Tag Archives: Japanese language

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!

 

 

Japanese language resources

I thought I’d share Theo’s post on Japanese language study. It has a great list of resources and tips for learning Japanese based on his experience. He is producing a game for learning hiragana and katakana, which should be released this year. I’m looking forward to it, since I could do with improving my katakana recognition. Apparently the game is sufficiently entertaining that even native Japanese speakers enjoy it. This is similar to my goal with my Gnomeville comics for French.

Theo’s point about the limitations of using anime is a good one. Language is huge, and it is used in different ways in different situations. He has some great suggestions for alternative, more useful resources.

I agree with Theo’s comment about flash cards and Anki. There is a difference between knowing a word (learning) and using it (acquisition).  This is why focusing on the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking are important, with extensive reading being the way to get maximum comprehensible input, if done properly.

One additional resource I would mention for reading in Japanese at the early stages is the Tadoku extensive reading books. I use extensive reading principles in all the languages I learn. Japanese is the most challenging of these for me, since it has a different writing system to European languages. At my current beginner level I read level 0 and 1 of the Tadoku.org books (assumed vocabulary of 350 characters) with some difficulty, so really the books are just a little more difficult than the ideal for extensive reading, but I read them anyway. Fortunately the level 0 ones are designed so that you can follow most of the stories via the pictures, so can deduce what some of the words mean from context, especially where it is a retelling of a well-known fable or folk tale. I have a range of other books from Australian and New Zealand publishers that are easier, but less entertaining. To supplement this I have some Japanese children’s books (ehon). The Kimono Japanese textbook series for adolescents also has entertaining comics in each chapter, which can be used to supplement reading.

I certainly pick up vocabulary through the repetition of reading, despite not trying to translate everything. For example, the Tadoku books frequently use 言いました (iimashita = said), which I picked up through reading them, and the Level 0 books have several that are about daily life in Japan, providing essential phrases and cultural knowledge. The children’s picture books taught me animal names and noises, as well as some colours and expressions. Maybe they’re not as important for adults as other vocabulary, but they’re part of language nevertheless.

The best approach to extensive reading for vocabulary acquisition still isn’t clear, but it does improve language, and surprisingly, not just reading skill. One study found that it even improved speaking, more than some traditional methods of language teaching. Also, just 10 minutes per day pretty much guarantees at least some improvement, with more likely to be better. So keep reading, but don’t stress about unknown words or grammar. Look up meanings if you want to, as you will retain vocabulary better that way – especially if you try to guess the meaning first, but don’t let it slow down your reading too much.

Extensive Reading in Japanese

I’ve been reading my collection of very easy Japanese graded readers in recent weeks, and was very pleased to successfully order all the level 0 books from ask-books.com.  This gives me a collection of 18 books in addition to the 3 level 0 books I had from NPO.  I’m currently making my way through them.

My knowledge of Japanese is quite limited really: I learnt a bit from the Let’s Learn Japanese TV series, then from the first book of the Kimono Japanese language school text book, a short course based on the Japanese for Busy People textbook prior to a one-week visit to Japan, and then pretty much just doing extensive reading and occasionally revising my hiragana and katakana (and another short trip to Japan).  So some of the level 0 books (and some level 1 which is the same vocabulary base) are roughly the right level for me.  The others are perhaps a little difficult, however, the design of the books is such that you can follow the story via the pictures and pick up vocabulary by deduction a lot of the time.

While I try to avoid looking up words (well, actually I’m pretty lazy anyway), I allow myself to look up one or two words after I’ve read through a book to either confirm my guess at its meaning, or to make the meaning clearer where there were too many words I didn’t know to follow the story.  I will sometimes reread the story after having done so – I’m only reading very short stories so this doesn’t take long.

Via the Japanese Level Up site I discovered another blog with information about extensive reading, together with reviews of Japanese graded readers, and also how to access an on-line library of Japanese picture books.  Given that the tadoku competition favours new books over rereading, I’ll probably hit the picture books once I run out of my readers.

 

 

Easy Reader Genres

I’ve been taking part in the Tadoku competition again this month, in French, Japanese and German.

My Japanese is pretty basic, so I’m reading beginner readers that have only a couple of sentences on each page at most, with the majority of them being repetitious in order to give practice at certain phrases.  Only a few of these are particularly enjoyable in terms of text content: The Shinkansen series previously published by Heinemann are good.  The DEE Publications readers are good practice and have nice illustrations, but can’t be classed as particularly entertaining.  The interesting part of those books are actually the cultural notes at the end in English.  Some Japanese little books for very young children that I acquired in Japan are amusing, partly for their innovative layout (Inai inai baa!).

In French I’ve been reading books at the 700-1000 word vocabulary level, plus a few other books of a similar level of difficulty.  After reading quite a few books for adolescents about adventures and mysteries etc, I seem to have hit saturation point with the genre.  I’m still enjoying crime mysteries and some classic stories (though not all), but my new interest is stories from Africa.  There is a series of African stories published by Heinemann in 5 levels of difficulty.  I stumbled across these when visiting a Dutch shopping site, and ordered a couple at Niveau 3 to try.  They are a refreshing change from the fodder I’ve been reading recently.  They don’t pull any punches though.  I’ve read La Valise Ensorcelée, which has an element of magic to it, as well as a moral.  I’ve also read “L’usine de la Mort”. This book shocked me a little, but I’m glad I read it.  I don’t think it’s great literature by any stretch, but certainly interesting, moving, and sufficiently different for the jaded easy reader reader.  As a result I’ve bought more books from the series.

Children’s books

While searching for books that are simple enough for me to read in Japanese, I’ve been musing about the attributes that make these suitable for language learners.
If starting from scratch you need repetitious text with obviously illustrated nouns. This describes some of the books I purchased. The downside of the simplest books is that they become an illustrated list of nouns (or adjectives like colours), and therefore have no narrative.
In Japanese you have the added complication of the writing system. Beginner books use hiragana only. Then there are some that have katakana with hiragana transliterations. Then there are a few that use both the alphabets without guides. At the next level kanji are included with hiragana guides. The level of support for kanji varies.