At a certain point, you're going to want to start reading real Japanese. Usually that's somewhere around the "intermediate" or "advanced" levels. Regardless, if you want to make the jump from "learned Japanese" to fluency, you need to read… a lot.
But, when you start doing this, no matter what your level, it's going to be very difficult. Part of the reason may be because you're not ready. No matter how much preparation you do, though, you're going to run into the "first page syndrome."
The First Page Syndrome
Here's a quick and dirty definition of the First Page Syndrome:
The first page of anything you read in a second language is disproportionately more difficult than the rest of the pages.
Note: "First page" isn't necessarily an exact number of pages. "First few pages" may be more accurate, depending on your level.
And it's true. Every time you pick up something new, the first page is going to be very difficult to read. You're going to be looking up a lot more kanji, vocabulary, and grammar. You're going to feel like you're not ready to start reading real Japanese. But, you might just be a Negative Nancy. If you can push through the first page, it'll get a lot easier. But, most people think "oh this is too hard, I should try something else!" So, they change to another book/article/etc and try to read that. Guess what, it's also very difficult. Why? Because you're reliving the First Page Syndrome, over and over again. Changing what you're reading is just about the worst thing you can do when you start reading Japanese.
Defeating The First Page Syndrome
When you are reading real Japanese, there are a few things you should do to alleviate the First Page Syndrome.
- Don't change what you're reading. This is most people's mistake. The first page is like a foundation for the rest of the book/article/whatever. The most common vocabulary come up in the first page, especially special vocabulary that have to do with the topic you're reading about. If you're reading about baseball, you'll learn a lot of the special baseball terms within the first page or two. They will be words you've never seen before, but, after the first page you'll know them. They'll fill up a lot of the other pages too, which means there will be fewer words that you have to look up later on.
- Read within topics: If you're reading a big book, this isn't much of a problem. It'll take you a while to get through that book. But, if you're reading articles, or other shorter form writing, you'll need to choose a new article to read relatively quickly. Stick with one topic. If you're reading baseball articles, read another baseball article. They will share a lot of the same terminology. Once you learn that terminology you will be able to focus on the other vocabulary and grammar and it won't be so overwhelming.
- Stick with an author: Every author has their own "voice." This means they use certain words more often, and write in a specific style. The way they weave words grammatically will be unique. If you read articles or books written by the same author, you'll have to spend less time figuring out grammar. The author will follow a pattern, and you will learn it pretty quickly (within those first couple pages).
- Stick with the same topic AND author: This is the mother load. For the reasons stated in points one and two, this will make reading a lot easier.
One question that will pop up is "But do I really want the reading to be easier? Won't that mean I'm learning less?" That's a great question. It is true you will have less to learn, but by doing this you will be able to read faster and see more Japanese. This will give you more opportunities to acquire Japanese, which is what you ultimately need to do to become fluent. Escaping the First Page Syndrome helps you to do this, so ultimately it is much better, I think. You have to think long term.
The next time you are reading Japanese and think it's too difficult, remember the First Page Syndrome. Perhaps this is what you're experiencing. Get through the first page or two, though, and reading will suddenly become manageable.