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!