“Don’t use a dictionary when you’re reading” is the first of the three extensive reading principles my friends told me about — and yet it took me months to stop using one. I rationalized it, telling myself that I remembered words and their associated kanji more efficiently if I looked them up, that looking up a word on my computer took such a short time that it didn’t break my flow, that with limited access to books I had to squeeze all the utility from them that I could. These things weren’t not true. But the two largest reasons I clung to the dictionary were because I felt intensely uncomfortable when I didn’t know a word and years of formal classes in Japanese and French had trained me to look up everything.

When I stopped using the dictionary, it felt like a sacrifice. It didn’t seem like it would actually make that big of a difference, and it felt like I was actively throwing away a useful resource: I stopped only because I had faith in those three extensive reading principles.

Now I’ve been consistently reading without a dictionary for about three months, and if I’m reading a book within my level, I’ve learned to unconsciously use the surrounding words, pictures and grammatical context to figure out unknown words. For example, this sentence from Roald Dahl’s “The Giraffe And The Pelly And Me” (こちらゆかいな窓ふき会社, about a level 4 book by my system) provides an opportunity to illustrate my thought process:


The three words I didn’t immediately know in this sentence were ふろおけ, すさまじい and くだける. As I read ふろおけ, I first slotted it as a noun I didn’t know because it was preceded by a な adjective and followed by the particle が. So some unknown, but large, noun flew out of the window. I associated it with ふろ and ふろしき, but at the time didn’t have much else to go on (and it could have been entirely unrelated to either) so I continued. すさまじい is an い adjective and describes 音, and I can assume that this word describes the sound of some big thing flying out of a third floor window and landing in the middle of a street. As for the last one, its ending and placement in the sentence made it obvious that it was a verb, and by this time I had so much extra information that I quickly reformulated the sentence in English, in the form of a fill-in-the-blank test:

“Suddenly, a big __________ (noun) flew out of the third floor window, fell right in the middle of the street and, causing a __________ (adjective) noise, __________ (verb)!”
(My apologies to Roald Dahl. The purpose of these mental fill-in-the-blank tests is just to quickly isolate and identify unknown words.)

I can’t really figure out what “noun” and “adjective” are just from a sentence like this — although I start to have an idea about the adjective, and I imagine it to be unpleasant — but there are a limited amount of verbs that make sense in context. Something in the range of “broke” or “smashed” or “crashed,” perhaps?

So from one read-through of the sentence, I’m fairly sure I understand one of my three unknown words, and I’ve got a good lead on another. At this point, I assume that if the first one happens to be important it’ll show up again, or that there is a possibility of figuring it out from whatever comes next. Sure enough, a toilet follows the ふろおけ out the window, lending some weight to the idea that this word is related to ふろ. It makes sense, insofar as it makes sense at all. And in this case, the book has pictures, and on the next page there is a lovely illustration of a toilet sailing through the air, soon to join a smashed bathtub.

So now I know for sure that ふろおけ is “bathtub” (and I would have been about 80% sure without the picture) and from that, I can conclude that すさまじい, whatever other meanings it may have, at the very least holds the meaning of “the sound a bathtub makes when it flies out of a third story window and crashes on the ground.” That’s not the dictionary definition, perhaps, but it’s a good start.

In this case, ふろおけ was figured out mostly from the surrounding words and the picture and slightly through grammatical context, すさまじい from both the surrounding words and grammatical context, and くだける mostly through grammatical context and slightly from the surrounding words. Now that I’m writing about them for my blog I’m likely to remember all of them, but in the course of normal reading I would probably remember ふろおけ forever, as it’s a very basic word, it’s connected to another very basic word and it flew out of a third floor window. I might have a chance of remembering くだける and すさまじい, depending on what context they appeared in and how soon I saw them again. However, even if I hadn’t been able to guess a single one of them, I still would have been able to derive considerable meaning from the sentence because it’s at my fluent reading level and because I’ve stopped focusing on individual words. If a word is important to the story, it’ll be repeated and I’ll pick it up eventually, and if it’s an important part of the language at this level, it’ll be repeated in this book or another one. So I can still form a picture of the meaning even without knowing every single word my eyes pass over. (And if I can’t, then I skip it and keep going, and then if I keep having that problem that just means the book is still above my level and it’s time for another one.)

I’ve detailed my thought process here, but when I was actually reading, this was all nearly unconscious and almost instantaneous. This ability to figure things out almost immediately from grammatical context, surrounding words and pictures is what I got in exchange for sacrificing my dictionary habit and my pride. The dictionary would have delivered the same result in about the same time frame (assuming I didn’t get distracted by checking Twitter), but relying on it never gave me an opportunity to develop those skills. I also think that practicing on short, simple sentences made it easier to guess words, again aiding in the skill development.

When I first started reading without a dictionary, I felt as if I was just reinforcing the vocabulary I already knew and not learning new words, and I felt uneasy about the idea that I was just staying in place. (I even wrote about it in my first weekly update.) At first, as a bargain with myself, I would look up words after I finished a book. Later on, I would look up some words after I finished a book. Now I look up words only if I really liked the book or I was particularly curious about the word for some reason. I know I hardly retain everything I figure out in this way, but I do feel like I remember enough that I don’t worry about whether or not I’m learning enough vocabulary.

The only thing I miss about using a dictionary is making the connections with kanji. For example, すさまじい is also written 凄まじい. I know 凄い, so that’s another clue I could have used if the word had been written in kanji, and it’s something I would have missed if I hadn’t looked up these words while writing this blog entry. This may not be a problem for those of you who actually memorize on’yomi and kun’yomi properly: I can’t for the life of me remember those readings in isolation, so I don’t even bother trying anymore. Still, as the books I read get more advanced, more kanji starts to appear — which often actually makes them easier. Actually, I mentioned earlier that I guessed that ふろおけ was “bathtub” because the next big noun to appear was “toilet,” but the truth is that I didn’t know the word for toilet before, either. But it happens to be 便器, and it happened to be written in kanji, and so it immediately made sense to me because I’m familiar with both of those kanji already. I often think it’s funny that extensive reading has a large following among Japanese people learning to read English, but because of kanji, the technique is perfectly suited for those of us who are learning to read Japanese!

If the idea of extensive reading appeals to you, but you’re hesitant to stop using the dictionary, I hope this will encourage you to give it a try. For me, it’s proving to be a central part of the process, even though I didn’t understand what the big deal was when I first read about the three principles.


6 Responses to The Benefits Of Reading Without A Dictionary

  1. johnclarke says:

    3 unknown words in a single sentence are too many to be considered within your fluent reading level. I would suggest stepping down to a lower level until you are more prepared if these type of sentences occur too much. A fluent reading level is ideally looking for one word in a sentence that we don’t know, when new words do occur. If this is a rare instance however than it’s probably ok.

  2. Liana says:

    I appreciate your advice! I thought this was a particularly good example because it contained three of my strategies to understand words in one line, but most of the sentences in this book were more reasonable.

    In any case, to me there’s a difference between words I might not have known (or may have seen before but not retained) but understand from context almost immediately, and words that I don’t know and can’t figure out from context. So a sentence with three words that baffle me is a definite signal that a book isn’t within my fluent reading level, but if I can figure words out more or less subconsciously using the information I already have, I’m not all that troubled by them.

    If the whole book was like that, it might have been a different story, but really the only guidelines I care much about are the three principles I follow. There are times when three unknown words in a sentence are a sign of a problem and times when they’re not; the tests, for me, are “how much am I understanding, overall?” and “is the book too hard or too easy to enjoy?”

  3. sloppie says:

    I’m so impressed by your post. Yes, many of tadokists have such “AHA!” experience while reading. But your analysis of your process to get the meaning of the words is really COOL!
    And I like your own definition of すさまじい a lot, which inspired me to make a new topic at tadoku group in goodreads. ha,ha.

  4. Liana says:

    Thanks Sloppie! I always kind of like writing out what’s going on inside my head. It can be a pretty dangerous place inside there, sometimes ^^;;

  5. Marblesaurus says:

    Good analysis! I jumped from tadoku.org and fully enjoyed reading your post. As sloppie said, I also had some AHA! moments and when I talked about one of them with Mr. S he got really excited. At that time I couldn’t understand why he was so excited, but now I can see it thanks to your explanation.

  6. Liana says:

    Thanks, Marblesaurus! I’m glad it was useful to you somehow ^^