I'm going to be honest: I've been learning Japanese for nearly 10 years now, but I can count on one hand the number of Japanese books I've read all the way through.
From when I was very young, I loved reading, and was regularly caught reading Harry Potter under my covers by torchlight. Then school happened, then uni, then work, and...somehow, it became hard to find the time and energy to be constantly committed to a full book.
While I do want to read more books, and am making an effort to do so, all these ruminations have raised a question in my mind: what is so important about the idea of reading a book - and in particular, to read one all the way to the end?
Is Reading Books Important to Learn a Language?
A lot of us grew up with reading as a key part of how we learnt our first language or languages, so it makes that when we start learning another language, we often set ourselves the aim reading a book in it.
As anyone who has come within a mile of the Japanese language can tell you, learning to read in Japanese as someone who has only ever known an alphabet system like English involves a few more barriers than, say, learning to read French or Spanish.
So: is reading books an important part of overcoming this particular hurdle? My answer: it can be, but not necessarily!
How Reading Books Can Help - or Hinder - Your Japanese
Learning Japanese through reading books is likely to work for you if...well, you're someone that enjoys reading books. This may sound obvious, but if this doesn't describe you, there's no need to stick to books!
If you're a bit of a bookworm, you probably already have a bit of an idea of why books might be helpful: they introduce you to natural turns of phrase, new words, info about culture and history...and most importantly, if it's a book you enjoy you'll happily spend hours absorbed in it.
All this said, there is still an elephant in the room: what if you simply can't read the words in front of you? Especially when first starting out, it can be really hard to find reading materials at the right level. I for one remember countless occasions of picking up Japanese children's books thinking they would be easy, only to find I could hardly make head or tail of them.
This is where the hindrance comes in. How long do you think you could sit reading a book that you only understood 30% of? How would that compare if you understood 50%? 70%? 90%?
While it can be fun to challenge yourself to decoding a seemingly impenetrable text, the majority of the time, there's simply no need to put yourself through all that! We learn more when we're enjoying ourselves, and will spend longer reading if we can keep going without getting exhausted.
Where Can I Find Materials At the Right Level?
If you're keen to have a go at some more reading but are relatively new to Japanese, the good news is that there are quite a few materials out there - as long as you can find them! Here are a few you can check out:
- Hiragana Mini Books (Japan Foundation, Sydney)
- Japanese Graded Readers (OMG Japan)
- Free Books (Tadoku NPO)
(None of the above links are affiliations.)
If you're a bit further into your studies and are keen to try out some more "authentic" Japanese reading materials, there's nothing wrong with picking up pretty much any bit of reading material and having a go at it. The trick may be to focus in on the bits you understand, while forgetting about the bits you don't!
Finally, while I've been talking about "books" all the way through this post, one suggestion I have is to try recalibrating from the goal of "reading a book" to taking on something more bite-sized, for example:
- Reading a page of manga
- Reading a social media post
- Reading a short story
- Reading an email from your teacher
All of the above are brilliant achievements in and of themselves, and also quite accessible ways to find bits of written Japanese that you can try reading. You may find that having lots of little goals rather than one big one (reading a book) is a much easier way of motivating yourself.
Do I Need to Read the Whole Thing?
Returning to my question at the beginning: while I think reading is a great way to spend time and learn a language, there can be a lot of pressure put on the idea of reading books - and in particular, reading them right to the end.
Next month, fellow Japanese teacher Hitomi Kobayashi and I will be hosting two Tadoku Taster events, where the aim will be to enjoy reading in Japanese at a relaxed paced, with plenty of materials that you can pick up or put down as you fancy. A huge part of my motivation in doing these events is connected to what I've talked about here: taking apart the idea that we need to read "books" (bound, published, official-looking books!) and that we need to read them to the end to count it as an achievement, when in fact, the mere act of sitting down and having a go is already a really significant achievement in itself.
If you'd like to join us to learn more about the approach of tadoku and find out where to access more reading materials aimed at learners of Japanese, please click here.
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