One more sentence

The best thing you can do if you want to rapidly improve your Japanese ability is to read more sentences, not read sentences more.

Consider this: given your current level of Japanese knowledge, there are likely many sentences out there which are completely beyond your grasp. Even if you looked up every word and grammar point they contain, the meaning still wouldn’t click.

On the other hand, there is at least one sentence out there which is your soulmate. It might contain some new word you’ve never seen before, or some grammar you’ve never studied — or maybe you know all the pieces, but they’re arranged in a way you’ve never seen before — but as soon as your eyes meet, you know “this is the one”. 1In Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, this is called an “i+1” sentence This is a sentence which you can understand despite the fact that something it contains is completely new, and which is immediately “acquired” — the message in this sentence contributes permanently to the Japanese-comprehension system that is being developed in your brain.

Let’s say you have a fixed amount of time to read today, and in that time you’ll be able to get through 20 sentences, pausing every time you see an unknown word or pattern to look them up in the dictionary or ask for help. Now let’s say that your soulmate sentence is the 25th sentence; you’ll end your reading session for the day without making that fateful encounter.

At the same time, let’s suppose you decide to read each sentence and move along regardless of whether you understood it or not. This is a valid strategy, and one I’ve written about before (in the precursor to this article), but it does come with the risk that you’ll get bored or frustrated at your overall level of comprehension. This is ultimately something that can vary dramatically from person to person.

Here’s what I’d like to propose as a rule of thumb:

Before you stop to look something up, read one more sentence.

Scenario 1: When you’re not expected to know

It’s extremely common for the unknown information in a given sentence to be immediately clarified by the next one. In many cases, this is actually done for comedic effect. Take this scene from まちカドまぞく:

Momo: Some mornings I find myself in the mood for "asafuru"

朝フル? Never heard of it. We could stop and look it up in the dictionary, though chances are good it’s an abbreviation or a slang word, and we won’t be able to find it. But let’s see what happens if we read one more sentence:

Yuko: Asafuru?

Very interesting — Yuko is just as confused as we are.
This sentence doesn’t give us our answer, but it does make it obvious that we’re not expected to know what it means. Let’s keep moving

Yuko: Like eating fruit for breakfast? (asa = morning)

Okay! Here’s a definition for our word. It makes sense in hindsight; 朝 means “morning” and フル could easily be an abbreviation for “fruit”. Mystery solved.

Momo: Uh no, it means running a full marathon first thing in the morning?

The penny drops. This was the joke all along. There’s absolutely no way that anyone would have seen this coming. The unknown information in the scene would have been unknown to a native Japanese speaker as well!

This kind of scenario is extremely common, and it’s not always in service of a joke. It’s simply good writing practice to explain concepts to your readers in a way that feels natural. This is a big part of why the “fish out of water” premise is so good; it allows the reader and the character to both learn things at the same time.

Scenario 2: When you’re missing some fine detail

Of course, not every unknown word is going to be the punchline of a joke, or have its meaning or pronunciation explained immediately afterwards. It’s totally possible that you’re just unfamiliar with a common word that any native speaker would recognize immediately. In cases like this, it can be worth asking yourself:

I might not understand the meaning of this word, but do I understand its role in the sentence?

Believe it or not, simply knowing what kind of thing a word is referring to can be enough to allow it to float unresolved in your brain, waiting for new information from the sentences that follow that will bring it into focus. As an example, I specifically remember learning the word しれん this way:

  • 1st and 2nd encounter: no clue what it meant, except that the characters were anxious about it
  • 3rd encounter: it’s something in a temple deep within an isolated forest
  • 4th: there are actually several temples in this same forest, and each one has its own しれん
  • 5th: each しれん must be done by someone capable of using magic
  • 6th: a しれん takes a mental toll on the person attempting it
  • 7th: until all the しれんs are completed, our heroes are stuck in the forest

If you’re familiar with fantasy settings, you might have already figured out that しれん means “test” or “trial” (this exact example is from Re:zero, but the same word appears in the Legend of Zelda and elsewhere). What’s noteworthy about this scenario is that I knew the role that the word was playing from nearly the very beginning, and I gradually learned more details about what it meant as I went. Of course, I could have stopped after the first one to look it up immediately, but allowing my understanding to develop slowly and organically had the same end result with the side effect that I’ll probably never forget it.

Certain classes of words are more compatible with this approach than others, and you won’t always be able to get the necessary volume of exposure in order to understand them completely through context, but I recommend giving it a try.

Scenario 3: When you don’t need to know

Sometimes, a given sentence could be completely removed from the story and there would be no apparent change. For many people, the number one offender here is scenes that describe cooking; for me it tends to be technical sci-fi descriptions or military orders. When you come across sentences which are both boring and difficult, ask yourself:

Even if I don't understand the details of this scene, do I more or less get what's going on?

If you don’t care about the exact ingredients in the recipe, or the exact tactics being shouted by the commander, but you can intuit what’s going on in the scene at large, then feel free to keep moving. This kind of scenario is highly subjective and completely depends on what you’re interested in. Just remember that it’s okay to keep on moving if you don’t feel like the contents of a scene are going to be crucial to your understanding later.

Scenario 4: When you just end up lost

If you’re getting lost, and you feel like something in a previous sentence is the key to keeping you on the right track going forward, by all means feel free to stop. Look stuff up, ask for help. Even after all these years I still come across sentences which are a complete mystery until I look up literally one word that makes everything else fall into place. Just keep in mind: read wide, not deep.

Before you put down your book and pick up a dictionary, read one more sentence.