JOK Notebook

Reading Japanese with Joy: An Interview with Dan Bornstein of Reajer

In my last blog and in the most recent newsletter contest, I featured the great pictorial dictionary Mihongo. Since then I've kept in touch with creator Dan Bornstein, and I've thoroughly enjoyed our exchanges. We seem to have so much to say to each other!

When he launched the Japanese-study site Reajer at the start of the year, I looked at a free sample of his side-by-side Japanese and English texts, plus his expert explanations of the difficult points, and I wondered just how he came to know all that he obviously knows. How does one reach the stage (as he has) where one would rather stay home reading Japanese than go out to a movie?!

Over several days we had an honest conversation about the experience of reading Japanese, the struggles one inevitably encounters, and the path to success. With Dan's kind permission, I'm sharing our dialogue here.

Reading Until It Becomes Easier

• What is your biggest achievement as a reader of Japanese?

I think my biggest achievement is that I've persevered long enough to reach the stage where I just enjoy myself while reading without thinking of it as a study session. I still learn new things all the time, but now it doesn't take anywhere near the effort that it used to take. The only way to do it is to read and keep reading until it becomes easier.

Another achievement I'm happy about is that my reading is good enough for me to learn classical Japanese with modern Japanese translations to help me. It's the only real way to access the older language, which I personally like the most. It's satisfying to be able to use modern Japanese as something to fall back on, rather than the thing I need to be rescued from.

The Carrot, Not the Stick

• What has made you a good reader of Japanese? What tips can you offer others?

To me, the most important thing has been to enjoy the process of learning. When I started studying Japanese I told myself, this something I'm doing out of my own free will, and I'm going to do it my way or not at all. Instead of setting goals, I defined the process I wanted.

The reason this is important is that in Japanese it takes time to see progress. You need a lot of discipline, and in my experience only real enjoyment can actually give you that.

More specifically with regard to reading, my most important tip is this: Only read texts you care about. If it's not interesting, you probably shouldn't be reading it, because your brain will mostly likely reject it anyway. Long-term memory simply hates the things you hate! Of course, not everything in life is interesting, and your studies will inevitably bring you to some unpalatable texts. But that should be the exception and not the rule.

I should add another important point. Languages are commonly thought of as subjects or fields of knowledge in the same way as, say, history or geography. It's probably because that's how they are approached in the educational system. To me, though, a language isn't a subject but a worldview—the unique way a civilization looks at all the things that exist in reality. So we're not really learning "Japanese" but various parts of reality as seen through the Japanese mind, spirit, and culture.

Liking a language doesn't mean you have to like everything that is said in that language. Your interests apply there just as they do in your native language. If, for example, you hate economics, you are not going to enjoy reading about it in Japanese just because it's in that language. 

Partial knowledge is okay and natural. It does not mean you're bad at Japanese. If you don't know many technical words in economics, there's no reason to freak out; you probably don't know them in English either. And that's fine, because you do know other things that are more beneficial to you. Nobody is supposed to be a one-person universe, in Japanese or otherwise.

Which brings us back to square one: you have to enjoy your studies if you want to become a really good reader of Japanese. Even if it takes you longer, it will take you much farther than those who whip themselves onward along the way.

Published Translations as a Safety Net

• When you're reading Japanese and you get stuck, what do you do? I often find that once I'm lost, I can't recover. In other languages, it might be okay to skip over a few difficult areas and still get the gist of the whole thing, but in Japanese it's harder.

I've noticed that, too. For some reason, in Japanese a single word you don't understand can destroy the meaning of a whole sentence or even paragraph. 

When you're an advanced reader, it does become easier to infer meanings from context, but that stage seems to come much later than in other languages. In my experience Japanese is the only language where it's possible to know the meaning of every word in a sentence without understanding what the sentence says as a whole!

Until you've reached a more advanced stage in your studies, I recommend working only with texts for which you have a translation. This will be your safety net, even if it doesn't make difficulties go away completely.

What I like to do when a word or phrase is causing trouble is to look for example sentences that contain it, either in dictionaries or by doing an online search. Seeing the word in other contexts usually helps me pinpoint or at least intuit the meaning.

If this doesn't help, you should probably let yourself skip that part and move forward in the text. It may feel like a failure, but over time you'll keep seeing those difficult words and naturally develop a feel for how they work. It's no use spending too much energy on a single problem when you can learn so many other things by just reading on. 

Read the English Translation First!

• Where do you find texts with translations? I'm aware of annotated books such as Read Real Japanese, but it sounds like you might be talking about, say, simultaneously reading a Haruki Murakami novel in Japanese and a Jay Rubin translation in a separate volume. Is that how it works? If so, do you read one sentence at a time? One paragraph at a time?

The reason I started Reajer in the first place is that there are few other bilingual resources and almost none geared toward students. The best ones to use are indeed annotated books like the one you mentioned, and I recommend studying with them, but once you read through those few thin volumes you're left with no suitable materials to keep you going. That's a problem because you need long-term exposure to such texts in order for your reading to improve.

So in most cases you'd have to work with regular books and their commercially available translations, as in the example you gave. There are also a few cases where both texts (Japanese and English) are in the public domain and therefore easier to obtain, such as Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, which I used as a beginner.

I would generally read the Japanese first, try to find out the meanings, and then check against the translation to see if I got it right. But it was unnecessarily difficult. Nowadays I recommend reading the translation first and then the Japanese because you make faster progress that way. The best reading rate is one sentence or one paragraph at a time. (Many Japanese sentences are so long that they are actually paragraph-length anyway.)

The biggest issue with using standard books is that the translations don't necessarily follow the Japanese closely enough for learning purposes. They are meant to be read on their own and not as illustrations of the original texts. Translators will leave out or change many things to make the English text flow more naturally, and that's a good thing for general readers, but for language students it's a problem.

Finding the Information You Need

• You must have used resources other than just your own examination of texts. As you read, where did you find the sorts of grammatical and lexical explanations that you yourself are now providing with Reajer? Did you consult native speakers? I have many written resources at my disposal, and even so I can find far too few explanations in my books and websites. I have no choice but to ask native speakers time and again. (And of course some learners don't have that option.)

That's the most difficult part in Japanese—finding accurate explanations of difficult words, particularly grammatical ones. No resource in English will give you everything you need, and asking natives will not help much either because natives perceive their own languages intuitively. They often can't give clear explanations of why people say things a certain way, and this tends to happen most with the very words you can't grasp on your own. If you want to know why something is the way it is, you'll most often get a reply like, "Um, I don't know, that's just how we say it." Not very helpful.

Here are the best ways to get real information on Japanese usage: (1) having long-term, repeated exposure to the language; (2) asking very advanced learners who know how to think about Japanese analytically from your point of view; and (3) using native Japanese resources and dictionaries.

Regarding the last item, I recommend using Japanese monolingual dictionaries as soon as possible. Of course, it takes time to get to that point, but start doing it the moment you feel comfortable enough. The same goes for grammar resources; the only ones that gave me a deep understanding of the grammar were written entirely in Japanese. 

The Meaning Outweighs the Yomi

• I find that when I'm reading longer Japanese passages and know what certain kanji words mean, I can become lazy about figuring out the yomi because I'm so intent on deciphering the whole sentence. Does this happen to you, and if so, how do you deal with it? 

It does happen to me quite often. Overall, I'd say that the meaning should take precedence; it's more important to decipher the text than to be able to pronounce every word in it. I wouldn't neglect the readings, but when they become too much of an issue, reading stops being fun.

When I read in Japanese I voice everything in my head. My rule is that whenever I can't properly do this mental voicing for a word, I should stop and check the actual reading. I don't follow this rule very strictly, but it's a good idea to do it at least with words where you repeatedly forget the reading. If a passage has many such words, only check the readings for the more common or important ones.

However, the emphasis should still be on comprehension. The readings are important but secondary. You've probably heard how Chinese students can ace JLPT N1 with minimal effort just because they know all the characters from childhood. Their pronunciation and grammar may be far behind, but understanding nearly everything they read makes them effectively at home in Japanese. We're not that lucky, but the idea is the same for all students.

Drawing on Kanji Knowledge in Conversations

• I'm curious about how your reading and speaking/listening abilities have affected each other. In Japanese conversations do you draw on your kanji knowledge?

They do affect each other considerably.

When I came to Japan the second time, it was after more than three years of living in my hometown and focusing almost exclusively on reading. I almost never practiced speaking, listening, or writing during those years.

To my surprise, right after landing in Japan in this bookworm state, I could understand a great deal of what I heard. I could get people to understand what I said. I did it slowly and hesitantly, but I had a large vocabulary and many natural grammar patterns that I'd picked up from reading.

In Japan I of course had the chance to listen, speak, and write. But even then I kept focusing on reading because that's what I liked most. And I saw very clearly that it made all the other skills much more solid and enabled me to make good progress in them.

I have always drawn on my kanji knowledge in conversations, both for listening comprehension and for finding the right words. This is one aspect of Japanese where reading experience makes all the difference in the world. Being able to see the kanji in your head and assign them to what you hear and say is a crucial skill, which is why I think that being a fluent reader is even more important in Japanese than in other languages.

The biggest benefit of massive exposure to written Japanese is that you absorb usage patterns of both the written and the spoken language (because the latter is reproduced very faithfully in texts). By reading you build a memory bank of how the language is really used, and then you have templates for expressing yourself correctly and understanding things accurately. 

Language learning is about finding the rules from the patterns, not creating the patterns by applying the rules. We can only ever figure out the vocabulary and grammar when we see how they're put together and used by natives. 

Natural Methods of Kanji Acquisition 

• How did you become proficient in kanji?

In the beginning I tried the usual methods. I forced my way into kanji by memorizing characters from the Joyo list and writing them endlessly. It worked well with the first couple of hundred characters and gave me a good basis for stroke order, etc. But after that my memory refused to cooperate. I could no longer memorize the readings and meanings in isolation from words and context.

So I just let it go and decided that I'd look up any new character while reading. It took a lot of patience to do that several times in a single sentence! But over time, very slowly, I had to look up fewer and fewer of them, and it all started to make sense.

Other people may like the forceful methods, but for me natural and gradual methods work better. I basically started treating kanji as words instead of as a writing system, and the words stuck in my memory because I read them in interesting contexts. Of course, it was only possible to do that because of my earlier study of many basic characters. On the other hand, I didn't even bother to read a structured explanation about how radicals work until last year!

No One Is Trying to Torture You!

• For many learners, reading Japanese means managing emotions. Simply seeing a block of Japanese text can elicit tremendous fear! Then there's the crushing disappointment and frustration that come when, once again, the text feels beyond our abilities. Assuming that you feel any of these things, how do you talk yourself through those emotions and achieve the mindset you need?

That's a very good point, and I think it's why many people neglect reading practice, which is too bad, because in my opinion reading is the best part of this language.

Even today, after more than nine years of study (including four years of living in Japan), I occasionally see texts that feel more like a minefield than a piece of writing. And it can be quite disheartening if I don't somehow find more positive ways of looking at it.

What I always remind myself in such moments is that the text was written by a human being for other human beings and was meant to be understood by its readers. In all likelihood, nobody intended it as a sadistic trick to play on helpless foreigners, even if it does feel like that from our point of view.

While this mental exercise doesn't magically make us understand the text, it lets us approach it without fear. Just like texts in our own language, there's a meaning down there, and we need to get it out. 

The Joy at the Top of the Mountain

• What gives you the greatest joy when you read Japanese?

The feeling that I'm making contact with something truly unique and dear to me that I couldn't have understood in any other way. When I read I'm always happy that I have made the effort to get here. It's like having climbed a mountain based on a rumor—and then discovering at the top that it was all true.


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments