Read fast and skip things

This post originally appeared as a comment on the WaniKani forums

Reading broadly, rather than reading deeply, is what helped me the most when I was first starting out.

Let’s say in your reading, you come to a page that has 10 sentences:

  • Four sentences are completely comprehensible. They contain vocab and grammar you’ve studied, or they’re just common phrases that you’ve seen many times in the wild.
  • Three sentences are i+1. You know almost all the words and can infer the last one by context, or there’s some new grammar that you’ve brushed with before, and it’s just about to click into place.
  • Three sentences are incomprehensible. There’s some unfamiliar slang, a weird pronunciation, or a bothersome 和製英語 that’s going to send you off on a wild goose chase.

That’s a decent mix of difficulty and if you sat down and dug into everything, you’d certainly come away with more knowledge. But let’s simulate what might actually happen:

  • You open up your manga and the first sentence you read is easy. Things are going well.
  • The very next line is incomprehensible. You pull out your dictionary, search around on the internet to see if there’s some new grammar point that would help…but it takes a while because honestly, you’re not even confident in what you need to be looking up. If you’re determined to understand everything you come across, maybe your reading session actually ends here because you run out of time or get frustrated.
  • But what a shame! The third sentence is i+1 and you would have understood it with just a fraction of the effort you just spent on the last one. To make matters worse, this sentence actually provides valuable context that immediately clears up any confusion you would have had – a character “pronounces” (in kana) an unknown word that had been written in kanji, and now you suddenly recognize it; or an ambiguous construction is suddenly clear because of context that wasn’t available yet.

Obviously this is a contrived example and it won’t always be the case that every difficult sentence will be followed by one that holds the key to unlocking its meaning. But here’s the thing: in each of these scenarios, it’s the third, the i+1 sentence, that provides the greatest learning boost. For my money, reading should be all about seeking out those moments. If you get bogged down by difficult sentences, you’ll be encountering i+1 material less often simply by virtue of the fact that you’ll have less overall coverage.

I’m a firm proponent of skipping stuff you don’t understand. Pick your battles of course; some words will be easy to look up, and if you run into multiple incomprehensible sentences in a row it’s probably a good idea to slow down so you don’t get lost. Overall though, I find that the more reading you do (not merely the more time you spend reading), the better.