When reading Japanese, should I say the reading to myself or go straight to meaning?

Hi, first post! My goal of learning Japanese is to be able to read manga/light novels; therefore, I am not as focused on speaking it (even though it is good to learn of course).

When I am reading Japanese and translating it to myself in English, I often find myself going straight from seeing the vocabulary to its meaning. However, in doing this I “skip a step” of saying the word’s reading alongside it. My question is, should I purposely make sure I am saying the reading to myself (in my head) alongside the vocabulary’s meaning, or is the direct vocabulary>meaning relationship a good thing to cement in my brain?

So basically, should I go vocabulary>reading>meaning or vocabulary>meaning?

Hopefully this makes sense. I appreciate everyone who provides their input.


When I use WaniKani I use the Reorder Omega script to reorder all the reviews so that you answer reading, then meaning back to back. What this resulted in for me was that now when I see words both come to mind simultanously. It might not work exactly the same for you but it’s worth a try if you’re interested! I was having big problems connecting reading and meaning to the same items before doing that. I would say if you’re consciously trying to pick one, go for reading → meaning because it will be easier to get your brain thinking in japanese instead of translating everything.


There’s no right answer on this. One thing I’d ask is whether you subvocalize when reading in English (or any other language you are fluent in). Basically, do you already read “out loud” in your head? Doing that is perfectly normal, as is not doing that. It just depends on the person.

Personally, I subvocalize. So by definition when I’m reading a book I think of both the reading and meaning. Of course, as you get better at reading you’ll consciously think of the meaning of individual words less and less, as you’ll jump directly to understanding. But even when you can instinctively understand something without thinking of the meaning, it’s not uncommon to continue “saying” the readings in your head. Whether you want to “force” yourself to do that just depends on whether you see value in it and whether it would bother you to not know the readings when reading.


I go from vocab > reading, while subconsciously know/guess the meanings. But things can get complicated with Kanji, I might subvocalize anyway with incorrect reading (where I might not really know the Kanji, so guessed wrong), but can somewhat guess the meaning. It is also possible that I don’t know whether I subvocalized at all or not.


Whenever I make a mistake, I stare straight at the wrong thing, say the Japanese reading, and say the meaning. That’s always worked pretty well for me.

Your goals are entirely your own choice, but if you think there’s any chance at all that you might want to speak or listen to Japanese, I’d recommend taking a glance at pitch accent for the words that you’re learning. Or at least trying to imitate Kyoko’s and Kenichi’s speakers’ pitch accent. This is a huge topic of debate among learners (I’m probably opening Pandora’s Box just by mentioning it here). But I personally didn’t fully understand that pitch accent existed until I’d already studied the language for years. Backfilling all of that knowledge has taken a lot of time. I wish I’d known to at least look at it the first time around.


My personal view (I have no evidence) is that saying the word helps you learn it. I think it builds a stronger association with meaning in context, and avoids the anglicisation of meaning. If nothing else it helps with words that have meanings that are awkward to express in English, and with the tendency of manga & light novels to switch between kanji and kana only, avoids not knowing a word because it’s written in an unfamiliar way.


i haven’t heard of this before! I will look into it, thank you :slight_smile:

usually I subvocalize; however, I was also an avid reader growing up so when I really became invested in books I would absolutely fly through them - aka was a really fast reader. thank you for your (and everyone’s) replies! since its personal preference, I will have to figure out which is more valuable to me. I don’t want to lose the memory of my readings, and they help me solidify knowledge, but it also takes much longer when translating… hmm.


You definitely should not skip reading, if you do this you’ll end up forgetting the reading for kanji, that’s something I still struggle with, sometimes I know what it means but only a vague guess at the reading


Even if you don’t plan to speak or listen to much Japanese, you still need a solid knowledge of readings, since most kanji words can be written in hiragana, depending on the author & other circumstances. So IMO it’s worth it to subvocalize the readings.

Also keep in mind that in the long term, you want to go from words->understanding without English being involved at all.


Your goal isn’t likely to translate, but to enjoy native materials natively. In that case, if vocalizing helps, I would recommend it. Furthermore, I would take it a step further.

When you see 犬, you should be thinking いぬ, but what is an 犬? Is it just a kanji for いぬ, or is it a concept that encompasses all 4-legged canines with tails, of various sizes and colors, that bark, growl, whine, tear up pillows, drool all over the place, beg shamelessly when you’re eating something they want, and freak out when they see a squirrel?

To get to native association, you have to associate all of the aspects encompassing 犬 with its reading. Your abstract, instantaneous understanding of the concept of 犬 covers so much more than the vocabulary word for it. Words are just summarizations of concepts. Translating one word to another is an inefficient way to conceptualize it.

For instance, try describing a color, let’s say orange, in your native language to another speaker of your language that is blind. You can’t describe it using another color as a reference. To another sighted person we might say that orange is a color in-between red and yellow, but those descriptions are meaningless to a person that has never seen. If you can’t fully convey a concept via translation to another person (translating visual images to a verbal description) in your native language, you’re going to lose even more meaning translating it from one language to another language (or, one could argue, sensory experiences are each their own language, in which case they would be equal in difficulty to translate to another spoken language).

As for associating kanji with their readings at all if merely learning the vocabulary word without its reading would suffice for reading, you’ll be lacking in understanding when people describe their names. For instance, when spelling their name, a person might say their name is 山田, with the characters やま for mountain and た for rice field. This is a good example because it is rendaku’d, and rendaku would likely confuse the hell out of you if you hadn’t learned readings.


In particular I suspect that thinking “いぬ” helps to avoid building up the association that the reading for 犬 is “dog” :slight_smile:

Some speculation that seems plausible to me but is not backed by having tried to find any evidence: I think our ability to read leans very heavily on our spoken language comprehension ability, because we’ve evolved the latter but reading is far too new for us to have any evolutionary capability for it. This is why subvocalisation is a thing in the first place. My speculation is that reading Japanese by actually reading (i.e. subvocalising) the Japanese is helpful in the language learning process because it means that the language related parts of your brain (which care about speech, not text) get more-or-less the right input to work on rather than some odd mix of fragments of Japanese and English words.

FWIW I don’t find my reading speed is limited by subvocalizing – it’s limited by the number of unfamiliar and unknown words in the text. Though I don’t look up the reading for everything all the time, so there’s a fair amount of ‘mmm’ and similar filler in my stream of thought :slight_smile:


For me, in English, subvocalization only happens when a) I don’t know the word yet, b) it’s an engaging or emotional part, and c) when I’ve paused or been interrupted and I’m resuming reading.

Or when I’m proofreading, forgot that part :smiley:


this is what I was afraid of happening! i will definitely make sure to focus on reading as well

love the way you described this! I will definitely focus on the whole understanding the concept, not just translating

I think everyone is different. For me it depends on what I’m reading for. Like for My Hero or manga in general, I tend to just go to the meaning because I just wanna enjoy the story and probably wont see the unkown kanji again or for a long time. But for novels I tend to try to go for the reading because I only have the text to go off of and will probably run into the word later, so its gonna benefit me more long term.


I would suggest actually reading all the material in your head until you get to the point where you can read a novel without dictionary assistance. You want to actually learn the readings for words. And yeah, really you want to also not be translating or anything in your head asap. The goal should be for no English thoughts to really occur in your mind while reading.