“Ondoku” Your Way to Smoother Language Skills

I have been studying Japanese language more or less since I was in college, twenty years ago, and much of that has been self-study. I have never lived in Japan, but my wife is from there, and we visit there every non-pandemic-year to see family, etc. Plus, I passed the JLPT N2 exam in 2012. As such, my language skills in Japanese are in a weird state of not being fluent, but not beginner either.

My wife and kids, who are both fully bilingual, tend to poke fun of my Japanese at times, since my grammar usage and pronunciation are kind of funny. I get mentally “gummed up” and use the wrong Japanese particle, or other funny usage, but conversely, I can read Japanese computer books without too much difficulty. So, in a way, my skills are kind of lop-sided, and the result of too much self-learning, not enough practical application.

Anyhow, my wife recently passed along some advice from my kids’ after-school Japanese-language teacher (who’s a good family friend of ours): practice reading aloud more. This is called ondoku (音読, “Ohn-doh-ku”) in Japanese.

It seemed kind of silly at first, but I realized that my kids had grown up here in the US doing that weekly as their Japanese-language homework: read an essay out loud 10 times. The essays were short, maybe 2-3 minutes of reading at a time, but reading 10 times reinforced the intuitive “flow” of Japanese, while also helping to smooth out their speaking and pronunciation skills, two things I sorely lack.

In fact, this isn’t limited to Japanese. My old Latin textbook, the famous Wheelock’s Latin one, also recommends reading Latin out loud to get used to the flow and pronunciation. Similarly, when I was dabbling in ancient Homeric Greek, the professor in my online course recommended the same thing: read aloud.

The point here is: whatever language you are learning, make a habit of reading aloud small sections of text 10 or so times to get the hang of it, then move on to other texts and repeat.

The idea is to create an easy, low-stress, sustainable routine:

  1. Find some authentic text in that language that is easy to read (if you get hung up on adult Japanese text, with its advanced Chinese Characters, move to an elementary school text and work your way up).
  2. Pick a small excerpt that you can read in 2-3 minutes, not too long, not too short.
  3. Practice reading it 10 times over a week.
  4. Find a new excerpt for next week and repeat the cycle.

For my part, my wife found this 1st grade level science book:

「10分でわかる!かがくのぎもん」(juppun de wakaru! kagaku no gimon) by Egawa Takio. Title roughly translates into “Understand Science in 10 minutes!”

The Japanese is very easy, with no Chinese Characters (even though I can read a fair amount). That way, I can focus on reading out loud. I read one essay last week 10 times, three times in front of my wife, and have started reading a second essay this week.

It’s hard to gauge results since I only started, but I know my kids had been doing it for years, and their conversational skills are quite smooth, so I know it works. And because the activity is fairly easy and low-stress, it’s frankly kind of fun, plus I learn interesting little tidbits, such as why crickets have long antennae. 🦗

To be honest, reading in front of a native speaker can be really embarrassing, but it’s really important not to personalize it, especially when they give you advice. Just roll with it, and remember it’s not meant to humiliate you. It’s meant to help you. Also, I am sure native speakers will appreciate you asking for help, so there’s that too.

So, if you’re learning a language, try reading aloud and have fun!

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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