Bah, humbug to methods!

I recently received this question via email from Shiki.

To: taekim.japanese AT
Date: Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 11:39 AM

Subject: Some questions about your method…

You said that when you were learning Japanese you didn’t study kanji, but the words made of them. So when you encountered a new word, what did you do to “drill” it into your memory? I’m just wondering what steps to take when I encounter a new word.

Also, how often did you find yourself reviewing? When I say reviewing, I mean like SRS/flashcard reviewing. I ask this because the method you described yourself using for learning Japanese is very appealing to me, as I think it’s in line with what will help me learn Japanese successfully. It’s not that I don’t have the time to review, but I just find reviewing for long periods of time very boring. I’m not really interested in coming home and having to do 4 hours of reviewing that my SRS scheduled for me today. I’d rather just jump straight into reading manga, looking for new words and kanji, having fun while learning.


I do not have a method, I do not play monopoly

I did not do any review, I did not use an SRS, I did not pass Go, I did not collect $200, and I definitely did not use flashcards. Or more accurately, I did try to use flashcards early on but all my efforts at making and reviewing flashcards soon petered out due to boredom.

Here are some of the things I did do depending on my mood and how much interest I had for any given vocabulary.

  1. I skipped the word if I was lazy or too absorbed into the story to stop reading. (Usually when it didn’t hinder my comprehension too much)
  2. I looked up the word, found the definition, and moved on.
  3. I remembered other words that used the same Kanji, and looked those up as well.
  4. For new Kanji, I looked up the meaning for the individual Kanji and practiced writing the odder ones like 「飛」.
  5. For fairly abstract concepts such as 「関して」 or 「かつて」, I looked up other example sentences similar to the steps described in this post.
  6. In conversation practice, I asked my partner to write down words I didn’t recognize and reviewed my notes later (or not depending on how lazy I was).

The only thing that could be considered review was going back and reading something over again for the fun of it. On reading it over, I might look up words I skipped previously or have forgotten since then.

Here, let me put words in your mouth

While that’s what I did to study Japanese, I’m going to read a bit between the lines here and answer what I think the question is really asking, “How should you study Japanese?”

Here’s the short answer:

Do what works for you.

Similar to diet fads, people seem to want to gravitate toward some magical method for mastering Japanese. Various books and software try to reel these people in with claims like, “Learn Japanese the Easy Way!” or “The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese!”. In my opinion, 99.9% of these products are complete crap. I won’t say which ones because I rather not say anything rather than being overly negative.

Regardless of whether you think Japanese is more or less difficult than learning other languages, the bottom line is that mastering any foreign language is a large task. So do yourself a favor and take an approach that makes learning Japanese enjoyable and interesting for you.

Are you having trouble writing the Kanji? Try the Heisig method. Are you having trouble recalling vocabulary? Try an SRS. Are you getting bored with the study material? Try new kinds of material such as dramas, movies, books, comics. Or here’s a crazy idea. How about making some Japanese friends to practice with? The important thing to realize is that no single method is going to cover everything.

The point is, I can’t advocate a single method or steps to learning Japanese because we all learn in different ways and have different goals. Here are some questions that might affect how you want to approach Japanese.

  1. What is your desired pace and average study time?
  2. What are your areas of interest?
  3. How best do you learn: visual, audio, or mechanical? You need to incorporate all three but you can use your natural disposition to your advantage.
  4. Do you like to learn in an organized or unorganized fashion?

I also suggest you read my post on studying tips. Practice makes perfect, so you should not forget that eventually you’ll have to use Japanese in the real world to get better at it. Feed Me Japanese also has some good posts about learning methods.

Finally, my last piece of advice is this.

If it’s painful, boring, or frustrating, stop doing it and try something else.

And if everything starts to feel that way, try taking a little break. But don’t let it last too long otherwise it might became a hiatus and you start forgetting what you’ve worked so hard to learn. Remember, like proper dieting and exercise, the importance is in consistency and not speed.


So Shiki, it sounds like you answered your own question. If you don’t like reviewing for long periods of time and prefer to jump straight into reading manga, then go do that! It worked for me! (In addition to having Japanese friends to converse with.)

On LaTeX, self publishing, and another dialogue

Though progress continues to be slow, the textbook project is finally turning into something I’m getting excited about. Lately, I’ve been thinking about layout and presentation.

Here is the second dialogue designed to demonstrate positive and negative state-of-being for nouns and adjectives. As usual, this deceptively simple conversation had a lot of thought put into it. This dialogue will be followed by pretty standard explanations of the conjugation rules and a brief description of よ and ね.

スミス: おはよう。
キム:  おはよう。
スミス: 元気?
キム:  あまり元気じゃない。
スミス: そう?
キム:  うん。最近、とても忙しい。
スミス: いいね。
キム:  全然よくないよ。
Smith: Morning.
Kim: Morning
Smith: How are you?
Kim: Not very good.
Smith: Is that so?
Kim: Yeah. I’m very busy lately.
Smith: That’s good.
Kim: It’s not good at all.
  1. おはよう [casual, exp] – Good Morning
  2. 元気(げんき) [na-adj] – lively, healthy
  3. あまり [adv] – not very (used with negative)
  4. そう [adv] – so
  5. うん [casual] – yes
  6. 最近(さいきん) [adv] – lately
  7. とても [adv] – very
  8. 忙しい(いそがしい) [i-adj] – busy
  9. いい [i-adj] – good
  10. 全然(ぜんぜん) [adv] – not at all (used with negative)

As you can see, it uses a two-column format for the Japanese and English translation. I debated on adding a kana-only version but couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. In the end, I decided if the vocabulary with the readings are right there, the reader shouldn’t have much trouble figuring it out. I’m still debating whether or not to add furigana however.

Though I had initially wanted to concentrate on the content only, I decided I should also think about the layout, presentation, and format. This is especially important for creating a printable book because I have to think about what size paper I want to use. And DocBook, as we know, deliberately leaves out any shred of formatting information. So I’m looking into setting up LaTeX and will see how that works out soon enough I hope.

I’m also looking into for self publishing. They even do audio CDs though they don’t currently package it with a book. Now all I have to do is figure out how to find other speakers besides myself for the characters and how to get some recording done with reasonably professional quality.

But first, I guess I should concentrate on writing the rest of the book. The next dialogue will cover the polite positive and negative state-of-being and the question marker 「か」 but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Random question, why do spell checkers keep telling me “dialogue” is misspelled? It is a word, isn’t it?

My textbook introduction and first dialogue

As indicated in my last post, after struggling with the traditional textbook approach, I’ve decided to scrap everything and start afresh. I thought hard about what I wanted from a textbook when I first started learning Japanese and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want any babying or hand-holding. If my target audience can learn trigonometry and calculus, they should certainly be able to handle Hiragana and Katakana without having it spoon-feed to them one lesson at a time. So with that, I came up with the following introduction.

The Introduction

Who is this textbook for?

The intended audience of this textbook is for adult English speakers from High School level and beyond. It is intended to be compatible with a classroom format as well as for self-learners. However, for reasons explained in the next section, a conversation partner or a way to interact regularly with someone who speaks Japanese is highly recommended.

How does this textbook work?

This textbook is guided by certain principles for learning any language and some specific to learning Japanese. Based on my own experiences and from observing others, it is my belief that using the language in each aspect of reading, writing, speaking, and listening is the only way to truly master it. In addition, it must be practiced just as it’s used in real life in order for the skills to transfer into the real world.

However, in the case of Japanese, there is a large amount of new concepts and writing systems that must be mastered before people new to the language can begin to learn real Japanese. This is particularly true for English speakers with no background with Chinese characters or particle-based grammar. Therefore, there is a fairly large amount of background material in the beginning of this textbook to acquaint the new learner to the fundamental aspects of Japanese before starting with the actual lessons.

It is my opinion that consolidating the background material in the beginning makes for a more comprehensive approach for adult learners as compared to spreading it out through the lessons all the while using crippled and unnatural Japanese until the key concepts can be adequately explained.

The basic approach of this textbook can be summarized in the following steps:

  1. Get a rough idea of the general concept
  2. Comprehend via input in Japanese with English translations (both audio and written)
  3. Practice output with writing and conversation exercises
  4. Get output checked and corrected for further expansion

The word “rough” in the first step is very important here, especially for the background material. While the first section might seem quite extensive, the goal is to get only a general idea and fine-tune it by jumping in the language. So don’t worry about fully comprehending the first section before starting the lessons. If you continuously refer back as you learn the language, you will eventually learn it all through practice.

In the first section, I intend to cover Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji similar to the beginning of my grammar guide. The only difference is more extensive practice exercises and plenty of audio. The Kanji section will be about how Kanji works and how to study it.

As for grammar, While I won’t go over specific grammar or conjugations until the lessons, I will provide a broad overview. I intend to cover what particles are, classifications of parts of speech, general sentence structure, and when to use the various politeness levels.

My first dialogue

I also spent a lot of time really thinking about the first dialogue. This dialogue was very important to me because I think it sets the tone for the rest of the book. And as I mentioned in my last post, I wanted to get the reader hooked on Japanese from the very beginning. After a great deal of thought, here’s what I came up with. (Any resemblance to persons fictional or real is purely coincidental.)

先生:  これは、本ですか?
クラス: いいえ、本じゃありません。それは、ペンです。

キム: このクラスは、簡単じゃない?
スミス: 私は、まだ難しいよ。
キム: 全然難しくないよ。
スミス: はい、はい。

先生: キムさん!
キム: はい!
先生: これは、なんですか?
キム: ええと・・・、紙ですか?
先生: はい、そうです。なんの紙ですか?
キム: ・・・はい?
先生: この紙は、キムさんの特別な宿題です。
キム: なんですか?

My goal in this dialogue was to cover the copula (or whatever you want to call it) and the negative tense for nouns and adjectives. I also wanted to have a good mix of polite and casual speech to show how each is used respective to the social position of the characters. I was really tempted to have Kim say 「わかりません」 in his second-to-last line but decided to hold off on negative tenses for verbs for now. I also wanted to write 「キムさんだけの特別な宿題です。」 but decided that was too advanced. See how hard this is? Actually, what I really wanted to write was 「この授業は、キムさんにとって簡単すぎるようなので、キムさんだけの特別な宿題を作りました。さぁ、喜んでください!おほほほほ!」

Personally, I think the best part of this dialogue is when Smith says, 「私は、まだ難しいよ。」 because it really shows that the topic particle is not the “subject” as we define it in English. Obviously, Smith is not saying she’s difficult since that makes no sense.

So that’s my first dialogue. It will, of course, have an English translation and a non-Kanji version for those who want to worry about the Kanji later. What do you think? I’m pretty happy with it but there will be lots more to come. Even though you really can’t tell yet, I already have an idea of what the various characters are like in my mind. I hope you will all eventually find out as I develop the story and finish the textbook!

Explaining the long vowel sound

In a previous post, I talked about the surprising complexity in explaining long vowel sounds. Since then, I’ve made a little progress and decided to separate the /ei/ and /ee/ long vowel sounds completely.

The decision finally came with a realization late in the night. (Yes, I probably spend way too much time thinking about this stuff.) I though about Katakana and its simplified system of using 「ー」 for long vowel sounds. I thought about words that are obviously long /e/ vowel sounds such as 「ケーキ」 versus /y/ vowel sounds such as 「メイク」. You see, the fact that 「メイク」 writes out the 「イ」 instead of using 「ー」 proves the fact that there is a significant and important difference between the two sounds. You can’t see this in Hiragana because 「ー」 isn’t used for long vowel sounds.

This convinced me that improved pronunciation was worth the little extra complexity it takes to explain this. But really it wasn’t that bad. Here’s what I ended up with.

Before we go any further, we need to revisit Hiragana to talk about a very important aspect of Japanese pronunciation: the long vowel sound. When a sound is followed by the corresponding vowel sound: 「あ」、「い」、「え」、or 「お」, the combination forms a single, longer vowel sound. It is very important to fully extend the vowel sound for correct pronunciation. The table given below illustrates what matching vowel sounds indicate a long vowel sound. The rows in grey are very rare combinations found in only a few words that will be pointed out as we learn them.

Table 1.6. Extending Vowel Sounds
Vowel Sound Extended by Example Pronunciation
/ a / まあ maa
/ i / いい ii
/ u / くう kuu
/ e / せい sei
/ e / ねえ nee
/ o / とう too
/ o / とお too

I plan to replace the ローマ字 with links to the actual pronunciations once I get to adding sound.

Now, this still glosses over the issue the combinations don’t always make a long vowel sound. You also have to consider how the sounds line up with the Kanji. For instance with 「経緯」, the long vowel sound is in the first character: 「けい」. In other words, it should be read as 「けい・い」 and not 「け・いい」. Another example is 「問う」, which obviously can’t be a long vowel since the 「う」 is outside the kanji. But given that I’m explaining long vowel sounds for the first time much less anything about Kanji, I have no choice but to skip the more intricate aspects. Besides, you better know some kanji if you’re advanced enough to actually use words like 「経緯」 and 「問う」.

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!


What are you doing?
뭘 하고 있어?

No matter what language you’re speaking in, this is a question you’re answering all the time. So naturally, your conversation skills should improve if you learn how to answer this question in your studies. And what better way to practice than by using Twitter, a service built entirely for this purpose? As they describe it, “Twitter is a service… to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” It seems to be exactly the thing for some quick language practice. You can even set it to bug you if you don’t update it for 24 hours.

So I decided to give it a try by signing up and posting some stuff in Chinese. So far, the experience has been very positive and I even put the latest status on my blog sidebar under “Quick Update”. Answering the simple question, “What are you doing?” motivated me to look up lots of new and useful grammar and vocabulary while helping me apply the stuff I already knew. In addition, the 140 character limit helps keep me focused and motivated. I find it much easier to write a quick sentence or two in Twitter compared to journals (Lang-8) or blogs where there is more pressure to write something more significant.

One thing I did before I started was to make sure I had ready access to update whenever I felt like. Unfortunately, updating from my phone was not an option since my phone can only send English messages. (I’ll try not to rant here on the poor state of mobile technology in the US where you don’t even get a freaking email address for your phone let alone multilingual messaging!!!!!) Since I check all my stuff on iGoogle all the time anyway, I added BeTwittered, a Twitter gadget for the iGoogle homepage. There are lots of other options that might make more sense depending on your habits but you’ll definitely want to set it somewhere where you’ll see it all the time.

This is all fine and dandy but the major problem I have is that nobody reads my Twitter updates. Granted, they’re not all that interesting but it would sure be nice to have native Chinese speakers read them and reply with their comments. In turn, I can do the same for them if they’re learning English or Japanese. Hmm… does this sound familiar? Yes in fact, I have a whole list of friends that fit that criteria in my Lang-8 account. Wouldn’t it be cool if Lang-8 had Twitter integration?! What if you and your friend entered your Twitter account information into your profile and Lang-8 automatically set the appropriate followers based on you and your friend’s native and target languages? It certainly seems possible based on the Twitter API.

Until Lang-8 decides to introduce such a feature, if you speak Chinese, please follow my Twitter account! In exchange, I promise to follow yours. (I wish I could write this in Chinese but it’s too hard and I’m too lazy right now.)

In any case, if you are a Twitter user and you’re using it for language practice, leave a comment with your Twitter link! I write Japanese updates as well so feel free to follow me if it sounds interesting to you.

I didn’t know this but to reply to somebody, you have to start your Twitter message with @[username]. You can tell this is an organic feature and not fully designed as it will reply only to the user’s latest Twitter update. If you want to reply to an older message, you’re out of luck.

Link: My Twitter account

Actually, Japanese has future tense! Kind of…

Studying Chinese got me thinking about tense recently and how it’s expressed in different languages. That’s when I realized my concept of present tense was over-simplified and that yes, future tense does exist in Japanese… in a way.

At first glance, the idea of tenses seem very simple. You have past, present, and future to describe when something happens well… in the past, present, and future. However, if you think about it, present tense cannot exist as a single point in time because it is changing every minute, second, millisecond, ad infinitum. In other words, you can say, “I ate yesterday.” and “I will eat tomorrow.” but you cannot say, “I eat now.” because by the time you are finished saying it, that present is already in the past and the future is already the present. The only way you can talk about anything close to the present tense is by defining a span of time that started in the past and is continuing into the future. That is why you would say, “I am eating now.” instead. But that is the present progressive of the verb. Hence, my original concept of the three tenses being, “ate”, “eat”, and “will eat” was oversimplified.

So I looked up what is considered present tense in English and found this very informative page about simple present with time lines for different cases. Let’s look at how they translate into Japanese.

USE 1 Repeated Actions

This case represents a repeated action not in any specific time frame. There is no specific information on when these repeated actions occur, which is exactly the same as the plain verb form in Japanese.

I play tennis. – テニスをする。

USE 2 Facts or Generalizations

This case represents a fact that is continuously true. There is no specific information on the time period the statement purports to be true. Again, exactly the same as the plain verb form in Japanese.

California is in America. – カリフォルニアはアメリカにある。

USE 3 Scheduled Events in the Near Future

Scheduled events in the future are expressed in simple present in English exactly the same as Japanese

The party starts at 8 o’clock. – パーティは8時に始まる。

Even though we can also use the future tense in English, it means the same thing and is unchanged in Japanese.

The party will start at 8 o’clock. – パーティは8時に始まる。

USE 4 Now (Non-Continuous Verbs)

This case is a bit tricky because the English verb “to have” is a continuous state disguised as a non-continuous verb. In Japanese, this is always a continuous state of holding something or 「持っている」. But besides this special case, most examples are again exactly the same.

Do you have your passport with you? – パスポートを持っている?
I am here now. – 今ここにいる。


If you consider the fact that the present tense in the sense of an action happening exactly at the present point in time really does not exist in either English or Japanese, this opens up a whole new way of thinking. What does present tense mean and how is it expressed in each case? Is it so strange that Japanese has one more case where the plain form also expresses all future actions? Especially since the plain form is used to express so many different time frames same as the present tense in English. As USE 3 shows, even English uses the present tense for future events in some situations.

Grammatically, Japanese does not have a future tense in the sense of a verb form reserved strictly for the future. However, that’s because the whole idea of present tense is ambiguous. It’s more accurate to say there is no present tense and the plain form is the future tense in addition to other usages. What we commonly think of the present tense as expressing what’s happening now is really the present progressive which Japanese clearly has in the 「~ている」 form.

Comparing to Chinese (part 3): Grammar

Ah ignorance is bliss. When I first compared Chinese to Japanese, I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of Chinese so my comparison was a bit misinformed. Almost a year later, my Chinese skills are… still rudimentary. I guess it can’t be helped considering the fact that I spend about 1/10 of the time I used to spend learning Japanese. However, I do know quite a bit more than I used to so here is an updated and slightly more informed comparison.

I still think Chinese is much easier than Japanese as I mentioned in my first comparison except for two main problems. One annoying issue for me personally is that most of the reading materials available nearby are in traditional Chinese probably due to the large number of Taiwanese people living in Seattle. The other difficulty I have is the one aspect of Chinese I seriously underestimated: grammar. I just can’t seem to get a good handle on Chinese grammar because really there is no grammar.

What I mean by “no grammar” is that I can’t identify any kind of common pattern to how you should arrange or structure your sentences. In Japanese, once you figure out that verbs come last and that subordinate clauses can directly modify nouns, you can logically figure out how to arrange your sentence most of the time. In addition, the function each word plays is clear regardless of order thanks to the magic of particles. However, in Chinese I’m often lost about where I should start my sentence and how to put all the words together to match my thoughts.

For example, let’s look at the classic example of, “How do you say ‘student’ in Chinese?”.

How do you say ‘student’ in Chinese?

Now, anybody would probably agree that the Chinese version is much easier to understand. In Japanese, you have the quotation 「と」 particle and the verb is conjugated into the polite form. With Chinese, you have three words strung together: “Chinese how say”. But the simplicity of Chinese grammar (or the lack of) is what confuses me. Can I say “中文’student’怎么说”, “‘student’怎么说中文”, or “中文怎么说’student'”? Goodness, think how confusing it would be if I asked, “中文英语怎么说?”

This is usually how Japanese and Chinese grammar differ. Chinese is much easier to learn at first but you pay the price later on. Though it depends on your learning style, you can imagine how difficult it is for someone like me who wrote a whole guide based on the structure and logic of Japanese grammar. I just don’t feel comfortable in Chinese, especially for more complicated sentences.

Chinese: 31 flavors, take your pick

You may think having no verb tenses would make things easier but you would be wrong. In Japanese, while the conjugation rules are a pain to memorize, the concepts are much closer to what we’re used to in English. For instance, a verb in the past tense means that the verb happened in the past. Simple, huh? Not in Chinese where tenses don’t exist. Take a look at the following simple sentences.

昨天去。- Yesterday go (past).
今天去。 – Today go (present).
明天去。- Tomorrow go (future).

Looks pretty easy right? But what if you don’t include when it happened? How do you indicate it happened in the past? One thing you can do is to attach “了”. If you know Japanese, you can guess from words like 「完了」 and 「終了」 that “了” indicates that the single action is complete. But if you want to say that you finished the act completely, you can attach “完”. Or you can do both!

There is also “过” which is the simplified version of 「過」 and means something has past, pretty much the same as 「過ぎる」. But besides being its own verb, it’s also another one of these characters you can attach to other verbs. This is pretty much how all of Chinese grammar works. You take certain characters that have a certain meaning and attach it somewhere in your sentence. Sigh…

你看了吗? – Did you see/read (past)?
你看完吗? – Did you finish seeing/reading?
你看完了吗? – Did you finish (past) seeing/reading?
你去过吗? – Have you gone?
你去过了吗?- Have you gone (past)?
春节过完了。 – New Year’s has past and finished.

It’s crazy, there’s just no grammar here, just characters that you can attach here and there and some are insidiously similar to others. In fact, some of these examples might not be natural Chinese (see comments) but I’m not good enough to tell.

I can go on (for example, 下着雨 vs 在下雨) but I think you get the idea. The point is, you have to learn how each individual character works, its nuances, and how it interacts in the sentence as a whole.

I have always maintained that the hardest part of learning languages is vocabulary because there’s just so much and you have to learn the nuance and usage of every word. In Chinese, grammar is basically just more vocabulary!


As I get farther into Chinese, I personally find Chinese grammar to be much more difficult than Japanese. While Japanese has more rules and conjugations, I think the benefit of having that structure carries with you later on. However, I would admit that it’s a difficult comparison to make and will probably depend on each person. What I can say with confidence is that Chinese grammar is by no means easy! For those of you with experience learning both languages, what do you think?

I just want to leave you all with this neat tidbit I just found at:

Use of the 正 在 V 着 O 呢 zhènzài V zhe O ne sentence pattern [9]

This sentence pattern indicates that an action is under way. Note that some of the elements of this pattern can be omitted: all the following sentences mean he is watching TV.
1. 他 正 在 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zhèngzài kànzhe diànshì ne full version
2. 他 正 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zhèng kànzhe diànshì ne without 在 zài
3. 他 在 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zài kànzhe diànshì ne without 正 zhèng
4. 他 正 在 看 电 视 呢 tā zhèngzài kàn diànshì ne without 着 zhe
5. 他 正 在 看 着 电 视 tā zhèngzài kànzhe diànshì without 呢 ne
6. 他 在 看 电 视 呢 tā zài kàn diànshì ne without 正 zhèng and 着 zhe
7. 他 看 电 视 呢 tā kàn diànshì ne without 正 zhèng , 在 zài and 着 zhe

Isn’t Chinese so fun?

Further Reading:
Contrasting English Tense and Mandarin Aspect

What, you forgot it? Good!

When I wrote that current spaced repetition software all suck, I wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t use them or that the idea of spaced repetition itself sucks. To make an analogy, Linus Torvalds said subversion sucks in a talk about git and while I found his talk interesting I still continue to use subversion. It’s because his philosophy and needs for source control are different from mine. Just like Linus, I think that the current SRS can be so much better based on my needs and philosophy (the difference being he actually built the software while I’m just all talk).

I have a basic and simple philosophy that learning languages should be simple and enjoyable. Current SRS are all based on the idea of study and review. I don’t like “studying” because it sounds like work and flipping through cards is work to me (and boring work at that), especially when I have to make them myself. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I could never stick with it. But hey, I’m just talking about me personally, so don’t let me discourage you from finding the techniques that work for you. In fact, I encourage you to try out various different methods of study to find what works best for you. I went through the same experience to learn enough about myself to know what works for me.

Personally, I think spaced repetition works naturally if you have reading material with words that are spaced out. I’m talking about graded readers that naturally introduce new words while reusing old ones. You can even throw all the vocab in an SRS as a bonus but the most important part that’s missing in current SRS is the material; you have to find it yourself. The simple reason is because software is made by programmers not writers. That’s why my idea of a great spaced repetition program is not one that flips through words but one that allows use to share and find material that interests us in the language and at the right level of difficulty. Flipping through words based on the material is simply a nice bonus.

I love the concept of spaced repetition and enjoy the effects every time I learn a new word without even realizing it. This may sound counterintuitive but forgetting a word really is the best way to learn it. If you forget a word it means that you’ve already learned it and spaced enough time to forget it again. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself but the more times you think, “Oh I can’t believe I forgot this word again!” the faster you end up memorizing it. So you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you forget a word, you should be thinking, “Yes! I forgot it! This is really helping me to remember it for good.”

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!