Do I need to take a class to learn Japanese?

When I started learning Chinese, I never once considered taking a class. The simple reason is that I didn’t have the time and didn’t want to pay the money. But it might be more accurate to say I didn’t think that classes were worth the time and money. And although I’m currently not too thrilled with my rate of progress (mostly because I study for only 2 hours a week and also because I’m a perfectionist), I know that I’m a lot better off meeting with my language partners twice a week instead of attending a class for the same amount of time. Instead of having one teacher who I’d not only have to pay for but also share with all my other classmates, I have two private teachers all to myself who can cater to my wants and needs. That sounds like they’re my servants or something but it just means I get to decide what I want to learn and how fast for the fair price of returning the favor with the languages I’m familiar with.

My language partner once told me he was surprised by how much Chinese I’ve learned considering the fact that I never took a single class. I might have said the same thing many years ago but after learning Japanese, I knew that the bulk of the learning happened in the real world with real people. It’s telling that everybody I know who can speak Japanese has gone through tons of real-world exposure and practice. You can’t spend every day using Japanese for 2 years without getting really good. However, you can certainly spend years taking Japanese classes and still not be able to speak or read one whit of Japanese. This applies to about 80% of the students in my Japanese class in college even though we went through the same 2 years of classes. How many times have you heard the phrase, “You’ll never really learn Japanese until you live in Japan.” The first question to that should be, “Well then, why should I bother to take a class?”

What good is a class, then?

Well, you certainly can’t beat a class if you have no idea where to start. In other words, if you have no idea what particles are, how to use a dictionary, or how to even begin learning Japanese, a class can certainly help you get started. Also, the classroom is simply the most efficient medium of teaching when there are limited teaching resources. If there is only one teacher available for a large number of students, a class can be very effective in distributing the teachings of one person onto many. And if you have a particularly skilled teacher, many can reap the benefits at the same time.

As you can imagine, finding a good Japanese teacher can mean the difference between night and day in terms of getting a good grasp of the language and having a good foundation to build upon in the real world. Unfortunately, finding a good teacher can be difficult because you can’t really tell how good she is until you’ve already learned the language! That’s where I’m here to help with a list of some important things to check for in a Japanese class. Check your course syllabus or textbook and if you find that your class is failing every one of my criteria, you might want to consider finding some language partners or a private tutor and going it on your own. My guide and forum can certainly help you get started on your own.

Signs of a Bad Class

1. Uses Romanji
Ahhh, the famous romanji that forces every experienced Japanese learner to cringe. And yes, I misspelled it on purpose. In any case, if your class/textbook doesn’t teach you at least hiragana from the beginning, quietly excuse yourself from the class and never come back. Also feel free to set fire to the book, and wave it around while laughing at your former classmates like a madman through the window.

2. Doesn’t use Kanji
This is my second biggest pet peeve. Even if your class is smart enough to save you from the monstrosities of romaji, most classes won’t teach you a single kanji until it’s far too late. Your teacher should introduce them very early and also stress how important they are in reading things like… oh I don’t know… everything?? Start with 一、二、三. See? They’re not so bad.

3. No Dictionary Form
I understand that politeness is very important in Japanese society but do we really have to start learning masu and desu before the dictionary form? First of all, casual Japanese involves a lot more than just using the plain dictionary form. In addition, to nobody’s surprise, all the verbs in the dictionary are in the dictionary form. So if your very first list of verbs consists of 「します、見ます、食べます」, you’re not even learning words you can look up. First, you have to learn to reverse-conjugate them to the dictionary form and then you can conjugate them into something else. Seriously, I saw one textbook with masu-form to dictionary form conjugation rules. It’s crazy! All of Japanese grammar is built on the dictionary form and the conjugation rules for the polite form are one of the easiest in the language. I can hardly see beginner students saying 「うぜえよ、このくそばば」 to their teacher just because they learned the dictionary form first and learned to conjugate from there.

Dictionary forms first, it just makes sense.

4. No rational understanding of the language
If your teacher says, “は is the topic particle, and が is the subject particle”, and you ask, “So what’s the difference?”, and he answers, “は describes the topic, while が describes the subject of a sentence”, you can assume he has no idea how to answer your question. Native speakers are great because nothing is worse than having a 外人… excuse me, 外国人 Japanese teacher who… can’t speak Japanese! However, the drawback of native speakers is that sometimes the basic aspects of the language such as particles are so second-nature to them, they really don’t know how to explain or even really understand how they work. Having a feel for the language is great for the speaker but doesn’t really serve as an explanation when teaching somebody else. I can’t tell you how confused I was when I was learning 「んです」 for the first time. Saying that it adds emphasis doesn’t really explain things at all.

The best teachers really study their own language and are experienced in explaining them to clueless students. Also, there are the rare non-native teachers who are really freakin’ good at Japanese and know how to explain things in a way that made sense to themselves and will probably make sense to you.

Signs of a Great Class

1. Teach casual Japanese at least somewhere down the road
It’s amazing to me that most Japanese classes never teach you everyday slang and casual speech. NEVER. I guess the idea is that you’ll somehow figure it out on your own (aah, the classic “throw them into the pool and watch them swim/drown method”). Or maybe they think there is no value in teaching a style of speaking that is used among close friends. Sorry, John-san, NO FRIENDS FOR YOU. I’m not even talking about the stupid stuff like 「ぶっちゃけ」 or 「私的には」. I’m just talking about everyday stuff like 「てしまう=ちゃう」 or using 「の」 to ask questions. Is it so bad to teach, 「何してんの?」? OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I JUST WRITE??

2. Use a good Japanese-only textbook
Following up from #1, I was amazed when I saw one textbook that actually had a polite and casual version of the dialogue side-by-side. This was a Japanese-only textbook and upon further investigation, there appears to be a lot of excellent Japanese-only textbooks that you will never see in a store like Barnes & Nobles. (I went to the Kinokuniya in Seattle.) This is the kind of textbook they use to teach Japanese in Japan for people who don’t necessarily speak English.

Needless to say, I have yet to see a single English-based Japanese textbook that passes my simple criteria of a good textbook. Most of them have little to no kanji, some even use the dreaded romanji, they never teach casual speech, and they never explain things like particles very well. Japanese-only textbooks have some drawbacks as well such as very few explanations of how things work (it’s a Catch-22 because even if it did have a good explanation, it would be in Japanese and if you could read and understand it, you probably don’t need the explanation). However, they often do give you authentic, no-nonsense material and the rest can be taken care of by the teacher.

3. Teach the man how to fish, man!
No language class could ever go over every vocabulary or kanji needed to attain mastery of the language, so it’s inevitable that you’ll have to teach yourself at least some if not most of the language. I see this in advanced romance language classes all the time. They give you a novel and if there are words you don’t know, you’ll have to look them up in the dictionary and figure it out yourself. Big whoop. Ok, while it’s not as easy in Japanese, it’s by no means impossible. Your class should ideally teach you the skills to teach yourself.

Personally, I would explain how to study from example sentences from online resources such as and the easiest way to look up kanji. I would also recommend some good electronic dictionaries with instructions on how to use them. There’s really no point in wading through a traditional Kanji dictionary and trying to identify the correct radical in our day and age. Also it doesn’t hurt to explain when to use 訓読み vs 音読み and yet, I don’t remember ever learning this in class.

4. Make the man fish even if he doesn’t feel like it
There’s really no way to become good at Japanese without practice and if a teacher’s job is to teach Japanese, he should make sure that his students get the practice they need whether they want it or not. At the very least, he could facilitate some kind of language tutor or partner setup. You can even match up classes from Japan via Mixxer. Ideally, practice should factor into the grading process like the Chinese classes at my college where meeting with language tutors was required. (Tutors were not required for the Japanese students which combined with the difference in how much more kanji the Chinese students learned, enforced the image that they were just more serious than we were).

Personally, I would probably reserve one day of class to meet individually with the students if the class was small enough or make them find a partner/tutor somehow and reserve a day of class to present and grade on things they learned from their last session.

5. Teach what things really mean
When I ask my language partner how to say, “Can I go to the bathroom,” he knew the answer right away. But when I asked him how to say something like, “Even if I went now, I won’t make it in time”, he was stuck. This was very interesting to me because in Japanese, 「トイレに行ってもいいですか?」 and 「今行っても間に合わない」 uses the exact same grammar. As you can see from the literal translation, “Toilet go also is good?” and “Now go also won’t make it on time” is virtually the same sentence structure-wise. You can also probably guess that the negative such as 「今日行かなくてもいい」, which translates to “Today not go also is good” means “You don’t have to go today”. It really pays off to know what each part of the grammar is actually saying instead of just the English translation and your teacher should break it down from time to time.

6. Help students find what interest them
Mastering a language takes a lot of work and often times it can be a real drain to be constantly studying boring things like ordering at a restaurant or talking about the weather. I see people all the time having difficulty sticking with the language because of what seems to be an insurmountable goal, feeling of a lack of progress, or just a loss of interest. I think it would really be helpful if your teacher helped you explore what uniquely interests you about the language (hopefully it’s something a bit more inspiring than finding a Japanese girlfriend).

A good teacher should take interest in your interests and have a large library of movies, books, and other media of various genres that the students can freely explore. I would even put my PS2 in the student lounge if I was in charge. The really cool part is that it can only play Japanese games and DVDs. Another great idea is to have a budget for requests of stuff that the students are interested in (all in Japanese, of course).


So to answer the original question, “Should you take a class to learn Japanese?”, I think a good class can certainly be very helpful. Certainly better than no class especially if you’re a complete beginner and don’t really know where to start. However, there is nothing worse than having a bad class/teacher screw you up and create some very hard to break habits down the road. I think the field of Japanese-language education has been steadily improving overall but you still need to be careful. And with this post, I think you’ll have a good idea of some of the things to watch out for.

If you have any outrageous experiences in your Japanese class, please share them in the comments!

38 thoughts on “Do I need to take a class to learn Japanese?

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I realize now what was great and what was horrible about the classes I had in college. When I first arrived in Japan, for instance, I did not know that dictionary form EXISTED. Homestay fixed that. Ha ha. I still wish I had been better equipped to deal with Japanese in the real world, because I find myself chewing over it reluctantly now, by myself. I am at the point where had I been at a bigger school with a better program, or learned this or that differently, or applied myself more earnestly (not realizing that I wanted to do something with the language), I’d be on a whole different plateau. One where I could read a newspaper when I want to. Sigh. Then again, I meet friends who still right romaji pronunciation guides on flashcards. Thanks, class. You’ve crippled them. (I was made to learn the hiragana and katakana syllabaries in about a week and a half, if I remember. From that point on, no touching romaji again. If only I’d kept that speed and progress going.) 🙂

  2. Hello! This was a great artcile – I am just wondering about a couple things. What is a book that you reccomend for self study? Also what are your thoughts on short term (4-6 week)”intensive” study abroad programs?

  3. Wow, outstanding post. I agree 100%. I didn’t realize how lucky I was when I chose SDSU back in 1989 that it really had an good JSL study program. While I got shit for help asking teachers about what I read in manga (they insisted that manga isn’t really Japanese), hence I was really confused by things like 男のくせに泣くな. But other than that, it was great.

  4. Thanks, the link is fixed.

    Zachary, I think any study abroad is great provided that you don’t spend all your time with other study abroad students.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t fully evaluated a large number of textbooks so I don’t have any good recommendations. (Publishers, feel free to give me a free copy for review, heh heh)

    I do know that some of the most popular beginner textbooks are げんき and みんなの日本語 so you might want to look into those. I hope that helps!

  5. I don’t know about げんき, but みんなの日本語 isn’t a good choice.

    It’s the embodiment of everything vile Tae Kim just mentioned. It completely ignores casual speech, doesn’t talk about dictionary form until it’s late, and it’s overall too shallow. The dialogs feel way too artificial and fabricated to avoid exposure to grammar constructs not yet mentioned.

    Maybe it works in a classroom settings, where the teacher needs to be careful to avoid confusing the many students with different levels of understanding, but in my experience, in unnecessarily slows down more diligent students.

  6. Hmm… ok みんなの日本語 sounds like a bad choice. You know textbooks might not be the best for self-study since most assume you’re in a class.

    For self-study, authentic material is probably the best. But it’s difficult to find authentic material that’s simple enough for beginners. There are lots of books designed for self-study I just don’t know of any good ones off-hand. I might take notes of some good ones next time I’m in Kinokuniya.

  7. I feel like in terrible shape Japanese-wise : /

    Our community college’s Japanese lang uage department chose a pretty odd book, Learn Japanese by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano, that used romaji pretty much the entire volume 1 book and is still in like 50 percent of the second volume which I’m using right now.

    As a result I’m too used to romaji and it was a bit discouraging…it doesn’t help that the book itself is too cluttered and confusing.

    At the time, I was more concerned over my grammer since I’m usually very not confident about grammer in general, so things like that were the least of my concerns.

    So I bought myself books like Barron’s Japanese Grammer and Learn Japanese the easy way…

    However, it’s nice to know that the japanese 3 teacher that I’m taking right now is making us use hiragana and kanji. He’s also making us make flash cards for many forms, like the /e/, /te/, etc. All of which are things he devised himself in order for us to better understand japanese instead of having to rely on our textbook too much.

  8. Fascinating article, Tae. I’m lucky to have had a great private teacher for years, and I’ve also done lots of self-study. Like you say, I am sure that self study is much more effective than formal study with a lousy teacher, for the self-motivated.

    And I agree with you about good teachers: they are indispensable. I think very few students are capable of diagnosing their own weaknesses. A good teacher can do that and help you correct those weaknesses. In fact, the further I’ve progressed, the more valuable I’ve found the teacher in comparison to self-study.

    For example, my teacher and I could easily have a 5 minute chat simply about the difference between 拡大 and 拡張, discussing different situations where they’re used, the original Chinese meaning of the kanji, and other topics that help me understand the subtle differences. If you look in the dictionary, the definitions are essentially identical, so I am not sure how I could learn this without simply encountering both words many times in regular life, and eventually picking up on the pattern. I didn’t grow up in Japan, so I missed years of making these mental connections compared to a native speaker, and textbooks just don’t cover this kind of stuff. The more my teacher spent time on this kind of discussion, the more I was able to pick up on subtleties on my own.

    I think teaching language effectively is a very specialized skill. It’s why I am never surprised that when Japanese people spend money on English classes taught by people whose only qualification is “native English speaker”, the students rarely get very good.

  9. Ever since I found your guide and blog I have agreed with your ideas almost completely and have been trying to spread them in my circles of friends.

    The thing is, in Hawaii your idea of starting with casual grammar would be absurd (no offense meant since you likely wouldn’t know this). In Hawaii a vast majority of high-school and low college-level Japanese students take the class specifically so they can be hired for a job a little easier. Naturally, on the job it’s good to know polite Japanese. I’m not sure how many students would want to have to think about conjugation rules when they’re using nothing but basic sentences to help the customer.

    An even more unfortunate case, which is a part of the curriculum in many Hawaii high schools (I can’t speak for other states): it takes one full school year to cover hiragana. The first semester of class 2 is used for katakana and the second semester for about 70 kanji. I experienced both of these classes.

    In the spring I took 201, which barely touched upon certain aspects of casual speech, and I was surprised at how my classmates couldn’t handle themselves in a real conversation.I think the most ironic part here is that a friend of mine who lives in Shizuoka once sent me a message via Mixi which, aside from a couple place names, was an exact replication of an example sentence in my textbook.:P

    Even though I dislike language courses, I am still going to take more in the future so I can receive formal education in both Korean and Japanese. At the higher levels I should expect smaller classes, should I not?

    Lastly, I’d love to give you some related feedback on Korean language courses, but unfortunately I was subjected to an intensive course which has (2 1/2 weeks left) me learning 5 semesters of Korean grammar and vocabulary in 7 months. This is how I like to learn language. 😀

  10. I’d like to clarify that the dictionary form is not casual grammar. Teaching polite form from the dictionary form is very easy and can be done very early, which would satisfy those who want a business crash course. And as I said, casual speech involves a lot more than just using the dictionary form.

    I would just be happy if classes went over casual Japanese at least sometime. I don’t really care how far into the class. My gripe is that it never gets covered.

  11. My solution to the problem you mention regarding the dictionary form of the verb is simply not to take the class as the be-all and end-all of Japanese knowledge – when we were learning 食べます 食べません 食べました 食べませんでした (we use みんなの日本語, which I don’t think deserves quite as much bad press as you give it) I went home each night and hit up a good guide to also learn 食べる 食べない 食べた 食べなかった.

    Combining self-study with the class is I think the best policy – the class gives you a resource in the form of a native teacher (if your teacher isn’t native, get the fuck out of there) and also some contacts to practice with if need be.

  12. I found myself reading through your points praying that my teacher met them all. In the end, I have to face that he probably only meets about 70% of it. Then again, I’m sure no professor is going to be perfect (yes, being a native speaker, he doesn’t really explain the whole は and が particle thing very well).

    However, he does some things very well. Since our textbook is rather dry and slightly outdated, our 先生 writes these crazy dialogs about cats being eaten and robot dogs passing out Halloween candy. Makes for very interesting homework. Sometimes I’ve been unsure of a translation just because it’s so ridiculous, but it ends up being correct anyway.

  13. I am teaching myself Japanese as well (and had written something about that on your forums before), so I find this article very encouraging. Thank you, Tae Kim!

    If I may ask, since when, after beginning your Japanese studies, could you read and comprehend Japanese fluently enough to enjoy manga, or videogames? (My question is put forth out of curiosity; if anything, it would make your efforts an interesting benchmark to compare against, to motivate myself to work harder.)

  14. I think it was gradual and so it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific time. Actually, reading over your question, I’ve enjoyed manga quite early, maybe after about a year of two of study but I certainly didn’t understand all of it. Simple stories like Marmalade boy were even difficult. I didn’t get to play Japanese games until I bought a Japanese PS2 after living in Japan for a while so at that point it wasn’t an issue.

    I don’t really like benchmarks because it all depends on your goal and your lifestyle. The most important thing is to be persistent at a suitable speed for you. I used to spend hours studying Japanese everyday in college but it would be impossible to do that now with a full time job.

  15. I was wondering what book would you recommend for studying Japanese, because I’m taking an online course and we don’t really have an actual textbook but we are encouraged to have an extra book in addition to this course. Thanks.

  16. Hey, nice article.. I’m just really glad most of it doesn’t apply to me–食べます before 食べる sounds like a bad joke or something.

    As for my study habits, I got into a study abroad program with Temple University in Tokyo, and then the summer before I left I bought げんき 1, the workbook, the cd’s, and the answer key so I could check myself, and then just studied it on my own. げんき is split into 12 chapters for each book (there’s 2) and they teach hiragana and katakana in the first 2 chapters (which use romaji) and then 15 or so kanji each chapter from there out, and no more romaji ever. I think the grammar explanations are pretty good, too, and they go over short forms and casual speech starting in the 7th or 8th chapter.

    I got through the first 10 chapters studying on my own in about 2 1/2 months, and then started the study abroad program in the 3rd semester class where we went through half of げんき 2 and also a class called Intensive Oral Japanese which was pretty hard at first but I just finished it and it really helped a lot–that class focused almost entirely on speaking and the teacher was really helpful.

    So anyway I just finished the program in Japan (I go back to America in 10 days) but I think I can recommend げんき to those who want to study on their own without a class, or even with one, if they’re just beginning. If you don’t have a class I think the Japanese-only books aren’t very helpful, but げんき I think does a really good job of explaining and teaching useful grammar and vocab, as well as getting right into hiragana and kanji.

    Personally I also watched a lot of Japanese drama and had a friend to teach me some slang, so I quickly got used to short forms and casual speech as soon as I started using Japanese in Japan. I felt bad when I didn’t use polite speech with my teachers, but I think it’s totally worth it to be able to speak normally with your friends. And if you ever do go on a study abroad program, go out of your way to make Japanese friends!

    Oh on an aside, the book we used for the Oral Japanese class was マンガで学ぶ日本語会話術, which teaches everything with the help of the book’s own story told manga-style. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it teaches very useful Japanese grammar, and most of the explanations are in Japanese with a basic version in English on the side. The stuff you learn makes you sound much more fluent than a normal student, I think, like learning how to soften expressions with things like 「~がいいんだけど」or 「~たいかも」 instead of just something blunt like 「海へ行きたいよ」. Most of the situations they use are helpful too, like how to introduce yourself well in a formal situation and what to say when getting your hair cut or finding an apartment.

    Anyway I’m lucky to have had good classes here so I thought I’d say something to help others get good help too.

  17. Thanks Andrew, I did peruse げんき briefly and it did seem to be pretty good. I’m glad to hear from somebody who actually used it to learn. Hopfully, I’ll have some time to browse the books at Kinokuniya.

  18. I also have to agree about the uselessness that is a language class. 11 years ago I took one Japanese class in Okinawa. It was 2 months long, done only in Romaji (JFBP, ugh). Rote repetition, slow learning with zero retention. Basicly, I came out of it with only half knowing Hiragana and probably the ability to count upto 1000. Basicly, I started this year from scratch.

    With the internet, learning a language on your own (and learn it well) has become very possible. But it’s not really learning on your own. You’re getting advice and help from dozens of sources. There are so many methods out there, we can now have lively debates on which ones suck the most (your Heisig article for example).

    By the way, I’ve checked out Japanese For Everyone, Genki I and II, and Japanese for Busy People. I recommend Genki also, as JFE is a bit dense and JFBP is a waste of time. Granted, even though I’m using it for sentence mining, I can tell that it’s quality teaching.

    Oh yeah, whole heartedly agree about this patholical desire to teach Japanese with polite form only. Very, very annoying to undo all that learning so you’re not sounding like a moron when you talk.

  19. Khayla, you can look at what I said about Genki three posts up too, but if you’re looking to study on your own I think Genki is the best textbook series I’ve heard of, and it worked pretty well for me (along with other sources, of course).

  20. I’ve taken some classes in high school and in college. None were very good. I can’t remember the name of the book we used in high school, and we used Japanese for Busy People in college. Both were terrible. I learned only polite form and mostly only learned on my own. I pretty much gave up after that. It’s now three years later and I started studying again from the beginning about three months ago (save for hiragana and katakana).

    I’ve been using three main books to learn from. The first was Easy Japanese, by Jack Seward. It was moderately helpful and pretty amusing, but it teaches everthing in a really haphazard way, plus it’s mostly in roomaji. After that, I worked through Japanese Step by Step by Gene Nishi. This is the best book I’ve found on beginning japanese. It’s perfect for self-study. It introduces everything in a logical order, and gives enough examples to grasp every concept it introduces. I highly recommend it for self-study. Also, all the examples are in Kanji, hiragana, and katakana, but the roomaji is always printed below if you get stuck. The book I’m working through now is called Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication. I also recommend this one. It has all the basic sentence patterns you would need, and it covers plain form and polite forms side by side, so you can learn either. I already understand most of what is in the book (thanks to Japanese Step by Step), but it is clarifying a lot of things I was confused about from the other two books. I think it would be a good book to start with as well. I also taught myself all of the JLPT 3 and 4 kanji lists, readings and writing. Kanji comes pretty easily to me, so I don’t really need much help with it, it’s just time-consuming.

    I’m going to study abroad in Japan in about a month for a 3 month program. Thanks Tae Kim for letting me know what to look for!

  21. I have been living in Okinawa now for over 3 years and have been actively studying Japanese for a little over two years. I started learning at a college here using the “Japanese for Busy People” series textbook. The classes are 8 weeks long covering the first book in the first two classes and the second book for the second set of classes. Thosewere the Beginers classes. I have not yet taken the Intermediate Courses. Anyways, we were required to learn hiragana in the first class and katakana in the second class. We did not really begin to learn kanji until the third class.
    I agree though that JFBP is not an effective book. When trying to practice my learned language in a real setting (i.e. buying stuff at a local convenience store) I could hardly understand what was being said to me because the dictionary form was being substituted for the -masu form.
    Having japanese friends helps a lot. I normally try and force them to speak only in japanese to me but normally the conversation sways to english in their own curiosity to learn english.
    I have the book Japanese Step by Step by Gene Nishi but have not taken the time to really read into it. (I think I will do that tonight).
    Reading from a book has forced me to learn by reading, not by listening. So I can read information and understand it but when I hear japanese I am quick to say “ゆっくり話してください”.
    So I have force fed the local radio stations to myself. I am picking up on words and phrases a lot more and their usage. Listening to the news is a big help, though it is mainly in a more polite form, it is easy to comprehend and distinguish between words. I know most of us who are learning Japanese do not have this luxary but there are resources on the internet.

  22. I believe you have just set out the framework which should now be compulsory for all future Japanese textbooks. 🙂

    I know personally that the right approach to Japanese makes a hell of a difference. A friend asked me to teach them, and as soon as they’d got a grasp of hiragana it was on to verb conjugations FROM the basic form.

    It was kind of amazing…over the course of 3 lessons, all around or less than 2.5 hours each, they were able to express the most incredible range of meanings and competently independently use a dictionary to fill in the vocab gaps. In Japanese, grammar is power!

    It felt quite good, given I have exactly 0 teaching experience.

  23. I was lucky enough to get an actual Japanese native to teach the classes I took in college, though she spoke hardly any English, and was virtually impossible to talk you. And no matter how much I studied she always looked at me like I was a complete moron. Haha, jeez.
    We used the なかま textbook which I would suggest avoiding at all costs.
    Finding good research tools is really one of the biggest challenges in studying Japanese. Definetely, the most important tool is a die hard passion for the language. With so many kanji and the poor classes I took, I all but had given up on the language. I found my faith renewed by listening to the Pimsleur tapes. Its important to remember early on, that the spoken language is almost a entirely different animal then the written, and not as daunting as the kanji memorization may seem.
    I found I learned more from the Pimsleur tapes then in all my class work. They are far from perfect, and extremely boring, but they will really help for those starting out.
    I was extremely annoyed to find out that I was pronouncing so many words wrong or unnaturally, especially the ones with dropped vowels like the third “i” in haijimemashite. So often textbooks ignore these points of native speech.
    Beyond that, I would suggest studying the kanji without the use of ideograms, since most Japanese don’t even learn them this way as far as I am aware. Focusing on writing them and not just looking at flash cards. Otherwise, you end up able to recogonize them but not write them. I found the program Yokozuna! to be a great help in practicing stroke order. Another great resource is which has native speakers in daily podcasts. They are entertaining and informative. I will have to take a look at the genki textbook, since most of you seem to like it. Good Luck everyone! Keep at it! Together we will master Japanese!

  24. I’m only in the second semester of my Japanese course at my college (University of Wisconsin-Madison), but from looking at your guidelines it looks like it was done pretty well. The dictionary forms are the first forms we learned, followed very shortly by -masu forms, we only used Romaji early on before we had learned all the Hiragana and Katakana, and we also got into the Kanji about a month into the course.

    We did use げんき which seems to be a pretty good textbook (it does, after all, follow all of the things I mentioned above). It’s not perfect; I sometimes feel it can go into a bit more detail about things, but fortunately our professors add that detail. Still, it’s pretty good. At least I can feel pretty confident that the course I’m taking is a good one!

  25. I’m a 2nd year at University of California at Irvine and I have to say I am very glad my teachers and my textbook taught us hiragana and katakana within two weeks and started with 10 kanji every week (its currently 15-18). We answered quizzes and tests in polite form and did compositions and projects in plain form. Haha and on the んです, our book had a very clear explanation:


    “In the first sentence, the speaker has no idea whether or not the person addressed feels cold. Therefore, it is simply a straightforward question: ‘Are you cold?’ In the second, the speaker assumes that the person addressed feels cold because, say, he is shivering or wearing a thick sweater. The second sentence, then, asks for an explanation: Is it that you’re cold?
    Similarly, if you see a friend getting ready to do something, it would be odd to say

    何をしますか? What are you going to do?

    because you have actually seen his or her preparations and know that he or she is about to do something. This information is shared between the two of you, so it’s more appropriate to say

    What are you going to do? (Lit., What is it that you are going to do?)”

    Sorry for the long post, but if anyone’s interested, my first-year textbook is called “Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese” by Yasu-Hiko Tohsaku

  26. I think dictionary and masuSTEM forms should be taught at the same time if possible. The stem is so useful.
    Integrate that with teaching a kanji and you’ve got a good little lesson nugget.

  27. Firstly I would like to say thanks for the amazing grammar guide and very informational posts that you have made Tae Kim, they have been invaluable in my Japanese studies.

    I’m currently using Elementary Japanese by Yoko Hasegawa of the University of California, Berkley. I’ve found this book to be very good. Up until I bought this book I studied on my own from online guides. I figured I should get a good text book that has what I need to learn otherwise I might as well not get one at all, so it took me a very long time till I found a book that I liked (one that fits the standards that you laid out for the most part) and so far this book has worked great for me. Although quite a bit of the first half is just review for me it helps explain what I didn’t know very well, and I get the new grammar very fast. It mostly teaches by example sentences which I find really cool, but it still has very nice explanations. The explanations are also short and strait to the point, although I feel sometimes the explanations are a little to short because the book was after all made to be used in a class room (but works just as well for self study). So yeah, this book fits all of my requirements, it only uses kana/kanji, teaches at least 10 kanji every lesson (starting at lesson 3), has plain form early on, very good explanations, and even comes with a CD with simple audio for all the vocab lists, dialogs in the book, and even extra listening activities. Another thing that I really like about this book is that in the index it has charts of all the kanji taught in the book, complete with stroke order and readings. Along with the kanji charts they have conjugation charts which are invaluable for reference. There is two volumes to this book, the first one is supposed to be the first half of the semester of a college Japanese class, and of course volume two takes up the second half of the semester. I have also looked at げんき and although I do find it a nice book I like Elementary Japanese more, mainly just a personal preference I guess. I hope this post helps anyone looking for a good book since it’s always nice to have more than just one choice.

    So anyways, I was wondering if anyone had suggestions for an intermediate book. Although I’m no where near ready for intermediate I’m still curious and looking for a decent enough book. I figure given how long it took me to find a decent beginners book I might as well start looking for an intermediate one now so I’ll have it when I finally need it hehe.

    Best of luck to all of you in your Japanese studies! 🙂

  28. I couldn’t agree more. And I feel relieved that I am a teacher of a good class. I also advice my students to burn down they rooma-ji textbooks as soon as they come across them.

    Great thing to see there are many more people that think that kana and kanji are essential and you should teach them everything from keigo to unpolite forms.

    I just wouldn’t agree on the point where you say we should start from dictionary form. I mean, it should come early enough, but it’s safer to have a native invited to a beginner’s class of people who think that masu/desu is a right way to address a stranger. And they’re right.
    Unfortunately, eeverything cannot be taught at once.

    Cheers, and best of luck in your perfectionism in learning languages.

    I will visit more often!

  29. Thanks for reading, Mizuu. It’s too bad I can’t read your blog!

    I understand how difficult it is to teach all the different pieces. I perfectly understand teaching desu first because teaching the correct use of だ is just too much for beginners. However, I still stand by teaching the dictionary form of verbs first. You need to memorize two rules for masu-conjugation. It takes like 5 minutes to explain.

  30. It’s in Polish if you want to try GoogleTranslate XD!
    I’m the first in my niche to blog on Japanese professionaly in my language.

    From some of the recordings you’ll probably understand more – for example here
    you can download an mp3 full in Japanese.

    I’ll keep that in mind, because I’ll have new students this summer 😀

  31. I’ll be sure to check it out. Just curious, do you use a Polish textbook for teaching Japanese? Or a textbook at all?

  32. Well, we have some quite good grammar exercise-books over here, but not really any textbook (I’m aiming at writing one for my MA/BA degree). I’m usig them seldomly on revisions, and use Japanese textbooks on daily basis.

    If you happen to have any other questions, or would just like to say hi – my skype is mizuuko 🙂

  33. I have no knowledge of Japanese (I plan on taking classes/attempting to learn it) but I agree with what you’ve said here and think it applies to learning other languages as well. I especially agree with your statement about romaji. As someone who’s studied Russian, and with it the Cyrillic alphabet, I cannot express how odd it is to see the language romanized. Some Russian Language books don’t even bother to teach the reader the Cyrillic alphabet. Granted, the Japanese writing system is probably more complex, I can’t imagine learning an essentially fake system of Japanese writing that you can’t really apply much outside of a class. Reading this, I’m a little scared to begin my classes, but at least now I know what to look out for!

  34. The Pimsleur courses (levels 1, 2 and 3) are brilliant for learning Japanese. They are the most convenient, and best for getting you speaking fast.

    However, they do omit some basic vocabulary (e.g. mother and father!) and leave you wondering about some grammar. So I recommend following up with the Japanese for Busy People series. It goes into things in more depth. You can also learn to read and write the Japanese characters.

  35. While I agree with some of the comments on the みんなの日本語, I want to say a few good things about it. It does teach the ます-form first and even after learning the dictionary form the verbs stay in that way in the vocab list. While I understand you want people to know the dictionary form, it is not that useful outside of casual speech for a beginner. That also requires much more things to learn with the negative and the past forms while they are super easy with ます. It is dumbed down but I don’t think it’s that bad. You avoid complicating things with 来 right away and don’t need to teach all different forms at the same time.

    Another nice things is that they have separate textbooks and except the grammar notes, everything is in Japanese. They also make the grammar notes textbook in other languages so I think it is pretty good for people who aren’t so good in English.

    And while they won’t teach you the super casual stuff or really explain it, if your teacher doesn’t suck you will learn about it. Maybe I was lucky but my teacher taught the shorter alternatives to なければなりません with the explicit mention of “don’t ever put this on the test” but at least she didn’t pretend stuff doesn’t exist. I guess the textbook matters but so little compared to the teacher.

    Having a class each week helped me not slacking on my Japanese when I was busy with other things and this is probably the best thing you get from a class. I asked to skip one year so I arrived in the third year class after only one year of Japanese and it helped me keep working harder because I had to catch up on some things.

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