Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Learning to read

“Some of you are new to the language,” the school's international coordinator wrote, “and some of you are already very experienced in it, but I encourage all of you to study as much as possible in the months leading up to your arrival.”

No problem. I already study a few hours every day. So just keep up with that, right?

Not long after, though, I reconsidered. After all, I was missing a crucial component from everyday life: I am functionally illiterate. My first Japanese teacher had us running hiragana and katakana in no time, but the intricacies of kanji have largely eluded me. As summer 2011 opened, I knew only the most common readings of 400 or so characters, meaning that, frustratingly, I could often pick a few characters out of a more technical string and get the gist of the meaning, yet still not be able to read the word.

To be honest, I didn't even mind until recently. My Japanese communications are predominantly verbal, and since I intend to move here permanently, I always assumed I'd eventually acquire the knowledge I needed. I pictured myself in the throes of organic learning, picking up characters one by one through context, until finally I'd taste victory and burn through the last stretch. It was only a matter of time.

Indeed, the vast majority of my study philosophy centres around exposure. I watch dramas and anime (subtitles are for the weak, by the way), and listen to music, for at least an hour a day, usually around three. I read Jump. I play JP-only video games. I've changed my phone, computer, and every application therein to Japanese. Unfortunately, I had to concede that this method just wasn't getting me where I needed quite as fast as I wanted. The problem was the handful of academic courses I'm taking in Japanese on top of the compulsory language and culture ones designed for ryuugakusei. While I can mostly follow the lectures, the written material is almost impenetrable.

There was no way in hell I was going to attain a university-level reading ability in a couple of months, but I saw no reason why I shouldn't be doing everything I could to soften the blow. If nothing else it would make my life here that much easier. So I got a proper night's sleep for once, sat down with the kanji book I'd received a year earlier and barely touched since, and got serious. On top of the book, I had the pocket Japanese dictionary I carry with me everywhere as well as my phone, with its draw-to-write recognition app.

With these resources and various papers arrayed around me, I started on the one thing I'd always assumed was worthless: Rote memorization. I wrote lines of kanji, over and over and over again. With each rep I'd give the reading in my head. For each non-verb reading I picked a compound and wrote that. Then I wrote out the other half of the compound and repeated the process for each of its readings, until I ultimately ran out of material and moved down the list. I started at the beginning of the book and launched.

The first day I studied for six hours, setting the tone for the whole exercise. My Japanese friends who witnessed the burgeoning weight of my studies reacted first with surprise, and then with growing respect as I relentlessly hammered on. More than one told me that watching me had inspired them to study English harder. I was sleeping through the night for the first time in years. My back and fingers started to hurt. I heard “Gonna Fly Now” playing in the background.

Experience teaches language (and everything else) better than any textbook, but there's something very satisfying and concrete about this kind of studying, too. You can really throw yourself into the task, for one thing. And after watching an episode of drama, I know I've learned something, but how much, and even what, may be a mystery, because things like pronunciation, cadence, and word usage improve incrementally. After storming some kanji, however, I have a good sense of just how many I studied, how many I mastered, and how many I need a few more runs at.

Even my short-term retention had lengthened; content I'd have forgotten almost immediately started to hang around for at least a few hours. Your brain lets go of information it thinks it won't need, so as I reinforced the idea that this is stuff we'll be using, memorization became increasingly automatic – this compounded by the fact that it's simply easier to learn more the more you learn. It's mentally exhausting, and I have to take regular breaks to keep the law of diminishing returns from interfering – the rainbow Jell-O that is my knowledge bed needs time to set before the next layer can be added – but that's sort of the point: to just keep bashing away until things start to make purchase. It's even helping my vocabulary.

As a weird side effect, although I never altered my listening study at all, for the first couple of days after beginning this regimen my speaking ability dropped dramatically. I guess the different aspects of language maintain a kind of equilibrium within your head that they don't like having disturbed.

I then mounted the other half of my two-pronged attack. Although I've never considered myself a self-learner, extremely little of what I know came out of a textbook or a classroom. I've learned primarily by watching TV and talking to people. It's made my grammar quite colloquial, because I don't actually know the rules, I just know how people talk, and the things they say. But this has its own benefits, and to me it's more than worth the tradeoff. So I decided to take my “learn by doing” strategy directly over to this new territory: I would achieve literacy by reading.

So I started procuring Shounen Jumps from the Book-Off in Vancouver, reading them cover to cover. It wasn't exactly a snap, but it's only at a Junior High School reading level, and the twin crutches of furigana and illustrations unquestionably facilitate comprehension. I read one installment every day until I left, and I've have done a lot more if it wouldn't have meant I'd have run out of material. I figured it didn't matter much; once in Japan I could pick one up for a cool 300 yen anytime I wanted.

I ended up studying much more sophisticated material instead. My Japanese Literature instructor provides not only English translations of each short story we study, but, mainly for the benefit pf Japanese students, there's also the option of reading it in the original Japanese. So after absorbing the English, I take a walk through the original. I can't get much, but every inch is progress.

One of the authors profiled was Yokomitsu Riichi, and as I read his biography I was struck by some superficial similarities to Ernest Hemingway. One of his major novels, Shanghai, is the story of a Japanese guy who visits the titular metropolis during the May Incident of 1925. One of my favourite authors, the best Chinese city, foreigner life, Japanese people and the Jazz Age? Did Yokomitsu write this book specifically for me?!

Now I'm taking on the ultimate challenge: I am going to read a full novel in Japanese. Not only is the prose adult and dense, it's replete with era-appropriate language and kanji that aren't even used anymore. Reading a single page takes about 45 minutes. I need to look up every third word, and whenever I look back I find I've already forgotten words appearing earlier in the sentence I'm currently reading, so my comprehension was scattered at best. I don't care. I may not be able to completely appreciate the quality of the writing, but I'm gripped. I can feel the progress. It may take months, but I am going to read this book.

And then I'm moving on to Murakami.

Conversation is as awesome as ever, but it's actually my steadily rising reading that has provided the greatest gratification. I can work through notices and class handouts. I can browse menus, follow simple instructions, and read through a list of ingredients. Currently there's some construction going at the university, and when workers stretched building-high lengths of fabric across the walls, I saw that they were emblazoned with 音防 and knew exactly what they were for.

Not only that, but being exposed to Japanese reading materials through my 日本思想史 class is actually improving my writing abilities. I just bashed out a short writing assignment and I was tossing out the なお's and the である's like it was the most natural thing in the world, and a few weeks ago I literally didn't know what either of those things meant. I have to say I'm pretty proud of the results. Maybe one day I'll pull an Ayn Rand and pen a novel in Japanese?

My goal of reaching a Grade Four level by September turned out to be a little too ambitious, which was discouraging, but recently I had an epiphany: Undeniably, I am measurably improving, week by week. After studying Japanese for a year I could barely string a coherent sentence together, but I kept at it, and now I hold my own. I haven't always progressed at the rate I would like, but at the risk of spewing platitudes, my persistence has paid off. And if I just keep throwing myself at the hardest obstacles I can find, the same thing is going to happen with my written skills. However long it takes, if it pushes me beyond my limits, I will learn to read.


  1. I really quite enjoyed reading this with the song.
    Really made the literature just that little bit more interestingggg. <3

    1. Haha! Good! I do try to mix things up a bit when I can ^-^