Reading Manga Is Not As Hard As You Think

I recently finished reading through Detective Conan Vol. 1, and in doing so, I realized that manga is not as scary or intimidating as I thought. This could be a product of slow and steady incremental progress, but I think it’s more a matter of building mental barriers that need to be broken down.

Set Your Standards Low

Whenever I got my first volume of manga (Fullmetal Alchemist, by the way), I was so excited and ready to learn. Unfortunately my mind put all of these expectations on learning Japanese through manga. I’ve read all sorts of stuff online and in other blogs about the fantastic benefits of learning from stuff you enjoy, and I’ll be honest, that sort of set me up for failure. I had these grand visions of me rocketing up to the top of the “American guys who know Japanese” list because some people achieved fluency that way. I thought, maybe not consciously, that it’ll be as easy for me as it was for them. Boy was I wrong.

No matter how you cut it, Japanese is difficult. There’s SO MUCH I still don’t know. But that’s okay. I’ve learned to accept it now. Reading one volume of manga won’t put me at the level of Adshap or Khatz, so forget about them and set those standards nice and low. If you’re reading your first manga, expect to not understand much of anything. Because for the first 50 pages, you won’t. It will be a jumble of vaguely familiar words and grammar structures that you’ve only seen in Anki. And that’s okay. It’s less about the content and more about the process.

Skipping stuff REALLY IS okay

The very first page of Detective Conan? I still haven’t read it. It’s not because I don’t care about the story (I have actually seen the first episode of the anime at least 5 times). It’s because there’s text ALL over the page. The dialogue is long and verbose, there’s nothing happening in the art, and I’m just generally not interested in trying to fight through it all. So I skipped it.

The second page? So much better. It got me hooked into the story (”御主人、あなたです!”). After that, it was much easier to continue to the third page, then the fourth, then the fifth, etc etc etc. When you get to the point where you’re reading and reading and nothing makes sense, or you turn the page and there’s a giant block-of-text sitting there making fun of you for not understanding it’s subtle humor, just skip it.

DON’T use a dictionary

There’s two different ways that you can read something. Intensively, reading for quality, and extensively, reading for quantity. Both have their merits and are great for learning. But if you’re thinking about reading your first manga right now, go for the latter. Reading intensively at this stage will only mean headaches and frustration.

There’s a lot I don’t know, but I can look up the meaning. Vocabulary or simple grammar structures. Those are easy to look up because I know what keywords to use and what resources to look in. There are things that are much harder to look up, like colloquial phrases, complex grammar structures, slang terms. These are tough to define when you don’t have a large pool of knowledge to pick from. Reading intensively does have a lot of great benefits that I won’t get into here, but it does provide a lot of trouble in the early stages of learning a language. So if you actually want to finish that book you’ve had your eye on, shoot for extensive reading.

Since you’re not going to look anything up right now, how are you going to keep track of your progress? How will you learn these words and phrases if you just skim through them? My advice,

USE a highlighter

Yes a wonderful highlighter. They are fantastic. All bright and yellow (or red or blue or green), ready to point out how much you don’t know. It does this because you will be highlighting anything you want to look up later. Don’t know that kanji compound? BAM. Highlighted. What about that weird verb ending thing that you don’t really understand? BAM. Highlighted.

That’s the process. Read/skim/skip stuff you don’t care about, then “WHOA I understood that super basic sentence. That was cool. Except for that one word. I have no idea what it is. *highlighted*”. Then keep moving. Get through the whole book. When you look back, you’ll probably see that there’s going to be a lot less highlighting than you would’ve imagined (at least that’s how it was for me). There were large chunks of conversation that I actually understood and followed. Then there’s chunks of conversation where I highlighted a word in every sentence. And that’s perfect! That gives you,

1.) confidence that you aren’t wasting your time and you actually know some stuff, and
2.) a bunch of words to look up later, and accompanying sentences with context!

Just remember to do all that lookin’ up stuff later. Add em’ to Anki if that’s your thing.

Pick something that you like

This one is so obvious I don’t even want to write anything about it. It’s the same problem I faced when I was trying to force feed myself the Core6k vocabulary list. It tastes bad and I don’t like it. When you don’t give a shit about what you’re reading, you’re not going to like reading. And if you don’t like reading, you’re not going to stick with it. “Difficult” and “easy” are all subjective. Eating crawfish is too difficult for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love every minute of it. Struggling to fish out that tiny little piece of meat is SO worth it because it tastes damn good. Same with Japanese. Find your crawfish.


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