Interesting vs. Understandable – Which is More Important?
Textbook learning: check. Immersion learning: big question mark. When you finally reach for your first manga or anime, there is no bigger question than whether you should choose something based on whether it is interesting to you or whether you can understand it. How you answer this will significantly affect your desire to study. Are you choosing the right answer for yourself?
In a perfect world, you’d be able to choose both, right from the start. But learner life is tough, and you don’t get an easy victory like that. You first need to look at the significance of each direction.
- Fuels your desire to learn
- Represents the reason why you started studying Japanese in the first place
- Excites you and is fun
- Gives you just the right Japanese for your current level
- Prevents the stress and struggle of trying to focus on what is in front of you
- Motivates you because you truly feel like you are actually learning Japanese
The perfect balance
It’s easy to realize that it’s all about balance. It’s all about weighing the choice in your head with the outcome on both ends. If you go too far to one side, without consideration of the other, it can drastically negate the benefits that you would have gotten.
A very long time ago, I said that you need to read what is appropriate to your interests. While picking books targeted at small children sounds good in theory (nearly 100% understandable), it’s most likely going to be close to 0% interesting for you. This is an extreme, but the concept works similarly when it comes to people trying to force themselves to read popular “easy” manga. For example, those trying to read Yotsuba when they weren’t interested in it at all.
But even if you knew your perfect balance that you needed, are you going to be able to put it into action? When you approach something new, how can you possibly know how much you’ll understand until you dive into it? Sure, if you are deciding between a samurai period drama vs. a high school romance story, there is a clear winner in the understanding category. But genres often blend together, making things hard to judge.
What’s more important?
I don’t want to leave you with a “find your balance and everything will be okay.” I have an actual answer:
Interest should trump understanding… but only somewhat.
I’ve been on each extreme end of the scale and everywhere in-between, and I just could never get past the fact that I was more likely to stick with something that I found interesting, even if I didn’t understand it that well.
I once tried favoring understanding. I thought that if I understood more, I’d learn Japanese quicker, and get to the fun stuff I really wanted to enjoy sooner. But this led me into the deadly trap of trying to “save the fun stuff for later” whiled doing the “real work” now. And while I’m a big proponent of difficult challenges from the beginning, I’m not a proponent of pushing off enjoyment to the future.
If you need one final point of convincing, remember:
You can still enjoy something that you can’t understand well.
What does your balance look like?
I had always try to keep it at around:
This doesn’t mean I only understood 30%. It’s just where my priorities were when choosing what to watch and read. How about you? Where does your balance stand?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I’m going for interesting. I’m currently reading 宇宙兄弟。I’ve always been interested in space so it’s a great topic for me. No furigana though. I actually enjoyed よつばと quite a bit as well. The only depressing thing about the harder manga is that it makes me feel that Japanese is impossible to ever learn. I’m sticking with it though and now on volume 16 of 29 (the highest copy I own) but still only understanding 10-20%.
Keep fighting the good fight, Greg! I remember only understanding enough of Tokyo Ghoul to barely make it through, but the methods here really work! It’s hard to see yourself a few years in the future but the little improvements really add up over time.
I think 宇宙兄弟 is such an amazing manga, it is worth it to keep it up for the interest factor, regardless of the difficulty.
I think I had around a 70-30 ratio during my early years as well. It feels like a good balance.
I have an off topic question for you, Adam. When I read news articles it is troubling that with a lot of the names of people or places I’m not sure on the reading. While it’s pretty easy to look them up, doing it one at a time is tedious. Is there any way you can think of to solve this? Like a way to be more sure of readings for names?
I’ve had the same problem, so I have actually started adding lots of names of people and places to my own J-J deck. I essentially just do a sentence, where the name is the unknown. I mark good if I remember that it is a name and how to read it.
I did two things:
1. Similar to Jesper, I created cards of the most common names (last names, first names, and place names).
2. But more importantly, I watched and read the same stories. When you watch the news, there are Japanese subtitles (and of course audio) that go over the frequent names you’ll see in recent news. Then when you read the same articles, you know them already. This frequent back and forth exposure really increases your person/place name knowledge.
Even if they are just news podcasts (without visual cues), hearing the names over and over followed by seeing them in text later is its own self-contained SRS.
Interesting content seems the way to go as I still remember stuff from manga that I’ve picked up without anki or studying, just multiple reads. From ベルセルク I learnt stuff like 領主、繭、烙印、悪霊、連中、etc. But I can recall those words and read them now with no studying. I think that’s the best thing about reading things you’re interested in because you’ll read them multiple times which eliminates the need for active studying and allows you to retain them better.
Good points. A manga you love is a powerful tool :)
I definitely lean towards more interesting than understandable. I’ve choked down some really bad romances novels though before I got into novels I liked and I’m glad I did. Even though they weren’t really interesting they were pretty fun to laugh at and I learned a lot about how prose looks like in Japanese.
The best part about hard but interesting stuff is that when you find something you love you watch or read it over again. I do this with movies I like that originally came from novels. Or shows where I didn’t catch the plot the first time.
Actually found a series recently where my first pass I understood maybe 30%. Second watch was 55%. Third watch, more like 90% comprehension. So you can still learn from the harder stuff :) glad I did, the very strong delinquent slang was what threw me off but now I’m way more equipped to watch more delinquent shows and movies.
I think there is interesting things at every level though, just gotta look hard and hope you chance upon it. Games, manga, drama, anime, movies – early on I found action interesting and approachable since they have less dialogue and lots of fighting scenes that help tell the story without words.
At level 50 or so, my interesting vs comprehendable ratio is probably 90/10, maybe 95/5. But early on (levels 10~30) I was probably around 60/40.
I actually would recommend comedy top, especially movies. There is a lot of comedy that is very hard due to wordplay or really fast talking, but there’s also just a ton of slapstick movies or plain absurd movies out there that will get a laugh out of you whether you’re level 10 or level 65. A recent one that comes to mind that I watched is the live action version of Saiki K.