Question: Are you at least generally interested in what you’re reading?
Suggestion: If you’re really feeling like you’re stuck and need a bridge, check out Read Real Japanese, which I talk about in more detail in another post. It’s basically training-wheels to the bike that is literature intended for Japanese people; the author picks 6 fiction stories that are unaltered save adding furigana for each kanji (right page), and on the left page is a loose translation of the right page. He devotes half the book to looking at every sentence that features an N3? or above grammar point/interesting word and explaining it in detail. So the book is basically ~40 pages of short stories that are then annotated with ~120 pages of explanation, designed to ensure that you not only understood what was said but why it was said that way in terms of nuance and grammar.
If you like the book, there is a sequel, featuring 6 essays/non-fiction things.
On beginning to read in a foreign language
Sure, it’s a pain in the ass, and slow-going. But do you feel good about what you read in the prologue? Do you want to see what happens next in the story? If it were in English, would you enjoy reading it? If yes, stick with it.
An interesting take away from a quirky little book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve is that individual authorstend to have words they like and use frequently (authors from similar demographics also tend to share similar language use); their own style, an idiolect. The beginning of a book is the most painful part of it for a few reasons, mainly chocked up to the fact that even if you’re familiar with Japanese, you might not necessarily be familiar with this idiolect of it.
(a) there is a lot of theme-specific vocab you’ve got to get through that you might have never been in a relevant context to encounter before, and it probably comes up frequently. It takes to time to get familiar with these new words and speech styles.
(b) written content differs in consistent ways from spoken content – it’s going to take awhile to adjust to reading; frequently used phrases, fixed phrases for dictating dialogue, common grammar for making metaphors, whatnot.
© sometimes there is just no good reason to use a word like mauve, but Nabokov likes it.
The bad news is that you probably won’t encounter this stuff outside of reading – we don’t narrate things like he nodded in agreement or she said softly, with a voice smooth like a good piece of メロンパン. The good news is that it comes up a lot… so after a miserable beginning, it does get easier.
It does get easier. So:
If you like the book, stick with it. Take the first third of your book and look under every slightly unfamiliar stone; new words and grammar. This will allow you to get used to the author’s writing style and also pick up important vocabulary – in order to read 「デュラララ」 you don’t need to learn “more Japanese”, you need to learn “more Japanese relevant to 「デュラララ」”. Everything you look up within that book is going to be relevant to helping you understand the book, and it will probably come up again and again in the book.
A lot of books that I struggled to read in the beginning had came to be “on autopilot” by the time I got to the end of it.
My strategy for reading
My reading strategy is basically based on the forgetting curve – we’re programmed to forget a lot of stuff, and we particularly don’t remember things that our brain doesn’t deem as being of interest or importance – and the personal preference that I want to devote as much time as possible to using a language: I think that reading a book or having a conversation is using a language, whereas I see memorizing kanji on WK or sentences on Anki as preparing to use a language. I think that we often overestimate just how prepared we must be to use a language.
SO, in bullets:
- I just read the book. I typically stop to look up everything I’m not confident about (I have a tendency to “think” I know how to read unfamiliar words") – but on the kindle, that takes literally one second.
- I do not write the vast majority of these unknown things down, especially if they’re just random vocabulary words. I know that a given book will tend to feature the same words… so in my current book, I saw no reason to make a flashcard for 隙間 (sukima; crevice/small opening, for example, even though I had no idea what it was or the first kanji there. It has indeed wound up being used a number of times, and now I’ve learned that first kanji and the word is in my active vocabulary even though I never “studied” it. I forgot it several times and had to look it up each time – but again, on the Kindle, all that came out to was putting my finger on the unknown word. No sense to waste your time in Anki when you’ll pick up such words for free just by continuing to read.
- I do write down any sentence that I think is interesting, that I feel like I might want to use myself sometime, that I for some reason want to remember, or that I struggled to understand even after I looked up all of its unknown words. I do not add these into anki right away – just like the words in part #2, some phrases/grammar/whatever you will just see so many times that you learn them “for free”. Instead, I just highlight the full sentence in my kindle… and then once a week or so I go through my highlights and hand-write them into a notebook. After finishing the book I go back through my notebook and add any sentences to Anki that I still don’t feel confident I know. See below for some examples of sentences I personally made note of, if you’re unsure, and I’ll talk a bit about why I wrote each one down.
- I personally make cloze-deletion Anki cards out of these sentences (52 second video). Basically, because of how I choose sentences, there is probably one specific thing with each one that I would really like to remember. I make this one specific thing the “cloze” – for example, in the sentence: – それがいかに致命的なことが、時間がたつにつれて理解した。what I wanted to remember was this grammar point “につれて” – it means, “as A, B”. So when I see this card on Anki, I see: それがいかに致命的なことが、[…]理解した (with the passage of time) – and I’m shooting to produce 時間がたつにつれて (shown on the back of the card) based on the sentence context and the little English bit.
(from 3) For me, this looks like:
–> I wasn’t sure about this fixed phrase, meaning “before long”
–> I felt like getting comfortable using ～ながら like this would help me express myself more naturally
–> literally, “the tips of her lips bending” and “smile floated” – I just thought it was pretty
–> I had recenly discovered that 笑み is read えみ、not わらみ as I had thought.
–> I thought that using あり / “ますdropped verbs” might help me sound more natural
–> specifically, I saw （location）から（verb of motion)て(time required) as a fixed-phrase I could myself use to describe location. At that time I’d just been asked where my home state was and remembered being unsure about how to say “about 10 hours by car above Texas” in a concise fashion. Boom, copy and paste that fixed phrase next time, no worries.
In each of these sentences I’ve got a specific reason for choosing them – maybe it’s a useful grammar point, a phrase I’d like to learn… or maybe I understood the entire thing, but just thought it was a pretty sentence, and wanted to remind myself that even though I’m still “learning”, I’m capable of finding beauty in the Japanese language.
The sentences that you might choose to make note of (if my strategy appeals to you at all) might not be the ones that I would choose to keep. That’s okay. You’re using Japanese for yourself, and the stuff that you think is important is different than the stuff that I think is important. It’s important that the things you make note of are (a) interesting to you, and (b) things you could see yourself using or being used around you.
Getting to the point where you can read in Japanese is only going to take a finite (if lengthy) amount of time. I think the most important thing is to progress in a way that leaves you feeling encouraged to come back and keep reading, even if it isn’t necessarily the most efficient way of doing things. In order to understand a given book you only need to understand so many words and grammar points… and if you just keep at it, you’ll get through them.
If you’re enjoying yourself in Japanese, you’re doing something right.