Japanese experiment: monotone reading

Everybody’s scared of pitch accent. I act like I’m not, but I am. I’m not a perfectionist per se, but I do think that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Unfortunately, doing something right is a lot harder than not doing it at all. Guess which side of the scale I tend to find myself on?

Getting better at speaking Japanese is something I’ve had on my mind for quite some time, but I’ve had trouble breaking into it. Part of the problem is, as mentioned above, the fact that pitch accent is something you have to either pick up through audio immersion or memorize from dictionaries. The vast majority of my Japanese input comes from reading, and while I have been making moves to increase my listening time (through mixed-focus audiobooks, for example), I’m quite sure that I’ve only ever heard a fraction of the words in my active/passive vocabulary.

This is an obvious problem when it comes to reading aloud, which is a tactic I’ve heard lots of good things about. If I want to follow pitch accent, I would need to either know all the words ahead of time (unlikely), or take frequent breaks to look up words in the dictionary. Even assuming I read on my PC with something like yomichan to help ease the lookup process, that’s still a lot of friction being added to the process. I enjoy reading and would like to keep it from becoming a chore.

On the other hand, I could try to just feel my way through things, adding pitch willy-nilly wherever it feels right. The problem with this one is pretty obvious as well; what “feels right” is definitely not going to be right all the time — I know for a fact that my intuition for pitch accent is not very good. I’m decent at remembering the accent for words that I’ve heard often enough to be able to call them to mind, but I have practically no faith in my ability to intuit the accent for new words.

What I’ve decided to try instead is an approach I’m calling monotone reading. We’re going beyond the “Japanese is flat” meme here. The goal will be to read every word and character in a complete monotone — no ups, no downs — not worrying about pitch accent whatsoever.

Here’s my reasoning:

  • Getting into the habit of actually opening my mouth and speaking is an important step that I currently struggle with. In the past, when I’ve considered shadowing or harmonizing, the first barrier is always literally just getting myself to say anything. I’m a pretty introverted person and if nobody’s around, I’ll routinely go an entire day without speaking a single word.
  • I’m unlikely to get into the habit of pronouncing words incorrectly if I know I’m pronouncing them incorrectly. At no point throughout this process am I going to be thinking to myself “wow, my pitch accent is really great”.
  • Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Even if I make mistakes this way, I feel it’ll do me some good as well. Right now, my speech habit is nonexistent and at this rate I’ll be stuck in limbo forever.

At the time of writing I’ve read three volumes of manga this way (いじめるヤバイ奴 vol. 2, 呪術廻戦 vol. 17, and それでも歩は寄せてくる vol. 6), and I have some early observations:

  • Full furigana is essential for this. I want to go smoothly and continuously without looking up words or getting stuck trying to remember readings.
  • Slice of life manga is much less strenuous than other types.
  • I should probably stick to series that are more likely to include phrases I might actually say on a regular basis. If there’s a high volume of made-up words, I suspect that’ll be of limited benefit. Additionally, the main characters, tone, subject matter etc are also very important. いじめるヤバイ奴 might be gripping but the characters are mostly awful people.

In just the first two days of this experiment, I can already report one finding: it’s fun. It helps keep me focused and keeps me from spacing out. It’s also not as slow as I expected. My reading speed has been slowly but surely increasing over the past year or so, but it’s still far below what I’m capable of in English. Reading aloud does slow me down, but not to a dramatic extent. These two facts alone have me excited to keep it up and see what happens.

I don’t know for sure that this is going to be a fruitful endeavor but I have tentative hopes that it’ll be helpful. I’ll be periodically recording myself reading so I can look back on my progress in the future. I’ll follow up at some point with my findings, whatever they might be.