I started writing the Guide to Japanese grammar… oh I don’t even really remember it was so long ago. Maybe about 6 years ago? I took me about 3 or 4 years to gradually cover most of the topics I considered most important. After that, I set up the forum, originally to discuss how to improve the guide but it turned into a great place to seriously discuss anything about Japanese. There are some great regular members and the general atmosphere of the forum is friendly and focused, just the way I like it. Around that time, I started getting offers for translations and thanks to the amazing work from many volunteers, the guide is available to some degree in 10 different languages.
I also started the blog on 3yen which has become the blog you’re reading right now, and started learning Mandarin about 2 years ago. All of this was done in my spare time while pursuing a career in software (primarily web) development. So where do I plan to go from here?
The guide hasn’t been updated since September of 2006 and that’s because besides some minor topics that I still want to cover (such as 〜たまえ or 〜てから）, the only major piece is to finish the practice exercises. However, while certainly useful, they can be produced by anyone and are no more than basic drills anyway. The other major piece, Kansai dialect, is a huge topic that I’d just rather not go into right now. I still do want to do the conjugation tables though but laziness and tedium is the major issue.
I’ve always wanted to publish something but I have no idea how to go about it and putting stuff online is so much more accessible anyway. Especially since you can print it out yourself for a lot less money. (Well maybe not, how much is it to print 237 pages at Kinkos?)
However, a textbook is a different story because printing and binding several copies is not very convenient. And having a rough printout may not a big deal for yourself but you want a nice printed copy for others. In addition, while audio can be more easily integrated online, physical distribution has the advantage in that you don’t have to download potentially large amounts of data.
Writing a complete textbook for Japanese including vocabulary usage, grammar, and reading material has been a pet project of mine for a very long time. However, my vision of the textbook changed gradually in the process of writing this blog and interacting with readers in the comments. So far, I haven’t even finished the first chapter and progress is slow because it’s really hard. That’s because my vision of the ideal Japanese textbook facilitates learning by doing and learning how to teach yourself.
No Japanese textbook can ever be complete
Virtually every Japanese textbook I know of has a critical flaw. It tells you exactly what to learn and there is no discovery. This works great in most classes such as algebra where you can take a class and once you’ve passed, you can reasonably claim that you know algebra. However with languages, you need hundreds of hours of reading, writing, and conversation practice. You also have to memorize thousands of words. In essence, you have to learn a different version of everything you already learned in your lifetime. So it’s pretty presumptuous of textbooks to think they can tell you to learn this and that and you’re done at the end of the book. No language textbook can teach you everything you need to know.
As a result, the expectation ends up being, “You can learn some stuff in class but you’ll have to go to Japan to learn how to speak Japanese for real.” This is unfortunate because it’s not true and I know because I passed into the highest level of Japanese for my study abroad without setting a foot in Japan. All you need is somebody who can speak Japanese you can practice with on a regular basis. Here’s what you would need to do and how a great textbook can help.
Learn how to learn
Teaching somebody how to learn Japanese is relatively easy. Somewhere in the textbook, it should teach you how to use dictionaries and the new technologies available. Dictionaries have come a long way since the days of looking up each Kanji by guessing the radical and than guessing which readings are used in the compound before you can finally find the word. (In fact, I can’t even imagine how people learned with this method.) The textbook should also teach you how to learn Kanji because again, no class can ever cover every Kanji you need to know. At some point, you have to start learning them yourself.
It should also give you some advice and resources on how to find a Japanese language partner so that you can practice your conversational skills. Technology has given us options even if there are no Japanese speakers in your area. This can also help the teacher in finding conversation partners for the class by providing suggestions such as matching up with a Japanese class learning English via sites like Mixxer.
Think for yourself
The hard part is helping the learner to discover and explore the language. I plan to approach this in two ways. The first is by exploring key concepts in different contexts by continually expanding dialogues and readings throughout the book. In this way, the learner can learn by example how the core concepts are applied to express many different ideas.
The second is by suggesting exercises that require the learner to be creative. In my experience, the majority of workbook exercises tell you exactly what to do in the example. This type of exercise is virtually useless because you never have to actually think for yourself.
For example, this type of exercise might look familiar:
Conjugate to 「たい」 form.
But what about this instead?
You know why students hate these kinds of open-ended questions? Because you have to think and thinking is hard. But the biggest benefit to having a teacher is so that you can experiment and have somebody to guide you to the right path. Grading the first type of exercise is a complete waste of the teacher’s time which can be spent in far more productive activities. Teachers should be helping you select the most natural words and grammar to express your thoughts correctly. They should not be telling you what to say and how.
To cover conversation skills, you might have the following exercise.
In your next conversation session, discuss what you and your language partner would like to do on the weekend. Submit a summary of your conversation to the teacher.
In summary, the textbook will force students to learn how to read by reading (duh) material that continues to expand while incorporating old material in new ways. It will also force students to express their own thoughts in writing (with the guidance of a teacher) and also to apply their lessons in real conversations.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in terms of software, learning methodologies, and communities for learning Japanese. So I feel my best contribution to learning Japanese is to continue to write material that is helpful to Japanese learners. This, of course, means that I will continuing to write in this blog but I’d also like to expend more resources to create a truly great textbook the likes of which has never been seen. It might take a long (long, long, long) time but I hope it’s becomes something truly valuable to Japanese learners even more so than the original Grammar Guide. Now that’s something I would like to get published.
I’ll also continue to study Chinese of course. Not only for my personal enjoyment but also because it helps keep things in perspective and is a great reminder of how hard learning a language is when you’re not used to it.
What do you think?