Someone asked me a few days ago what my secret is for learning Japanese. Obviously, this conversation took place in English. If we had been communicating in Japanese, he would have known the futility in asking such a question of me. But ask he did, and it gave me a chance to weigh the various tools I have used to improve my language skills, especially in reading Japanese texts. I’m one of those “Try Everything” types, so I’ve encountered more than my share of unsuccessful methods. But a few tools have risen to the occasion and brought consistent, albeit sometimes slow, results. I present three of them here for your edification or bemusement.
Read Articles in Japanese
This almost goes without saying, but the best way to improve Japanese reading ability is to read regularly in Japanese, particularly with materials that are slightly above your comfort level. This is the key task that I wish I had done before I moved to Japan, but I was a lazy boy back in my lazy American homeland.
Soon after we moved here, my wife signed up for a newspaper subscription, the Asahi Shimbun. There is no way I was going to sit down and enjoy a dense Japanese morning paper with a cup of joe, but I did try to read one article—or at least a couple of paragraphs—from the front page several times per week. I was amazed at the results. In these somewhat depressing reports of local and world events, I found new but consistent grammar patterns and fresh vocabulary words that appeared with shocking repetition due to the news being about pretty much the same thing day in and day out. This reinforcement helped cement words and phrases that everyone around me was talking about.
I would attack an article by reading through it word by word, making a list of anything I didn’t understand along with the appropriate definition in English. After stapling this word list to the article, I would reread the text once per day over the next few days, referring to the vocabulary chart as needed. Then I would throw the article and its word list in a stack and forget about it. I did not add these words to Anki (my flashcard tool). Instead, I allowed the words to just sit there in my brain, not doing much until they showed up again in a subsequent article. While this made it difficult (at first) to recall the words when going from English to Japanese, I was amazed that I could read more and more of these encountered words as time went on, all without committing them to memory.
The Asahi Shimbun, with its left-of-center viewpoint, seems to attract writers with a more artistic bent, and therefore more likely to throw in flowery words and expressions. I expect this is true for the equally progressive Mainichi Shimbun. The conservative-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun probably has fewer hippie writers, and so the language might be more straightforward as a result, but that’s just a guess. One of the clearest sources for article scrounging is NHK, the public news outlet. Articles on the NHK website are structurally by-the-book every single time, a pattern that makes the content more accessible for language learners. This is especially true for its News Web Easy site, a subset of articles intended for school-age readers.
I also like the articles on the Fuji News Network (FNN) website, especially if you can find stories that include an attached video. For these posts, the text is usually a nearly perfect transcript of the video content, allowing you to both read and listen to the story.
A few days ago, I picked up a book called 『2024年入試用重大ニュース』 (2024-nen nyūshi jyūdai nyūsu). This colorful text, intended as prep for those taking middle school or high school entrance exams, summarizes key news stories from 2023. All of the difficult words include furigana above the kanji to help with pronunciation. I have glanced over just a few paragraphs, but if your Japanese skills are at the intermediate level, I think it will be a good fit.
Whatever your source, I encourage you to read out loud the second time you run through the article. This will get more parts of your brain working on the text. If you can read in the presence of a native Japanese speaker, that will help even more, but voicing the texts in the privacy of your own echo chamber will still bring improvement.
Read James Heisig’s Kanji Book
When it comes to learning kanji characters, I highly recommend the book Remembering the Kanji, by James Heisig. The method described in the book relies on storytelling to cement the structure and meaning of the 2,000-plus jōyō kanji in your mind. Heisig provides stories for the first few hundred characters, but then the crutches are removed and he passes creative control to you. The crazier the story, the better, it turns out. Did you have a dream where sharks swam menacing around you as you ate a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal? That might be the perfect basis for remembering a kanji.
I will be honest: This method isn’t for everyone. Some people loathe Heisig’s book and feel very comfortable lambasting the volume in public discussion forums. I think the disgust stems from the intent of the course: Heisig is teaching you how to write each kanji, not necessarily how to read each character. If you follow his recommendations, it will take you longer to successfully read all the kanji. But success will come, which is kind of the purpose. Heisig assigns a keyword to each kanji, usually one of that glyph’s standard definitions. Learning moves from English to kanji, a direction that doesn’t always help you when going in the other direction. It took me many years to get through the first (most important) book in the series, and Heisig says you should only work in the keyword-to-kanji direction. This is good advice for the first pass through the book. But once you have built stories for everything, I suggest that you learn them all once more, this time from kanji to keyword. Doing so helped my reading dramatically, and I doubt I would have much comfort with kanji if I had avoided Heisig’s great work.
To assist you in building stories and practicing them, I also recommend the website Reviewing the Kanji. At its core, it provides a flashcard system for reviewing each card in the Heisig deck. But more importantly, it is a place where adherents can share the stories they created for the characters. Coming up with 2,200 stories on your own can be difficult. It was a relief to rely on others going through the same trial as me.
Join a (Japanese) Club
We all know that the best way to improve foreign language skills is to immerse yourself in that language, surrounding yourself constantly with native speakers in a sink-or-swim setting. Due to the peculiarities of Japanese culture, it isn’t always easy for foreigners to do this, especially for those whose day job is linked to their native language. One solution to this problem is to join a club filled with Japanese natives. By entering a group with a shared interest, you immediately become part of an in-group, and are granted social access that comes with the benefit of everything being in Japanese.
The traditional Japanese arts are a good source of club activities. You can sign up for lessons in tea ceremony (sadō), calligraphy (shodō), or papercraft (kiri-e). If you like singing, there are karaoke groups that get together weekly to learn new songs. There are even groups that focus on international relations, including Sister City associations. Many of these clubs have fees attached, and material costs for some of the traditional arts can be quite high. If you search around, you are bound to find a club in your price range. If you can’t find something to your liking, there are always language-exchange groups, where Japanese citizens will talk to you for an hour in Japanese if you turn right around and converse in English for an hour.
All these methods should be paired with regular study in Japanese grammar, vocabulary building, and good-old-fashioned rote memorization using flashcards. But I have found that those more structured tools will take you only so far. Adding things that are used by native speakers, specifically club activities and consumption of news articles, can push your language skills forward at a faster clip.
[Image Credits: ゆきだるま / photo-ac.com]