Friday, February 19, 2010

Learn to Read Manga with these 5 Essential Tools

5 Essential Tools for Learning to Read Manga

When I first wrote about learning Japanese through manga in April last year I included a list of tools that I used off-line. Since then I realise that even though I read manga off-line, many of the tools I use to augment my study of manga are online. Here I'd like to expand upon that list to include the online tools as well.

Reading Manga...
Reading Manga... by hawkexpress, on Flickr

Everyone has their own preferences of course, and there are probably tools you use that I haven't mentioned. If you think there is something that should be included please comment and let me know what you would recommend. I won't talk too much about how to incorporate these tools into a study session revolving around manga. I'd prefer to keep the techniques for another post where I can go into more detail.

The Essential Tools You Need to Read Manga

  1. Hiragana and katakana charts:
    The simplest hiragana/katakana chart you can find in Japan is the keypad on your keitai (cell phone). The next best thing after that is the chart in the back of your phrasebook. The Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook has hiragana/katakana charts and is a handy lo-tech tool when you're learning to read manga. 

    Online there are tools like to help you master hiragana and katakana, there is even a iPhone App so you can learn on the go. I covered a whole suite of iPhone apps for Japanese on this blog a few months ago. My personal favorite however is Nihongoup for the effortless way it it allows you to master hiragana and katakana. I reviewed Nihongoup almosts a year ago here, since then an iPhone version of this fun tool for learning Japanese has also been released.

    Learn the kana early on if you want to get the most enjoyment out of manga. With even a basic understanding of hiragana you'll be able to pronounce words and knowing katakana will allow you to 'hear' sound effects in manga.

  2. A basic grammar and vocabulary reference:
    Phrasebooks are good but they never cover grammar in enough detail. They also list vocabulary in glossaries which remove words from their natural context. Japanese for Busy People has an index for grammar that will help you recognise and understand patterns you see repeated in manga. But even better than a weighty textbook is a dedicated grammar reference like A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns by Naoko Chino.

    Online you'll need to start building your own word lists and sentence items in a spaced repetition service like Anki or You get the most from a spaced repetition service when you can build your and collaborate on other people's lists. does this really well, you can see how in a bunch of lists I've created to help you learn Japanese.

    Start building an understanding of common phrases and expressions that you find in manga. According to Naoko Chino there are only 3 basic sentence types in Japanese. Once you start to see these patterns appear, learning how to use them becomes much easier.

  3. A bilingual dictionary:
    I've written plenty about choosing the best Japanese dictionary and although there are more than a few good reasons to use a monolingual Japanese dictionary, when you start out you'll probably want to have a good bilingual one. I use Kodansha’s Furigana Furigana Japanese-English dictionary, and its companion the Furigana English-Japanese dictionary, which are specifically for non-native learners of Japanese. The definitions are written for English speaking users and contain thousands of sample sentences in natural Japanese. Kodansha's Furigana dictionaries also come in a single volume hardcover version.

    On the Nintendo DS I use Kanji Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiten which has the added benefit of an inbuilt flashcard deck for easy revision of new vocabulary. Online there are dictionaries like Denshi Jisho and jDictionary both based on the work of Jim Breen. There are plenty more dictionaries for iPhone, more than I could mention here.

    Think beyond the mental word pairings you have for English and Japanese. One day you may be able to use the dictionary-like power of using short phrases to describe things you don't know, but what matters most now is the consistent use of a good dictionary.

  4. A learners kanji dictionary:
    Learning to read and understand Japanese is all about the kanji. You'll never get to full proficiency with the language without a solid foundation in kanji, so why not tackle it head on? I use a very well-worn copy of The Learner's Kanji Dictionary by Spahn and Hadamitzky which includes clear guidance on using radicals and stroke order to identify and locate kanji.

    Online you'll need a dictionary that allows you to search visually by radical and by stroke count. Denshi Jisho does kanji by radicals well but forces you to search over multiple pages for kanji by stroke count. I prefer the fast loading times and visual appeal of QuickKanji, although it does lack adequate translations. I reveiwed QuickKanji a few weeks ago. It's probably best to use a combination of tools, and find what works best for you. If you're confident enough to start writing, the Kanji Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiten for Nintendo DS is also useful for learning more about kanji through the touch pad.

    It's never too early to start learning about kanji. Don't be intimidated. You need to get intimate with them and reading manga hopefully will de-mystify them for you.

  5. A kanji study aid:
    There are a few good handbooks of the Japanese writing system, like Kanji & Kana by Hadamitzky & Spahn, which also comes with a self study workbook for learning to write. I took a more native approach and used the Kanji Kentei Gakushu Suteppu (10級漢字学習ステップ) only in Japanese, but simple enough if you start at level 10. You'll need a good brush pen and plenty of notepads.

    On the Nintendo DS I use Kanken DS, now 200 Man Nin No Kanken, which has been upgraded to include more questions and sentences than ever before. What I love about studying kanji this way is that there is no mess, no waste and can write while I'm bouncing around on the bus on the way to work. I may not have the neatest hand writing, but at least I'm getting the practice.

    Many of you may not want to hear this, but learning how to read goes hand-in-hand with learning how to write. Having a physical connection with the page through a pen or brush stroke-after-stroke is one of the most effective ways to learn kanji. It's not just the repetition that's important, but also the muscle memory developing along with your fine motor skills that strengthens your understanding of kanji.

What's in your toolkit?

You probably disagree with some of my choices, and may have better suggestions. Other may benefit from hearing about what works for you. What do you use? Do you spend most of your time on your SRS, or do you prefer thumbing through the pages of a well-worn dictionary? What works for you?

In the next post we'll cover the techniques that I use to blast through manga with momentum, and select content for revision. Between now and then review techniques Liz uses to get into manga and boost her SRS or watch Natsukigirl's manga collector's guide on YouTube.

You might also want to read other posts on this blog about manga:
Learn to Read Japanese Manga  with Rainbowhill and Natsukigirl Online Class Learn to Read Manga with Rainbowhill and Natsukigirl in this live video class on eduFire

Thanks for reading, I mean that. You are what make this blog such fabulous place to learn about Japanese language and culture. Thank you for the support and the ongoing conversation on places like facebook and twitter. If you want first dibs on spaces in future free Japanese classes join the Rainbowhill Language Lab Newsletter.
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