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By | June 6, 2024

Learning to Read Japanese Quickly

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of articles related to audio or video stuff, and haven’t written too much about grammar or the process of learning Japanese. Part of the reason is a lack of ideas for content. That’s why when I received an email from a reader asking if I had any suggestions for how to learn to read Japanese quickly, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to write an article for this blog.

The phrase “learning to read Japanese quickly” can be interpreted in two ways. One is how to learn to read at a fast rate (something like speed reading), and the other is how to be able to quickly get to the point where you can read Japanese, even if it is at a relatively slow speed. 

The former is perhaps one of the hardest things to do in a foreign language, and frankly requires years of constant practice to even have a chance at reaching a reading speed that is equivalent to that of your native language(s). But for me, even after two decades of speaking and reading Japanese, my English reading speed is still much faster than my Japanese reading speed, at least for most types of content.

So I will focus this post on the latter, namely how a Japanese learner can quickly get to the point where they can start reading real Japanese and actually understand the content, at least at a rudimentary level (things like fine nuances are nice but not necessar).

I’m going to break down this article into a few main suggestions, which when used together should help you to quickly ramp up to reading Japanese.

Tip 1: Don’t Forget Grammar Basics

Personally I’ve been very grammar-focused in my Japanese studies from Day 1, which I partially attribute to my detail-oriented nature, and I think having a strong foundation is one thing that has allowed me to learn to read and understand various types of Japanese. 

While I know some learners out there are hesitant to get too much into grammar details, I think for nearly all learners it’s best to immerse yourself in grammar, especially at the early stages of your learning. This means stuff like word order, particles, pronouns, verbs, etc., basically anything required to properly make sentences and parse them to derive meaning from a bunch of words stuck together. 

Even though some people may try the approach where they just learn some vocab and hope their brain can figure out how things fit together by reading loads of text, for most of us (at least those of us past a certain age), our brain is just not that good at extracting rules, and learning things like word order and verb conjugation explicitly is the most efficient way to go.

Of course I am not saying to spend all of your time memorizing grammar, but I would say you should budget at least 20-30% of your time studying grammar, whether it is in the form of textbooks, youtube videos, or web sites.

I think it’s important to mention that you shouldn’t just memorize grammar patterns, but when you are reading and come across something you don’t understand, sometimes you should pause and look up the word/pattern (or make a list and look them up at the end). You don’t have to stop for every little thing (it can take the satisfaction out of reading), but I would err on the side of looking things up as opposed to just hoping your brain figures out their meaning from repeated encounters. 

Tip 2: Rereading

Rereading a passage you have already read before can be surprisingly powerful. The main advantage is that you already have seen the words (and possibly looked them up), so things should be fresh in your mind, allowing you to read and comprehend much faster than the first time you came across it.

This will help further solidify words and grammar patterns in your mind, not to mention the satisfaction that comes with being able to skim through a sentence and understand it without having to look up a bunch of things.

Like all these tips, I would suggest doing rereading in moderation. For example, if you spend an hour a day doing reading practice, try budging 10-20 minutes for reading content you’ve read before. Try choosing content you have read a day ago, a week ago, and even a month ago.

Tip 3: Choose Easier Content

It’s natural for learners to want to read “real” content that is targeted for native speakers, but trying to force yourself to read text far above your level can easily lead to frustration and burnout.

I would err on the side of choosing easier content, and the requirement of content designed for (and by) native speakers should be a bonus, not a hard rule. Books for young children are a great way, and there are many websites and YouTube videos with text written for a young audience. Things like graded readers and bilingual JP/EN books can also be very useful.

One of the advantages of simpler content is you are more likely to come back to the same words and grammar patterns, allowing you to reinforce and remind yourself of what they mean, whereas reading advanced content will likely be mostly new things. And––as I mentioned in the previous tip––the satisfaction of getting through something without constantly looking up words should not be underestimated, even if it’s a book targeting toddlers.

Tip 4: Kanji is Key

Japanese Kanji is not only one of the most challenging things to learn (at least in terms of raw amount of content); it’s also one of the key aspects to becoming a fluent reader. 

For this reason, I think it’s important for learners who know hiragana and katakana to soon move onto learning Kanji, and learning them preferably in grade order. And it’s important to not just map specific kanji to meanings, but also learn the various readings of each kanji, and the meanings of all the common radicals. 

One awesome thing about Kanji that can’t be said much for English is that if you come across an unfamiliar word whose kanji you are familiar with, there’s a good chance you can guess the meaning, and maybe even the pronunciation. (I’m ignoring people who know latin roots and such, since I think such people are pretty rare.) That can save a huge number of dictionary lookups and frustration.

However, just like grammar you need to balance studying Kanji with actually reading sentences in Japanese. If you go crazy and try to blitz-memorize 1000+ kanji in a few weeks and not actually use those, you’ll quickly forget them and be more likely to burn out studying Japanese. 

Also, I think it’s important to learn basic stroke order, since that helps you to count the number of strokes and to understand radicals better, even if writing in Japanese is not one of your primary language goals. Ideally you should be able to write the first few hundred kanji. There are a small number of radicals compared to characters, so learning just a handful opens the possibility of picking more characters quickly. For example, learning the kanji for “tree” (木) opens the way to “woods” (林) and “forest” (森). Knowing radicals also allows you to look up words quickly using a handy tool (like this), as opposed to trying to use some form of inaccurate optical character recognition.

Tip 5: Read Out Loud

Reading out loud sometimes has a bad rap in English, for example I remember a character in the classic Peanuts comic being made fun of for mouthing the words when reading. But I have found reading out loud (at least part of the time) really has helped me to check I actually know the word readings, plus it can help to make sure I actually focus on each word instead of skipping things over.

Reading out loud allows you to connect your reading to your listening and speaking, which is important, especially if speaking and listening are also important goals. Understanding proper pronunciations for words means that words you learned from listening will be useful to your reading, and vice-versa. (See Tip 7 below for more info on goals.)

Eventually you want to get to the point where you can read quickly without reading out loud (or in your mind), but I think during your early stages of learning it’s a good idea to slow down and read text out loud. This exercise is especially fun and helpful when doing it in a group since it can become listening practice for the other students.

Tip 6: Read What You Enjoy

Reading passages about topics you enjoy or stories that are fun or interesting can really help motivate you to read more and not get burned out. 

Indeed, the tip about choosing easy content above may seem hard to do in parallel with this, but regardless of your level you can try to pick between content based on your interests. For example, there may be fun children’s stories about animals vs. those connected to some ancient tradition, and while both are nice, if you prefer stories about animals feel free to go with that.

Tip 7: Evaluate Your Goals

Wanting to quickly reach the point where you can read Japanese fluently is a fair goal, but I think it’s important to ask yourself why. Is it because you want to live in Japan 3 months from now, because you want to chat with your girl- or guy-friend in Japanese, or because you are starting a job where Japanese reading is important? 

How you study will be affected by your reason(s) for wanting to learn Japanese (quickly). For example, if you need to be able to read legal documents in Japanese, it would make more sense to focus on legal related vocabulary and grammar, and less on fiction stories. If it’s for the purposes of text chat, that would be a very different situation. 

Also, keep in mind there is a price to quickly learning to do something. Generally the quicker you learn, the higher chance of you forgetting things, as opposed to a slow-but-sure method of gradually ramping up, and building upon what you learned

If your only reason for wanting to ramp up quickly is impatience, I would suggest you focus more on quality of language learning than quantity. In other words, try to enjoy your language studies as opposed to just cramming more information into your head.

Tip 8: Use What You Read

This perhaps is one of the most important tips of the bunch. Reading something and ending with a feeling that you sort of understood things is really only the first step in the reading process. To really check your understanding and make your reading purposeful, you should actually use the information you read about. 

There are various ways to do this: explain the content to someone in a language you are fluent in, write a summary of the content in Japanese, think about whether you agree with what you just read (for information articles), or think about the overall story flow and significance (for fiction stories). 

Using what you read in a way that really matters is the ultimate form of this. For example, using the Japanese directions of a kit to build something, or cook a Japanese dish that you read in a Japanese cookbook.

You can even combine other hobbies with Japanese to make things more interesting. Like if you are into chess, you can read some Japanese websites about chess tactics, or learn about politics using a Japanese book.

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Finally, if you made it to the end of this article, please consider checking out my series of books “Kantan! Read Japanese stories like a native” that is focused on helping learners read Japanese text, including notes on grammar, vocabulary, and other tidbits of info. You can find it here on Amazon.

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