My main goal when learning foreign languages (not just Japanese) has always been to read books in this language. However, it has often felt like an impossible task and I cannot count the number of books I have started and given up.
With Japanese though, I changed the way I was reading books (or trying to read books) and things became easier surprisingly quickly. Obviously, I did not become able to read books in Japanese overnight, but once I started, I made steady progress. I am far from being an expert, but reading has been my main focus while learning Japanese, and this method worked very well for me.
Obviously, we all have different ways to learn languages, so you might have your own method that works for you. But if you feel that reading books is impossible despite your having learned so many words already or studied for so long, these tips might be helpful.
Introduction: What you need to read books in a foreign language
I think that people tend to overlook the “reading skills” part and focus too much on the “vocabulary and grammar” part. Or they think that one must come before the other, that you first accumulate a certain amount of words and grammatical patterns and then, when this amount is considered enough, jump into reading. This is why people tend to ask questions like “when can I start reading a book in Japanese?” “how many words should I know before I can read this book?” “Is N3 enough to start reading a novel in Japanese?”.
In my opinion, you should stop thinking that you must build your vocabulary before starting reading in Japanese (or any other language). As you can see in my table, I consider the reading skills part to be more important than the amount of words you know. This is why I never know how to answer the question “at which level can I read this book?”. To me, your capacity to read a book does not depend as much on your JLPT level or the number of words you know, as on your reading skills level and how much you read in a foreign language on a regular basis.
As a result, I think that two learners with the same JLPT N3 level who have gone through the exact same textbooks and who have learned the same lists of vocabulary will have a different reading experience depending on whether they are used to reading in a foreign language or not.
Similarly, with my JLPT N1 level, I can read a lot of novels without looking up words, but I cannot understand TV shows. When people make jokes and all laugh and talk at the same time, my brain just turns off. It is the same me with the same amount of known words and the same JLPT N1 certification, but a lot of practice in one field and almost no practice in the other.
Why you should start right away
Reading and listening are not that different!
I believe that reading and listening are not that different when it comes to language acquisition. If you want to improve your listening skills, you should start listening to your target language as soon as possible. Well, I think that reading is the same: you should start reading as soon as possible.
It is common to think that we need more vocabulary to start reading, that we must first go through this or that textbook and know x thousands of words before starting reading. But the day you consider your vocabulary strong enough to start reading a novel in Japanese, your reading skills will be very low (as you have never practised them), and you will have a hard time understanding what you read, in spite of your strong vocabulary.
To go on with my comparison with listening, let’s say that I have learned 6000 words of vocabulary, but I have never listened to any Japanese spoken at natural speed. If I decided to start listening now, I would not be able to understand what I hear. I would not be able, for example, to recognise the words that I have learned, I would not be used to the pronunciation and intonation of Japanese, the pace of the speaker would be too fast, and so on. Obviously, what I should have done is to start listening to Japanese while building my vocabulary instead of waiting until I know enough words to start listening to non-textbook Japanese.
And what would be your advice to someone telling you “I’ll start listening to real Japanese when I get N2”? Obviously, you will tell this person to start listening to real Japanese right now, even if they don’t understand it.
Don’t wait until you know enough words!
I think that it is the same with reading. Your reading skills will improve independently from your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and the sooner you start the better. Even if you know a good amount of vocabulary, if you have never trained your reading skill, you will have difficulties recognising the words you know if they appear in a different context, understanding long sentences will also be challenging and you might end up knowing all the words in a sentence but still not understand what the whole sentence means. It will also be difficult to understand paragraphs that contain unknown words, something that you should definitely train yourself to do if you want to read books. You will feel frustrated whenever you encounter a sentence full of unknown words and grammar. Finally, you will also feel tired of reading very soon and your reading pace will be slow.
If reading books in Japanese is one of your language goals, then you should start training your reading skills as soon as possible. Don’t wait until you know “enough” words!
I would even go as far as to recommend having a native resource with you from day one. Manga are certainly one of the best resources for beginners, but whatever you choose, it must also be something you like, something you are happy to carry with you or have on your desk (my personal choice was One Piece, I was mainly looking at the pictures, but felt super excited and motivated anytime I could recognise a word or understand a short sentence. It was certainly not the best choice with all the slang and piracy-related words, but flipping through the pages made me happy and motivated.). I know that buying a book in Japanese when you are just learning the alphabets might sound premature, but once again, you would not find it strange if a complete beginner was listening to a podcast in Japanese to get used to Japanese sounds.
Use your book to practise reading hiragana if you are a complete beginner, peek into it from time to time and try to recognise the kanji you know, underline the grammatical patterns you learnt, look at the sentences, their length, how punctuation is used. If your book has furigana, you can even use it to read out loud and practise hiragana. Obviously, you won’t be able to read it, but don’t forget that you are using this resource to help you improve, it is not as much a goal in itself as a way to achieve a good level of reading.
Let’s compare it with listening once more. Let’s say that you start listening to Japanese podcasts or radio or anime from day one. You don’t really expect to understand what you hear, you do it to train your listening skills, and maybe, because you love the sounds of Japanese. If, however, you can recognise a word from time to time, it feels like a great achievement. It is the same with a book. Use it to train your reading skills and feed your passion for Japanese. Personally, looking at Japanese books makes me happy and makes me want to make more efforts to improve my level.
Summary: your capacity to read a book in a foreign language does not depend entirely on how many words/grammar points you know. If reading a book feels like a struggle, in many cases, this might just mean that you need to improve your reading skill, not your vocabulary. If you give up reading your book, you deprive yourself of the very practice you need in order to improve. Obviously, you still need to work on your vocabulary and grammar in parallel, but don’t give up practising reading, even if it feels like you don’t understand half of what you read.
How to read books at an intermediate level
How not to read a book
I feel like a lot of language learners want to understand everything in a novel, or feel that they must understand everything to keep reading. Now imagine that I want to listen to Japanese, I am watching this film and if I don’t understand something, I pause the film, replay the scene over and over again and won’t move on until I understand 100% of what is said. It does not look like I am ever going to finish the film and it does not look very efficient either. It is certainly much better to watch the entire film, and after that watch another one and so on.
Similarly, I don’t think that starting a book, looking up every word and trying to understand everything is the best way to improve your reading. Don’t get me wrong though, I do think that doing this is an excellent exercise, one that you should be doing from time to time that will greatly help you increase your vocabulary and reading skills. But it is an additional exercise, it is not how you should be reading in general. This is “studying Japanese”, not “reading in Japanese”.
For a long time, this is how I used to read books in a foreign language though. I would start a novel, being super motivated and excited and you can bet that I would have bought a new notebook to go with it. I would look up every single unknown word and write them down in my notebook. Sometimes, I would even look up words I already knew just to check that I got the pronunciation right. I would even write down one or two example sentences to learn the words in context. After looking up a dozen of words and grammatical patterns, I would feel tired but satisfied, until I’d realised that I was still stuck on the first page! Inevitably, I would feel discouraged, but maybe my initial motivation would be strong enough to let me repeat this process several times. But in the end I would always give up, never going past the first ten pages or so of the book.
Not understanding everything is fine!
If I am able to read books in Japanese now, it is because I changed the way I was reading books in a foreign language. My rule of thumb is: as long as you can roughly sum up what happened, move on. You might have read an entire page, and all you can do is sum in one sentence what has happened? Great, you can go to the next page. Even if you missed subtleties, even if you skipped an entire paragraph because it was a description full of unknown kanji, it is okay. The author might have used an entire page to describe the house in which the character enters and all you understood is that your protagonist entered a house. Fine, you understood the main piece of information!
And yes, if you read like that, you might end up understanding only half of the book, you will not truly enjoy the story, and in the end, you might feel that you have no right to even say that you “read” this book. But who cares? If you managed to finish this book, or even if you read 100 pages of it, this is a huge achievement! If you have “read” an entire book, even if you understood half of it or less, you have immensely improved your reading skills. You can now move on to the next book, and I swear that this next one will be easier to read. The third one even more, especially if you stick to the same author, or at least the same genre. Like in everything else, practice makes perfect and the more your read, the easier it gets. Actually, this magic starts working while you are reading your first book. The first page will be the most difficult, the next 20 pages, will be difficult, but after that it will start getting easier and easier. If you have made it to page 100, I think that you won’t have much difficulties finishing the book. The problem is just that we tend to give up before this process kicks off.
If you rely too much on vocabulary and grammar, you will have to wait a long time before feeling that improvement in reading. 200 words more or less will not make any difference in your capacity to understand a novel. Even if you have added 1000 words to your vocabulary, I am not sure that you will feel such a huge difference when you read. If you have been diligently learning 20 new words per week for a year but still cannot feel any improvement when reading a book, it will be very discouraging. Contrary to the amount of words you know, the amount of reading practice that you accumulate starts showing its benefits very quickly.
Your book is your language tool, not your goal.
You also have to accept the idea that there is nothing wrong in not understanding everything in a book. You cannot look up every unknown word in an entire novel. If you do, chances are that you will give up after a few pages. This will only comfort you in the idea that it was too soon, that your level is still too low, that you don’t know enough words to read a book in Japanese. And we go back to this idea that you need to know a certain amount of words before you start reading. Once again, we focus too much on the “vocabulary and grammar” part and forget the “reading skills” part.
On the contrary, if you manage to go through an entire book, no matter how badly you understood it, you will have tremendously improved your reading skills. This includes for example, the capacity to guess the meaning of unknown words or to spot the important words (the ones you should look up) in opposition to all the words you don’t need to look up to understand the core of what happened. You will improve your reading pace, and reading in Japanese will not give a headache anymore. Sentences full of unknown words will not be frustrating or depressing anymore because you are already used to dealing with them. You will also gain confidence because now you know that you can go through an entire book, that you have done it before.
In about everything we do, we cannot be perfect at once, because we need to practise to get better. The first things you do in every field will look like rough drafts. But waiting until we can do things perfectly before doing them is the best way to never be doing anything. Reading in a foreign language is the same, you cannot do perfect on your first book. You will certainly shamefully massacre the first books you read, but that means that you are already making progress and getting better!
Don’t understand? Try another book!
The book is nothing sacred, it is just a tool you can use, you don’t owe anything to it. If you really feel bad about reading a book and missed so much in it, you can always promise it to read it again later. And if your understanding of it is too low to really follow the story, then choose a story you already know, a translated work or a novelisation for example. If you do, skipping difficult parts will not impact on your understanding of the story.
It is also important to try different books. If you really cannot go through this book you bought, blame the book, not you. Try another one. Even if you heard people say that this book was easy, this does not mean that it will be the easiest book for you. To me, Keigo Higashino is one of the easiest authors I have ever read but that might just be because I am used to reading tons of detective books, I love the genre and know its codes well. I also know what kind of vocabulary, what kind of scenes, actions and dialogues I can except. I also love whodunnits and police investigations so much that I am willing to put in the extra effort to read the book until the end. But if you never read crime fiction and don’t particularly like this genre, the book I find easy might be challenging for you.
So once again, don’t be depressed if everyone says this book is easy but you cannot understand it. You just need to find the book that you will find easy, not the one that other people find easy. It might take some time for you to find the good one, and I recommend trying different books if you struggle too much with one. Choose a genre you love or are used to reading in your mother tongue or other languages and choose a story that seems engaging to you. To me, the most difficult books to read are the ones I don’t like. It would be a shame if you gave up reading because the book you chose was too difficult or too boring and it would really be a pity if you ended up thinking that your level is too low because of the wrong book.
Summary: I really think that you should go for quantity over quality to improve your reading. Reading a book in Japanese might be your ultimate language goal, but stop seeing this as a goal for now, see it as a tool, a way to practise and get better. In order to one day be able to read and understand 99% of what you read without dictionary, you have to “sacrifice” books to your practice.
This is how I used to read books before compared to how I started reading books in Japanese:
Looking up words
Once again, I think that there are two activities that you can do with a book: read in Japanese and study Japanese.
If you want to study Japanese and improve your vocabulary, you can select one or two pages (or just a paragraph) in your book and decide to study it until you understand 100% of it. You will certainly look up unknown words, look up unknown grammar, work on difficult sentences to identify grammatical structures, you can even try to translate the whole page, or read out loud to check that you can pronounce all the kanji words.
Looking up words prevents you from improving your reading skills
But what interests me here is reading in Japanese, not studying Japanese. And in order to improve your reading skills, I think that you should not look up words. A good portion of your ability to read in a foreign language will depend on your capacity to guess things you don’t know. Guess the meaning of unknown words, guess the meaning of a sentence with unknown words, put two and two together and fill the blanks. I like to see it as a detective work, you are given some pieces of information and you have to deduce what happened. As long as you are not reading a work of fantasy, filling the blank will not be difficult. Choosing a story that deals with everyday life will make things easier and if you are used to reading a genre of fiction, you are also used to the codes belonging to this genre.
As a result, if you look up every unknown word, you are not training this capacity at all. Obviously, there will be words that you do need to look up from time to time, but your goal is to identify which word you really need to know to be able to understand the whole scene. This is also a capacity that will improve with practice, the more you read, the easier it will be to spot the problematic word.
Use your brain, not your dictionary
You might think that if you cannot look up words, the whole process will be pointless because you won’t understand enough to keep going. My belief is that we always understand more than we think we do, or rather, we have the capacity to understand, but we are not aware of it or too lazy, and we prefer to rely on the dictionary rather than to make an effort to understand. Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel like no matter how annoying looking up words can be, it always feels easier than thinking and making deductions. When I became aware of my tendency to never use my brain when reading in Japanese, I also realised that in the majority of cases, when I reached for my dictionary because I did not understand something, I could have understood it if only I had tried to.
Next time you think that you don’t understand a paragraph, instead of opening your dictionary right away (or worse, giving up!), take some time to think about what this paragraph could mean. I bet that you will be surprised by the number of times when you actually understand something you thought you did not understand. Sometimes, we stumble across something that just does not make sense, but come back to it the following day or after a break, and the meaning seems obvious, so much so that it seems incredible we did not get it the first time. So take a break if needed and come back to your book with a clear head.
Let go of perfectionism
I know that if you are a perfectionist, this method might be hard to apply. Personally, I have been the perfectionist type of learner for a long time. Unknown words? Look them all up, learn their pronunciation and different meanings, learn their kanji, read all the example sentences of my dictionary, add them to anki and learn them in both the Japanese to English and the English to Japanese direction. Doing all this is fine if your main goal is to improve your “language knowledge” (as the JLPT puts it), but it is not the most effective when it comes to improving reading or listening.
It took me a long time to be able to let go of perfectionism, but one day I realised that what I wanted the most was to improve my reading as quickly as possible and read challenging books. To achieve my goal, I had to be satisfied with a large amount of passive/incomplete vocabulary.
So yes, today, there is a huge amount of words that I know imperfectly. There are words for which I know the meaning but not the pronunciation. There are words whose meaning I kind of know, that I can recognise if they appear in context, or whose meaning I can guess in context, but I could not give you their exact definition if you gave me just the word alone. I would also perform poorly on a kanji test, I cannot give you the core meaning and pronunciations of a random kanji, but I would certainly know, recognise or guess the meaning of any word containing this kanji if I see it in a whole sentence or paragraph.
If your goal is to improve your listening or reading quickly, then you should be more flexible on how you learn words and accept that there are words you “know” in the context of reading or listening, but that you don’t know perfectly. If you were to master perfectly all the words you encounter, your progress in listening and reading would be very slow. On the other hand, if your goal is to improve your language knowledge, this is totally fine. I just believe that you can choose the area that matters to you and specialise in it.
For a long time, I have thought that knowing a word meant being able to use it in all language fields (speaking, listening, reading and writing). This belief has slowed me down, I think. Taking some time to ask yourself what you want to achieve and what you really want to do with Japanese can save you some precious time, help you make faster progress in your chosen field and avoid discouragement. As my main goal is by far to improve my reading, I don’t care about not being able to use (when writing or speaking) or to recognise (when spoken) all the words I am comfortable with when reading.
Summary: Looking up words and spending time trying to understand everything in a sentence is a great exercise, one that I do often, especially when reading news articles. However, this is not how I think that you should be reading books as a basis. Don’t spend too much time on each page or the whole process will be soon discouraging, just move on when you think you understand just enough to follow the story. If you take notes, I recommend to make a list of characters and write a very short summary of what you have read before closing your book so that it will be easier to start again next time. A post-it on the last page you read with a one-sentence summary will do. This is particularly important if you cannot read every day because not remembering where you left the story can be discouraging, and you might end up not opening your book again. It is also a good idea to set in advance the number of pages you want to read per session and stick to it no matter what.
How to start reading books at a beginner level
In this section, I collected some things you can do with a book even if you are a complete beginner. As I said, I recommend getting used to having reading resources with you from day one. Obviously, you won’t be able to understand it but there is a lot of things you can do to to help you improve your Japanese in general and get used to dealing with native resources. Compared to someone who has gone through a complete set of textbooks before jumping into native resources, you will make faster progress and be much more at ease with Japanese if you have played with native resources alongside studying your textbooks.
I often talk about “books”, but of course, any reading material will do, it can be a blog, a twitter account where you follow only Japanese accounts, a web magazine… You can search for any keyword on the internet, compare the results and print out a page that looks like a good reading practice: not too many kanji, pictures maybe, a lot of space between the lines…
If you go for books, I recommend taking a children’s book with furigana or a manga (most of them have furigana). Children’s books can be great because they are often printed with a large font and have a lot of space between the lines so you can take notes in them, but I recommend choosing a story that deals with everyday life rather than a work of fantasy or fairy tales. You can also choose specialised books on topics that interest you, this can be great because these books will certainly be illustrated and use a vocabulary you are familiar with in your mother tongue.
So here are some ideas to use a book even at a beginner level.
Practise your hiragana and katakana
This seems obvious, but you will learn hiragana and katakana much more easily if you practise them often. We all find katakana more difficult simply because we are less exposed to them. Having a book with you is a good way to practise reading hiragana and katakana.
- Read the parts written in hiragana and katakana out loud. If you have a book with furigana, you can read everything out loud.
Practise your kanji
Same with kanji, the more you see them, the easier it will be to recognise and remember them.
- Underline or highlight the kanji you have learned, this will help you to recognise and remember them. Do this process from time to time to check your progress. For example, let’s say we are in January. Go through the first 5 or 10 pages of your book and highlight all the kanji you know. Go through the same pages again in July or December and do the same process using a different colour.
Get familiar with how sentences are structured.
Something that might be difficult when you start reading in Japanese is to know what is what in a sentence. What you can do is look out for particles you have learned and try to identify what is the verb, what is the subject, and so on.
- Look out for particles and try to find groups of words in a sentence. For example, where would you add a space if Japanese were written with space between words?
Practise your reading
As we saw, reading is not just about knowing but also about guessing and putting things together. This is a skill on its own that you can only train by reading a lot without looking up words.
- Try to guess the meaning of a sentence, even if you only know two or three words in it. You can write your deductions in a notebook to check them later, once again, you will be able to see your progress.
Look out for recurring words
No matter what book you chose, you will find recurring words. If you are a beginner, you don’t need to look them up, just recognising them is already a huge step. When you see a kanji word, if you are able to tell yourself “oh, I have seen this word before, ah yes, it was in the previous paragraph!”, you are making considerable progress. It is not something that you can appreciate right away, but you are training your brain, which has had nothing whatsoever to do with kanji before, to recognise kanji words. I am not talking about looking up this word and learning it, I am talking about the capability to recognise a kanji and think “I have seen this kanji before”. You are training your brain to do something it never did before, congratulations!
- Circle kanji that appear twice in a paragraph or a page. Depending on your level, you can even try to guess their meaning.
Read in parallel
If you can find a book that has been translated (either, from Japanese to your mother tongue, or a foreign book that has been translated into Japanese), read in parallel. I recommend reading one paragraph in the language you are comfortable with, and then look at the same paragraph in Japanese. Try to identify everything that you can relate to the translation. Even if you end up with only one or two words, that’s fine. You can also guess. For example, if a word appears twice in the translated paragraph, look at the Japanese text and look for words that appear twice there too.
- Use a work in a language you are confortable with to track down words in a Japanese text.
Practise your writing
Even if you have only just got through the alphabets, nothing stops you from writing down an entire book if you want to. This will improve your writing and you will memorise the hiragana more easily. As for kanji, you could either only write the ones you know or simply copy everything, even if you don’t know what it means. I really recommend that you learn the basic rules of stroke order (look at this post by Tofugu for example). With these rules in mind, you should be able to write down most kanji even if you don’t know them. And to be honest, I don’t think that messing up stroke order is the end of the world, you are not making calligraphy after all. You can also just skip the most difficult kanji or write them in hiragana if your edition has furigana.
- Choose a sentence or paragraph that does not contain to many kanji and write it down. Take this as an opportunity to practise your writing skills too.
Read only the dialogues
If you already know the story of the book you chose, then I recommend to only read the dialogues. Dialogues are often the easiest part to read in novels, you will find something that is closer to spoken Japanese and less intimidating than entire blocks of text.
Of course, you need to know the context or reading the dialogues will not make much sense. You can choose the Japanese version of a book that you have already read in translation or another language. Or read in parallel with a translated work: read everything but the dialogues in your mother tongue or English, and read the dialogues in Japanese. You can even check that your understanding was correct afterwards. Another thing that you can do is to read the novelisation of a film or series you have watched.
- Choose a novelisation or a book you have read in translation and look at the dialogues. Try to match it with your knowledge of the story.
Summary: Get out of your textbooks from day one. If you stick to what you learn in textbooks only, a lot of things (words, expressions, casual structures…) you find in native ressources will sound unfamiliar. Even if you don’t learn all the words, kanji and expressions you see while doing all the exercises above, you will still get used to seeing them, and when you do learn them later, it will be much easier. You also won’t be unsettled anytime you come across things you never saw in your textbooks.
We all have different ways of learning a language, so I don’t know if this method will work for you, but for me, it was day and night. Compared to the time when I tried to understand everything in the books I read and looked up every word, I made much faster progress in reading by using this method.
Reading in Japanese might be intimidating and, as is often the case, we all want to be well armed and well prepared before jumping into something intimidating… but don’t forget that the best way to get prepared is not only to accumulate knowledge but also experience and a lot of practice.
It was a long post just to say that the best way to get better at reading is to read a lot, but I hope that this post can encourage you to get started, and give you enough motivation and conviction to help you persevere and not give up halfway!