Thursday, April 30, 2009

How To Begin Learning Japanese With Manga

A couple of weeks ago I posted how reading manga can be good for your Japanese, but I only touched on learning to read from scratch. Thankfully, one of my friends natuskigirl (Lynn) followed through with her comment on that post, and put together two videos on how to start learning Japanese with manga. The videos are excellent in outlining the steps you need to take to start using manga as a learning aide, so I thought I might feature them here and add a few of my own ideas.

Lynn started learning Japanese from manga when she was 13 years old, and has posted lots of cool manga collecting videos on her YouTube channel "tokirocket". She knows what she is talking about, so listen carefully as she outlines a long term study plan for learning how to read Japanese with Manga.

We'll get to the second part of the video soon, but first I just want to summarise some of the points Lynn made about the first steps you need to take.

3 Steps you need to take to begin reading

First: Memorise the kana.

Japanese has three alphabets, hiragana, katakana and kanji. The kana, hiragana and katakana, both have about 50 characters, and can be rote learned in about a fortnight. This is the least interesting part of getting started, it takes commitment and effort. Once you break through however, you'll be able to pick up your first manga and start reading.

Don't worry about kanji so much at this stage, there are more than 2000 used in everyday language in Japan, so it takes years of dedication to learn them. You want to get started as quickly as possible so just concentrate on the kana. Learning the kana will allow you take advantage of furigana, a Japanese reading aide which appears above kanji in some manga. You'll also be able to recognise many loanwords from English and other languages which are normally written in katakana.

Second: Choose the right manga.

Start low, you may be an adult learner but remember your Japanese reading age is low. Steer clear of books with adult themes or highly specific language, you'll need something that matches the vocabulary you have. Doraemon, Chibi Mariko-chan and Sazae-san are titles aimed at the family market that tell stories about suburban Japanese life. Think Peanuts, and not The Dark Knight.

Although they may seem tempting at first, don't use the bilingual editions, they're a crutch. Japanese children learn to read by reading Japanese, and you once learned to read by reading English. Trust your inner child to work things out for you as you have fun with the challenge. You'll read and re-read these comics over and over again so choose something you are interested in, it will make things easier in the long run . There is no point reading about war time pilots if you have no interest in war stories.

Choose something with a long, cohesive storyline. Yonkoma, the kind of strip comics like Dilbert found in newspapers are no good because they rely heavily on puns and topical in-jokes that will be lost on the casual reader. Slightly older Manga like Sailor Moon, Hunter Hunter, and Naruto are good because they are bound in numbered volumes that have characters and a story line that develops over time.

Third: Open the book.

Manga has a few conventions that will become apparent as you flip through the pages. Are you starting from the right end of the book? The reading order is from right to left, even in most translated versions. The pages are read top down, from right to left.

Use the pictures to get an idea of the story line and the scenario, this will help you get an idea of the kind of vocabulary you'll encounter. Don't just look at the pictures though, 'read' them. The story is contained within each cell. Ask yourself these questions, in Japanese if you can. Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Your answers in Japanese will help prime you to deal with the reading. Read what you know first, if you are good with katakana, seek it out on the page and read it to yourself, out loud if you can. Katakana is often used for emphasis, as well as sound effects, think of it as the sound track to your story.

Don't worry about the slang, or words you don't know. Keep moving forward. Read each kana where and when you can.

For kanji don't be intimidated, if your manga has furigana use that, after a while you will become familiar with the most common kanji just through sheer volume. For kanji that you don't see very often or doesn't have any furigana, use a place holder word, like nantoka (something or other).

Read in small sections, stop where the scene changes. Put the book down and review vocabulary or work on your tables again. With a little rest you'll be ready to pick up the manga and start again soon. Repetition is important, don't be discouraged and just keep reading, make sure it's something you enjoy.

You'll need to have some tools by your side as you read. I'll let Lynn
explain the reading technique first and then we'll come back with some
of the tools you'll need to get started after the video.

Five tools you must have to read Manga

Reading manga is preferably something that you are going to do offline, so the tools I list here are decidedly low tech. It's good to find a nice warm spot in the sun and get away from the screen sometimes. You will need to use the internet however to source some of your material, like books and charts, also to make friends with other manga otaku.

1. Hiragana and katakana charts

Most small phrase books have these charts on the inside covers, you can also by them separately or as posters to put on your wall. If they fit in your pocket, you'll be more likely to carry them with you every where you go. You'll need to refer to them often when starting out, so have close by when you are reading.

2. A book with with basic vocabulary and grammar points

If you have bought a good phrasebook you may be able learn something about grammar, but I find nothing is ever covered in enough detail. There are plenty of good books that cover grammar structures only, but these are often very dry and technical. Even better if you can find a course book with exercises like minna no nihongo, or Japanese for Busy People.

3. English/Japanese plus Japanese/English dictionaries

Usually these two volumes come in a pair and both are important. I use Kodansha's Furigana Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries, which also come as a single volume hardcover Japanese dictionary.

4. A learners kanji dictionary

It's never too early to start learning how to use one! Understanding radicals and stroke order is central to both understanding how to read kanji, and also how to find them in a dictionary like this. But it would probably take a whole series of videos to explain how this is done. Don't be intimidated by the kanji though, you need to get intimate with them.

5. A kanji study book

When you are ready to tackle Kanji, Lynn suggests you try Remembering the Kanji. I haven't read it, because I took a more native approach and used the Kanji Kentei Gakushu Suteppu (10級漢字学習ステップ) which also allowed to me to practice my writing, just as an elementary school student would in Japan.

More on learning and where to buy Manga

The focus of this post and Lynn's videos has been on reading authentic Japanese manga. There a very few places in Australia that stock Japanese books, I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but if it's anything like here you will have to hunt them down.

I would start first with friends, do you know anyone in Japan? Do have any friends travelling there soon? Make sure you ask them to pick you up a few books on your way back from Japan. Lynn raves about Ebay, and I reckon it's a pretty good place to start if you are going to buy online.

Online bookstores like Amazon, and Amazon Japan are also good. Kinokunia and Book-off are also Japanese chains, so you might a good response from them. Google Japanese book store for stores in your local area, and if your local bookstore doesn't carry any, ask them to get it in for you.

Reading manga can be good for your Japanese, make it easier for yourself by setting up with the right tools.

What manga do you read? How did you get started? Have you been doing this kind of thing online, with scanlations and online dictionaries? Let's hear about it the comments.
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