Joining the Absolute Beginner Book Club: Preparation and First Reading Experience Expectations

This is a preliminary post to outline information to answer the following questions:

  1. What amount of Japanese should a first-time reader know before joining the Absolute Beginner Book Club?
  2. How should they spend their time between voting for the next read and when it starts?
  3. What should a first-time reader expect when reading their first native material?

I hope that rather than repeatedly writing the same things for first-time readers joining the Absolute Beginner Book Club, I can link them to a single location that will help them prepare and set their expectations.

The initial post is a hodgepodge of things I’ve written for the clubs. Next, I can edit in material others have written.

If anyone’s written material they feel would benefit being added into this post, reply with a link to it and I’ll try to merge it in.

Once there’s a decent amount written here, I can request it be turned into a wiki to help with further contributions.

Also, suggestions for a better title are welcome!


Before the Club

After the Absolute Beginner Book Club typically votes on the next pick, there is a six to eight week delay before we begin reading it. (@MrGeneric, is there an exact number of weeks?) This allows time for those purchasing a physical copy. But if this will be your first time reading native material, you should also use this time to assess your readiness.


Japanese Writing Systems

Japanese Writing Systems

Reading native material means you will constantly be in contact with Japanese’s three “alphabets”.

Example of ひらがな, カタカナ, and 漢字

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ひらがな

Being able to read ひらがな without trouble is perhaps the biggest requirement. The majority of the text in native material picked for the Absolute Beginner Book Club will be in ひらがな or will include ひらがな readings.

Examples of ひらがな

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If you do not know ひらがな well, keeping up with the book club schedule will likely be impossible.

カタカナ

Are you decent at reading カタカナ?

It’s often introduced as a way for Japanese to write loanwords from other languages, but カタカナ is widely used.

Certain Japanese words are commonly written in カタカナ. Some authors like to sprinkle カタカナ words throughout their works.

Examples of カタカナ

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バイト is a loanword from German.

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Although a Japanese word, だめ is usually written as ダメ.

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学校(がっこう) (school) is often written with 漢字(かんじ), but the author here opted to write it out as ガッコ.

漢字

For the Absolute Beginner Book Club, recognizing 漢字(かんじ) is typically unnecessary. Readings called ふりがな are present alongside the 漢字(かんじ).

Examples of 漢字 with ふりがな

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Even so, if you already have ひらがな and カタカナ down, it’s worth putting time into starting learning 漢字(かんじ).

Common kanji often appears, making it easier to learn kanji alongside reading.

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WaniKani includes the kanji for 先生(せんせい) (teacher) by level 4. This is a common word, even outside of a school setting.

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Vocabulary

Vocabulary

Do you know many vocabulary words yet?

Reading words you don’t know can be a real drag. All you want to do is understand a simple sentence, and you need to figure out each. word. you. come. across.

In advance of reading your first native material, here are a few source of words worth learning:

  • Look up JLPT 5 and JLPT 4 vocabulary lists online.
  • Work your way through WaniKani’s early levels.
  • If the Absolute Beginner Book Club pick has a frequency list available, aim to learn the highest frequency items from the list.

There are various ways to learn a list of vocabulary words:

  • Write down a selection of words and their meanings each day.
  • Use SRS software such as Anki (free) or Kitsun (subscription) to force repetition to increase recognition.
    • You only need to recognize the meaning from the ひらがな to pass a card. This will be sufficient for one’s first read in the Absolute Beginner Book Club.

Even once you know the meaning of a word, your brain isn’t prepared to read words smoothly until you build up familiarity with them.

Once you actually start reading and seeing common words often, you’ll get better at recognizing and reading them.


Grammar

Grammar

Before you dive into reading your first native material with the Absolute Beginner Book Club, it’s recommended that your grammar knowledge is around “N5”, the lowest level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test.

It’s not required.

You can start reading with almost no grammar knowledge.

But it’ll be hard.

Very hard.

You can spend hours reading up on grammar, trying to learn it as best you can, hoping you’ll at least vaguely understand what’s happening in a scene.

Deciphering at this pace, it’s very easy to lose all motivation.

What if you’re the type of person who can’t learn grammar inside and out from a textbook?

That’s actually not a big issue. What’s most important is initial exposure.

Rather than trying to understand the grammar-teaching material, aim to expose yourself to the material.

A shallow understanding will get you a wide breadth of knowledge, increasing the chances you’ll recognize grammar when you see it, even if you don’t understand it.

It gives you a greater scaffolding, from which you can refer back to lesson material later and build your understanding.

Four weeks is all you need to expose yourself to the basics.

Will that make reading your first native material easy?

No.

But you’ll feel you have a fighting chance.

Pick a grammar resource and aim to read one chapter or watch one video every one to two days to fill the time between the Absolute Beginner Book Club vote and the start of reading.

Grammar Resources

If one resource doesn’t seem to work for you, dropping it and trying another is okay.

But ensure you give each resource a fair chance before moving to another.


During the Club


Your first native-material reading experience.

On the day the Absolute Beginner Book Club starts reading its latest pick, it’s easy to feel overconfident.

You can read ひらがな and カタカナ.

You know common vocabulary words.

You’ve read up on basic grammar.

You’re ready to jump right into reading.

As your eyes scan the first few sentences, the joy of reading your first native material abruptly halts.

You have no idea what you’re looking at.

There are words you don’t know.

And you don’t recognize the ones you should know.

The kanji looks so complex you feel you’ll never learn it.

There’s grammar you haven’t seen before.

And the grammar you did learn, you can’t even remember.

You realize you’ve dived into the pool’s deep end, and the water’s over your head. All you can do is flail around, hoping to reach the ladder and climb out.

You can always spend another year learning the basics before you try again, right?

Actually, your first native material will be complex, no matter how much time you spend learning in advance.

The longer you spend learning, the more material you learn without applying it, and the more likely you will forget it.

This results in wasted time.

It’s time for a reframe.

You don’t read your first native material.

You decipher it.


You'll be reading less than you think: reading vs deciphering.

As you go through your first native material with the Absolute Beginner Book Club, you will not be reading.

You will be deciphering.

Deciphering

What’s the difference?

Reading happens when you look at written characters and take in their meaning.

Deciphering happens when those written characters are incomprehensible, and you need to look up vocabulary words and grammar to discern their meaning.

It’s important to know this going in. Otherwise, it’s easy to think you’re doing something wrong and to give up.

It may even take reading multiple volumes of native material before encountering even one line of text you feel you actually read.

This is normal. This is what you must expect going in.


Keeping pace by tolerating ambiguity.

Tolerance is when you begrudgingly accept something.

Ambiguity occurs when you have insufficient information.

Learning a new language is filled with uncertainty.

Over time, that uncertainty decreases, as you learn more of the language.

When you first start reading, you will encounter many things you do not know.

Grammar constructs, vocabulary words, language concepts, and so on.

There will be too many elements to learn all at once.

And many of those elements will take repeated exposure to fully grasp.

You need to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.

This is where you accept that some things are too foreign or too difficult to understand yet, knowing that you will come to grasp and understand them following future exposure.

It’s essential to keep a moderate tolerance for ambiguity.

Having a tolerance too low results in spending too much time trying to learn each item.

Progression through material is slow, which can demoralize and lead to burning out on the material. Learning is denser, but repeated exposure is needed to help solidify understanding, and a slow pace hinders this.

Having a tolerance too high leads to insufficient learning.

Progression through material is fast, but actual learning is handicapped, as too many unknowns are skipped over due to only getting the basic gist of it.

The Absolute Beginner Book Club helps you maintain moderate tolerance for ambiguity.

Following the discussion threads and asking questions along the way, you quickly take in a lot of new information.

Sticking with the club reading schedule maintains forward momentum in reading.


Material with self-contained chapters.

If the Absolute Beginner Book Club selects a story or manga with self-contained chapters, you don’t need to fully understand one chapter before moving on to the next.

This is important.

As long as you are learning grammar and vocabulary along the way, and as long as you get the gist of the story in each chapter, you must allow yourself to move on each week.

Disclaimer: You can read at whatever pace works best for you. Most first-time readers do not know what will work best for them, and will not know if they’re doing things right or wrong.


Context: understanding dialogue with missing words.

In Japanese, information already known by context is typically not spoken.

This is commonly presented as an area where Japanese is harder than English.

But a simple reframe helps: missing words in Japanese are akin to pronouns in English.

English pronouns and context.

“He told me to give it to him when she gets in.”

Questions:

  1. Who is “he”?
  2. What is “it”?
  3. Who is “him”?
  4. Are “he” and “him” the same person or two different people?
  5. Who is “she”?

This is unknown without context.

In Japanese dialogue, when you have trouble understanding dialogue, ask yourself the following:

  • Who/what is doing something?
  • Are they doing it to something (such as kicking a ball)?
  • Are they doing it to someone else?

These are for verb sentences, but the first question applies also for noun sentences (“who/what is being defined” and adjective sentences (“who/what is being described”).


Reading a one-word sentence

Consider this panel:

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A sentence containing an action (a verb) must also contain who or what (the subject) is doing the action. Some actions are performed on something else (an object). In the above scene, the subject and the object are not spoken, leaving only the verb.

“Ate—!”

If we want to understand what she’s saying, this surely leaves much to be desired!

This lack of words can seem problematic for beginning learners of Japanese, as short sentences appear to be missing vital information. However, consider the same sentence in English:

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Filling in the pronoun “he” for the subject and “it” for the object, we find this has not introduced any new information into the sentence.

The subject is still unknown. (Who is “he” that ate it?)

The object is still unknown. (What is “it” that he ate?)

These words, which are unspoken in Japanese, and are filled with pronouns in English, are expected to be known from context. The context consists of the panels before and/or the panel containing the dialogue.

Watch what happens to the dialogue when it is viewed in context. Irrelevant dialogue has been removed, leaving only the artwork to provide the context:

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“He” is an elephant. “It” is an apple.

(My apologies to the elephant if it is female. Using “it ate it” for the English would have been a bit more difficult to work with.)

If you find a sentence is missing vital information, chances are you’re missing part of the context. In the above example, the context is provided entirely by the artwork. In other cases, the context is provided by either dialogue or narration.


Forgetting and re-learning the same grammar.

No matter how much grammar you learn in advance, you will encounter unknown grammar as you read through your first native material.

Just as you are unlikely to recall every new vocabulary word appearing in WaniKani reviews, it is expected that you will not immediately remember all the grammar you learn.

Encountering the same grammar in different contexts, and looking it up each time you have forgotten it, builds up pattern recognition in your brain.

You won’t notice it at first, but eventually you’ll recognize the grammar without realizing it.

For some grammar, it takes very little exposure. For other grammar, you may encounter it several times and still not have it down yet.

Give it time.

If you are uncertain about grammar you encounter while reading, ask about it in the appropriate weekly book club thread.

Even if it was already explained in a prior week’s thread.

There is no need to look through previous threads to see if certain grammar was covered.

You may get a reply with a breakdown of the grammar in context for that week’s reading. Or you may be linked to a prior week’s thread where the grammar was covered. If the latter is insufficient, you can ask for clarification for newer occurence.


Changelog:

Date Changes
2023-07-07 Added section “Forgetting and re-learning the same grammar.”
63 Likes

Maybe my FAQ could be helpful? And potentially the “Useful resources for reading” too.

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7 is typical. But the only real consistent answer is: 1 week after the completion of the current book club. So if you needed to adjust the current one out, for example, we would adjust the start date out.

Also, I will post my longer explanation later, and you can feel free to take from that what you would like. :grin:

3 Likes

Thank you for posting this. It answers a bunch of questions I had. I am more confident that I am ready for the next ABBC.

8 Likes

Thank you! This is a very helpful guide.

3 Likes

By later, I meant 14 days, apparently…

If there’s anything you like from my spiel, feel free to take it and incorporate it into the guide:

2 Likes

Thank you for this guide! I just started “deciphering” a manga for the first time a few days ago :heart_hands:

5 Likes

Just adding my voice to the many people on here who have already said how helpful it is - I’ve been working through a few other volumes up till now (trying to be comfortable with ambiguity, which is mostly going alright) just to get exposure but it’s nice to see all these reminders that this stuff is hard in the beginning. Looking forward to my first book club to keep up the reading in a more structured environment. Thanks again!

6 Likes

I stumbled upon this guide from another thread, it’s really good!

I just have one note about this:

I would add that going through the same material from several resources (either at the same time or one after the other) can be beneficial too.

Different methods/teachers will have a slightly different approach to grammar and how to explain it to you. Sometimes one way won’t really mesh with you but another will. Sometimes both ways add up to bring a deeper understanding of the underlying concept.

In particular while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Cure Dolly’s Course as a primary resource because it’s generally a little too “weird” and dense, I think it works really well on top of something a little more traditional like Genki.

After all the only real complicated aspect of Japanese grammar in my opinion is just general sentence structure, there are no complicated conjugations, declensions or moods. No pesky future subjunctive or imperfect conditional or feminine ablative dual case. As such going over this material several times with different approaches can be really helpful IMO.

4 Likes