Learning to read a new language can be a daunting task, one that takes many hundreds of hours and tons of reading content.
So today I’m going to share with you how I got into reading Japanese daily, and how you can also get over that initial hurdle of starting to read a foreign language.
The main three tips I’ll be sharing with you today are:
The task of reading a second language becomes even more complicated when you are attempting to learn a language like Japanese that uses many thousands of different characters to form words and sentences.
Learning these characters can be simplified dramatically using memory techniques, which I discuss in the video below, and in a huge amount of detail in the following blog post: How to Learn Kanji Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Remembering the Kanji. However just learning the “alphabet” of a language, doesn’t mean you are going to be able to read that language.
If you take the RTK approach for Japanese, or a similar language like Chinese, then you will be starting out with knowledge of the meanings (in English) of 2000-3000 characters.
What you won’t know is how to read the characters in different situations. You see, each character in Japanese is read differently depending on what word it’s used in. In order to learn these readings, you must learn each word that each character is used in, which you can do by using a variety of techniques including extensive reading, intensive reading and my favorite, sentence flashcards.
I talk about sentence flashcards in great detail on this blog and on my YouTube channel, but if you’re interested then the main guide can be found here: Making Sentence Mining Super Easy with Sentence Banks.
Intensive reading is used to gain the maximum amount of understanding of part of a text by breaking it down into its constituent parts and then using supplementary material, such as dictionaries, to gain understanding of the words and grammar in the sentence. This is usually what people do when they making sentence flashcards.
Extensive reading is a much more relaxed approach, where the quantity of reading is focused on more than the quality. Extensive reading is usually used to gain a general understanding of longer pieces of texts and tends to skip over grammar explanations and word definitions, essentially you are just reading for enjoyment and to get as much exposure to the language as possible.
Both reading techniques have benefits, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that extensive reading is usually more effective in the long term.
As noted by Linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen in his research, the fundamental acquisition of language comes from understanding messages. While intensive reading allows you to break down text to be able to understand it, it can be quite time consuming and inefficient when you consider that extensive reading can be used to read a lot more of the language in a relatively smaller amount of time.
When practicing extensive reading you are more likely to come across parts of text that you can understand and acquire based on your comprehension of the surrounding text and your current language ability. This is because you are coming across more language than if you were to analyze one piece of text for the same amount of time.
Take for example the following sentence in English: “He lowered his head in sign of assent and approval.”
Assuming you didn’t already know “assent” you’re probably able to infer it’s meaning from the context in the rest of the sentence. Text like this is known as Comprehensible Input and is extremely powerful for language acquisition. When reading in a second language, it’s always important to be mindful of this concept when choosing reading material.
If reading material is too difficult, the input will not be comprehensible enough for you to get a good amount of gains from it. Equally if it is too easy, then you will only be revising knowledge of the language that you already know and will not be learning anything new.
This is where extensive reading comes in. If you can pick material that accurately reflects your current language ability, whether you are a complete beginner or you are at a more advanced level, you will be able to use extensive reading to acquire a ton of new language.
However the two biggest problems that I found when learning Japanese was finding good material that was at my level and actually sticking to reading on a daily basis. In essence, I really struggled to make reading Japanese a habit.
This came about mainly because I didn’t regularly read in English so building the habit to read in a second language that I didn’t understand yet was very difficult, and over the years of making content online I’ve received similar questions and concerns on this issue.
So today I will introduce you to my solution to both issues, finding content and also making reading a daily habit.
Tips to Find Japanese Reading Material
When it comes to finding content in the language you are learning, there are a few different approaches you can take.
When it comes to Japanese, there are a bunch of resources that are available on this website, below you can find two particularly useful pages.
One of which is a massive page of a bunch of different resources: Language Learning Resources – Link Roundup
The other is a reading list which is a good start for someone who doesn’t know where to look for Japanese reading material: My Japanese Reading List
I’ve given each book on the post above a difficulty and you can click on the links to take you to their amazon page if you are interested in getting the books for yourself.
If you’re learning a different language to Japanese, or if you can’t find content you like from the links above, then I would suggest taking a hobby, or a topic you are interested in, and searching keywords related to that topic into a dictionary for your foreign language, then take the keywords in the language you’re learning and put them into google along with “book” and you will see results for a bunch of books related to a topic that you already have a good amount of knowledge about.
This content will therefore be easier to read, understand and therefore acquire language from than just random books on random topics.
However, it may be difficult to judge how difficult the content of these books maybe before purchasing them so I would recommend taking a look on Amazon or BookLive for any books you find as sometimes they let you test read a few pages which can give you a good guide as to how hard the contents of the book is for you.
You can also try finding translated versions of books you have already read. Maybe a book you really enjoyed as a kid, or a self help book that you wanted to read. Try finding the title in the language you’re learning and see if it’s available online.
Alternatively you can always just find reading content online in the form of blog posts and other content. It’s much easier to find content by googling keywords in the foreign language and you can use other keywords to determine the difficulty of the language you want to read. For example, adding “for kids” at the end of your search will bring up pages that are going to be much easier to read.
If you’re still struggling to find Japanese books then check out my guide to buying Japanese books, and my guide to buying Japanese eBooks. The eBook guide is particularly useful as you can get a lot of free content.
Graded readers are also a great resource you can take a look at to help read at your current ability, in order to get the most acquisition possible out of your reading time. There are plenty out there and I will leave some links below for you to check out.
The Tadoku Reading Challenge
The most helpful tool I’ve found to help me get into the habit of reading more Japanese is the use of reading competitions. There are quite a few online that you can partake in, but the one I’m going to be talking about today is Tadoku, which literally means “Many, Read” (多読).
Tadoku is aimed at learners of foreign languages and you can choose which language you wish to partake in, although it’s mainly Japanese learners that take up the majority of readers.
There is no actual prize for winning a round of tadoku, however, the main reason people do it is because of the competitive factor. Your score is displayed on a public leaderboard and you can see who is near you, what people have submitted etc.
How it works is whenever you read something, you can submit what type of content you read and how much, you will then be given a certain amount of points to add to your score. Yes, this means that it is easy to cheat, but most people don’t as that’s not the point of the competition. After all, in a competition where there is no prize, the only person you would be cheating is yourself.
When I did tadoku a few years ago, I managed to place second for the round that I competed in. It drove me to drastically increase my Japanese reading per day. I went from doing 10 minutes a day to doing 3+ hours.
Of course, this much reading daily may not be possible for everyone, I was a student at the time so I could do it easily, but even if you increase your reading from nothing to 30 minutes a day, that’s infinitely better than doing no reading at all.
So if you’re like me and are someone who can be easily motivated by competition, definitely check out tadoku and other reading challenges. The rounds last for a month which is around the time it takes for someone to form a new habit, so it’s perfect for getting you into reading Japanese daily.
Habit trackers are also something that I’ve recently found to be useful. You don’t really need a specific application, you can always just set daily reminders instead, but personally I like to see the long term progress of sticking to something so apps like Loop Habit Tracker, I really like.
It reminds me daily to do tasks that I’m trying to turn into habits, allowing me to track my progress as well using heat maps to show my progress over a long period of time.
Forming habits is quite a large topic that I will discuss in a future video/blog post, but the main thing to know with habits is that they usually take about a month to form and a lot of people tend to give up on their new habits because they are impatient with the speed that they see results.
In most cases, whether it be developing a new skill, losing weight or learning a new language, it will take a much longer amount of time to see results than you would think. This is especially the case with languages, so it is important to stick with the habit while not trying to think too much about the end goal.
Instead, try and build a system that allows you to enjoy the process but that can also give you a feedback loop by providing you with information on how much time you are spending on doing a task. This is why I love using habit trackers that have heatmaps, or even the heatmap addon in Anki.
It reminds me that I have put in work every single day, which gives me the knowledge that I am in fact progressing, even if I don’t see much progress in the skill or habit that I’m trying to form.
If you are thinking of doing Tadoku, or are planning on doing more reading in your foreign language then it’s important to make your reading habit very simple and to relate it to something else you do during the day.
Make it simple by making the habit super easy, for example don’t make your goal to read 100 pages, instead make your daily habit simply to open a Japanese book.
The hardest part of starting a habit is the first step, whether this be opening a book or putting on your trainers to go for a run. Once you take that first step, you will find it to be much easier to continue on with the task at hand.
If you’ve found the information so far helpful, don’t forget to share it so that others can be helped too!
マットBy Matthew Hawkins 15/06/2021 Massive thanks to Diederik, Eric, R, Harry and everyone else supporting me on Patreon. You guys are awesome! 🙂 Follow me on Twitter Support me on Patreon
Software Engineer and Language Enthusiast.