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.