When I was at Powell’s picking up used books, many of the ones I bought were books that were translated from English – Murder on the Orient Express, Treasure Island. I’ve resolved to stop buying books I can’t read, but I made an exception for these, as I think I should catch up to that skill level fairly soon, they were cheap, and I’ve already read them and knew that I would enjoy them. That made me wonder: Is it better for extensive readers to read translations of books they already have read in their native language or books whose stories they’re already familiar with, or would they be better served by focusing on books that they’re completely unfamiliar with?
The thing I’ve found to be most useful about familiar material in my own reading is that I can use my prior experience to guess words that I might not otherwise be able to understand, making them easier to remember. Because readers know the overall gist of the story already, they should be more comfortable with the book and should be better able to skip parts that don’t make sense without getting frustrated, allowing them to read at a slightly higher level. If it’s a book they already know they like, that makes it more worth their money than a book they may get bored with halfway through and never pick up again, and a lot of books that have been translated are classics, giving them literary value alongside the language learning and entertainment values.
However, familiar material may permit readers to rely too much on their prior knowledge, paying less attention to confusing parts that they may have been able to untangle if they were forced to do so, and perhaps even getting bored with a plot they already know, sapping them of the drive to keep going and see how it ends. Readers may also be able to artificially inflate their reading level because of their familiarity with the text, but then feel frustrated by the words they still don’t know and become discouraged by the contrast between their native language reading abilities and their target language abilities. They may find it easier to stick to translations and not branch out to many new things, and in the case of books that have originally been translated from another language, there may be idioms or interesting bits of information about the target culture that they could miss out on.
In the pursuit of fluency I would think all reading has value, but I wonder about the comparative experiences of two hypothetical extensive readers who read at about level 5 or 6: one who makes her way through the entire Harry Potter series in Japanese (a popular starting point for Japanese language learners, it seems), and one who reads an equivalent amount of words written by Japanese authors. Would there be differences in their motivation, comprehension and overall gain in skill?
In my case, I’d rather read something I haven’t read before, and I think I get more out of it that way… but I do rather want to see how Hercule Poirot sounds in Japanese. And, of course, I studied Japanese literature in college, and one of the things that most motivates me is the prospect of reading the original versions of many of the Japanese books that I’ve already read in English. (That may or may not count; I’ve forgotten the details of most everything but the Tale of Genji!)
- Extensive reading is known as 多読, or tadoku in Japanese. To try it, start with very easy books (ones with no more than two or three unknown words per page), and follow these principles:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary while reading.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
Find something to read!
Hundreds of free books and stories online
Local bookstores and libraries
Buying new and used books online
For more information, read "What Is Extensive Reading?" and "Classification System."
To learn more about Kunihide Sakai, who developed the three principles of tadoku and has worked to popularize it in Japan for years, read this interview with him.
Finally, for more than you ever wanted to know about why I believe extensive reading is worth your time, read my tadoku manifesto.
Superfluous StatsBooks read: 303
Word count (since starting the blog): 380,500
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