When you are a veteran language learner sometimes you find yourself in situations when you feel like you want to improve but you do not know the best way to do it. At least for me this happens especially when I am talking to native speakers or I am listening to native speech. On the other hand, if you can express anything you want to say in your target language you might think that you are done with learning and occasional language maintenance will suffice. Well, these two completely contradicting thoughts will prevail no matter how much time you spend on learning a language and you will constantly look for new methods to improve your language skills if you are a language enthusiast.
The faceless ghost from Kwaidan
What happens when you master enough kanji to read Japanese literature and you can have lengthy Japanese conversations even if you are one-over-the-eight, but you still feel like there is room for improvement? You are in a tough situation and I can tell you that we are in the same boat.
Well, if you still want to practice contemporary Japanese you can always fall back to YouTube or the news, but broadening your vision on the coronavirus epidemics or learning the particulars of the US-China trade war in Japanese is not something that will hold your attention for too long.
I find culture and history much more interesting and if you read literature you will be able to gain insight into topics that will not only make you a much more interesting person but you will definitely impress the native speakers of your target language.
If you are currently in Japan, you are very lucky, because you have access to the Japanese Amazon and getting both Japanese and English books delivered to your doorstep or 玄関 is a matter of hours. I just love how fast they deliver products in Japan, especially if you purchase them on Amazon.
After this lengthy introduction, let’s see a very practical way to improve your Japanese!
Learning hiragana and katakana is pretty easy using online tests, but unfortunately you will need to learn a tremendous amount of kanji (Chinese characters, 漢字) if you want to gain access to Japanese books. When your kanji and Japanese vocabulary knowledge grows the best way to improve upon this is to start reading books in Japanese.
Let’s discuss the following scenario:
You go to a book store in Japan, you buy a book you found interesting and you start reading it with a dictionary. If this is your first time reading a book, you will find it very difficult and you will use the dictionary more than you will read the book. If you are a real samurai, you will not give up and you will be able to finish the book and you will also complete a thick notebook filled with your new vocabulary. This does not sound like an effective way to study Japanese, but it works.
Let me tell you that there is another way of doing this. There are thousands of books in Japan that were originally written in English and later they were translated into Japanese. You should go for these because if you buy both the Japanese and the English version you will possess a very powerful tool for learning Japanese.
The order in which you read the books does not really matter. If you do not want to spend too much time with the Japanese version, then read it in English first and you can try to read it in Japanese later. If you read it in English first you will have the story in your head and it will be much easier to read it in Japanese, even though you do not know all the vocabulary.
Recently, I came across a writer whose stories are worth reading and his novels were written in English, but they do have Japanese translations. His name is Lafcadio Hearn in English and 小泉八雲 in Japanese. He first stepped on Japanese soil in 1890 and he lived in the country until his death. He was a devoted researcher of Japanese culture and literature. Happily enough, he meticulously documented his work and even in 2020 we can enjoy his reports on the country and its people.
If you want to read one of the first interpretations of Japanese culture both in Japanese and English, then his novels are for you. Among these novels you can find a shorter one called “Mujina or ムジナ・貉”. Read this masterpiece if you want to learn about a businessman walking alone in a dark forest in Tokyo!
This story is not too difficult to comprehend even in Japanese. If you are interested in the Japanese version be sure to check out the following video:
You can try and listen to the story a few times in Japanese and see how much you understand the story. If you want to read the original work in English, you will find it in the following book:
And this is the Japanese version of Hearn’s 怪談：
So if you follow this guide and you have the books, then you will have access to the same story in English and Japanese and you can also listen to a very interesting performance that will tell you the same tale. I found this very effective, because the story itself is not too long and it is easy to understand even if you do not have advanced Japanese vocabulary.
For those who want to read more on Japanese culture I would recommend the Otogi-zōshi (お伽草紙). This is a Japanese collection of short stories by Osamu Dazai (太宰治).
Written by LB.