally on par with that of native speakers, but I’m not able to keep up when discussions involve tons of symbols or numbers. Especially numbers. To me, however, this makes perfect sense because in my native languages (English and Chinese), I’m able to visualise numbers in real time as I hear them. In French, however, I haven’t had enough practice to be able to associate numbers directly with words. I have to break the sounds down before I’m able to visualise them, and that slows my comprehension. If numbers aren’t a good analogy for kanji (they have different readings according to language and context, but the same core meaning), I don’t know what is.

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I wasn’t implying that you needed to use a visual novel, it was just my own example. Just whatever you wanted to read, really. But yeah, it’s hard if you just don’t have the time.

I am still a beginner with kanji but I heard a very good explanation why reading in any foreign language is slower than reading in your mother language. This might even help on higher levels. And it helped me a lot from the beginning on.
Do not read letter by letter (or kanji by kanji), try to take a look at several words or even the whole sentence. When you are reading English you do not read letter by letter but complete words, and automatically taking a glimplse at the next words. And the more you practice the easier you see the same patterns over and over again - your brain is used to them and you can focus on the tough words. It`s the same for me with Japanese. I was struggeling even with reading Hiragana. I was reading worse than a 1st grader. Because I was reading one Hiragana after the other - instead of seeing the whole word.
Did anyone else experience this?

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I wasn’t implying you were, just happen to like visual novels myself.

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You use a lot of tricks to go faster when reading your native language:

  • learning to recognize whole words at a glance
  • learning to recognize whole words at a glance based on just part of the word
  • learning to recognize entire common phrases at a glance
  • learning to predict what words will appear next based on context, so all you have to do is verify that you guessed right

You can’t do any of those with Japanese unless you know it awfully well. Well, maybe the first one.

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This is not only true, but it’s also something that learners should be trying to do as much as possible. The key part to fluent understand is rewiring your brain to be able to function in a ‘Japanese’ way. You need to understand word order and sentence structure as a natural thing that just makes sense to your brain, rather than something you know how to convert to English. And getting to that point takes a ton of meaningful practice.

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Not a professional editor, but I’ve been a voracious reader since the age of 5 (43 now) and that’s about my normal pace. And it’s not even speed reading, it’s just familiarity.

Right but you have to count all the years you’ve been reading English over your entire life. That’s the amount you have to catch up to.

And honestly, half as fast is pretty good considering how much the difference can be.

Definitely this. For example, I’m not really reading the phrase “whole words at a glance” or “at a glance” in the above. I’m parsing it as an entire object at once because it’s so familiar.

It’s not a super common phrase, but I’d guess I’ve read it a few hundred times at least over the last 4 decades.

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I think this is especially true for learning Japanese as an English speaker, because sentence structure in Japanese is very different. Needing to translate entire sentences into English will take forever (forgive the hyperbole) and be really quite difficult because in essence, Japanese word order is the inverse of English word order, the subject generally being at the beginning of the sentence aside. Being able to interpret Japanese sentences ‘on the fly’ and take note of which sentence elements have already come up makes understanding much easier.

I’m not sure if this will be the case for everyone, but I’d just like to say that from experience, it isn’t necessarily as much work as it sounds like.

After watching anime for a few months and going through a few chapters of Tobira (I had already done a beginner’s textbook, of course), I started to notice that I didn’t really need English translations of entire phrases anymore. Interpreting sentences directly based on the words that came up became more natural, because I had learnt to remember what elements had already come up and to process them as meaningful chunks. (This was after about a year of studying Japanese? Full disclosure: I already speak Chinese, so kanji isn’t a problem.)

About six months to a year later, after quite a lot of watching anime while looking up words, reading transcripts and doing my best to understand, I started to notice that I could feel my brain changing interpretations as I heard new syllables e.g. 変わらせる = kawa (‘to change’) + ら (‘oh wait, it’s not the end of the verb’) せる (‘ok, so it’s the causative – to make to change’). I mean, ok, sure, it took quite a bit of effort and it was sometimes tiring to be glued to the dictionary all the time, but I was having fun too, and honestly, I didn’t spend all that much time on all this because I had a busy schedule. Learning Japanese is something I have to do on and off since I have other things to do.

Ultimately, I would say it’s not so much about ‘practice’ (even if practice is extremely important) as it is forcing yourself to abandon your native language as quickly as possible. I’m still struggling to force myself to read the dictionary entirely in Japanese even though I know it’s good for me. (That’s how I increased my fluency in French and got used to thinking and explaining things in French.) It’s hard initially, because it’s so frustrating to have to repeatedly stop and rack your brains trying to understand what something means without reverting to your native language, but if you keep at it, it’ll become natural – and it’s a lot faster when you jump in at the deep end than if you ease yourself into it. (PS: Yes, I still have an English-Japanese dictionary around for backup, but I know I shouldn’t keep using it.)

Final thought: translation shouldn’t be forbidden, but you need to come up with a system in order to be able to interpret things directly in Japanese. That’s why I prefer literal, direct translations of individual words so that I can break entire sentences down and then put them back together. I think our objective should be to copy native speakers’ thought patterns by asking ourselves how they’re able to piece together meaning from a set of words, whereas many foreign learners are only able to handle things that they can translate or have seen in a vocabulary list. My theory is that native speakers know what each bit means, and that they have a visceral understanding of those meanings that allows them to understand things immediately, so I seek to replicate that and then make it subconscious (aka ‘visceral’) through practice.

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I think I want to mention that 1000 hours of reading practice isn’t that much. In English, you hit that probably in 1st or 2nd grade. And at that point, you probably also were reading slowly word by word. Speed reading comes through extensive practice.

If you hit 10,000 hours of reading, I suspect you will notice that you are reading significantly faster. And after 20,000 hours, you will notice a moderate improvement. It likely won’t ever be as fast as your native language though, since you have likely spent literally at least 1/5 of your time while awake reading it.

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No know where you are, Amazon US has the book as well. Starts at $40 US though so more expensive. No idea what shipping will run you which could make it MUCH worse.

Hope you figure out a good, faster reading method!

I looked into this a little while ago as I’m struggling with the same problem. I’d been trying to watching TV programmes with JP subtitles and literally just could not read fast enough to keep up. I found this article Repeated Reading for Japanese Language Learners: Effects on Reading Speed, Comprehension, and Comprehension Strategies which recommends a technique called Repeated Reading. The article recommends using hiragana-only passages to begin with for language learners (it actually recommends a particular Japanese elementary school book) but the most important thing is going over the text several times. As you get faster at that one text, it also helps you get faster at other texts, because you’re learning to recognise the words.

I’ve been trying to do a bit of this using the Satori reader app, as that has the option to hear a native speaker read the text as well which was mentioned in the article as part of the method. I’d previously been focused on reading lots of different things to try to help with vocabulary acquisition but I’ve found that this method has really helped my speed.

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Question: should we aim to recall the pronunciation when reading?

I often can’t remember the reading right away but I can understand the meaning. I usually pause and try to recall it anyway and then look ot up if necessary. That certainly doesn’t help reading speed but I hope it helps memorize kanji readings (since I’m not doing my reviews lately…)

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It’s good to see that research and practical trials have been done on such things. I can’t say I’ve done exactly the same thing, but when I was learning French, I did have a textbook whose recordings I listened to repeatedly in the shower, and that definitely helped with listening comprehension (and perhaps reading, since I visualised the texts and became more and more familiar with the words used). I think the only limitation would be how widely used the words from the text being studied are, but improved recognition of any subset of fairly basic, common words should help increase reading speed.

The thought of sticking to hiragana only gave me another idea: it might help to learn to read common kana combinations as groups, like られる (passive/potential ending), あせる (causative ending), する and common particles. Of course, someone at the N1 level probably doesn’t struggle with the meanings of these sets of kana, but not needing to break them down should leave more mental space available for thinking about the rest of the sentence.

I personally think so, since that’s the most immediate practical application of learning kanji to begin with, and I’m pretty sure it helps jog your memory. I used to have to look up 訪れる all the time, but after a while, it stuck.