Japanese textbooks: I may complain but I understand

I’ve complained about the the current state of most Japanese textbooks for quite a while now. My chief complaints include using ローマ字, teaching polite form before the dictionary form, and poor to no grammar explanations. But as I try to write my own textbook, it’s all too clear to me why this is the case. Writing a textbook that comprehensively covers vocabulary and grammar with context and practice is hard.

In fact, just like it is for learning, writing about Japanese is hardest at the beginning. I have a feeling that once I can get the first few chapters done, the rest would be quite easy. But for the complete beginner, where do you start? You have to explain the difference between polite vs casual form, the topic particle, sentence structure, and the incredibly tricky copula before you can even make the most basic of sentences. It’s just too much information at once and you just have to make shortcuts somewhere and not explain all the intricate details.

For example, even explaining all of Hiragana is a bit overwhelming. With my “learning by doing” approach, I want the reader to learn Hiragana by using it as soon as possible. But not only do you have to memorize all the characters, you have to learn the voiced consonants, long vowel sounds, and small や, ゆ, よ, つ. So if I want to push some vocab and grammar lessons without spending forever on every aspect of Hiragana, I have to make do without being able to use long vowel sounds or small や, ゆ, よ, つ. I can work temporarily without Kanji or Katakana but have you tried to make any sentences without long vowel sounds? It’s practically impossible!

And even when I do get to long vowel sounds, that topic itself is pretty complex. For instance, how do we categorize the えい vowel sound? It’s actually a slurred combination of the /e/ and /i/ sound that sounds more like the /y/ vowel sound. Therefore, a word such as ええ has a different sound from a word like 営業 (えいぎょう). But do I really want to go over this when my audience is still trying to learn Hiragana? Can you even really hear the difference anyway? Probably not. And besides, the only words with a true long え vowel sound I can think of off the top of my head is ええ and おねえさん anyway. So do I just simply treat えい as the long /e/ vowel sound and pretend that the true long /e/ vowel sound are exceptions? I can see why it’s just so much easier to give them ローマ字 and be done with it.

Writing the guide was much simpler because it is intended to be self-study material. I don’t care how long it takes to get to the level of being able to say anything meaningful. But when you want enable learners to use what little they know to provide context and practice, it’s really difficult when they don’t know anything.

Textbook writers, I understand your pain. But we can do better!

22 thoughts on “Japanese textbooks: I may complain but I understand

  1. I support you.
    Next academic year I’m scheduled for a glottodidactics course meaning I will learn more of “how to teach” stuff. I am so looking forward to improving my skills!
    I’m attempting to write a good Polish textbook, because we don’t have any good books (let’s say we have around 10 – some use mixed transliteration systems, some are only good for linguists, no pictures, mostly heavy grammar study, I like once or two, but they aid me in my explanations and would never do any good in classroom, oh, and I use one for copying exercieses sometimes. )


  2. If you plan to include extra materials to the textbook (loose sheets of paper, a CD rom etc) then maybe you could provide 1 or 2 kana practice sheets and some structured audio to help with pronounciation and understanding of sounds like えい and っ.

  3. You have two decisions:

    Write your textbook in a linguistic order, meaning every new chapter develops on a certain aspect of the language. I have a Korean textbook that starts with sentence structure, then moves to nounds, verbs, adjectives, particles, passive/causative, etc, each in a seperate chapter.

    Or you can order the material as traditional textbooks do: by theme. Your guide uses a very similar order to themed textbooks, but it removes almost all cultural information and combines some of the grammar into one section (e.g., “because” is split into multiple chapters in some textbooks, whereas you put them into one).

    My recommendation: Buy a Korean Japanese textbook or two and see how they are organized. I already told you how Koreans learn the language, perhaps you may want to model your textbook off their systems.

  4. I’ve been studying Japanese for about a year now, and just completed the first two ever-so-common Genki textbooks. One seemingly small thing that bugged me was how the Kanji and vocab lists were somewhat out of synch. For example, I’d do the exercises from one chapter, and in those, I may have to use some vocab word often (in Hiragana). Then, the very next chapter, they’d introduce the Kanji that made up the aformentioned word. It bugged me that I had missed the chance to practice that Kanji in context so many times.

    This is less of a problem now, as now that I know quite a few, I’m not intimidated by just learning the Kanji on the spot rather quickly. In the beginning, though, when you’re confused about the learning process, it is annoying.

  5. @qklilx: Hi can I ask if the first textbook you’re referring to is
    Elementary Korean by Ross King and JH Yeon?

    And you said: “I already told you how Koreans learn the language, perhaps you may want to model your textbook off their systems.”

    Could you tell me the link of the post you mentioned this? Since I’ve
    only recently started to read taekk’s blog. Thanks in advance.

  6. I’m working on a mixed approach. I’m picking a certain aspect of the language and basing the theme on the lesson and what the reader is capable of expressing at that point.

    I’d appreciate some more info as well. I assume you’re talking about textbooks written in Korean to learn Japanese?

  7. Actually the Korean textbook I own is called “Korean Grammar for International Learners” and can be bought from http://www.hanbooks.com for a lower price than Amazon. It contains a ridiculous amount of grammar (this is not a bad thing)in ~400 pages. So much, in fact, that it has a separate workbook that is ~600 pages.

    Yes Tae, I am. I wasn’t specific enough in my comment, so I apologize. I think the friend I spoke to last year in Korea said they use the Korean version of “Minna no Nihongo” but I cannot confirm it. I have another friend who is learning Japanese in Korea, so I can ask him what book he uses and what methods it employs.

    What other information would you like from me? I will offer what I can.

    @Keith: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/forum/viewtopic.php?id=2681

  8. I appreciate that you want to start your learners out using NO ROMANJI. I began a summer course last year using Genki and I had to learn hiragana in one night and katakana the next night. But, I’m glad I did because it really starts the reading comprehension early on. Nowadays I think reading Japanese IN Japanese is actually easier to read and pronounce than seeing it romanji.

  9. @qklilx
    Any info on useful books is fine such as author, title, etc is fine. Though I don’t know if I would actually buy it so don’t worry about it.

    @アマンダ パンダ
    That’s very true. There’s issue of the different systems and how to represent the は particle (wa/ha)? And I’m just scratching the surface of the list of problems.

    Using romaji is definitely not an option.

  10. My biggest complaint about language textbooks tends to be that they go to extremes for either explaining the grammar or not explaining it at all. I.e., either they explain the grammar then give repetitive drills to help you memorize that grammar point or they give very little in the way of explanation but lots of conversational scenarios to practice and articles to read.

    For my Japanese study, I’ve been using Japanese for Everyone. The first chapter starts off by teaching you how to make polite requests, but nowhere does it explain why the verb is conjugated that way. In the end, the learner can basically repeat the examples that are given, but can’t necessarily apply the same rule to other verbs.

  11. Hi, I just stumbled upon your blog while scanning the web through “how-to-learn-japanese” sites. It rather surprised me when I read about you wanting to write your own textbook. That’s quite ambitous of you.

    The answer to the question on how to approach new learners with new material is everywhere the same in my opinion. It’s like Mizuu and アマンダ パンダ said. Learning kana with sheets and Audio CD and learning it fast in a short period is essential. Otherwise it’s demotivating. Imagine someone who struggles with the basics like Hiragana and Katakana and then show him Kanji, you get the point 😉

    Good luck on your project, I’d be happy to read about your progress.

  12. Knowing that you want to avoid ローマジ all together if possible, I wonder if you would consider also getting a pretty high quality audio CD too. Then, you can center your beginner materials around associating カタカナ and ひらがな to audio instead of (possibly detrimental) romanization. Also, in the same way as Rosetta Stone, you could associate words with pictures instead of English equivalents. どう思いますか。

  13. Good ideas. I definitely want to add audio at some point but am focusing just on text for now because it’s easier.

  14. Ok my friend shed some more light onto the Korean system for me. Different from the last person, but same university.

    Apparently it’s rare to find lower-level Japanese textbooks that use plain form, jsut like in America. The difference is that the teachers introduce the students to plain form early on without the use of the textbook. So they get exposed to both of them quite a bit. I think that’s better than one over the other. But I do think that a textbook needs to use plain form first BUT it should introduce the polite conjugations kind of early so students know it.

    Hiragana and katakana are taught in the textbook from the beginning using what my friend calls the “cramming method.” That is, lots of exercises and practice. I don’t know how else a person can learn an alphabet anyway. 😛

    He also said that some Korean books also teach kanji from the first chapter, sometimes with furigana, sometimes not. Depends on the book, and some will instead introduce kanji a few chapters in. I think Koreans usually learn kanji in their first class though, which is good.

    Hopefully this information can give you some ideas.

  15. Thanks, I think I have some good ideas to work with. Hopefully with July 4 coming, I’ll have some time to actually implement them.

  16. hi! jpanese learning polish!!! col!!!
    I am Poish boy and I can Japanese!~!
    learn Polish weell!!!
    po-randogo wo youku benkyou si te yo !!!!

  17. I know self-studying needs a lot of spoon-feeding form the start and it makes it equally hard for beginners and bookwriters. I’ve been a beginner and over time, things have gotten much easier. This is because I learned the hiragana and katakana alphabets before anything else about Japanese. So, to Tae Kim and all Japanese learners, Ganbatte!

  18. Hi, you writing a text book seems to be awesome! ^^ I just loved your japanese guide. quite cool.
    About your Hiragana problem (and other problems of this like), I think you should go all the way with Hiragana and explain all the stuffs it is imaginable of about Hiragana in one big fat first chapter.
    Then you could put a mark inside this chapter for sections that may be for more advanced learners (like writing in a grey frame) and say to beginners that they can skip on those parts and come back later if they want to know more advanced stuffs about Hiragana like long vowels and little や、ゆ、よ、つ (it can apply for other grammar subjects).
    So when japanese learners are bumping on a grammar problem, they know which chapter to check.
    I’m really not fond of book that skip more advanced parts and save them for later.
    How do they know it is more advanced? and when will they explain those more advanced stuff? you never know. And then you’re stuck with your grammar problem with no response.
    Speaking about that, this could also be applied to your japanese guide huhu (like merging all the と+する grammar together, etc) 😉
    I think that organizing a book like this is quite usefull for learners. If they read a whole chapter and don’t find the answer to their problem at least they know that it is not cover anywhere else in the book and can start looking somewhere else by themself.
    A book like this could also be used as a grammar reference.

    About the ええ/えい subject, I learnt it that way: えい = long vowels for え, ええ = exceptions.
    I got no problem with that but if I’d like to make something more generic I would say that ええ = long vowel for え and when い follows an え you have to pronounce it more like ええ.
    (haven’t check if there are excepctions for えい) :p

    Well I don’t know if I’m talking crap since I’ve never written a textbook, but as a japanese self-learner I hope it helps….or not :p
    anyway do your best with your textbook project!

  19. The textbook we use at my school gets lots of complaints from students who have previous exposure to Japanese before taking classes here. I myself don’t have any complaints about the book other than that it is horribly old. I was having a conversation with my advisor, who also happens to be co-author of the book, and we talked about the reasoning why the book does things the way it does. The books we use are “Japanese: The Spoken Language” and “Japanese: The Written Language”

    The book uses its own romaji replacing things like chi with ti and shi with si. First year students have a cow over this. Really it’s very easy to get used to. The whole point is that it makes romanizing verb endings a lot simpler. (i.e. “machimasu (-chi + tte) matte” “matimasu (-imasu + te) matte”) Also in some cases you can more easily see relations between transitive and intransitive verbs (mazeru + majiru in hepburn vs. maziru + mazeru in JSL romaji)

    We start in pure romaji, katakana before 101 is over, hiragana and a few kanji at the end of 102, then kanji from there on. the textbook is split into two. One for speaking, one for reading and writing. The speaking book is 100% romaji all the way through all three volumes. There are two reasons for this. First of all, they don’t want to create bad habits by making hiragana a crutch for when you forget kanji. The only people in Japan who write in only hiragana are generally children. If a word is commonly written in kanji, we NEVER lerarn to write it in hiragana, because it’s just not written that way in practice. Words that are written in kanji are always learned to write in kanji. If we were to start chapter 1 of the book with all that kanji, we’d probably never get out of chapter 1. The speaking book is kept in all romaji for empasizing quick acquisition and not to interfere with proper reading/writing. As far as the writing goes, we start with katakana because you can just learn single words without any need for grammar. Then you add the hiragana to make very simple katakana+verb sentences. The writing book is always a few lessons behind the speaking book in terms of grammar and vocabulary. This way when you learn to write a specific conjugation or vocab word, you are already familiar with it, instead of learning three things at once (meaning, pronunciation, writing.) This way by the time you get to writing, which is the hardest of the three, you have already used the word many times over and are familiar with its use and pronunciation.

  20. I was fortunate enough to be able to study Japanese through school and despite having a couple of wonderful teachers, the actual textbooks and learning materials left quite a bit to be desired!

    Hope your writing went to plan!

  21. I actually began my study of Japanese via a bit of software which basically forced you to learn hiragana _before_ it’d teach anything else. I’m very thankful for this. Being software, it had the lovely advantage of having inbuilt pronounciation wav files, animated stroke diagrams with little circles and dashes to show you how to keep your letters well shaped and a even a little game to practice. To stop it being monotonous, each row was introduced with silly pnemonics and cultural quips. Halfway through, there was just a chapter of interesting things about Japan and a big ol’ wad of curious historical facts about the writing system to make it come alive. Sounds lame, yes, but it worked. Very well at that! Katakana was thrown aside completely until hiragana was fully learnt. That worked well too (but the method in which katakana actually was introuced later however, kinda sucked).

    Software was called “Human Japanese” and the hiragana bit was actually available free online as a demo of the whole program. I suggest you take a look out of curiosity at least. Personally, I’ve never seen a better introduction to the language. After that it kinda goes off the rails and takes the same approach as any textbook does – personally, I never actually got past halfway in the software.

    One thing that I feel is missing from _any_ text is a later chapter on “other” notation that in one place explains all the modern katakana character combos (like ヴ & フィ), common obsoletes (namely ヱ) as well as kanji-related stuff like 々and ヶ. Trying to introduce this early would be info-overload so too many texts just omit it entirely! Such a section would be ideal for explaining the subtleties of katakana long vowel marks and funny stylistic decisions (such as backwards writing for that “traditional feel”) too. This is all stuff I personally had to Wiktionary-search or ask around for within a couple of weeks from each other and despite being a random cacophany of crap, kinda almost fit together in a twisted way.

    Asking people on the train to “type this character into my phone for me please!” with a Google search box highlighted was vaguely embarassing.

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