How effective is it to break down difficult sentences?

I’ve been struggling with breaking into intermediate-level grammar lately (N3 and above) and have tried almost all the most highly-recommended resources (Bunpro, Integrated Guide to Intermediate Grammar, flashcards, Nihongo no Mori, etc.). Yesterday I changed tactics and started reading a visual novel I’ve always been interested in.

I can understand a surprising amount just by letting myself read for fun at maybe a 50% comprehension rate, but I’ve started saving the difficult sentences for later and breaking down the grammar I couldn’t parse.

It’s been pretty fun, but I’d like to hear what experiences you’ve all had with doing the same or something similar. Did you feel it made a difference in your reading and grammar comprehension? Was it easier for you to learn grammar this way instead of through flashcards or textbooks? Did it improve your recall the next time you saw them? Did your reading speed improve?

I’d like to continue doing this but if the majority of responses say it wasn’t that helpful even though it was fun then I’ll probably stop and focus on memorization again instead.

Thanks :v:


My reading comprehension improved immensely when I started doing the same. I now do a mix where I will read some things just at a regular pace and not worry about full comprehension and others where I try to understand every sentence.

The other thing I’ve found helpful is to read several different things at once. If I get to a rough passage in one, I’ll read something easier elsewhere and come back when I’m ready to tackle it.

Right now it’s:

  1. Harry Potter
  2. Haikyuu 1
  3. 特攻の島 1 (all those WK military terms have come in quite handy for this one)
  4. スターオーシェン First Departure R
  5. ファイナルファンタジー 6

I’ve been doing the same thing with anime in order to pick up words that I hear but don’t understand, or new grammatical structures. I started when my grammatical knowledge was roughly at the N3 standard. It’s time-consuming and requires motivation (which is part of why I do it with anime – I’m having fun). As far as effectiveness goes… studying the grammar I came across in anime is probably the reason I was constantly bored while going through the grammar lessons in Tobira, which is an intermediate N3-low N2 textbook. I had come across almost everything already. In my opinion, it’s potentially very effective, and anything to which you attach a strong emotional response will likely be easier to recall later. However, I don’t know how much you’ll retain with a 50% comprehension rate, because I don’t know if the story still makes sense to you. I’m not saying it won’t be effective… I’ve just never tried that. I know for one that when I watch anime with subtitles, even if my listening ability is such that I understand most of the Japanese without looking at the subtitles, I won’t retain much unless I stop the video and look up the word that’s confusing me. Anything I don’t focus on and figure out doesn’t stick.

If you want to see whether or not parsing sentences you find difficult might help you, but possibly without having to do the work yourself… try this thread:

It’s the entire reason I’m on the WK forums in the first place: I was roped in to help explain things to people who wanted to try their hand at learning Japanese by tackling a manga even though many of them didn’t quite have the grammatical knowledge required to understand it easily at the time. My way of handling translation when I took a sentence was to supply a word-for-word grammatical breakdown before providing a readable translation. This post is an example:

Another example, from the NHK Easy News thread this time:

I’ll leave you to take a look and ask yourself whether you feel compiling all that information and absorbing it yourself would help you retain new grammar and vocabulary. I think it can, but it depends on what suits you.

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Thank you for responding @Jonapedia and @alo! I’m glad you’re both saying it’s a good method, so I’m going to go ahead and keep doing it.

Also curious: did either of you make flashcards from the things you had trouble with, or was it enough to analyze it each time until you were familiar with it? Thanks!

I can wholeheartedly say „yes“ to all of your questions (like the others basically did as well), I‘d just like to add a word of warning: if you want to use books as your main source of grammar studies, you will usually only get exposure to the more common grammar patterns but you might miss out on a lot of not-so-common ones. This of course depends heavily on the books you are reading, and on the goals you have with your studies. If your main goal is to be able to understand books or other media, it‘s perfect because you learn exactly what you need. But if you want to sit JLPT, it’s still a good way to solidify many grammar points (while you’re having fun!) but it’s advisable to complement this with a textbook at some point to make sure you cover them all.


That’s an interesting take on it. I haven’t thought about doing it like that. It sounds good though so I’ll give it a try! ^>^


Yeah I stumbled upon it while reading Harry Potter.

I picked up some other things to check out and realized that they were much easier to read. I don’t know if it’s because the translator had to be more faithful to the source material or what but that was my experience.

So I jump back and forth now.

For me, any reading is good.

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This is a matter of personal preference and a question of how you usually remember things. I really dislike flashcards because I find that they tend to bore me, so I don’t use them. Sure, repetition is a part of memorisation, but repeating the same things the same way over and over isn’t going to help much, in my opinion. You need to try to absorb something new right away by understanding it as well as you can, and then repeat that effort each time you realise you’ve forgotten. You need to find out why you forgot and what might make it easier to remember. The one thing that flashcards do help with is making revision regular. I don’t revise. My approach is certainly flawed and doesn’t serve me as well for, say, university studies in the sciences, but coupled with frequent target language exposure, it works fine for Japanese.


Like @Jonapedia I don’t use flash cards either. Looking up something is already a hassle let alone making a card for it. :wink:

I figure the inherent laziness of my brain will make it figure out that remembering something is going to be easier than looking it up for the nth time.

Plus, the more common things come around enough that you end up seeing them a lot anyway. And as you build up your ability, the less common things start feeling more common since you basically pass over the rest as it gets ingrained.

The main thing for me is that vocab isn’t the problem anymore, it’s words I know being used in different ways. I mean, I’d prefer to pick things up in context rather than sit down and memorize the 25 definitions of 掛ける on Jisho. :wink:

But that’s just my way. Try a few methods and see which work best for you.


Seconded. Or at the least, I’d rather focus on something and work hard once than constantly review it later. It’s still necessary to look certain things up again, but at least I get as much as possible out of each lookup.

@banditraider I occasionally find myself coming up with a kun’yomi for something that I feel like I’ve forgotten, only to look it up and find that the reading that came to me for no apparent reason was the right one. I guess that proves that trying really hard to get a ‘feel’ for the word the first time around, including finding bizarre ways to link the ‘feel’ of the reading to a character’s meaning, really does pay off.

I do use mnemonics from time to time, but most of the time, I just repeat the reading several times while asking myself how it feels (e.g. with regard to similar words or past experience), and then try to link that feeling to the meaning. I try to make the memory visceral. For example, for 滑らか(なめらか), I have a feeling I mentally linked it to 舐める(なめる)= ‘to lick’, and I thought about how slippery saliva is. From there, I probably made this link: ‘slippery’ -> ‘smooth’. Weeks or maybe months after first seeing the word, I came across it in an article. I hadn’t seen it in the meantime. My first reaction: ‘I don’t know this word. I know the kanji though – it means ‘slippery’ or ‘smooth’ in Chinese.’ Then I went, ‘Wait, is it なめらか?’ I checked the dictionary, and I was right. I didn’t attempt to recall any mnemonic or retrace my thoughts, and I genuinely believed I didn’t know the word. This wasn’t a case of ‘I’m sure I know this, but I guess it’s been a while, so…’ Nonetheless, the reading just came to me on its own. The same thing has happened at least once more with another word.

I came up with a (thoroughly unscientific and untested) theory years ago that the reason we don’t have to think when we use our native languages is because we feel what words mean when they come up. We feel the sensations and concepts that the words represent coming to the forefront of our minds. That’s also the reason we experience understanding emotionally when it happens, as an ‘aha!’ moment or as a sense of relief. (I came up with this because I was trying to figure out how to overcome the need to translate from English into French. I refused to believe that it was impossible to get a foreign language to the same level as a native one in one’s brain.) Ever since, I’ve made it a point to attempt to feel and visualise what words mean – based both on how they look and on how they sound – in order to reduce my reliance on my native language. I’ll admit that it’s nerve-wracking at first: it was frustrating to be unable to understand “lièvre” from its French definition, whereas I understood straightaway when I saw its translation was ‘hare’. However, given that I now have a whole bunch of mathematical concepts in my head whose the English equivalents I don’t know (I’m studying in France)… well, it can be done once you’re used to it.


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