Reading Between the Lines

Recently, I have been focusing on reading Japanese books and novels to improve my comprehension. I am a firm believer in linguist Stephen Krashen‘s input hypothesis for learning second languages, and I believe reading native-level books is a great, and fun, way to learn a language because you can learn vocabulary in context and learn how words are used naturally in the language. With enough input, ideally comprehensible input, anyone can learn a second language.

One of the challenges is finding comprehensible input, so I try not to read books that are above my level, but I think it’s important to read books that are compelling and interesting, too. I think books written for children are a good starting point because it’s a great way to build up your vocabulary, although some children’s books can be a challenge. One of my Japanese friends recommended a series to me last month (loosely translated, it’s called Round Coin Paradise). After taking time to create an account on Amazon Japan, I was able to purchase some of the ebooks for my Kindle. The Kindle is a great tool in language learning because ebooks can be delivered immediately, and searching for words using a built-in dictionary is very convenient.

When reading a book for the first time, I like to read each chapter once without searching for any words that I don’t know because I want to force myself to guess or figure out the meaning from context and from the words that I do know. I don’t worry about understanding every word. My goal is to understand the big picture. Do I understand the plot? Do I know the names of the main characters? Do I know what they are doing even if I don’t know a lot of the words? And so on and so on.

Reading without searching for the meaning of each word is smoother process, too. Searching for every word breaks the flow of the reading process and becomes a burden. After I read the chapter, I like to re-read it and search for words where I feel it’s important to know in order to really understand the meaning of the sentence or to understand the story. Also, I like to look up the meaning of words that I see multiple times (it’s how I learned the word for “gene”). Then, I like to read the same chapter one more time without searching for any of the words to test my comprehension and to test whether or not I remember the word.

I think there’s a lot of value in reading books because it’s a great way to get a lot of good input. Not only that, it gives you a chance to process and understand the meaning of the words, learn vocabulary and so on. In addition to reading books, I read news stories on NHK Easy (NHK is Japan’s public broadcaster), which is a site that publishes regular news stories written in easier Japanese because it’s geared towards children. One of the nice features of NHK Easy is that the definition of some words are provided, so I force myself to learn words by reading the definition on NHK and not search for it in a Japanese-to-English dictionary. Although it’s slow and gradual, I have noticed that my comprehension has been improving.

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