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Look to ‘senpai’ to help take your Japanese reading to the next level

by

Special To The Japan Times

Reading Japanese is a solitary activity, but by no means did I learn to read on my own. If not for the generosity of several brave and patient souls who helped me struggle through different texts, I would never have developed the foundation necessary to read on my own.

I had a number of great Japanese teachers in college, but I wanted to be reading 小説 (shōsetsu, novels) and ノンフィクション (nonfikushon, nonfiction), not 新聞記事 (shinbun kiji, newspaper articles) and 物語 (monogatari, tales/legends).

Don’t get me wrong, though: These were useful introductory texts, and it is extremely important to read outside of your areas of interest. Newspapers in particular are useful because they help you tap in to current trends and events, things that you’re likely to discuss at ホームパーティー (hōmupātii, dinner parties); knowing these phrases will feed your burgeoning speaking skills. However, it’s also important to have defined goals and interests that will drive your pursuit of fluency well after you’ve left the classroom.

Reading Haruki Murakami in Japanese was the goal for me, and Paul was the first person who helped me get through a complete story. We looked at the title story from カンガルー日和 (Kangarū Biyori, “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos”), a set of playful short pieces that was Murakami’s second published collection of such stories.

In the story, the narrator and his girlfriend look forward to seeing a new カンガルーの赤ん坊 (kangarū no akanbō, “kangaroo baby,” i.e., joey). I butchered the pronunciation of akanbō, combining it with the word for human offspring, 赤ちゃん (akachan, baby), into the nonexistent word akachanbō. Paul laughed when I said this, and this sealed the two different words into my memory.

Unfortunately for the protagonists in the story, the weather is bad or they have things going on and are unable to find a time to make it to the zoo. Paul laughed again when I tried to read the next sentence: そんな風にして一ヶ月が 過ぎた (Sonna fū ni shite ikkagetsu ga sugita, “A month passed in this manner”). I pronounced the phrase sonna kaze because I’d only ever encountered 風 as kaze (wind) and didn’t realize that it could be combined with そういう (sō iu), こういう (kō iu), ああいう (ā iu), そんな (sonna), こんな (konna), and あんな (anna) to mean “in this way” or “in that way.” Suffice it to say, I haven’t made this mistake again either.

When I studied abroad, Sakakibara-sensei, a professor in the literature department who taught in English, helped me struggle through two recent winners of the 芥川賞 (Akutagawa-shō, Akutagawa Prize): 「蹴りたい背中」 (Keritai Senaka, literally, “The Back I Want to Kick”) by Risa Wataya and 「蛇にピアス」 (Hebi ni Piasu, “Snakes and Earrings”) by Hitomi Kanehara.

At this point, I still needed help with some basic words like 中一 (chūichi), a contracted form of 中学校一年 (chūgakkō ichinen, first year of junior high school). I also needed a hand with spoken colloquialisms such as こっちが聞きたい (kotchi ga kikitai), which equates to “That’s what I want to know.”

I’m incredibly grateful that Paul and Sakakibara-sensei took the time to read through these texts with me. 七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki, literally “Fall seven times, stand up eight,” meaning “Failure breeds success”) is much easier when you have a hand to help you up, but eventually you have to go it alone.

The next step is reading on your own looking up every word, either in a dictionary or online, and then you graduate to 速読 (sokudoku, speed-reading or skimming). Rather than look up every word, you can choose to skip some and gather the meaning from context, which is likely what you do in your native language without even realizing it.

But what about when you get stumped? What can you do if you’re on your own? Well, the インターネット (intānetto, Internet) has come a long way. You can Google things that confuse you. Adding とは (to wa) to the end of a search is an easy way to say “What is X?” or “What does X mean?” For phrases like Kotchi ga kikitai, be sure to enclose your search within quotation marks to find similar sentences that might help elucidate the usage.

One of my favorite methods is to search Yahoo Japan’s 知恵袋 (chiebukuro, bag full of wisdom), where many Japanese post questions when they are confounded by their own language.

You can find basic questions such as 「場合」の発音は「ばあい」と思っておりますが、時々「ばわい」という発音に遭遇します (“Ba’ai” no hatsuon wa “ba’ai” to omotte orimasu ga, tokidoki “bawai” to iu hatsuon ni sōgū shimasu, “I thought the pronunciation of 場合 was ba’ai but sometimes I come across bawai“). Or more complex grammatical questions, such as this one about causative forms: 「見させて…」は正しい日本語でしょうか? (‘Misasete’ wa tadashii Nihongo deshō ka?, “Is misasete proper Japanese?”). Obviously you have to be able to read Japanese to sort out the answer, but this is great further reading practice, and it’s encouraging to know that the natives also have trouble with certain aspects of the language.

Once you’ve got enough reading experience, you can pay it forward by starting a reading group to help others, which is what I’ve done for the JET Alumni Association in Chicago. Each month we get together to look at a few pages of a Japanese novel, a short story or a blog post — anything to get us reading. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be a 先輩 (senpai, elder) if you’ve ever benefited from being a 後輩 (kōhai, junior).

  • DA

    I love these pieces. More, please.

  • Kessek

    Daniel, I hope you write a book one day. A lot of us would buy it.

  • KenjiAd

    Wonderful story.

    Reading in Japanese can be hard for English speakers, perhaps even harder than the other way around. Japanese sentences tend to be cryptic. Subject pronouns (I, you, he, etc) are routinely dropped; verbs come at the end of a sentence. English speakers, who naturally expect an action (i.e., verb) to immediately follow the subject, often get lost before they get to the end of sentence.

  • http://namakajiri.net leoboiko

    I’d recommend students to start reading without a dictionary as soon as they possibly can. The trick is to give up on your pride, and accept that partial comprehension is perfectly OK—to seek it out purposefully, even. What you want is to get yourself engaged, in “flow”, forgetting about time, forgetting even that you’re reading in a foreign language; ideally you want something that you consider to be a treat, rather than a chore; you want something that interests you intrinsically, not just as a tool to learn Japanese. To quote from the great polyglot Kató Lomb, “It is much more of a problem if the book becomes flavorless in your hands due to interruptions than not learning if the inspector watches the murderer from behind a blackthorn or a hawthorn.” I cannot emphasize how important is her observation. This is about the only way to go from “learning” to “acquisition”, which in turn is the only way of racking up a working vocabulary.

    (There’s lot of reasons why it is so; there are tens of thousands of words, morphemes, and grammatical patterns to acquire, too many to study consciously; we absorb language best when we’re having fun, due to a multitude of cognitive factors; memory gets stable only with thousands of hours of input, which is all but impossible without forgetting oneself in the task; the frequencies of both words and kanji follow a logarithmic curve, which means that a few of them are enormously more common than the large majority, and by reading natural texts you magically dedicates more practice precisely to the words that appear more often, which exponentially increases the value of said practice; the many nuances of grammatical patterns and function words are very hard to understand without context, but when reading texts, they appear in a perfectly fitting context, by definition; the first few pages of a new book are always more difficult for a learner, but readers tend to find one author or series or genre they like and stick with it (“deep reading”), so that they quickly get used to that particular style’s most frequent words/patterns/kanji, as well as being able to guess meanings from the internal consistency of the text, which—unlike the “style of the day” fast-food method of classrooms—helps the whole thing flow, which in turn helps all the rest… and so on and so forth.)

    If you understand enough of the story to get yourself engaged (what Krashen calls it being “not just interesting but compelling”), congratulations, you found the path! If you don’t understand something, don’t worry, just keep on reading, find out who’s the murderer. Eventually you’ll know Japanese. If it bothers you because you love the story too much, you can always come back to it a few years down the road, and have fun twice :)

    However, kanji is definitely a significant hurdle with this method, because one’s never really sure of how to pronounce unknown words (e.g. even if you know 出 and 納, it’s unlikely that you’ll read 出納 as すいとう unless you’ve already acquired the word); and if you can’t pronounce the words, it’s hard to absorb new ones. The ability to guess readings will increase with proficiency, but in the meantime we have no choice but looking up in a dictionary. This totally kills the flow if you do it constantly, so you want content fitting to your level, as in you rarely has to look up kanji. Manga fans are really lucky; there’s lots of compelling stories with full furigana, and I know more than one language professional who made the jump from “learner” to “reader” through manga. But if you’re not the kind to get hooked up on comics, you should look for something else. The important part is the “hooking up”.

    The alternative method is to just talk to people until one acquires the words (web learners can think of the two methods as the “ajatt method” and the “fluentin3months method”). Nightlife works great for this, for those who like the night life; but, obviously, it’s unlikely to work for introspective nerds. Your “senpai method” is reading-focused, but draws a bit from the advantages of social contact. Your anecdotes remind me of Evans’ awesome book, “Dying Words”. When discussing how can anthropologists effectively learn minority languages, he mentions the efficacy of getting things wrong and being laughed at – as you say, it sears the form in the brain forever :) For this, too, the less pride one has, the more one learns.

  • http://namakajiri.net leoboiko

    I’d recommend students to start reading without a dictionary as soon as they possibly can. The trick is to give up on your pride, and accept that partial comprehension is perfectly OK—to seek it out purposefully, even. What you want is to get yourself engaged, in “flow”, forgetting about time, forgetting even that you’re reading in a foreign language; ideally you want something that you consider to be a treat, rather than a chore; you want something that interests you intrinsically, not just as a tool to learn Japanese. To quote from the great polyglot Kató Lomb, “It is much more of a problem if the book becomes flavorless in your hands due to interruptions than not learning if the inspector watches the murderer from behind a blackthorn or a hawthorn.” I cannot emphasize how important is her observation. This is about the only way to go from “learning” to “acquisition”, which in turn is the only way of racking up a working vocabulary.

    (There’s lot of reasons why it is so; there are tens of thousands of words, morphemes, and grammatical patterns to acquire, too many to study consciously; we absorb language best when we’re having fun, due to a multitude of cognitive factors; memory gets stable only with thousands of hours of input, which is all but impossible without forgetting oneself in the task; the frequencies of both words and kanji follow a logarithmic curve, which means that a few of them are enormously more common than the large majority, and by reading natural texts you magically dedicates more practice precisely to the words that appear more often, which exponentially increases the value of said practice; the many nuances of grammatical patterns and function words are very hard to understand without context, but when reading texts, they appear in a perfectly fitting context, by definition; the first few pages of a new book are always more difficult for a learner, but readers tend to find one author or series or genre they like and stick with it (“deep reading”), so that they quickly get used to that particular style’s most frequent words/patterns/kanji, as well as being able to guess meanings from the internal consistency of the text, which—unlike the “style of the day” fast-food method of classrooms—helps the whole thing flow, which in turn helps all the rest… and so on and so forth.)

    If you understand enough of the story to get yourself engaged (what Krashen calls it being “not just interesting but compelling”), congratulations, you found the path! If you don’t understand something, don’t worry, just keep on reading, find out who’s the murderer. Eventually you’ll know Japanese. If it bothers you because you love the story too much, you can always come back to it a few years down the road, and have fun twice :)

    However, kanji is definitely a significant hurdle with this method, because one’s never really sure of how to pronounce unknown words (e.g. even if you know 出 and 納, it’s unlikely that you’ll read 出納 as すいとう unless you’ve already acquired the word); and if you can’t pronounce the words, it’s hard to absorb new ones. The ability to guess readings will increase with proficiency, but in the meantime we have no choice but looking up in a dictionary. This totally kills the flow if you do it constantly, so you want content fitting to your level, as in you rarely has to look up kanji. Manga fans are really lucky; there’s lots of compelling stories with full furigana, and I know more than one language professional who made the jump from “learner” to “reader” through manga. But if you’re not the kind to get hooked up on comics, you should look for something else. The important part is the “hooking up”.

    The alternative method is to just talk to people until one acquires the words (web learners can think of the two methods as the “ajatt method” and the “fluentin3months method”). Nightlife works great for this, for those who like the night life; but, obviously, it’s unlikely to work for introspective nerds. Your “senpai method” is reading-focused, but draws a bit from the advantages of social contact. Your anecdotes remind me of Evans’ awesome book, “Dying Words”. When discussing how can anthropologists effectively learn minority languages, he mentions the efficacy of getting things wrong and being laughed at – as you say, it sears the form in the brain forever :) For this, too, the less pride one has, the more one learns.

  • Anne Steall

    Thank you for including a phrase I had heard before but didn’t know the meaning of. Excellent article as always.