As part of raising my son bilingual Japanese, over the last few years I’ve spent a great deal of time reading him Japanese children’s books. I always recommend children’s books to people learning Japanese because typically no kanji knowledge is required, there is a so much culture to absorb, and they are just plain fun. (Here is one of my recent reviews of a good book which contains a link to a bunch of other book samples online).
In Japanese, there are several terms for reading books out loud. Below are a few, along with a few notes on their usage.
- 朗読 [roudoku]: a more formal activity that adults can appreciate (something like ‘recitation’)
- 音読 [ondoku]
- 声に出して読む [koe ni dashite yomu]: simply “to read out loud” (literally this means “putting out to voice and reading”)
- 読み聞かせる [yomikikaseru]: this term is frequently used when talking about reading out loud to children.
- 読み聞かせする [yomikikase suru]: same as above.
The funny thing is that the more reading out loud in Japanese I do, the more I enjoy it. I’ve discovered that roudoku has an unexpected richness with several benefits to those learning the language, and I feel it’s worth trying for even people who are beginning students (that can at least read hiragana).
To make sure we are on the same page (no pun intended), by “reading out loud” I mean to simply pick up a book, digital or paper, and read so that you pronounce the words audibly with enough volume that someone next to you can clearly hear what is being said. You don’t have to project your voice too much, but do try to keep it above a whisper. I think you’ll be reap benefits from this even if you are doing it by yourself, and at first you’ll probably want to try it alone. But eventually you can try it in the presence of people who know Japanese or are learning it.
One of the good things about reading out loud is that it forces you to think about how to pronounce the words. When reading silently, I think its easy to fall into a “skimming” mode where you just rush through trying to get to the finish line. As a result, you never get to hear what the words actually sound like, hence it may be harder for you to recognize and use these words in an actual conversation. However, to get this benefit it’s important to use stories targeted at children. Reading adult literature out loud, while rewarding and educational in it’s own way, will not help your conversation ability in the same way.
When learning to speak a foreign language, one of the more difficult things is not just pronouncing individual words, but pronouncing them in groups. In fact, the sounds of certain letters can change in context (such as the letter ん). By practicing many common letter combinations in roudoku, you can get your mouth and tongue to make the needed sounds more efficiently and smoothly. This may help you with some tricky sounds, especially the “r” sounds (らりるれろ). Also make sure you pronounce things on a beat-by-beat basic (metronomic) so that you properly elongate sounds, like the “kou” in “kouen” (park), and don’t cut short the small tsu (っ).
A nice side effect of this is that, in order to keep a constant pace in your reading, you need to challenge yourself to improve your character recognition speed (something that took me a while, especially with katakana). If someone is listening to you, there will be even more motivation to reduces pauses to consider, for example, whether something is a katakana “so” (ソ) or “n”（ン).
Once you do get to the point where you understand enough Kanji, you can try doing some vocalized reading with books that contain Kanji as well. This will help you remember the readings (especially if there is no furigana reading hints) which is important to use these words in the real world, outside of a book.
One of the other advantages of roudoku is that it can really help build confidence in your Japanese ability. The more you do it, the better you’ll get, and the positive feedback loop will keep you coming back for more. Maybe you can even impress your Japanese friends by reading a children’s book out loud to them. Very little is required, except for a book and a light source (or a mobile device), so you can do this activity almost anywhere, anytime. Even if your grammar skills are a little weak (a common complaint I’ve seen in beginners), you can still try reading out loud and make guesses as to what is happening based on the context. You’ll soon discover that reading with proper inflection does require deeper knowledge of grammar. But if read enough, your brain will start forming its own grammar rules.
As you build confidence and ability, you can start introducing more frills to your reading by doing things like using different voices for different characters. Essentially, you can think of yourself as a voice actor (声優さん) in an anime series or radio show. If you want to take your roudoku to the next level, you can start listening to professional readings on places like Youtube. It’s easy to find them with the keyword 「朗読」. This is a newer reading of the classic tale Momotaro to give you a taste of what is out there.
Despite its benefits, don’t expect your pronunciation to magically become native level just by a lot of roudoku repetition. You will eventually reach a level where you can smoothly read out loud, but odds are you’ll still have an accent from a combination of unnatural vowel/consonant sounds and intonations. In fact, learning proper intonation is one of the more difficult areas of Japanese, not only because each word has a different set of pitches, but because this can change on the context and meaning of the word.
For most people, unless you are aiming to be a professional storyteller, I would suggest not worrying about the intonations too much, at least initially. It’s fine to try and get the right pitch pattern for some words, especially common ones, but if you try to listen to a professional reading and go word-by-word to fix your pitches, you’ll likely burn out soon. After years of reading out loud in Japanese, while I am pretty confident my Japanese is comprehensible by natives, I’m fairly sure that my intonations are not accurate for some words.
On an interesting side note, I once spoke to someone who was familiar with how roudoku is taught for Japanese natives, and they said there is actually some very detailed rules, like how some sounds can change subtly depending on the context (similar to what I said above, but more formalized). Also, from what I have been told, the profession of voice acting is taken much more seriously in Japan compared to the US. There are also other traditional Japanese art forms like Rakugo which open up a whole new world of spoken storytelling. There is a lot of depth in these areas if you really want to get serious.
One thing you should be careful about is to not become so reliant on roudoku such that you always read out loud (or under your breath). Continue to reserve some time to do normal reading where it’s all in your head. This is because true speed reading occurs when you focus less on how the words sound, and more on what they mean. But having said that, with the exception of advanced students I think generally the above mentioned benefits are more important than trying to blaze through text with the fastest possible speed. Just like in your native language, there are times when a quick perusal (パラ読み) are best, and times when a thorough reading are needed.
I hope this article gave you a good feel for what roudoku is about and maybe even motivated you to try yourself. It’s a great way to help round out your Japanese studies.
On a final note, while I focused on using children’s books for roudoku in this post, once you get good at that level of reading you can branch out to other media like manga, where have even more types of stories to enjoy, and more words to add to your lexicon. Just remember stories that focus on a certain domain (for example a story about playing go) will probably contain less words you can actually use in real life.