The art of パラ読み (parayomi) in a foreign language

By | April 22, 2014

パラ読み – a quick perusal of written text – is an important skill that we take for granted with our native language. We can slow down and analyze word by word when trying to grasp content fully, and speed up when we just want to grasp the basic concepts.

With a foreign language, the process can be extra difficult, because of the amount of time required to process words and sentences. When reading in Japanese, I like to read very slowly such that I understand every word’s meaning, pronunciation, grammar structure, and any nuances hidden in the sentence. But when it comes time for パラ読み, sometimes it’s difficult for me to speed up and skip all the words I don’t quite grasp 100%. But this is a critical skill even more so with a foreign language,  since often there isn’t time to read an entire work or even a chapter due to time constraints.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit New York again, and spent many hours at the two excellent Japanese bookstores there. After hanging out for a few minutes it occurred to me this was the perfect opportunity to sharpen my quick perusal skills. Not only were there thousands of books to choose from, but there was only a small amount of time to read each of those I put my eyes on.

Regardless of your level in Japanese (or whatever foreign language you are studying), I think browsing through a foreign language book store like this is an excellent exercise to increase your quick reading proficiency. I typically first gravitate to sections I am interested in, like popular novels or children’s books, and just pick up whichever book catches my eye. My main objective is to figure out what the title means and what general type of content I can expect within. Unlike reading random text on the web, you have a wealth of contextual extra information to help fill in the blanks about words or phrases you don’t understand: the cover of the book, the genre, the table of contents, plus any marketing material which has been put on the book. Of course you will also want to do a quick flip through some of the pages to catch any illustrations or other text that stands out. By the way this is where the word パラ読み (parayomi) comes from: “パラ” is the sound of pages flipping (sometimes written as パラパラ)and 読み is the act of reading as a noun.

Usually after a minute or two I can get a good feel for what the book is about, and sometimes I’ve learned new words or expressions on the way. Another good part of this exercise is you get to experience many different types of fonts and decrypt what the mean. If you can’t pick out certain letters you can always try and find the title written somewhere else (like on the side or inside the front cover), written in an easier font. And the whole process has a certain necessity to it which improves your focus and retention (as I discussed previously here).

By going through this exercise you also get good exposure to other aspects of the foreign culture you might otherwise have been missing (unless you live in that country in which case there may be nothing new to you). For example when I was reading through the children’s section in Book Off in NY I saw many books about middle school and high school entrance exams, which highlights the importance and difficulty of these tests for many Japanese children.

Another great thing about foreign language bookstores is you can quickly find the section with books you are interested in. For example if you are into politics, you can jump to that section and start perusing those books. Odds are you will have background knowledge on that subject to improve your comprehension, and can maintain interest for a longer period of time.

While there are no formal rules for parayomi, here are a few things I suggest to make things go smoothly.

  • Know your genre – Understand what section the book is in and also think about the audience. Is it written for adults or children, women or men?
  • No dictionaries – Pulling out a dictionary (or an app on your mobile device) and searching for words on the spot really slows down the process. Focus on speed and general understanding, not details. Even if you don’t understand part of the title, the table or contents and any illustrations should give you enough hints to figure it out.
  • Avoid translated works – This guideline stems from my personal dislike of reading works translated from other languages, especially my native one. If you’re going to practice reading in a foreign language you want to read text written by a native Japanese person who was thinking in Japanese at the time. For Japanese books you can tell pretty quickly if they are translated because the author’s name is in katakana, and you can look for the  訳 (やく) word which means ‘translator’ or ‘translated’. Of course you can make an exception if the original work is from an author you’re a big fan of.
  • Limit yourself to a few minutes – Spending an hour decoding a book ruins the point of parayomi. Keep it to a handful of minutes, at five at most. If you still find yourself wanting to read more, consider buying the book for a deeper read at home.



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2 thoughts on “The art of パラ読み (parayomi) in a foreign language

  1. adamf2011

    I think that’s so cool that Japanese has a word for the sound of pages being flipped…I had never thought of such a possibility before, but now could only wish that English had such a word.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yeah, there is alot of onomatopoeic words in Japanese, and they are fun to learn. I actually have a book full of them, but many within I never found an opportunity to use. Like many things it’s best to copy words used by a native speaker, not a text book (:


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