Two weeks ago I set a goal for myself to read Japanese faster.
This was because for the longest time I’ve been putting off large amount of Japanese reading.
Having just learnt hiragana and katakana I expected to read Japanese fluently. Naive I know.
In reality, every time I tried to read Japanese characters it was like trying to solve algebra equations – incredibly slow and frustrating.
I take my weekly Japanese Skype lessons and every time my teacher asks me to read out a sentence, I’d waste time attempting to sluggishly read each character instead of using that time to learn grammar or the meaning that sentence. Which is exactly what you don’t want to do.
Reading slowly also limits how fast you can learn by yourself. Reading Japanese is something you’d be doing constantly, so by improving your reading skill first, you’ll get benefits across the board.
How you noticed how avid readers are normally those with the largest vocabulary and command of the language?
The faster you can read, the faster you’re able to absorb information and learn.
What was the plan?
I used nhk news for all my practice readings. This site has simplified Japanese news articles. The nice thing about these articles is they are written in Furigana. Which means hiragana and katakana is shown with the kanji. It’s useful if you haven’t started learning kanji yet just like myself.
Like mastering any skills, I knew that consistency was the key and learning to read Japanese fast is no different.
That’s why I set myself the goal of reading Japanese 30 minutes every day. No excuses!
I thought surely I can spare half an hour a day to read even with a full time job. I ended up reading mostly before sleep or on the train ride to and from work.
Seems pretty simple right? When it comes to sticking with the task, it is anything but simple.
One of the main things about goal setting is actually following through with it.
Like many people, I get excited about setting the goal and feeling great picturing myself doing it. But it’s so easy to not follow through.
This is where negative incentives comes into the picture.
Using negative incentives to stick with your goals
The idea is this.
Every time you don’t do what you say you’re going to do then you get penalised for it.
You give money to someone you hate or an anti-charity, say the Nazi party.
In my case, I had to give $10 away for every day I that skipped Japanese reading.
Every day I had to ask myself, would I rather read for 30 minutes or give away $10?
Since I didn’t have gold bricks line my pockets, reading for 30 minutes was the obvious choice.
The more you hate that person or organisation, the better this works. No-one wants to be publicly known to have donated to the Nazi party.
I got the idea from Tim Ferriss, author and New York Best-seller of one of my favourite books, The 4-Hour Workweek. This works effectively well and can be used in all areas of your life.
Set an amount that is painful for you. If you’re constantly skipping reading then the amount you’re losing isn’t painful enough.
You can set up some positive incentives to further motivate you.
But negatives incentives works more effectively because the pain you get from losing something is stronger than the happiness of you gaining something.
So far I’ve lost $0. Which means I’ve been reading every day and I’m still going.
In less than 2 weeks I’ve doubled my Japanese reading speed.
Interestingly, looking at the graph above, my result from one day to the next seemed pretty random.
There were days were I showed no improvements (day 2, 6 and 13) while other days it jumped up. I even got worse for some days (day 4 and 9).
It was up and down but over the 2 week period I had doubled my Japanese reading speed. I went from taking 1.3 seconds per character to 0.65 seconds per characters.
Don’t worry if you see no improvement in your Japanese reading for a few days – it’s normal.
Reading out loud was also an important part of the learning process because I wanted to practice my pronunciation and get use to speaking in Japanese. You’ll find that vocalising the characters makes reading more challenging.
That is, not only do you have to use your brain to activate your vocal cord but it’s harder to cheat yourself because as you pronounce the characters it’s pretty clear cut if you know it or not. That’s why I measured my reading speed while reading out loud.
I also treated characters like びょbyo as just one character.
Possible reasons why results fluctuated from one day to the next:
- stress / tiredness
- difficulty of the article
- time of day
- how distracted you are
The main thing to look for is to see your progress trend upwards.
Around a week into my experiment I noticed that sometimes I was starting to read words instead of individual characters, ときょう (Tokyo) for example. My brain became familiar with it so every time I saw the first 2 characters, my brain already expected the rest of the characters.
Day 11 is when I started to enjoy reading because I could recall the Japanese characters so much faster. Reading felt more like staking on ice than driving on cracked roads.
Note: data for days 7, 10 and 12 is missing because I didn’t measure my reading speed but I still read during those days.
Key takeaways to reading Japanese faster
- Consistency is important. The more consistent you are with your reading the quicker you’ll improve. Stick with it no matter how busy or how much you don’t feel like it.
- Use negative incentives to stick to the task.
- Block out time. You want to have a continuous block of time to focus on reading. Avoid context switching and distractions. Turn your phone to airplane mode and go somewhere quite.
- Adopt deep practice. Every time you come across a character you’re slow at recognising, stop and fix that character to your mind until it’s perfected before reading on. Research shows it leads to quicker thinking and retention.
- Treat both hiragana and katana as the same beast. Having spoken to other Japanese leaners, one common trait they find is they’re weaker with katakana than hiragana. This is because it’s usually the 2nd character set that they learn. But it’s better to think of both hiragana and katakana as one character set.
A handy tip if you’re reading on an Android phone is to use the Google translate app to quickly remind yourself of any characters that you have forgotten.
Especially for those uncommon characters like ふぃ fi and フォ fo.
Simply select the text and copy it to your clipboard. The Google translate app should pop-up automatically and you can just open it up straight away for the pronunciation and meaning of a word. But be careful because the Japanese translations sometimes aren’t that accurate.
The next big challenge for me is increasing my Japanese vocabularies. I’ll run another experiment to see how many vocabularies I can learn.
Take your own 30 minutes a day reading challenge now.
Improving your reading skills will make learning Japanese faster and easier.
Once you feel you’re happy with your reading speed then you can focus on other areas of your Japanese learning.