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Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 0 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 0)
Volume 1: 90 pages, 535 words (est.)
Volume 2: 89 pages, 630 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 0, 入門 (Introduction): These require a vocabulary of 350 words and knowledge of the most basic structures such as the present and past tenses and asking questions. They are at most 400 characters long; around 100 words by my system. They’re designed for true beginners.

The first volume has six stories, each of which are fifteen pages long, for a total of around 535 words by my system, or an average of 90 words each. The second volume also has six volumes, which are all fifteen pages long except for one which is fourteen pages, and has a total of 630 words, or an average of 105 words in each story. So, again, assuming you buy one volume for $37, each story is a little over $6. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.) All of the volumes come with a CD, so you can listen along to all of the stories.

As books designed for non-native speakers, these graded readers automatically fall outside of the classification system I use for authentic material, but in spirit these Level 0 stories are closest to level 1 books, which are the most basic books available. However, for an adult learner, they’re much better than authentic basic books because they’re designed to be useful. That is, I find that well-written level 2 books can be pretty fun, with good fairytales and illustrations and so on, but level 1 books are usually so babyish that they’re a trial even for someone like me, and I’ve only read a couple that felt like they could be worth the time of an adult student. Furthermore, they’re not particularly any better for a beginning student because even though they look easy, they tie together a lot of Japanese language knowledge that Japanese kids have been exposed to from birth, but people just starting to learn the language probably don’t know yet. For example, they draw on a specialized vocabulary: lots of childish words, sound words and words that are basic, but not at all the kinds of words that beginning adult students learn. They also use grammatical structures well above what a beginning learner probably knows, dropped particles and overly conversational styles, and less formal patterns for structures a learner might already know in another guise. For example, a beginning learner might know how to ask for things with お願いします and ください, but not ちょうだい, which is the one you’re more likely to see in a kid’s book. A beginner could still perhaps puzzle out the meanings, but for tadoku, the ideal is to be able to read fluently and understand most if not all of what you’re reading quickly, without translating back into your native language. Also, there’s no kanji (which, admittedly, is a problem with authentic material that continues until you’re at about a 3rd or 4th grade reading level), even words that are usually written in katakana are often written in hiragana (which is just plain annoying) and of course the content of a book written for a 2-year old is not precisely the kind of stuff most adults would pick up for fun.

On the other hand, these most basic graded readers use a tiny amount of words and just a few grammar structures, so theoretically it wouldn’t be too long before a complete beginner was able to read these. Most importantly, their content is much more bearable for adult readers: some of the stories feel quite sophisticated despite the controlled vocabulary, and you could re-read them a couple of times without getting bored. I thought they would feel like extensions of a textbook but they didn’t feel dry to me, even as short as they are, and they conveyed some useful cultural information in a fun, accessible way. Also, they use kanji right off the bat, even ones like 靴 (shoe). That’s technically a JLPT 2 kanji, but it’s one you see in real life and there’s no downside to connecting it to くつ right from the beginning. (I don’t think there’s a need for a katakana gloss even at this level, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most Japanese learners learn katakana right from the start?)

These readers capture the good parts of level 1 books, which would be the difficulty level, use of repetition to help the reader understand or retain information and ample pictures, but they do it in a way that works for adult readers. In my experience so far, there really is no equivalent authentic material out there, so graded readers at this level would be best for true beginners interested in adding tadoku to their studies.

You can see and hear one page from seven different stories at this level online, so you can tell before ordering if they’d be at an appropriate level for you. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you try it and it seems too overwhelming or difficult, then go with level 0. There are two volumes of level 0 graded readers: Level 0, Volume 1 and Level 0, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?