Should you Look up the Words you Don’t know when Reading a Book?
You finally are reading a Japanese book or manga. But surprise surprise, you don’t understand a lot of the vocabulary. This places you in a difficult situation. Do you ignore what you don’t understand and just try to enjoy the story? Or do you look up some or all of the words you don’t understand in an effort to increase your comprehension and value out of what you are reading?
There are four main methods, all of which come with their pros and cons.
Look up all words
The perfectionist’s dream. Every time you come across an unknown you make it known.
This feels good sometimes. You are making sure you comprehend 100% of your reading. You don’t miss out on any details. You can create hundreds (if not thousands) of personalized flash cards just from one chapter of manga. It turns your immersion into full studying. And therein lies the problem. While it’s great to get more study time, immersion presents some of its greatest value when it is enjoyed for what it is.
Since you look up everything it can feel like your reading is too ridiculously slow. You never make any progress. You’ve been on the same book for a year. And you dread reading because you know it will just be yet another study session.
Look up some words
Instead of obsessing over every last word, you choose to be more selective. You pick words that are relevant or essential to the plot, pique your curiosity, or you just can’t get around the urge of not knowing. It slows you down, but not by too much.
However, leaving yourself as the “word-choice master” poses a decision problem. You are in constant hunt and capture mode, looking only for the best prizes. While you are reading faster, you have less enjoyment because you must always be deciding. Making decisions, no matter how small, tires out the brain. Every small decision you need to make over a day (no matter how small it is) adds up until you lose willpower.
Having to make micro decisions hundreds of times over while you are trying to enjoy a book can completely sap the joy away from it.
Make a list for later
A list creator falls into one of the two above. Whether you choose all or some words, you make a mark of it, and save it for later. Maybe you highlight words (physically or digitally) or take screenshots. Whatever it is, you deal with them later when you are ready for study mode. This saves time and makes the reading process smoother because the interruptions are kept to a minimum and you can focus on the immersion now.
The problem comes when you “study later.” Having an ever growing list of words to define and turn into flash cards can turn into a burden and a chore. It is removed from the actual material, and the process may feel boring. Save for later material often never sees that later.
Look up no words
Forget the interruptions. You are going to enjoy immersing. No more worrying about words you don’t understand. You just keep moving forward and have fun with real Japanese. Highly motivating and you want to do this more often. More time interacting with Japanese and feeling real progress.
But then you go through a lot of a book without actually understanding it. This leads to frustration that you just can’t understand anything you read. You also don’t get the benefits of learning the words from the sources you want to use. You don’t acquire the vocabulary set that means something to you. And it is a pain to see the same vocab over and over and never get it. They become the “there’s that annoying vocabulary word again.”
What’s your method?
I’ve been through all 4 and I can’t really say there is a best choice. How about you? Which version do you do (or maybe you have a completely different take?)
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’ve also been through the range of options, but I most consistently settle somewhere between the last two. I like to just read and catch on to the vocabulary based on the context surrounding it. If a word sticks in my head after I’m done (either because I’ve seen it enough or it seemed important), I’ll look it up. If I notice vocabulary popping up often and in multiple places, I’ll make a point of translating it. By then, it’s generally encoded enough for me to retain the meaning easily. For song lyrics, I listen/read them so often, I rarely translate them. I like using my comprehension of them as a marker to see how much I’m picking up. For example, I understood a few words here and there two months ago. I finally comprehended the basic, general meaning a few weeks ago. Today when I looked at it again, I got specific references and points that were made that I didn’t have the context to understand a while ago. It’s extremely motivating to “decode” it on my own.
Otherwise for shorter readings, like social media comments, texts, or a news article that I don’t want to miss a word of, I’ll be more inclined to check out the translations.
I feel like there’s something beneficial about pure immersion time.
I would prefer the third method, writing it down without looking it up at the time of reading. Here, you can jot down not only the kanji, but the source title and page number. That way, you tie the word to where you saw it. Re-reading after you’ve finished studying your list gives excitement about finally understanding, and the re-read can be anticipated like a new read the second time as a result.
There is also the law of averages, where there is not an infinite amount of Japanese words in print, so the likelihood of encountering duplicates increases with continued study, and your study lists can be anticipated to get smaller with time.
As long as you make it back to the lists, this method works great. I just remember sometimes having a choice about continuing a manga, or going through a list of vocabulary from the earlier chapters, and I was always tempted to do the former.
I like your combo idea.
And I agree, there are some instances where you absolutely want to know every single word.
This is something I have pondered a number of times. I always settle for “some” words. The other two just seem to extreme (all or none) and save for later isn’t for me either as I lose out on the instant comprehension improvement.
Some side notes to this. I think making it easy to look up words is key for all methods. The more of a chore it is the more it slows you down and adds to frustration. I am far from a master at doing this. But my current method is OCR manga reader where you can highlight a word to look it up. I used the j-e dictionary at first but now I added a j-j epwing and I love it even more. Feels less like cheating.
Once I outpace jalup words I assume this is how I will mostly mine sentences. Either reading or watching. But in both cases my goal is to make it easy to highlight new words, look them up, add them to a flashcard, without slowing down too much. I would love to see an article on that sometime, up to date sentence mining tips and tools. I heard there are some great ones you can use in Netflix but I haven’t tried yet or looked into it much.
It is definitely an easier world for look ups, whether you save highlights for later or have an instant dictionary to look things up. Kindle is also great for these.
I do have a program I wrote for myself for some cool auto-sentence mining – maybe I’ll talk about it in a future post.
What’s the ocr app with J-J compatibility? I’m using kanjitomo but using English bugs me
You need to add a j-j epwing but it worked right away (j-e is built in). I had little clue what I was doing but it worked with no trouble when I added j-j.
I look up most words. There are so many words I don’t know and if I don’t look up most words I have no idea what I’m reading.
I don’t put all of them into Anki though. When I’m done with my reading for the day, I take a look at the history of the words I have looked up, and choose a few of them to put into Anki. The rest of them I leave for now. If they are important, I’ll look them up again the next time I read something. If they’re not that important, I might as well forget them for now. I’m in the intermediate phase now where reading feels like drinking from a fire hose and there are so many words that I don’t know. If I try to remember all of it I’ll drown!
I’m curious how you choose which words to put in Anki. Is it frequency-based, curiosity-based, feel-based, or something else?
I agree that looking up *everything* is too disruptive and overwhelming, but also find that it’s essential to look some things up or you’ll barely learn anything, so I use a set of 3 rules to keep it in check-
1: “Always look up Verbs”
They’re much smaller in number than Nouns & Adjectives and even the relatively uncommon ones get plenty of re-use. I’ve never regretted spending the time to learn a verb.
2: “The Deja Vu Rule”
If I recognize a word I don’t know and feel like “OK I’ve seen this enough times that I should know it by now”, then I’ll put in the extra time to learn it.
The inverse of this rule, by the way, is that it’s always OK to skip a word because if it is worth learning then you’re sure to see it again later.
3: “Follow your interests”
I place more emphasis on words that seem fun or interesting, even if they’re not particularly “important” in the grand scheme of things. If you like science, look up more science terms. If you like cooking, look up more cooking terms. Do what’s fun for you.
I like these additional rules.
Especially #2 is similar to the “annoying” rule where eventually seeing a word so many times and not knowing it annoys you so much that you have to learn it.
I’ve tried looking up every word but it spoils the fun. I will look up every word if “mining” the manga for words is the point of the exercise, but generally I follow Mat’s (above) rules of looking up the recurring words and the words that seem useful to me, although that’s hard to know if you haven’t looked them up already. Next time I’m reading Nodame I’ll try looking up the verbs and see how that works out. Interesting….
Yes, I’m also interested to hear how verb mining works for you.
This post brings to mind one Tofugu article from their “What I Use to Study Japanese” series, the one by Dan from Reajer, in which Dan said basically says he reads for complete comprehension and won’t move on until he understands everything 100%.
I don’t go quite that far, but when reading books and manga, I at least attempt to look up everything:
-First, I try looking up words and expressions I don’t know. I’m old-fashioned and still reading books in hard copy, sometimes when I am out somewhere (waiting room, laundromat, etc.) where I don’t have my computer at hand for online J-J dictionaries, and sometimes there are things that don’t come up in my electric dictionary.
-Things I don’t understand I mark for later to look up again with my computer.
-Things I can’t puzzle out myself after a few passes, I ask my italki partner about.
-I don’t make cards for most words, only when I really want to remember something.
The disadvantage is that this sometimes does really bog me down; if I have a lot of words and expressions I haven’t figured out yet, then sometimes that brings my progress in the book to a halt because I want to clear those up before moving on to avoid creating a huge backlog.
Also, when reading the New Testament in Japanese, I write down new/unknown words and their definitions on a sheet of paper. I do not make cards for them, but if I encounter the same word again later, I can look at it on my word list. This has been surprisingly effective in helping me remember some of these words without putting a lot of effort into it (i.e., no flash cards), but maybe partly because the New Testament has a fairly small set of vocabulary which get repeated frequently (especially when reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke one after the other, which is kind of like a primitive SRS experience).
When reading text in video games, on the other hand, I do sometimes let slide a few unknown words without looking them up (or without pursuing them further if I can’t find them in the first dictionary I try) as long as I am getting the gist of things.
Sounds like you have a very thorough technique you’ve refined for yourself :)
It’s an interesting topic because there are people on both extreme ends and everywhere in between.
I actually came across this app called “Chiitrans Lite”, which helps you look up words within milliseconds once you have it in your clipboard.
I had a lot of trouble adjusting to JP subs/ finding enjoyable media (I would rather anki a hundred sentences than immerse- to get to that “high level” quickly.
Chiitrans lite helped a lot in reducing my craving to look everything up.- I would play a show w/ an open HTML tab to catch what’s in my clipboard- if I come across an unknown word, press “ctrl+space” to copy the subs to clipboard (you can do this in Potplayer)- and quickly hover over the unknown vocab.
By the end of the day I’d easily have 50+ sentences in my HTML.The next day, I would go through the sentences and add them- only using a J-J dictionary w/ yomichan- doing all the sentence branching,etc.
This definitely helped me begin to enjoy media more, as I was assured I can just anki anything later (helping separate study and fun time).
As I began to love media, I started doing #4 naturally, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened next- I’d just watch the show on my mobile. That led me to discover the joy of being able to figure words out using context.
I know it isn’t perfect- it only has E-J definitions- I spent atleast 6+ hrs figuring if I can load a J-J dictionary on it, but gave up. You also end up retaining mostly nothing- but it served to fulfill my main goal (get rid of eng subs, fulfill my need to “look up everything”). As for low retention, it wasn’t a problem as I had the list of sentences to anki the next day.
I basically repeated the process, needed Chiitrans less and less (dropped it after I realized I can guess words through context) until I went through all of gintama (media that I ended up loving). The progress from 40% to 95%+ comprehension felt amazing
I have only begun getting real into novels recently, but I am finding it definitely more difficult/ 面倒 to look up words- thankfully I don’t have to look up so much anymore
Thanks for sharing info about this. It can probably help a lot of people doing something similar.
I think this will allways be a struggle.
I never do number 4. I always do number 1 … My OCD wont allow anything else. How else do you get sweet words like 目頭 or 横紋筋融解症..
What I do to make it fun is, I choose my reading material accordingly.
1. If I want to read without looking up too many words I…
… either choose something simple to read, or
… I read news or articles in my browser. Thanks to yomichan (with japanese dictionary) lookups take no time at all.
I have so many mangas that I want to read / am reading that I can pick and choose. So I have a few which are easy enough (or I allready know enough vocab in the genre), so that I only have to look up maybe 4 words per chapter.
2. If I want to gather new words / sentences, I just read whatever I want.
Yeah, definitely don’t know what 横紋筋融解症 is :)
Yeah I guess Ill never need it… but oh well. I guess I have ~100 cards like this in my anki deck. Words I most likely wont need in the foreseeable future… but they looked so cool and I just want to learn them.
They are the ones who always stick. You could wake me up in the middle of the night and I’d probably be able to produce them. xD
There’s never anything wrong with learning obscure words just for the fun of it =D
I suppose I have gone for the look up words later approach, but with the only looking up some words method. I’ll dog ear pages (sorry not sorry!) to a word I don’t know, then put those sentences in my Anki at the end of the day. Much easier with Kindle books, it’s a copy and paste of something you’ve highlighted and you’ve got a bunch of new cards. I will only look up a word if it feels like it’s integral to understanding what I am reading, or if it’s come up many times. Ultimately, if I need to know a word, I will know it at some point, so I don’t feel the pressure to know what everything means right now.
Kindle has made dictionary searching life sooooooo much easier.
My method is primarily to look up no words and just enjoy it for what I understand right now. I tried looking g up all words, but found it to be more a waste of time and didn’t retain much of what I learned (I have never really made my own vocab flash cards yet). However, I will rarely look up a word if it comes up in what I am reading often enough to make me curious or if something funny seems to be happening in the manga and I want to know what the commotion is about.
I also find humor to be motivation to look up something – because who wants to be left out of the joke :)
I found that a mix of options 3 and 1 is what works best for me. The first time I spot a new word, I Look it up and then write the word down with furigana,keeping a tally next to the word for how often it pops up. After I’ve gone through a few days of reading I can usually see what words are more important and then make cards later if I want to. It tends to slow me down a bit when I come across a new author, but I get used to the vocabulary they use shortly after.
Interesting. So do you have some kind of threshold number where if it appears over X times you know it is important to you?
Sort of. Usually if I’ve encountered a word at least 5 times, I’ll have a feeling that the word shows up enough in the author’s lexicon to merit looking into, or that its an important noun dealing with the plot.
Whether or not I make a card out of it depends on how well I remember what the word means after looking at my list a few weeks down the line. If it’s pretty clear, I don’t see much need to make a card at that point in time.
Quick correction: I meant to say “noun/concept dealing with plot and/or setting.” A lot of the times the word isn’t exactly relevant in the plot per se, but paints a better picture of the surroundings that still merits an understanding to me.