Information taken in vs. characters read, a ramble

Somewhere around level 40–and it’s amazing how finely I can pinpoint where it happened–it became possible for me to read real Japanese text. I could be faced with a text in one of my favourite… materials and I was able to actually read it and comprehend it. Of course, this also happened because of grammar studies but that’s beyond the scope of this ramble. The point is, I had reached the point where I was officially (?) literate in Japanese.

And while the frustration of being faced with a brick wall when given kanji-laden text, another, more insidious kind of frustration surfaced. You see, I consider myself a pretty fast reader. I’ve been a pretty consummate bookie since childhood, and I think I reached a point where I can read pretty difficult texts pretty swiftly.

But this wasn’t the case for Japanese.

I thought to myself, “oh dear lord, another mountain to climb after I finish climbing this one. It’s mountains all the way up!”. I felt like I was enduring the condemnation of Sisyphus, forever crushed by my own ambitions and relentless perfectionism as they rolled down the hill (thankfully those two are abstract concepts or else I’d be in a pretty foul mood).

But sometimes, you really do need a change in perspective to gain the truth. Sure, I was reading slower, but was I actually doing the thing reading is for more slowly?


Sure, character per character I was going nowhere as fast, but I considered one small titbit. What is the point of reading, if not convey information? And that begat the thought, how fast was information being conveyed to me when I read Japanese? Sure enough, this train of thought led to an enlightening conclusion that pulled me out of the frustration rut I was in, like the cavemen at the beginning of 2001 being given intelligence by the Monolith.

What really determines your speed on reading Japanese, and most languages for that matter, is the amount of information your brain can process at a time, not your overall kanji knowledge. Japanese is much denser in information, and thus, yes, it can feel at times that you’re reading it quite slowly but when you consider the amount of information you’re actually taken in, you’re actually reading just as fast as in English.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
Introibo ad altare Dei .
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:
—Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!
Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Was this… impenetrable? Did you go at it inching through it, or did your eyes glazed over it when you couldn’t fathom any information from this?

That’s exactly my point. You went at it slowly because of the speed you could parse information from it, not because you didn’t know the individual letters. Alphabets are, by large, pretty light on information, the airy croissants of writing. Logographic systems like kanji, on the other hand, are the bagels of writing, dense and chewy.

So, if you’re frustrated by the same thing as I was, maybe this change in perspective will help. As my dad once told me, sometimes what looks like a problem is simply an issue of perspective.

Happy WaniKani 10th anniversary!


Hey, same here. :+1:

You know I only really started realizing this recently. In the last few months I’ve moved more towards dictation instead of typing for getting translations out of things like DeepL. A fortunate side effect is that I’m able to hold more of a sentence in my head since it’s a pain to switch back and forth on mobile.


Happy 10th, WaniKani!

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So, here’s to a great 十 years, and here’s to 二十more!.

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Thank you! And yay :crabigator: Hope someone’s having cake out there today for WaniKani :laughing:


Great post.

Independent of anything related to Japanese, you’ve also perfectly explained my feelings about reading Joyce!

I wonder if I could get through more than a sentence or two of Ulysses if it was first translated into Japanese? (I’m only half joking!)

FWIW, I subscribe to Elmore Leonard’s theory that what’s easy to read is often quite difficult to write. I think it’s true in any language.

People I admire tell me Joyce was a genius and his works are well worth the effort, but I’ll just take their word for it.

It’s not just pop fiction like Leonard, L’amour or John D. Macdonald, either. Give me Melville, Conrad, Kesey, or Wolfe any day, but I’ve yet to get through more than a page or two of Joyce!


To maintain the style, it should be entirely in kana. Let’s see how you do then!


I’ve read Ulysses, way back when I was learning England and seeking absolute and complete mastery of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, and, well, it… wasn’t that bad? But some call me a zealot, so maybe I’m just too stubborn to know when to give up.

But if you can parse its meaning through its incredibly dense style, you will be rewarded with exquisitely rich characterisation and side-splitting dry wit. But I can see why it puts people off, in the same way the ignominy of imprisonment puts people off vehicular manslaughter.

I’d say it would be entirely in kanji. Even the particles.

E: I can’t seem to find how to say “I don’t want to be debagged” in Japanese…


Yeah this post actually mostly served to make me think Ulysses might not be as bad as the reputation of it being pure impenetrable gibberish made it sound. Not trying to brag like “oh that’s easy” but I think people have really built it up in my head and I actually kinda liked that excerpt. Maybe I should think about tackling it someday…


Happy Wanikaniversary! :crabigator: :sparkles:


Come for the ramble about linguistics, stay for the appreciation of classic literature


It’s like eating pound cake. It’s good, but it’s pretty dense and most of the time I’d rather just have a pie.

But then how we would know that it wasn’t Chinese? :wink:


I see the baked goods school of linguistics is going strong


ズボンを脱ぎたくない? Or do I need された or くれて in there somewhere?

It may readable in both Chinese and Japanese, in Yoda style.

Mostly incomprehensible to both usual Chinese and Japanese readers, however.

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