Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 6

This is a sixth part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.

In my previous posts I have written on how to study radicals first, the importance of getting a good text book for studying Kanji, the way to get your brain to remember Kanji in an effective way, and how to set your pace for studying Kanji.

I think that if you keep in mind my advice from those 5 posts, you know enough to study Kanji effectively and at a good pace. But there is still another problem...

As you keep studying Kanji, the number of Kanji that you have (or should have) remembered keeps increasing and increasing. After some time you will have studied too many Kanji to be able to review all of them on a regular basis. So, it would be nice to have a way to keep refreshing what you learned.

You could of course keep going through your Kanji book every day at a very high pace, checking all Kanji you have studied already. But how long will you be able to continue this? It is not very entertaining, and the thought that you might have to continue this way of reviewing for years might drive you crazy.

What I recommend is to start reading as soon as you can. This might sound obvious, but I can assure you it is a very hard task. I remember I started looking for novels to read in Japanese around the time I took the JLPT2. The problem is obviously that you want to read something that both helps you refresh your Kanji, and at the same time is also interesting. But on the other hand it should not be too difficult to read. In other words, it should not contain too many Kanji that you have not studied yet.

Unfortunately, these requirements somewhat contradict each other: there are very few (or even no) books that contain exactly the Kanji you have studied already and none you have not studied yet. You might of course start reading children books, but I don't know how long you can continue that before you get tired of it.

What I did was look at things the optimistic way: I picked a book I wanted to read, and considered that every Kanji I encountered that I did not know yet was one that I should study soon anyway. So, while reading I looked up Kanji that I did not know, and made a list of the ones that were worth studying in the near future.

The raw reality is that this means that at first you have to write down a Kanji every couple of sentences. You will spend more time looking up the unknown Kanji that you spend actually reading. This is tough. But after the first 50 pages or so, you will start to feel a difference: more and more you will be able to read more sentences without haveing to look up Kanji (and vocabulary) you don't know. Before you know it you will finish your first book, and you can start your second.

Some (obvious?) things I have noticed:

  • the style of the Japanese differs strongly between authors. Some are easy to read, others are difficult to read. Pick one that is easy to read at first.

  • the style of Japanese differs strongly depending on when a novel was written. Pick a recent novel, and not - for example - Yasunari Kawabata's "Snow Country", written in 1935 and onward. I am speaking from experience again.

  • if you want to read a classic English novel in Japanese, keep in mind that the translation in Japanese might be difficult to read depending on who made the translation, and when the original was written. I have tried some works by Charles Dickens translated in Japanese, but all were hard to read.

  • if you pick a Japanese novel situated in for example the Edo period, you can be sure that the dialogs in the novel will be written in a way trying to immitate the way people spoke during that era. This will make the novel hard to read for you. There will also be references to old customs you don't know, etc. So I recommend not to read these kinds of novels at first.

  • if you pick a novel that you have read before in another language, or a novel for which you already know the content to some extend, you are less likely to get completely stuck. It decreases that change of you having to go back and reread several pages because you have no idea what is going on.
What I would recommend as first novels is for example a translation of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This novel is written in easy to understand language (although its deaper meaning might not be so easy), and is surely interesting enough to read. The Japanese title is 「星の王子さま」. Other recommendations would be novels by Haruki Murakami, which is rather popular outside of Japan too. His style is easy to read. I have read several of his novels, like 「ノルウェイの森」 (Norwegian Wood), or 「海辺のカフカ」 (Kafka on the Shore).

I have found that picking the right novel is very important as it is frustrating to be stuck in the middle of a novel that is just too difficult for you at your present level of Japanese proficiency. You'll have to put the novel asside and look for something else, and give it a second try later. On the other hand, sometimes you can find novels that are a true pleasure to read, and you'll find you can finish them in just a few days time.
Anyway, the important point is: read, read, read, read!! Whenever you feel like reading a novel, don't be tempted to buy the English version or the version in your mother language, but buy the Japanese version!! Reading Japanese must be the most entertaining way of studying it.

I remember very well the day I took the JLPT1. All students around me were checking grammar books and Kanji books before the test began. I on the other hand was just reading "Norwegian Wood" by Murakami, in Japanese. Now, tell me, which way of studying do you think is more fun: the grammar book, or the novel? We all know the answer.

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