How do you get through this? Especially in regards to reading. How do you practice reading at beyond the beginner level (No little black sambo's or whatever other children's books like I found in the local free bin when I was a teenager) when a light novel is still light years beyond me. And a newspaper is just as hard.

I know around 600-800 kanji, and I can pass the level 2 listening JLPT, though I'm not quite there for reading and grammar (I can barely pass level 3 on those), but I feel like I've been spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere for a long time now.

What are good techniques for learning to read in Japanese? Especially for self-taught students of Japanese.

What are techniques to push through the vast wasteland that is "intermediate"?

  • This is something I'm struggling with and I'm about the same ability as you. It is however off-topic for this site, let's keep things focused on the language itself please.
    – Ali
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:24
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    Really? I read the FAQ and it seemed pretty on topic. And I'm staying away from objective questions and edutainment topics. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:27
  • This debate has been raging in meta for a while so I'm not going to rehash the whole thing here. I'm of the opinion that anything that isn't actually about Japanese and it's usage is off-topic, but there are some who think otherwise.
    – Ali
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:30
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    I've glanced at the debate. And I think strictly restricting it to only language and usage is pedantic and would severely limit it's usefulness to me. I think techniques are important. It's like have a cooking recipes and food stackexchange and not being able to ask how to saute. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:51
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    I think this is pretty on topic, at the very least it should be community wiki IMHO.
    – wallyqs
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 8:01

7 Answers 7

  • Study comprehensive grammars with lots of examples. Not textbooks. These are the best (there are three).
  • use a mnemonic kanji learning system. This one is awesome. Learning meaning and reading separate is fine because it is more efficient. Utilize similarities between kanji as much as possible, as relating knowledge to new ideas will make learning much faster.
  • Go to Japan, and stay there for a long time. Talk to Japanese people as much as possible.
  • Make a regular study period of at least an hour every day. Never skip. Read materials that you are interested in, and write down the words you don't know. You can look up grammar in those books (organized alphabetically) or ask here.
  • Throughout the day, while walking or whatever, take out that list and study it. You can keep a list of Kanji to study, too.
  • Another great use of walking time is repeating difficult phrases. Tongue twisters (早口言葉) found on the internet or any phrase that you have trouble saying is fine. Say it a thousand times on the way to work and make sure it's fluent.
  • Never settle for "kinda" understanding something. Be thorough in studying out every new vocab, kanji or grammar that you find.
  • +1 for listing those grammar dictionaries. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:39
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    Buy all three! It'll be the best buy of your life.
    – Nate Glenn
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:59
  • I have them (well, at least two). I've only used them for reference. Are they good reads too then? Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:25
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    @solarmist Yeah, reading them straight through is just fine. They've got a wide variety of example sentences to learn interesting things from; also, there's that phenomenon where the same day you study something you hear it like three times.
    – Nate Glenn
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 19:51

I was at your level about a year ago, and I think you're closer to reading newspapers than you think. To get to the point where you can read most newspaper articles with reasonable comprehension (with only a little of help from rikaichan!), you should:

  • Learn between 1000-1200 kanji - you already know 800, so you're not far. N.B. Focus on frequency of use (It's quite eye-opening seeing those distribution graphs).
  • Work through the core6000 decks in Anki
    • These decks introduce the words by frequency of use in newspapers (actually there is a core2000 deck that covers the first 2000 words, and then the core6000 deck carries on from word 2001 - but core2000 will probably be too easy for you).
    • They'll also improve your listening comprehension and get you used to reading whole sentences. You can find them simply by searching for "core6000" in the Anki shared decks. Even just doing the first 1000 words of this deck will get you a long way.

At your level you should be starting to read authentic Japanese materials, I recommend manga, Japanese visual novels, and/or video games with dictionary beside you. The only thing you will learn from textbook at this level will be grammar and if you are only looking to speaking conversational Japanese grammar isn't actually that important, but if you want to increase vocabulary you have to rely on written material with dictionary. Anime/drama is a good way to do ear-training and retention exercise but they are rarely helpful for learning new words because the pace is too fast. (at least in my case)

That being said it also depends on what your goal is. If your goal is purely to learn Japanese to understand more of manga/anime then you should focus on reading material and less on grammar because grammar usually comes naturally after exposure to authenticate Japanese materials, and if your goal is to be a Japanese linguistics major then you should also be focusing on grammar as well because you need to understand the terminology behind it rather than just the intuition. But as with learning any language, after a while you will develop an intuition for grammar after exposure to the language for a long time so unless you need to teach Japanese you don't need to study grammar in detail.

  • Since my listening right now is pretty good my two immediate goals are to be able to read light novels and newspapers and to pass level 1 and 2 of the JLPT. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:25
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    Best of luck Joshua, btw reading authenticate material may be a bit overwhelming at first but you will get used to it after a while.
    – Ken Li
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:33

I'm currently in the same plateau, but I can give some advice based on some of the things I'm doing.

  • Textbooks are longer used except for anything but explanations of grammar. In fact, sometimes just dictionaries of grammar work just as well, if not better. I recommend "A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar" and "A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar" by Michio Tsutsui. It is a great reference and covers a wide range of grammar with examples and explanations. Not to mention contrasts to similar grammar.

  • I've started reading Manga (I'm not a huge fan) but they're authentic material and have a lot of furigana. I started with よつばと, quite fun and easy to understand.

  • I've started my way through two books named "Reading Real Japanese" one focusing on short stories and one focusing on essays. They take famous essays and short stories and layout the Japanese on one page with explanations in English on the opposite page. These have been great because it allows you to read REAL Japanese but when you come across a term you don't know it's right there on the opposite page. It's practically training wheels for reading Japanese.

  • Speaking with natives. (Depends on your goals.) I live in Japan so I can find language exchange partners relatively easily, however for people overseas you can easily find language exchange partners on Skype for free.

  • Writing. You can start writing at lang-8.com for free where native speakers will correct it. This is a great way to reinforce everything you've learned from the methods above.

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    I forgot to mention children's newspapers are a great starting source too.
    – phirru
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:52
  • There are children's newspapers!!!? I've never heard of that before. Please tell more. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 5:58
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    They are called 子供新聞。Here is an example asagaku.com/shougaku/shimen/shidoku_shimen/1men.htm
    – phirru
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:01

I've written down and practiced with flash cards alike programs for several hundred/thousands times for ~2000 kanjis when I was intermediate level at that time.

Edit: My method may be different with other does somehow. My aim was not to translate to another language to understand Japanese, but to learn just like how Japanese people learn the language. I started learning with Roman-ji at first, but dropped it and changed it to Hiragana, Katakana, then after managed to learn some Kanjis, I tried to read native books and texts on internet, and tried to use Kokugo (Japanese-Japanese) dictionary first to get the meaning that I don't know.

  • +1 It is also a good way to measure progress (Anki for instance shows nice statistics) and thus keep motivated. To my words list, I add all new words I hear/read at work. Adding words is very fast using Rikaichan's "s" shortcut then importing once in a while. Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 7:17
  • @Nicolas, great! When I started learning Japanese at 2000~2004, there was no rikaichan, and may be even no firefox, So I used electronic dictionary on computer.
    – YOU
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 7:27

Some advice from my own experience in that vast wasteland:

  • You won't push through without challenging yourself. You will never wake up one day after studying grammar and vocabulary and find that you can easily pick up a novel and read it; you have to pick up material that is too hard for you and make your slow way through with a dictionary.
  • That said, there is a wonderful literary form practically designed for learning intermediate Japanese: MANGA. Short sentences, furigana, illustrations, and a grade-school reading level make manga a pretty ideal way to learn a language.
  • Find a native speaker (or cross your fingers that this site takes off) to help you with questions about more advanced grammar, vocabulary, or usage rules.
    • This goes double if you want to get good at speaking and listening!

I would stay away from newspapers since they use a lot of non-standard words and special shortened versions of words that you find in dictionaries.

For myself, what i did was translating short 1 page japanese essays into english. As I usually knew all the grammar, it was a great way to learn new words.

video games are great as well, except that it ceases being a game to have fun and becomes a studyign regime. So if you do this, my recommendation would be to not pick a game you want to do.

  • Non-standard? It's a newspaper. That's about as standard as you get. Yes, it's very different than spoken Japanese. And nothing like the Japanese taught in classes, but I think it's the gold standard in most countries for factual writing. I would exclude headlines though... I think that's mainly what you were referring too though. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:04
  • Headlines are the biggest culprit, but in the body of the newspaper itself, words like 日米 still appear. But I think for someone who hasn't passed N2 yet, the newspaper may be filled with too many unknown kanji that their time might be spent better elsewhere. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:11
  • Is Japan-US really that non-standard? I hadn't seen that before, but lots of languages use "contractions" like that. I do agree with you on most of that though, too many unknown words. But I still think it's the gold standard to strive for...eventually. :) Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:20
  • Yeah the Japan-US thing doesn't pop up in normal dictionaries. But I agree with you in that it is the gold standard for written Japanese (which isn't very useful for speaking in Osaka though) Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:28
  • Also, rikaichan translates 日米 fine. So if you're reading the newspaper articles online, these kinds of words aren't too much of a hurdle.
    – zakvdm
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 8:14

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