Monthly Archives: March 2020

Personal Experiments in Extensive Reading

As mentioned in my previous post about learning Japanese, I’ve been applying extensive reading principles to improving my Japanese language skills. At best, in Japanese, I can be described as a “false beginner”, as I don’t have the skills yet to pass the lowest level Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I have dabbled in learning the language whenever I have found a fun resource (Let’s Learn Japanese TV series, Kimono text books); completed a half-semester beginner course, which taught Hiragana and some introductory phrases; and visited Japan briefly three times, each trip providing immersive language learning experiences.

I don’t recall exactly when I started, but it was either from December or early January, I attempted to read something in Japanese for ten minutes per day. I keep a database of my language books, and used data in that to produce an approximate order of difficulty for attempting the books, and probably read through about 80 booklets, plus the chapters of Kimono level 1, and the starting chapters of Kimono level 2. I stopped about a week ago, as it was frustratingly difficult, and I had other things occupying my mind. For the moment I am filling the gap by playing Kana Quest, which is keeping my kana recognition alive.

So in a way, this has been an experiment in seeing how well extensive reading goes in a language where you are still at the beginning stages. In a couple of readability studies I’ve led, I’ve used a 5-point scale to indicate how easy something is to read:

  1. Very easy, understood everything
  2. Easy, a few words were not known, but it didn’t impact reading comprehension
  3. Not easy, but it was possible to follow the story
  4. Difficult, a dictionary is needed to make sense of it
  5. Very difficult, a dictionary won’t help

Number 5 is rarely chosen by anyone, and it has been argued that maybe it doesn’t happen. However, if I were to attempt to read something in Chinese, a dictionary won’t help me, as I don’t know how to look up hanzu characters based on stroke count. Sure I might get there if I persist, but life is too short for that. So I guess Number 5 is more about lacking willpower when encountering very difficult text.

In terms of optimal language learning, ratings of 2-3 are ideal, since new language is being encountered, but the reading is not at the frustration level.

I “extensively read” in a few languages. In Dutch, my mother tongue (but not my best language, which is English), I can comfortably read novels written for children.  I would need a dictionary for anything technical if it was important for me to understand the nuances of meaning, but I would still be able to “follow the story” for most texts I come across.

In French, a language I have studied both in courses and on my own, I am also at the stage where most texts would not be classed as difficult. For German, I read graded readers up to B1 level, giving me texts in the target zone. Thanks to my Dutch background and some study of the language, it would not take too much for me to be able to read texts for native German speakers and be able to “follow the story”.

Now we come to Japanese. The booklets I read went from rating 1 to rating 4. Naturally, the rating 4 ones led to frustration and reduced willpower to continue. My approach to reading them was to read straight through, and then afterward, allow myself to look up a word or two that seemed to be important for understanding, or that had occurred a few times in my reading. I will make the following observations of my experience.

  • My vocabulary definitely improved, but I think that stopping will lead to much of it being forgotten again
  • My ability to recognize kanji improved, and I think that this may actually last a bit longer in my memory than the pronunciation, particularly where there is some obvious logical connection between the ideogram and the meaning, eg. the words for “above” and “below”.
  • Illustrated books that are basically an illustrated vocabulary are very easy to read, even if you don’t know any of the words beforehand and forget most of them afterwards. However, it can be challenging to make them interesting.
  • Booklets with illustrations and repeated sentences can be easy. For example, where the concrete noun, such as a type of animal, is substituted into a template sentence, and the sentence has an illustration of the concrete noun on the page. Even if the sentence isn’t fully understood, the substituted noun will be.
  • Where it is clear from the illustrations what is being said, the meaning of the text can be deduced.
  • In languages that I can read reasonably well I don’t like to read stories that I already know, but I was grateful for the known stories presented in Japanese, to allow me to deduce what the text meant. While the text may have been just as difficult as other stories, the fact that the story was already known meant that the text was better understood and learnt from.
  • What also fascinated me was how focused and absorbed I was in the reading and sense-making task – much as I have observed young children when they are following a story in a book that is being read to them. It was as though my entire brain was switched on – until I got to that frustration point recently.
  • Attractive illustrations make the experience much more enjoyable.

A take home lesson for me is: once an alphabet is known, it is possible to read something, such as illustrated vocabulary books. My Japanese collection includes colour+object combinations, transport, trains, illustrated loanwords in katakana, cities and countries. The difficulty is perhaps learning the alphabet in an absence of known vocabulary. In our first languages we have clues from words we know, such as B for banana. For languages we haven’t learnt yet, authors would need to resort to other tricks such as loanwords, cognates, international words and names and place names.This is one of the tricks I use in my comic book series for French.

The Kimono series simplifies the reading a little by rendering all words that would be in katakana in romaji (our regular western latin alphabet), but spelt as it would be when rendered in katakana. I like this idea for slowly ramping up the difficulty. Books for Japanese native speakers also slowly ramp things up. Children’s books might be in hiragana, hiragana plus katakana with hiragana support, or kana and kanji with support, depending on the target age group.

One study I read about extensive reading and vocabulary acquisition examined what happened if you re-read stories. Each time you re-read you pick up more of the vocabulary. I think I will explore this next, and see how many re-readings of the easier books will make it easier for me to advance to the more difficult ones. Stay tuned for the answer!