Author Topic: Random thoughts on reading outside your native language  (Read 4517 times)


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Random thoughts on reading outside your native language
« on: March 06, 2013, 07:33:52 PM »
I've been reading a lot of light novels lately in Japanese.  My Japanese has been steadily improving but I'm still a long way from any kind of fluency.  Light novels are nice to practice with because they're, well, light.  They're a lot easier to read than serious literature (and while they don't put furigana for every word the way a shounen manga does, they do it for less common words, thank god).  And of course it doesn't hurt that I enjoy them.  There's something of a light novel boom in Japan right now, with tons of them being produced and more and more anime series are being based on light novels rather than manga (not to mention all the games and spin-offs, etc).  It's a good time to get into reading them.  But reading novels in a language you're not completely confident is challenging, and in the course of doing so I've observed a few things I thought were interesting:

1.  Action is hard.  I guess this shouldn't realy come as a big surprise, but it's an interesting contrast with, say, manga.  Action in manga is mostly told with images (and maybe some commentary), so action-heavy mangas are obviously much easier to read than dialogue-heavy ones.  But in novel form it's the complete opposite.  Properly describing an action scene with just text is hard, and often involves more advanced vocabulary, metaphors, etc.

When you start out learning a language the words you learn are almost always geared towards conversation, since that's what most people want/need to do most.  But properly describing a scene just takes different words.  Words you don't necessary use in conversation very often.  I often find myself inwardly relieved everytime I make it to a start quotation mark, because I know that things are going to get easier.  Even though I enjoy long flowing descriptions in English (well, assuming they're well-written at least), when it comes to Japanese give me dialogue!  I can handle dialogue.

2.  You can end up really learning a particular author's style.  I found this interesting and quite unexpected.  Keep in mind that I'm pretty much always reading with a dictionary next to me so I can look of words I don't know.  I don't expect that to change anytime soon, it's really just a question of rates.  When I'm in the zone, so to speak, I might only have to look a one word every few pages.  But then there are times when I'm bogged down looking up multiple words in a single sentence...

Anyway, this lead me to an interesting observation.  I noticed that after I've read a few volumes from a particular author, things get a lot easier.  I spend most of my time "in the zone".  This even led me to arrogantly believe that my Japanese had substantially improved and I was ready for harder challenges.  Well, I was getting a hang of something:  I was getting the hang of that author.  Because as soon as I started reading books from different authors it felt like I was back at square one.  But after spending time with a different author my reading speed would once again substantially improve.  Only to feel like I was starting over again when I moved on to yet another author...

This is how I see it:  Really common words are used by pretty much everyone.  They're really common, after all.  But I generally already know the really common words (I have been working on this Japanese thing for a number of years, after all).  It's not the common words that I'm stopping to look up.  My hypothesis is that when you start getting to less common words their usage is far less uniform.  Certain authors will favor certain words, and end up using them a lot.  Far more often than they would appear if you looked average rate over all Japanese literature.  So it's only natural that after a while you start to get used to that author's vocabulary.  But that author's vocabulary isn't really representative of anyone besides that author.  Hence the "starting over" feeling when trying books by someone else.  Each author has their own individual stable of less common words that they favor.

I think this is much less obvious to somebody who's already fluent in the language, since they would generally know the words anyway and wouldn't take much notice.  I'm not necessarily talking about super-rare exotic terminology here.  I just mean words outside the core of staple words that everyone has to use all the time.

Anyway, I wrote more than I had planned so that's enough for now.  Maybe I'll add more observations later if people think this is interesting.