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Jul 15, 2012

How to read Japanese: The Secret Revealed (Part One)

You've been learning Japanese and now you're ready to start reading Japanese, but there are some things that you should know. Reading involves a lot more than just understanding the language used to present a story or information.

Reading isn't just about the language.

When reading, we have expectations on what will happen based on our prior experiences and knowledge of the world. These kind of expectations make it much easier to understand what we are reading, because what we know is not entirely dependent on what we read. But when reading in another language from another culture, we lose much of this other knowledge. We are forced to depend on the words alone.

The skills needed to read and understand.

In beginning to read Japanese, you are actually faced with a lot more than just learning vocabulary and grammar. You must also learn about the culture that created the work and understand the context of what you read.

For an example in reading Japanese, you could read and understand the language, that characters in a story were using different honorifics (-chan, -san, -sama, etc) with each other, but would you really understand what the language implied about relationships between the characters?

Another example is a newspaper article. If you open up a newspaper in your native language, for your own country and region, then you'll most likely recognize the names, places, and events that are discussed. Now open up a newspaper (or news site) for a different country or region that speaks your same language. The vast majority of the names, places, and events will be completely foreign to you. Even though it's still the same language, your knowledge of the world doesn't allow you to understand. You understand the words, but you don't gain meaning.

So we (readers) need to understand cultural details, information about the world, in order to understand the meaning of the words in the story or article. Ironically, one of the best ways to gain this kind of worldly information is through reading, but you're just starting out and are still focusing on learning Japanese itself. So how can you build knowledge of Japanese while retaining a cultural context that you understand?

Build your language learning skills in a context that you know.

One of the easiest ways to build knowledge of the language is in a setting where you know the rules. Somewhere that you can form expectations and use your background knowledge of the world to help you. The best way to do this is to use translations of materials that you already know. By providing an environment where you have knowledge of the subject matter and the culture that made it, you can learn not only the language, but how the language represents those nuances.

Take for instance the Harry Potter books. They're immensely popular and they've been translated from English into just about every major language. Supposing that you have read at least one of the books, you would already know the background information. You'd understand who the characters are, how they act, how they relate to one another, as well as how the story goes. So if you were to try and read the story again in Japanese, you'd only need to understand how the language presents that information.

You would already know the context, so you could focus on the language.

That's the first secret of reading Japanese: Use what you know to teach you what you don't.

If you know the story or subject and you know the context, then all you have to pay attention to is how Japanese presents that same information. You build your knowledge of the Japanese language while also learning how it presents contextual cues. From there, you can move on to exploring new materials. So grab a translation of an old favorite and start reading it in Japanese. You'll find that you understand a lot more than you expected!

What's that noise? Why that's the sound of Part Two coming soon!

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