Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

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Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby Belegorm » Fri Jan 14, 2011 10:40 pm

Yo (first post) I have 2 questions about learning Japanese. I started trying in earnest right around New Year's; learned all the Kana in a weekend, started on Tae Kim's complete guide (got a little overwhelmed learning about verb tenses; when you've got a million endings stacked up together after one verb it gets really confusing), started learning some vocab from smart.fm, and I've ordered Heisig's remembering the kanji.

However, I'm getting the issue that I saw coming: burn-out. I was studying way too much in a period of time way too fast. More importantly, I don't really have a "carrot" in front of me now to keep myself going (basically some kind of short-term profit from this study). Long term, the biggest thing I really want to learn to read are actual light novels, but considering how long it's going to take before I can reach that point I need to find some shorter-term goals that are also interesting (i.e. motivational).

So, here's the two questions.

First, let me have it: how good exactly do you need to be able to read light novels, such as ore no imouto, sword are online, toradora and the like? For example, in terms of time spent studying, amout of vocab/kanjo, or JLPT level.

Second, any ways of making a beginner's time learning more fun, and any short-term goals to suggest? Tae Kim seems a little beyond me at the moment; it takes a long while to digest his stuff and it's hard to drill each concept properly. I've tried reading Yotsubato (recommended as an easy read with furigana) but even there looking up vocab every word makes the going slow (not to mention reading the hand-writing's difficult; furigana's almost impossible to see from a raw so I need to simply shell out the $$$ for an actual copy). Not to mention Yotsubato's not the most interesting thing in the world.... I've heard plain old shounen manga's good reading material (with furigana as well, frequently) but I'm thinking you need some basic knowledge to be able to read them.

I've also thought of trying some simple galge with voice acting, which would help reading as well, but I think that's still beyond me....

Once I acquire the skills to actually read something I know that I'll be much better off; once I had my basic knowledge of how to read English books were how I learned my vocab and grammar. It's a matter of getting to the point where I can read the simplest stuff that is somewhat interesting.

2 questions I thought of while writing: how much grammar exactly should I know before I try and read anything? That dang Tae Kim's rather overwhelming sadly (though I've figured out a lot of the basics). Also, in manga what the heck is that thing that kind of looks like a small つ at the end of words? (sometimes looks more angular). Kind of looks like what marks a double consonant, but I sometimes see this at the end of words. I'm guessing it's some kind of punctuation; though for that matter manga punctuation confuses the crap out of me (not to mention the mangaka's handwriting...).
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby rpapo » Sat Jan 15, 2011 3:55 am

Aside from a basic working knowledge of hiragana, katakana and Japanese grammar, you will need a good Japanese dictionary. If you have somebody you can ask questions of when you get stuck, it will help a lot. Just don't be pestering them constantly: the Japanese feel that a person should not ask anything of others that they cannot figure out on their own. It may be different with relatives, but I have no oriental relatives at all, let alone Japanese ones.

Manga and Anime are a fun way to get a feel for how the language works, once you know some of the basics. You will probably not understand more than a small percentage of the dialog at first, but you get a feel for informal speech, which is invaluable in dealing with light novels. And the "I actually understood that" moments are priceless.

Don't dare think that what you get from a formal education in Japanese, or even from textbooks, will make you fully able to understand light novels, or at least not Takemiya's stuff. The Japanese seem to be embarassed to document, or even speak about, that aspect of their language at all. There are tons of contractions and slurs in dialog. But another aspect of light novels as books, at least in Takemiya's case, is that there are verb conjugations that the textbooks don't even touch upon, but are often used in reality. Bottom line: I've found that fourth year students of the Japanese language here in the USA that couldn't answer the questions I had. The text was either too informal, or too complex, or both. Oh, they knew their kanji, and they could read formal documents, but got bogged down in a light novel.

As for the small tsu, that gets used for two purposes: (1) to announce the doubling of the next consonant, something the Japanese themselves consider a pause, or (2) the stretching out of the vowel sound of the letter. Either way, you can consider it a pause or lengthening. And they do it with both hiragana and katakana, depending on what is being said.

Some useful websites:

(1) WWW Japanese Dictionary: http://www.edrdg.org/cgi-bin/wwwjdic/wwwjdic?1C
(2) Denshi Jisho, another dictionary: http://www.jisho.org/
(3) Japanese Colloquial Contractions: http://thejapanesepage.com/w/index.php?title=Japanese_colloquial_contractions
(4) Sound Effects: http://www.lolikon.org/misc/soundfx.html
(5) Japanese Pod 101 (Audio Lessons in podcast form): http://www.japanesepod101.com/
(6) Some language drills: http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/sheaa/projects/genki/index.html

After about three years on this spare-time project, I am finally getting to where I can read light novel text slowly, with a dictionary handy. But I wouldn't be even this far along if I hadn't bit the bullet and started working on an actual book. December 2009 I started working on Toradora Spinoff 2! It took me a week to do the first page. Now a page a day is not unreasonable, even with my shortage of spare time.

Even that is painfully slow, when the goal is to be able to read for enjoyment.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby larethian » Sat Jan 15, 2011 7:13 am

minimum JLPT N4 (the old level 3) grammar level. N3 is preferrable. N2 more than covers it except maybe fixed expressions? textbook vocab is never enough, it's an ongoing process. you have to constantly expose yourself to media outside of classroom. N4 is technically still insufficient, especially on the expression-type grammar, but sufficient for you to pick up new words since it covers almost all the conversion stems, it also covers sonkeigo and kenjougo, the most respect/humble form of honorific speech.

if you can get a good denshi jisho, it helps. I never use hard-copy dictionaries, only online dicts or denshi jisho. I also use online native dictionaries since sometimes the jap->eng dictionary meanings are still sometimes too cryptic, tangorin.com is a good site for example sentences but they are not guaranteed to be correct since they came from students. but my understanding of new vocab is always enhanced by tangorin.com and native dictionaries.

that being said, many light novels are written with lots of colloquiallism and slangs which you cannot find through academic sources, but if your grammar foundation is right and you get exposed to Japanese media often, you will figure out the colloquialism. slangs are more difficult, and you might have to ask around. oreimo uses quite a number of them.

sorry to say there is no short-cut and it may indeed take years. but if you are immersing yourself in Jap culture and spending lots of time on studying, you can do it in one year or less to reach a level where you can understand perhaps about 70-80% of a novel without going through a dict every page, I guess?

little っ when is used as the terminating kana represents an abrupt cut-off in hte word. it gives off a feeling like the word is chopped off, usually in speech. don't really know how to explain it better since I'm no qualified sensei LOL.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby rpapo » Sat Jan 15, 2011 11:34 am

っ - I've heard that description of the letter also. Again, it's an extension of the general usage of the letter, which ordinarily has no significance except between two letters. Perhaps the main usage that does not fit this is って, an informal contraction for という, but even then it is usually an addon to another word or phrase.

I agree there is no real shortcut to real proficiency in the language. I've tried to take too many shortcuts, and as a result am nowhere near as proficient as I should be at this point. Of course, you could also blame it on a growing shortage of spare neurons, me being past fifty already. I learned Spanish fluently in my mid-twenties, and did that relatively quickly, but that's a much easier language for an English-speaker, using the same alphabet and having a common base (Latin).

One advantage to having learned Spanish before Japanese, though: the Japanese r/l is very similar to the Spanish 'r', at least when used in the middle of a word.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby rpapo » Sat Jan 15, 2011 1:34 pm

FWIW, I don't think I would pass any of the JLPT exams, of whatever level. And the reason is quite simple: I have not been learning the specific things they want you to learn for those tests. So, though I may get a lot of answers right on any of the different levels of test, I would not get enough right on any level to actually pass the test.

At least I think so. Not having any particular reason to take those tests, I haven't spent time getting ready for them. Too much like work.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby larethian » Sat Jan 15, 2011 6:01 pm

yup yup, regarding the tsu, he was specifically asking for the type that was used as a terminator, so I just left it at that.

and nah, N5 is too easy. even if you study haphazardly by yourself, you can score, especially since it's all multiple choice. and besides for grammar, it only covers the basic stems. I'm pretty sure you can definitely clear it at your level. but there's listening comprehension which you don't get to practice during translation lol. the old level 4 needs 60%

for N4 you probably still might pass if you are already familiar with all grammar stems, including potential, command, volitional, passive, causative, transitive, intransitive (what else did I miss??), though the later two need memorization but again depends on how much you are exposed to Jap stuff. even if you are not familiar with sonkeigo and kenjougo, I doubt they have many questions on it, though that defeats the purpose of taking the exam lol. the crux might be vocab if you rely on dictionaries a lot, but I think it's still possible to pass borderline. oops I forgot other types of grammar like conditionals and evidence/rumor types (can't remember what it's called). the old level 3 needs 60% (IIRC)

JLPT gets exponentially more difficult, and vocab/kanji list and hours of study double (or more) for each level of increment. Don't really know much about N3, since N2 and N3 are splitted from the old level 2. but level 2 starts becoming tough. this is the place where regular LN readers may get an advantage because they can read faster, and it contains a lot of comprehension passages (about 8 to 10 one to two page passages IIRC), so here again the crux will be your vocab proficiency. grammar-wise, it focuses more on building your level of fixed expressions, since we are done with stem types.

I'm not at level 1 yet so that's where I can comment up to, but I've heard horror stories on how majority of people couldn't finish the paper and it requires 70% to pass. :lol:

whatever the case, it's best to go slow and build grammar foundation which will allow you to pick up new things faster at higher levels.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby Poke2201 » Mon Jan 17, 2011 11:03 am

rpapo wrote:Aside from a basic working knowledge of hiragana, katakana and Japanese grammar, you will need a good Japanese dictionary. If you have somebody you can ask questions of when you get stuck, it will help a lot. Just don't be pestering them constantly: the Japanese feel that a person should not ask anything of others that they cannot figure out on their own. It may be different with relatives, but I have no oriental relatives at all, let alone Japanese ones.

Manga and Anime are a fun way to get a feel for how the language works, once you know some of the basics. You will probably not understand more than a small percentage of the dialog at first, but you get a feel for informal speech, which is invaluable in dealing with light novels. And the "I actually understood that" moments are priceless.

Don't dare think that what you get from a formal education in Japanese, or even from textbooks, will make you fully able to understand light novels, or at least not Takemiya's stuff. The Japanese seem to be embarassed to document, or even speak about, that aspect of their language at all. There are tons of contractions and slurs in dialog. But another aspect of light novels as books, at least in Takemiya's case, is that there are verb conjugations that the textbooks don't even touch upon, but are often used in reality. Bottom line: I've found that fourth year students of the Japanese language here in the USA that couldn't answer the questions I had. The text was either too informal, or too complex, or both. Oh, they knew their kanji, and they could read formal documents, but got bogged down in a light novel.

As for the small tsu, that gets used for two purposes: (1) to announce the doubling of the next consonant, something the Japanese themselves consider a pause, or (2) the stretching out of the vowel sound of the letter. Either way, you can consider it a pause or lengthening. And they do it with both hiragana and katakana, depending on what is being said.

After about three years on this spare-time project, I am finally getting to where I can read light novel text slowly, with a dictionary handy. But I wouldn't be even this far along if I hadn't bit the bullet and started working on an actual book. December 2009 I started working on Toradora Spinoff 2! It took me a week to do the first page. Now a page a day is not unreasonable, even with my shortage of spare time.

Even that is painfully slow, when the goal is to be able to read for enjoyment.


I am very much like you man. However, it takes a while to get all the fountations in your brain. For me, learning kanji first and memorizing all of them helps understanding in the sentences.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby larethian » Mon Jan 17, 2011 6:16 pm

rpapo wrote:Bottom line: I've found that fourth year students of the Japanese language here in the USA that couldn't answer the questions I had. The text was either too informal, or too complex, or both. Oh, they knew their kanji, and they could read formal documents, but got bogged down in a light novel.


just saw this, but I think regarding your friends (I guess?), they probably aren't too exposed to media outside of classroom? it's easy to figure out the contractions with a good grammar foundation except maybe for obscure ones like パネェ (which comes from 半端じゃない). or maybe it's just me *shrug*, since I've been exposed to a lot of media and self-studied before taking formal lessons, which I needed to converse properly. can't keep going around using casual form and contractions with strangers in Japan.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby Poke2201 » Mon Jan 17, 2011 6:48 pm

Classes are very good for "polite" way of speaking, however, its not very good for teaching informal ways of speaking due to all the variances. Face it, a good part of the English people use aren't taught in classes. No one goes Subject-Verb for every sentence, and etc like that.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby rpapo » Tue Jan 18, 2011 3:16 am

Oddly, the person to whom I was referring before is at least partly Chinese in ancestry, and has lived some time (as a child) in Japan. Though if his experience was like mine living in Germany as a small child, he might not have picked up much more than a feel for the language. We moved to Germany when I was three years old, and returned when I was nearly seven, but we lived in apartments attached to a U.S. Army base, and everybody I interacted with as a little kid spoke English. They started to teach us German in first grade, but we returned state-side half-way through that year, and everything was lost. All that remains to me is a feel for the language, and I haven't actually studied that language since. Lots of other languages, but not that one.

This guy's proud of the arcana he's learned (which Kanji has 64 strokes?), and can easily recognize and decipher textbook Japanese, but wasn't very useful in answering questions I had about Takemiya. Once he's back in Japan (which he hopes to do) he should pick up all that stuff quickly, though.

BTW, Larethian, do you know of a better reference for the contractions than the one I reported earlier in this thread?
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby larethian » Tue Jan 18, 2011 7:30 am

rpapo wrote:Oddly, the person to whom I was referring before is at least partly Chinese in ancestry, and has lived some time (as a child) in Japan. Though if his experience was like mine living in Germany as a small child, he might not have picked up much more than a feel for the language. We moved to Germany when I was three years old, and returned when I was nearly seven, but we lived in apartments attached to a U.S. Army base, and everybody I interacted with as a little kid spoke English. They started to teach us German in first grade, but we returned state-side half-way through that year, and everything was lost. All that remains to me is a feel for the language, and I haven't actually studied that language since. Lots of other languages, but not that one.

This guy's proud of the arcana he's learned (which Kanji has 64 strokes?), and can easily recognize and decipher textbook Japanese, but wasn't very useful in answering questions I had about Takemiya. Once he's back in Japan (which he hopes to do) he should pick up all that stuff quickly, though.

BTW, Larethian, do you know of a better reference for the contractions than the one I reported earlier in this thread?


that's not impossible I guess. since I was talking to an ex-colleague earlier who was stationed in Japan for 5 plus years, there are too much slangs (not just contractions) created by the younger generation these days that he couldn't comprehend most of them. so like I said, if he's not in touch with the media especially 'otaku' culture, he's pretty much lost. I'm sure contractions are not too difficult for hum after hearing a few times, but slangs and Japanese form of leet speak, and new internet vocab are just too far away from normal speech, if you know what I mean.

except for sounds, I seldom use references like those you posted. normally for those I couldn't figure out I'd ask my native Japanese friends whom I converse in normal casual, we don't use contractions nor internet speak at all. but, recently, in order to figure out the insane slangs and internet speak in oreimo, I found this blog which was quite useful.
http://ofurotaimu.dreamwidth.org/6378.html
some I've learned from 2ch, but since I don't visit 2ch so often, it's pretty useful still.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby lavitz » Mon Jan 24, 2011 8:45 pm

So, if you did have a formal education or part of a formal education ( currently im in my second semester of my second year of japanese. Theres only one more semester of general japanese after this course. After that is business and technical japanese courses.), where would you start to get to the point of being able to translate or read for pleasure. I know translation is a art as things almost never translate directly correctly, and im sure two people probably would translate something of non-trivial complexity to something simular but not idenical. Thus, translation my be something you can only do if youve spent some significant time in japan (I recall one of my japanese professor, a native of osaka, said translation was something you could only do when you were extremely proficient in both languages). What processes did yall do to start and "grind" to get to yalls current proficiencies in the language.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby Poke2201 » Mon Jan 24, 2011 10:01 pm

lavitz wrote:So, if you did have a formal education or part of a formal education ( currently im in my second semester of my second year of japanese. Theres only one more semester of general japanese after this course. After that is business and technical japanese courses.), where would you start to get to the point of being able to translate or read for pleasure. I know translation is a art as things almost never translate directly correctly, and im sure two people probably would translate something of non-trivial complexity to something simular but not idenical. Thus, translation my be something you can only do if youve spent some significant time in japan (I recall one of my japanese professor, a native of osaka, said translation was something you could only do when you were extremely proficient in both languages). What processes did yall do to start and "grind" to get to yalls current proficiencies in the language.



Translation is an art. Seriously. Im learning as I go. Your teacher is actually wrong in one aspect, and thats extremely proficient. If you have a good knowledge of kanji and grammar, most books high school and lower should be a good challenge. I don't know Hiragana/Katakana well, but as I use the same ones more frequently I start to remember them more. For puns, it really depends on how it translates into english. If it seems awkward, then in my opinion always put it in, and leave a TL note explaining more. I started with learning Kanji, because thats integral to translation and actually, in my opinion, feels quicker translating because I understand what the sentence is talking about.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby larethian » Mon Jan 24, 2011 10:03 pm

I don't exactly agree with your professor. If you have composition proficiency, you most certainly have comprehension proficiency, but not necessary the other way round. It's just like if you don't use a certain language for a long time, you can't speak as fluently, searching for the right words at times. But if another were to speak it, you can still comprehend perfectly. However, with good editors, you don't need to be super fluent. They will be your thesaurus and paraphrasers.

To translate from Japanese to English, you need to be able compose English sentences proficiently, a degree of essay writing and paraphrasing skills, which I somewhat lack. And with regards to Japanese, you only need comprehension proficiency. For me, I've self-studied Japanese since 1999, albeit struggling at times. Then I started taking lessons in 2003, with oral and essay writing (short ones though) components. I stopped around 2008 after clearing JLPT2. All the while I've been watching anime. My first Japanese manga (with the aid of Denshi Jisho) was Detective Academy Q, and it was tough. And my first light novel was Suzumiya Haruhi in 2007. Translation was never a goal for my studies, I study just for pure interest. And like I mentioned before, grammar foundation is especially critical to learning new vocab fast through sources outside of the classroom. Well since I already know Chinese, it's easy to memorize and write kanji. I cannot really say accurately at what level you will be able to translate. you will figure it out as you read light novels.
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Re: Japanese proficiency for reading novels?

Postby Poke2201 » Mon Jan 24, 2011 10:09 pm

larethian wrote:I don't exactly agree with your professor. If you have composition proficiency, you most certainly have comprehension proficiency, but not necessary the other way round. It's just like if you don't use a certain language for a long time, you can't speak as fluently, searching for the right words at times. But if another were to speak it, you can still comprehend perfectly. However, with good editors, you don't need to be super fluent. They will be your thesaurus and paraphrasers.

To translate from Japanese to English, you need to be able compose English sentences proficiently, a degree of essay writing and paraphrasing skills, which I somewhat lack. And with regards to Japanese, you only need comprehension proficiency. For me, I've self-studied Japanese since 1999, albeit struggling at times. Then I started taking lessons in 2003, with oral and essay writing (short ones though) components. I stopped around 2008 after clearing JLPT2. All the while I've been watching anime. My first Japanese manga (with the aid of Denshi Jisho) was Detective Academy Q, and it was tough. And my first light novel was Suzumiya Haruhi in 2007. Translation was never a goal for my studies, I study just for pure interest. And like I mentioned before, grammar foundation is especially critical to learning new vocab fast through sources outside of the classroom. Well since I already know Chinese, it's easy to memorize and write kanji. I cannot really say accurately at what level you will be able to translate. you will figure it out as you read light novels.


@lavitz: Note that Light Novel/Manga/Anime Japanese is NOT normal everyday talking japanese. Just putting that out there. But it is pretty close to it, or so I heard, and apparently its easy to pick out japanese learners through anime and the japanese learners through other means.

@Larethian: Interest is key to learning, amiright? :wink:
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