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The Importance of Reading

Posted December 9th, 2011 by Enrico in Learning Japanese

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reading to the intermediate-to-advanced language learner. We’ve already discussed the benefits of reading aloud, but in this post we’re going to expand more on reading and how it can rapidly improve your Japanese proficiency.

You’re past the little everyday set phrases like こんにちは, ありがとう, さよなら. You read those bits without it even registering. You can mentally substitute the (rarely used) kanji for some of them. You even know that ありがとう is really a polite conjugation of the adjective ありがたい. You just substituted the kanji for that, too. You don’t think about verb conjugation anymore. You can ask questions, get answers, follow a conversation. Japanese doesn’t sound or look foreign to you anymore; you’re just missing bits here and there.

But if you’ve been reading the blog or following along on Facebook and Google+, you’re probably thinking “how do I take it to the next level? How do I master Japanese?” Let me answer your question with a question: how did you learn English?

You may remember reading many pieces of literature when you were in school. Some of them were enjoyable, some of them were as boring as watching paint dry, but you read every single word and maybe even some CliffsNotes on top of that, and then you were asked questions too. “What did he mean when he said that? What theme is the author trying to convey here? Why do you think she decided to do that?” So why did your teachers put you through all this? What does reading novels that were written decades ago have to do with learning English?

Reading is, in and of itself, a core language skill. But reading also serves a very important purpose that truly justifies the hours and hours you spent studying stories and novels and plays and essays in school: it introduces you to new vocabulary in context and facilitates the study of complex ideas and themes.

Think about this: how many times has somebody asked you what a word means and you can describe it in context, but can’t come up with a precise definition? That’s because you didn’t learn it from the dictionary — it was perhaps explained to you once, in one context, and then you saw that word again and again in different contexts and you worked out its meanings and the nuances of using it.

Mastering Japanese requires knowledge of at least 2000 characters, possibly many more, and tens of thousands of words. After all, your English vocabulary is probably roughly that large or larger. How are you going to learn all that stuff? You could make up or download or buy a whole bunch of flash cards, but without context, it’ll probably leak out just as fast as it seeps in, and in any case it’ll be so boring you’ll probably burn out and quit. You might as well be trying to learn new English words by leafing through the Oxford on your shelf. Read something you enjoy, however, and picking up 10 or 20 new words hardly feels like work.

For the stuff that you really enjoy, try to fully digest and understand it. You don’t necessarily have to ask yourself all of the kinds of questions you used to get asked when you were studying Shakespeare in high school. In my personal experience I’ve found that the best way to do this is to think about how you would translate the text into English as you’re reading it. You don’t need to write out the translation — that’ll probably take too long and diminish your enjoyment — but you can certainly try if you’d like to. By trying to think of the best translation, you can nudge yourself to understand the material more deeply, because you can’t translate what you don’t understand.

Reading also helps you to become a better writer. You can observe the way that effective writers craft their sentences and apply those techniques to your own writing. Along the way, you also bump into idioms and turns of phase that will help you to express more complex ideas in fluid ways. Some of these can also be used in conversation, which will greatly improve your speaking skills.

So read. Read everything you can find that is even remotely interesting to you. Dig out those manga that you bought when you started learning Japanese but stashed in your closet because you couldn’t read them yet (and marvel at how much better you can understand them now). Read the news in Japanese. Find Japanese bloggers who write about stuff you love. As you do all of this, stop to look up the words that you don’t know and find a good way to record those words in context so that you can review them later (I recommend an Anki deck). Combine this with focused vocabulary studies (for example, political terms, or computing terms) and some conversation practice with language partners, and you’ve got a winning recipe to level up in Japanese.

And if you’re planning to take the JLPT N2 or N1 next year, start now. When you’re cruising through the 言語知識 and 読解 questions, you’ll be thankful for all of that reading you did.

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