Why Japanese reading comprehension matters

If you’re like me 5 years ago, or like a good number of the folks at Crisscross, you are a young American, you’re learning Japanese, you’re enrolled in a liberal arts-focused university program, and you probably want to use your Japanese language skills in your future career. That’s great, and I commend your aspirations. But I am here to tell you that if you’re seriously looking to use Japanese in your career, good reading comprehension is absolutely crucial.

Most Japanophiles who make it to Japan for an extended stay are far less likely to pay attention to developing reading comprehension in Japanese as they are to speaking pidgin-slang Japanese with their gaijin-groupie friends (see tip #23 at the link), hooking up with the locals, and in general taking the path of least resistance. That is understandable, but there are numerous benefits of boning up your reading skills even while you are in Japan. Kate McArthur, a columnist for Japan job site daijob.com, summarizes them well: expanded menu choices in restaurants, ability to find coupons and other deals, using Japanese websites, and reading the ubiquitous subtitles on Japanese TV (Like her, I hold the irrational belief that “the written language is so intriguing with all the various looks and meanings that I can’t understand how it could possibly not be interesting to someone”).

Even among those who are interested in learning to (and in some cases already claim they can) read Japanese – the types who intentionally stay out of the gaijin bubble – many do not measure up when it comes to reading ability. This phenomenon I attribute to the gaijin complex, by which foreigners interested in Japan isolate themselves from others of their kind. They’ll stick with their girlfriends, host families, or whoever and seek out the so-called real Japan – the “Other” if you will. Without objective scrutiny or friendly competition (and with the entire population of Japan praising them for supposedly excellent Japanese abilities), these people start to think their Japanese is much much better than it actually is.

But the fact of the matter is, good reading skills are almost always an essential element if you want to make yourself useful in a quality Japan-related job, and most employers are not going to tolerate someone who cannot deliver no matter how entrenched his/her gaijin complex is. If you are otherwise lacking in specialized skills, companies that hire “Japan-friendly” university graduates usually put them to uses that stray significantly from what the employee would like to do – following developments on Capitol Hill or a specific industry, editing the English of superiors, coordinating between Japanese and foreign staff, website development, and so on. Not quite what you had in mind, right?

So now that you see why reading skills are important, the next question is how good do they have to be? For Americans, the general standard should be the ability to read any given written work in Japanese and precisely tell someone what it means in plain language (English or Japanese).

This should be obvious, but did you ever hear anyone tell you that in Japanese class? Perhaps because most students are only in the classes for the credit requirements and don’t have much serious interest in studying, Japanese as a second language classes at universities tend to hold their students to unacceptably low standards. On top of that, the most exalted goal for JSL learners who are somewhat serious is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 1 (“ikkyu” in Japanese). As someone who paid the $50 and passed ikkyu in 2003, I can tell you from experience that while passing the ikkyu was a very helpful goal during my earlier studies, it was in no way the end of the journey.

The JLPT, sponsored by the Japanese government-affiliated Japan Foundation, tests listening, vocabulary, kanji, and reading abilities on 4 levels, 4 being the easiest and 1 the hardest. Level 1 requires knowledge of around 2,000 kanji and a corresponding vocab/listening/reading ability. It’s certainly not easy to pass the JLPT Level 1, but in fact Level 1 Japanese abilities often do not translate into the common-sense reading abilities mentioned above.

So if you’re not quite there yet, keep at it! The Internet provides an inexhaustible wealth of study materials at your fingertips free of charge. Read asahi.com, kikko’s blog, 2-channel, Bloomberg Japan, slashdot Japan, public-domain novels, or whatever floats your boat! The vast majority of material never gets translated into English, so if you have a blog you might consider summarizing or translating the more interesting bits into English for posterity and practice. And if you’re reading something and don’t understand a concept or the topic at hand, look it up on the ALC dictionary or read up on it at wikipedia Japan! Even if you don’t end up landing the job you want, it’s a wonderfully unfiltered way to learn about Japanese culture and society.

16 thoughts on “Why Japanese reading comprehension matters”

  1. I think you are being excessively harsh on Japanese language students. This is not particularly a problem in Japanese study methods or approaches, most American college students are barely functionally literate in their native English. I could say the same about nihonjin, the average level of Japanese fluency is far lower than most people suspect.

    On another note, it seems that you don’t quite understand the purpose of foreign language requirements at the university level. Most schools only require 2 years of classes, which is hopelessly insufficient to attain fluency even in the “easy languages” like Spanish. Even a dedicated student who takes a full course of 4 years in Japanese could never come close to fluency (I know, I did it). The real purpose of college foreign language studies is to get students to think about the grammar of their own native language, by teaching them the analogous foreign grammar. Just as an example, although I am allegedly fully literate in English, I had never heard of the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs until I studied them in Japanese class.

    Fortunately, some language programs are evolving a bit, and particularly in Japanese studies (which I have found to be the most traditional, technophobic, and hidebound programs of any foreign language) there is a new pedagogical method that actually has fluency as a goal. The new pedagogy is known as “4 skills” and is designed to equally advance all four linguistic skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension). Students seem to do well when they have this balanced approach, and develop sufficient skills to be able to acquire more language by themselves, they can “stand on their own two feet” linguistically. Most teachers consider a curriculum of 4 years (with an extra year studying in Japan recommended) to be merely the starting point for your REAL education in Japanese language. That begins when you start living in Japan, with full immersion in the Japanese language environment.

  2. I hope I’m not being harsh. My intention is simply to let people know what a good knowledge of another language should be. Whatever their college curriculum, I think it’s a good idea to let people know what constitutes a practical skill.

  3. Hear hear. And the part about being able to explain things in English is key, because that’s what will set you apart from Japanese people (who can read stuff perfectly but usually have no hope of explaining it properly to a neophyte).

    I would say it isn’t difficult to do this, particularly if you work in a specialized field. I can’t read Japanese all that well as a general rule, but over the course of my short legal career I’ve become damn good at reading contracts and other legal documents, simply because so much is boilerplate and a few specialized vocabulary words that keep reappearing over and over (and the inverse is true of my Japanese colleagues’ command of English). I’m sure that if you have any other specialization in your job it’ll be the same deal.

    Regarding the JLPT, a friend of mine recently turned me on to the “Jitsuyo Nihongo Kentei” or “J-Test” (http://www.jtest.org), which I plan to take pretty soon. Whereas the JLPT has four levels, and only Level 1 shows true proficiency, the J-Test gives you a numerical score and a letter grade ranging from F (analogous to Level 4 on the JLPT, i.e. total lameness) to A+ (UN-level interpreting ability), with a C corresponding to a low Level 1 on the JLPT. The downside to the J-Test is that it isn’t normally administered overseas unless you request an administration for your organization, but if you’re in Japan it looks like a much more useful marker of Japanese ability.

  4. I don’t think you’re being to harsh, I think you’re just bursting peoples’ bubble. You’re of no good to anyone if you can’t communicate in the written language. Essentially, you’re illiterate. If someone is just taking Japanese to fill their foreign language requirements at school, then that’s fine, just pass the class and get on to what you really want to do. But often times people that try and major in Japanese try to do it without being able to read and write at a mature adult level. My personal strategy for getting your reading skills up is this:

    Babies don’t learn to read and write, they learn to speak. First (go to Japan) and get your speaking under control.
    Then (go back home and) read read and read away. Most likely, there will be no Japanese speakers around you so you’re only possible encounter with the Japanese language will be reading.

    You can’t learn to speak without basic reading skills, but you can’t learn to speak well without great reading skills. For the same reason we read books in High School, you need to read in Japanese = increase your vocabulary and show you how to communicate your thoughts in the best way possible.

  5. Perhaps I should rephrase that. It is probably off target to focus on students’ Japanese illiteracy when it stems from English illiteracy. If that is harsh, yeah, it is, but it is harsh in the right place. Students who can barely string together coherent thoughts when writing in their native language are unlikely to do any better in a foreign language.

    Darin seems to be espousing the “speaking first” philosophy, which was common in older methods like Jordan’s “Japanese: the spoken language.” That pedagogy is considered totally obsolete, even counterproductive. My teachers (pioneers of the 4 skills method) didn’t even want students to stay in Japan before getting at least 2 years of classroom studies. They believed that premature immersion in a total Japanese language environment would just lead students astray, they’d draw incorrect conclusions about grammar structures they heard in spoken use, since they had no general grammar structure to build around. It was pretty easy to identify students with early exposure to the spoken language in Japan, they spoke easily but ungrammatically. I watched my teachers tear down several students and rebuild them with proper grammar, it was horrifying to watch sometimes.

    Even for native speakers, the written language is the key to advanced learning. Without reading skills, you can’t use dictionaries, higher level textbooks, or native language materials. Without writing skills, you cannot reinforce what you’ve learned, and you will be unable to remember kanji structures properly. Memory is a two way street, you can’t just memorize for passive identification (reading) you must also be able to produce from memory (writing). Without both the in and out channels working, your memory will be inefficient and it will be difficult to learn new material. Don’t just practice reading, practice writing summaries of what you’ve written. Equally true, you cannot study just for listening comprehension, you must also be able to speak. This is the essence of the 4 Skills method. Most students (especially those who study alone) focus on 2 skills, reading and listening, because anyone can get materials to read or listen to, and it is easy to tell if you’ve comprehended correctly. But to advance your speaking and writing abilities requires a native speaker to give feedback on the quality of your production. This is the best way to advance, and it’s terribly hard even in Japan, since most nihonjin are reluctant to correct your spoken or written output.

  6. Thing is, I’m not all that interested in classroom education, pedagogical methods, and all that. An American who decides to learn Japanese does have to start somewhere, but language classes are a lot like what they say about Alcoholics Anonymous – it works if you work it. Whether they are blessed with an efficient curriculum or not, one way or another students will hopefully reach a certain level. To get past that you must be motivated enough to put in some serious overtime (or simply make it a part of your life). As corny as it sounds you’ve got to love what you’re doing. It might just be because I’m a terrible student, but I have only rarely seen mere reliance on classroom materials produce great results in terms of J-skills, particularly reading.

    That is not to say there aren’t some great teachers out there. Part of the reason I make the recommendations that I do is because I had a somewhat unique year of independent study in 2001-2002 – around the time I took JLPT level 2 – where my teacher basically told me “read this novel over the semester and we’ll talk about what you read every week.” Best Japanese classes ever.

    At issue is real reading proficiency, and as far as I know it’s something rare enough in American students to make it practically unattainable within a traditional classroom setting. The best way that I’ve found is to simply read read and read some more, looking things up and maybe asking questions of an educated and patient Japanese friend along the way. While you guys planning lessons fight it out, hopefully people reading this will get busy reading 2ch and actually learning something.

  7. Oh and in terms of overall strategy, I basically agree with what Darin is saying since I took a similar route. I pretty much only got somewhat good at speaking during my first year in the country and then concentrated more on reading after I came back. But I don’t think that is by any means a catch-all. I have met people whose strategies are far different but who have nevertheless gotten far.

  8. I personally find translating to be much more effective than reading, because translating requires you to figure out every word of the material. I can skim through a Japanese book and get the gist of it (which is more or less what I do in English anyway), but if I have to translate part of it I really have to buckle down and understand it word for word. Probably the two things that contributed most to my current knowledge of Japanese were (1) translating articles from Japanese Wikipedia for edification, and (2) translating legal documents at work.

    Sure, translating is much more strenuous than passive reading, but nobody ever said this would be easy!

  9. Adamu, I guess that means we’re obsolete!

    I did a two month intensive course in America, then did a two year intensive course in Japan with the last year also including Chinese as well as history.

    Then I went back to America and read lots of books and newspaper articles, then started translating. Then to Okinawa to hang out on the beach, and now back to Tokyo at school again.

    I guess what I failed to mention the first time is you can’t just go to Japan and expect to learn the language like that. You do need to have a good base to build from. For me it was the two month course which was supposedly equivalent to two semesters of college level Japanese.

  10. @ Joe: Translation figured heavily in my studies at university. Our classes basically consisted of the teacher grabbing a few interesting-looking articles from the satellite edition of the Asahi and assigning those as homework. We didn’t study grammar or kanji lists. (This was in the third- and fourth-year classes, though; I skipped out of the earlier years on the strength of what I’d learned at an international school in Tokyo.)

    Reading comprehension does matter, though. For example, I’m at a small publishing company now and I regularly get resumes from English editors with zero Japanese skill. They might be fantastic with the blue pencil, but if they can’t communicate with the Japanese staff here, or peek at the original text for guidance on how to edit its English translation, they’re useless to us. If you’re an editor, and you want to be attractive to employers over here, learn your Japanese. (If you’re a J-E translator, you should learn your English, but that’s a whole ‘nother post, probably.)

  11. Durf got me thinking, and I might know why translation and writing were somewhat neglected in university studies for many years.
    Some of the first modern teachers of Japanese were WWII occupation-era soldiers, they picked it up the spoken language while in Japan, and after their discharge at the end of the war, many of them studied at universities on the GI Bill. Eventually they became tenured professors, even department heads. Teaching of the language for fluency in communication was secondary, these professors were part of the “publish or perish” world and most of them focused on translations, particularly Classical Japanese texts.
    After the VietNam War era, there was another large group of GI Bill students who had been through Japan and picked up the spoken language. As the Japanese economy flourished, students wanted instruction in modern communication skills. Some of the first “modern” Japanese instruction methods date from the late 60s through the mid 1970s. These methods were something of a reaction against the old school method. The WWII crew’s goal was classical Japanese scholarship, the post-VietNam crew’s goal was modern functional literacy. So the moderns rejected the old school and their translation-oriented pedagogy.
    It’s interesting to see the old WWII crew retiring, their influence waning, and now even the VietNam crew is coming up on retirement. Now the next generation is coming up for tenure and will rule academia for the next generation. And they’re mostly nihonjin, native speakers, who never have any doubts that the goal of Japanese instruction is full functional fluency in modern Japanese, both written and spoken.

  12. I think a point that all of us can agree on is that no single method is best for everyone. I started in a university course in Japan which stressed reading and writing abilities, but starting from scratch with Chinese and Korean students in the same class, I was rapidly left behind and pretty much lost interest.

    So I studied the speaking part with a vengeance and was fairly illiterate for the first couple of years. I studied reading and writing harder the last two years, but it wasn’t until I got a job and started technical translation (and learned basic office skills) that I became truly comfortable with it. Looking back, it was exactly opposite of the learning path taken by most of the other students, but there are a few others like me. To each his own, I guess, but Adamu is right – you’ll never get any more out of it than you put in, and hey – Japanese is definitely not an easy second language for English speakers.

  13. This bursting people’s bubble about Japanese language acquisiton is not limited to language. It easily extends to all of society. The Western media, and in fact the Japanese media, often over romanticize Japanese culture. When ever I am in the States, people asking why if I hate Japan so much, why do I spend so much time there. When it is actually the case that the only things most people know about Japan are what is spoon fed to them from the media. And what I say sounds totally foreign to them. It is like nothing they have ever heard said about Japan. So therefore I am Japan bashing when I talk about the way Japan actually is.

    Unfortunately, the Japanese who can write a book about the real Japan won’t because of the repercussions they will face. And most foreigners don’t have the background necessary, and those who do don’t have the desire to write about it.

    The one exception is Alex Kerr. He is someone who truly knows about Japan, loves Japan and wants to make it a better place. The first book of his which I often recommend is “Lost Japan”. And his more hard hitting book is Dogs & Demons. While the latter isn’t perfect, it is definitely worth reading.

    Too bad Alex hasn’t written a book on what it actually takes to learn Japanese.

    College Japanese is an introduction to Japanese. 4 or 5 years is usually sufficient to bring people up to the advanced beginner stage.

    Adam is talking about intermediate and advanced Japanese studies. I consider myself a beginning intermediate student. And I work for a Japanese company, in a 95% Japanese environment. All of my reports are written in professional, business Japanese. I am the only native English speaker out of 4000 employees. And one of my undergraduate degrees in Japanese.

    I wish I had it so easy as to just translate. Ha!

    Justin said it is definitely not an easy 2nd language for Japanese speakers. Hell, it isn’ t even an easy language for Japanese. The amount of time spent in the class room learning Japanese by Japanese people is SIGNIFICANTLY larger than that spent by native speakers of English studying their own language. MANY Japanese now carry electronic dictionaries with them because they can’t remember kanji (mainly due to word processor usage). And the market is growing exponentially at the moment (maybe not exponentially, but it sounds better!).

    The bottom line is that it is a long road and most people never reach the end of it. Many people often take a side street and come to a dead end which they mistake for fluency.


  14. I don’t think there’s ever an end to the language road. As Max put it, people don’t even know their own languages properly. That’s not a phenomenon limited to Japanese, either: everyone makes English mistakes, even educated people.

    The beauty of language, though, is that it evolves to tolerate error. You’ve probably all seen that e-mail where the vowels are all jumbled up and it still makes sense; truth be told, English mks sns vn wthht th vwls, and Japanese will make sense even if you use the wrong word or write the wrong character or tell Koizumi to 反省しる!

    Personally, I speak Japanese ten times better when I’m drunk, because I stop caring whether I’m correct or not and I just talk. Who cares if you know the kanji for “aisatsu” or not? Language is like math, physics or religion: you can never completely understand it, you can just keep working your way up to a new level, and chances are you’ll never quite get to the apex.

  15. I agree with Joe–as i spend time away from a subject i tend to compartmentalize it and think of it as if it had shape and could be known but when you are studying something it always feels like a climb, and it isnt ever over. Language goes on and on and my time spent in japan has led me to think of english as if english speakers know it all but i forget about people who always ask questions during movies and dont understand what this or that means in a news story.

    There will always be points you dont understand, but i think as a foreign language learner i always attribute that to some deficiency in study rather than just something new. Honestly half the time i ask my japanese friends what something means that i heard, they dont know either. Back to the original topic though, i think the goal of most universities and the students in the classes isnt to be fluent and to read, and this is especially the case in Japanese, so the article does seem overcritical. However if someone is in those classes or circumstances described and wants to get a job and cant read then yes it is a critical oversight of theirs and a failure in their japanese. I cant imagine trying to get a job in america and not being able to read. People just shrug it off cause its not easily obtainable and takes lots of work…ask any japanese who was been thru it in school.

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