Is it still worth reading if understand <20%?

I was reading a thread the other day on Bunpro about what users wish they had known when they first started learning Japanese. One thing that kept coming up was ‘start reading as soon as possible, even if you don’t understand most of it.’
I started ‘reading’ a visual novel today, but I only understand the very, very basics of what’s going on. Naturally there’s no furigana. I’d guess my comprehension level is about 10-15%. I’m not translating line-by-line, but instead just reading a line once or twice like I would if it were in English.
I’d like to hear from other learners what their opinion is. Should I continue as I am, or am I wasting my time? Is there a better way to do this? I tried reading a different visual novel a year ago and broke everything down in a spreadsheet line-by-line until I 100% understood it, but it wasn’t very fun. I even paid for a native speaker to help me read and understand the few sentences that I couldn’t understand no matter what.
Any advice is appreciated.
Thanks

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I’d say that if you’re enjoying it, it’s worth it. It really depends on what your threshold for not understanding things is–if it frustrates you then it might not be the best idea. I can’t speak to how efficient this method is, but, unless you have something better to do, you’re not wasting your time. Your brain is pretty smart! It’ll start figuring things out for you eventually.

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It might be easier to start with something like manga where there is furigana, or a game targeted at kids like pokemon or paper mario or something along those lines where there’s less heavy kanji usage. Visual novels can be especially challenging since they’re typically aimed at adults and there’s no easy way to look up words unless you have a program to extract the text or if you search for them by radical.

If you’re getting something out of it though, I think it’s fine to keep going as long as you aren’t getting burned out.

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I definitely think I’m an outlier here, so read into others’ posts more than mine, but I’ll give my take too.

I started self-learning and then took some classes in University while doing WK and so reading in a class setting is easy, since it’s all discussed in the same place and what you learn is what you read. But then I quit for 3 years.

I always read to start reading ASAP, and/or around level 10 on WK, but personally, it just did not work for me. This is coming from someone who doesn’t like reading in English either, though, but having the motivation to read in Japanese. It still just didn’t work and the lack of understanding disheartened me every time I semi-tried. I’m just gonna assume you are studying grammar and even if you’re still in the very beginning, just keep going at that for sure. I’m only like one chapter into Genki 2, and I haven’t opened that book in months.

I had some beginner level japanese readers and I kept like reading a sentence, and mildly getting it, reading the translation, and understanding fully only after that that’s what it meant. It still felt like progress to attempt it, though, but I would just keep putting it off.
HOWEVER, somewhere in the level 20s, my reading comprehension just shot way up. I legit could not explain it other than you know, knowing more kanji and knowing more vocab from these lessons. But again, I’m using beginner readers designed for someone with low-knowledge of the language. I’m also trying to read Harry Potter in the book club and I have to translate very, very often, and even when I think I understand a sentence, I second-guess myself. But since I’m reading it a super slow pace, it feels tolerable. Especially since I have my readers to make me feel better about myself.

Anyway, TL;DR: For me, it was better to wait to attempt to read into my level 20s and to try it with something much more simple, like a beginner japanese reader with short stories.

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One way of looking at it is that there’s Intensive reading and Comprehensive reading.
Comprehensive reading is where you can understand >80% of the material. This is when reading is actually fun and very effective for learning. However it can be very difficult to find text that hits the sweet spot.
Intensive reading is when you understand only a fraction and have to translate bit by bit as you go. This is much harder, but if the story or topic is something you are really interested in it can motivate you to persevere.

Keep going with your VN if that’s something you’re into, but I also recommend looking up ‘graded readers’ and ‘tandoku’.

Edit: @kurseddragon has an important point, your reading really will shoot up when you have more kanji and vocab under your belt. So don’t fret if you’re not getting much now. Around level 20 or so things will change dramatically.

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When you say <20% understanding, is this just vocabulary, or grammar as well?

Everyone learns differently. For me, what worked was going through a manga line by line, looking up all the words (which I would forget immediately afterwards) and look up the grammar. The grammar was the important part for me. Once I started to grasp enough grammar, I could feel may way through sentences in manga that had words I didn’t know.

(Also, don’t forgot to check out the book clubs here on the forums if you want a group environment to help learn more grammar in!)

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Thank you everyone for your replies!
To answer a few questions: it’s not super fun, but it’s not horrible or frustrating either.
And it’s both vocab and grammar that I have trouble with though because my grammar is only about N5 level. Grammar is actually probably the worst of the two. I definitely don’t understand even 10% of it.
I’m really only understanding a few key words and looking up the words that keep showing up consistently, just because they’re clearly important to understanding what’s going on.
After reading all your suggestions it sounds like waiting a bit longer or picking something easier is probably for the best.
I do have some graded readers but man they are boring haha.
Anyway thanks again everyone! I’ll try to be more patient and study for a while longer. Level 20 is about 3 months away so I guess it’s not too bad a thing to wait that much longer and keep up with Bunpro as well.

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I think of it the same way as when you learned to read as a kid. You’re never going to be able to start reading knowing everything so the exposure will be helpful even if it starts at a low percent. Eventually as you read more or re-read old things your comprehension will go up.

It can definitely be a struggle or feel especially tedious if it’s boring or content that you couldn’t care less about.

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Maybe this might help but Misa has some videos where she reads stuff. For example here’s one she posted to her Facebook page earlier today:

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I’m currently translating よつばと! and I use the term translating instead of reading because I’ve discovered it’s two different things.

About a year ago I decided I wanted to read. I was at my first trip through level 7 (I reset to level 2 in Feb) It didn’t go over very well because I approached it like I’d read an English book, and I felt I couldn’t read anything.

About a month ago I picked Yotsuba back up and really tried to focus on translation instead of just reading which changed the whole approach. I take a photo of each page, put it on a slide, type out all the conversation and then translate each sentence. The first part of Chapter 1 was taking me an hour a page on some of the more difficult ones. But I treat it as education and studying. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t “read” something because I’m not “reading”, I’m “translating” and the whole thing is just designed to be educational. I make heavy use of jisho.org, my paperback grammar dictionary and ichi.moe. These are all tools designed to help me learn. I occasionally post in the Yotsuba reading thread here (I’m like about the only posting there these days, thank you to those who are still answering). I try not to use DeepL or Google Translate as that seems like cheating. I will sometimes use it to check my work, but try to keep that at a bare minimum.

But I’m finding that it’s rather addicting. I do a page, and I want to do the next page. And you spend so much time on a page that you really understand the characters and artwork at a much different level than when I’ve just read an English language comic.

So I think it just boils down to what’s your perspective on what it means to “read”?

For reference my grammar level is completion of Minna 1 and 2, by which I can understand anything that came out of those books, which means not a lot. Hahahaha.

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I’m in the same boat, I started reading a VN a few days and man is it difficult when you know so little kanji. I’m wondering if its worth my time. Vocab and Kanji seem to be the biggest issues and I’m constantly looking up kanji by radical just to be able to look up the vocab. Once I get the words down I understand the sentence, it probably helps that I’ve read the story in English. It’s really slow going (I hope to finish in month what took me 4 hours in English) but honestly its kinda fun and I’d probably just be otherwise spending that time idly browsing the internet, so :man_shrugging:

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Yeah, having furigana at this level is imperative. Pick up a copy of Yotsuba! and come join me. It’s a fun little book.

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Personally I don’t think I would enjoy reading something if my comprehension was as low as 10-15%. Visual novels aren’t your only option. Have you tried reading picture books that are aimed at young children? The grammar and vocabulary are typically simplified in things aimed at younger readers. That would fulfill the “start reading as soon as possible” while also hopefully avoiding the frustration and boredom associated with reading something you don’t understand.

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I’m in a similar situation. I don’t know very many kanji yet, so I have to read very slowly. I like looking at my favorite VNs in Japanese for fun, but for more serious reading practice at your level, Satori Reader is really great! They have a lot of free mini “chapters” of stories for all reading levels. If you hover over a word, it will show you the definition, and if it’s part of a complex phrase (vocab and grammar-wise!), they’ll give an extended explanation. If you have questions, you can also comment on a chapter of a story and moderators will give you detailed answers. The nice part is, they also have accompanying audio for listening comprehension, and it’s compatible with wanikani! By giving Satori Reader your key, it’ll only show you kanji that you’ve learned so far if you want. :slight_smile: You can subscribe to access all “articles”/chapters, but there’s a lot of free stuff too.

Japanese IO is a chrome extension that also really helps me if I’m practicing reading a VN in my web browser. If you turn the extension on on a particular page, it allows you to hover over words/kanji to see the dictionary definition. Good luck!!

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Honestly I think there are 5 reasons why people say to read as soon as possible:

  1. Because Japanese learners are really impatient to get into Japanese material, and are this willing to dive in as early as possible even when it’s still incomprehensible
  2. Because they are learning in the first place to consume Japanese media, and are thus willing to suffer to experience it
  3. Because that is what they themselves did, and they learned the language, so their way must be not only right but the only way
  4. Because WK and Bunpro naturally tend to be made up of people with an aversion to textbooks, and a large percentage of those people also just have an aversion to traditional study
  5. Because it in general is part of the culture of the internet Japanese learning community, because of the things above.

In my opinion, the cost benefit ratio vs studying is parabolic. It isn’t very efficient for beginners, then gets better, becoming the most helpful for upper intermediates and lower advanced people, after which it sinks back down again.

So yeah, there is no pressure to start as early as possible if you don’t want to. If you do, go right ahead, but there aren’t any studies showing that if you don’t jump into things immediately you will become a permanent linguistic cripple or anything. And despite what many MIA or AJIATT people will try to tell you, plenty of people learn Japanese by studying up to a level where the input is mostly comprehensible, then work there. Do what works for you.

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I like literature and am not a big fan of graded readers because the content usually isn’t my cup of tea so I’m currently reading 小川洋子’s 密やかな結晶 at a painfully slow pace because there are a lot of kanji/words I’m looking up, but it’s worth it to me because it’s a book I would want to read anyway, which I believe makes all the difference. That being said, I do look up every word I don’t know.

I personally find it helpful to pick a book that has an English translation so I can re-read a chapter in English after working through the Japanese one. There’s no temptation to cheat because the whole point is that I want to put myself through the work of reading it in the original language, but it’s a great way to make sure you understood the content. On the one hand it allows you to see some nuances or subtleties you may have missed in Japanese, and on the other it can be a “pat on the back” because it makes you realize that you actually understood a solid amount of it.

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FYI if you’re reading something on the computer like a visual novel, I’d really recommend picking up KanjiTomo (https://www.kanjitomo.net/). It’s just a little OCR program that you can use to hover over words and see what Kanji they are without having to look them up piece by piece.

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Wow! You line by line made a spreadsheet… wow. That shows dedication! So many people mentioned the importance of not burning yourself out (I agree!!)

I believe that the book clubs in this forum are the absolute best for getting people up to their own personal “next level” most efficiently with the added bonus of socializing with other people who “totally get it”.

Me comparing my experiences with Kiki's to a graded beginner reader

I am working sentence by sentence, word by word, through Kiki’s Delivery Service. I am using Google translate and other people’s advice A LOT, but I am learning soooo much.

Yesterday, I finally started to try to work through a stupid “Professor Poop Book 1” grade school kanji workbook, level 1 that’s been on my shelf for over a year. I actually already know all 80 of the kanji presented, and most of the on’ kun’ etc. For me, it’s actually more difficult to stumble through hiragana (particularly words I know the kanji so well that I never “see them” the other way). I know that the lack of kanji caused me to hyperventilate in the N5 last Dec.

Anyway, I bring it up, because even in this STOOPID GRADE WORKSHEET book, I COULD NOT MERELY READ A SINGLE SENTENCE!! (And this is more than halfway through Kiki’s). It’s because they use vocabulary that I don’t know. So, while calm and not annoyed to be looking up literally everything in a more advanced reader, I was utterly annoyed by the same need in a crappy, uninteresting workbook.

I am not hating the work with Kiki’s. And I’m LOVING going back to earlier chapters and actually just reading. PLUS I am loving listening to the audiobook. My ear is getting better and better. Admittedly, lol, still less than 50% comprehension, but 90% at 85% speed on Chapters that I already translated while looking at the written page. I think that I may be starting to memorize the text. And it’s that a bad thing? I think not.

I’ve already started the same approach with Harry Potter. (“Hairy Pota-to…”). I believe that it is skyrocketing me to being better able to read, listen and speak.

TLDR, (attempt to) read (interpret) what you LIKE!!! Until we get into MegaZeroX’s parabolic “sweet spot”, it is GONNA BE WORK.

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With visual novels, you might look into text hooking: https://old.reddit.com/r/visualnovels/wiki/vnhooking

Basically, you can extract the text that the game is showing on the screen. There are then add-ons so you can run unknown terms through a dictionary. You still need the grammar knowledge to know how sentences are put together, but being able to look up terms you don’t know and add them to your SRS is a great way to improve vocabulary.

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I think having fun while learning is very important (to me) especially that i am self learner and not in classroom enviroment. Not saying one is better or worse but i couldn’t keep up with the reading(books/novels) no matter what and i guess it might would have been easier if it is in classroom instead. So instead i try to read japanese in an app(hellotalk) whenever i am free.
If you feel you are forcing yourself i feel it is better to not do it.

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