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Forget the textbooks and discover the pleasure of real books

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

At the start of each new school year, I would confidently advise my university students: “Becoming a fluent reader in English is like learning to play the piano — it requires constant practice.

“Memorizing lists of vocabulary items and translating passages word for word — tasks that you dread — will not be required in my class,” I would say. “Instead, you will be reading extensively on topics of interest to you, with materials that are appropriate to your ability level.”

Then one day I realized that, hypocritically, I was failing to follow my own advice in my study of Japanese. Reading extensively? Why, I was hardly reading anything in my target language!

True, sometimes I forced myself to do intensive reading in Japanese, carefully decoding short passages with the goal of “total understanding.” I would constantly reach for dictionaries and scribble translations on each page; ironically, these were the very habits I was endeavoring to extinguish in my students.

To be sure, I was fairly knowledgeable about Japanese grammar and vocabulary. I also religiously reviewed hard-to-remember characters in my set of 1,945 general-use kanji flashcards. But kanji memorization alone was certainly not going to propel me to literacy in Japanese. Why wasn’t I reading for pleasure on a regular basis?

In my defense, there is a lack of level-appropriate texts for pleasure-reading available to us foreigners. A good solution would be a series of graded readers on adult topics in the target language with simplified vocabulary and sentence structure.

The Japanese Graded Readers Project (the initiative of four language teachers, three Japanese and one Canadian) has boldly taken a first step toward creating these critically needed learning tools. Project members have already produced vocabulary lists for the first five levels of a proposed eight-level series. They are currently seeking volunteers to write stories and to offer feedback on their sample graded readers. (Contact Brett Reynolds at brett@staff.sakuragaoka.ac.jp).

Two existing magazines that offer simplified material on adult topics are the Nihongo Journal ( www.alc.co.jp/nj ), available by subscription as well as in Japanese-language bookstores in 20 countries, and the bilingual Hiragana Times ( www.hiraganatimes.com ).

But what about authentic materials, those designed for native Japanese? Though children’s books were recommended to me early in my studies, I was not stimulated by Japanese folktales or animals that talk. Supplementary texts on social studies and science for elementary school students proved more interesting than storybooks.

Juvenile literature (jidobunsho) was more appealing, particularly stories of young people in historical settings such as World War II. Unlike books for younger children, which are weighted heavily with hiragana, juvenile literature is written in natural Japanese, with the addition of furigana (those little hiragana for pronunciation) printed over most kanji. I am a fan of furigana because they have allowed me to pick up kanji pronunciations in context.

“Read Real Japanese” (Kodansha, 1994), by Japan Times columnist Janet Ashby, gave me the confidence to venture into modern novels. I prefer “lighter” fare, such as works by best-selling writers Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami. In nonfiction, I enjoy best-seller autobiographies. Before purchasing a book, I make sure it falls below my frustration level: If I feel tempted to pull out my electronic dictionary to get past Page 1, the potential purchase goes right back on the shelf.

“Rapid Reading of Japanese” (The Japan Times, 1998), by Mayumi Oka is a useful tool for honing your ability to scan authentic everyday materials such as newspapers.

The Internet offers a seemingly boundless supply of authentic Japanese, at virtually no charge. Find an interesting site, then go to www.rikai.com (Japanese to English). Enter your desired URL to get an online glossary for its text. As you move your mouse over kanji and compound words, their pronunciations and meanings will magically appear. Welcome to reading in the 21st century!

We must read widely in order to develop our reading skills. Concentrating on ideas and not on details (learning to see both the forest and its trees) will improve your reading speed, automatic word-recognition skills and ability to guess unknown words in context.

Add extensive reading to your daily routine and before long you may be surprised to hear yourself saying, “Hey, I’m actually reading for pleasure in Japanese!”