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!