How do you read? Decoding or Sight Words? And yes, this will get to a 'writing' topic, so hang in there. Please.
When I volunteer for the Adult Literacy League, training new tutors, one of the things we discuss is how people learning to read must be able to decode the markings on the page into meaningful words, sentences, and paragraphs. There are many ways we do this.
What does a reader do when confronted with a word he doesn't recognize?
We use our phonics skills, but they don't always work, since the English language is rooted in too many other languages that don't comply to those "rules." They work much of the time, however, so the ALL recommends using a phonics based approach as a basic starting point.
Another tool: In our training sessions we talk about Word Patterns, or Word Families, which might also draw on phonics skills. Can you compare the word to another that you already know? For example, if the student can't read the word "Shake", but can read "cake" and "bake", the tutor can use this as a way to help the reader recognize that "ake" makes a specific sound, and from there, can extrapolate how to form other words that end in "ake."
Of course, it won't always work. My favorite example is laughter. Change the "l" to a "d" and the words sound nothing alike. (Unless you're in my family, in which we've been know to refer to our dafters.)
Another technique: word parts, where compound words can be broken into components: watchman, watchdog, watchtower, etc. The reader might know both parts of the word, and can figure out the overall meaning that way.
We also discuss context clues, where an unknown word in a sentence can often be figured out simply because it makes good sense. Even as accomplished readers, we rely on this technique (if we don't feel like getting out the dictionary) when an author's vocabulary throws a new word at us. Which is another topic for another day, I think.
But the ultimate goal is to create a vast base of "sight words". Think about it. How many words in this passage stopped you? Probably none. You don't consciously decode them because you know them by sight.
And now (at last), to get to the point of today's post. I'm reading Rain Fall, which is set in Japan. Setting plays a big part in the book, and the richness of Eisler's prose paints a wonderful picture of the country. But there's a lot of Japanese involved. Yes, he explains vocabulary, translating and describing with finesse. But it's still going to slow the read for me because all the names of people and places aren't sight words.
(Note: this is NOT directed at Barry Eisler's books in particular, and I don't want anyone to think it means I'm not liking the book. I am. If I were reading a book set in any other country, I'd have the same reaction to the reading process.)
As authors, we're told that it's not wise to introduce too many characters right away, because readers are trying to get a mental "who's who" of the book. When I write, I strive to make sure I don't have many characters whose names start with the same letter, to make it easier for readers to remember who's who. There's the "J" character, and the "G" character. Of course, as more characters invade the page, I have to double (or triple) up. So, if they're important, I try not to use their initials for anyone else's name.
But it's not just character names. It's any word in a foreign language, or any word we don't recognize. While Eisler might have the luxury of choosing character names, if he's writing about real places in Japan, he's not going to be able to call them whatever he chooses.
On page 1, I met up with the following unfamiliar words: Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Yashuhiro, Kawamura, and Kokudokotsusho (and I hope I copied them correctly, because I have no language base to draw upon).
In context, I knew which were people, which were places. I knew what they meant, thanks to Eisler's writing. But they're still unfamiliar words. And I still slow down whenever I come to one.
What do you do when we're hit with names or places that aren't familiar? Do we stop and sound them out? Try to form a mental "picture" so we hope we'll recognize them when they show up again? Skim over them hoping that if they're important, they'll show up often enough to become ingrained in our memory…sight words? Move on to another "easier" book? As a reader, does it bother you? As a writer, how do you deal with incorporating foreign words into your writing?
Come back tomorrow. There will be a contest winner thanks to the generosity of Tuesday's guest, Marie Nicole Ryan, and I'll have the second Friday Field Trip. Not telling where we're going yet. It'll be a surprise (to me, too, because I haven't decided! Maybe somewhere warm.)