Till now and beyond…

Till now

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

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.

The Textbook?

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.
Ex) ケーキを食べたい


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.

Other Projects

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?

23 thoughts on “Till now and beyond…

  1. Textbooks could definitely do a better job covering how to learn material oneself. In studying Japanese there is so much I had to figure out myself in terms of how to study and how to look up kanji (for example SKIP is fantastic but nobody seems to know about it). None of this information is even covered in classes at all. In the classes I took, some of the students entirely failed the grasp the necessity of individual study, and to some degree I think it was irresponsible of the teachers not to tell them upfront that the class in itself would not be sufficient to learn the language. If textbooks could discuss this a little bit it might provide more encouragement for self-study and save some time for students (or at least be more honest about what is required).

    I’m afraid I disagree with your “think for yourself” section. This is because in the first two semesters of Japanese that I took in college, nearly every question was phrased, as you propose, as a short-answer question rather than a rote exercise. And it was horrible. However I didn’t hate it because it made me think; I hated it because it turned what really *was* a rote exercise into hours-long torture. I constantly had to fill up sheets with huge empty blocks that were graded on completion. I disagree with AJATT in many areas, but I believe he is right when he says “input before output”. In order to fill these pages without the vocabulary to express everything, and to phrase things before knowing enough grammar, I developed bad habits that I only corrected when I learned more of the language later. Many people seem to believe that it is a great idea to practice expressing yourself in the limited vocabulary of the language you are learning. This might be a good idea if the true problem was that there was Japanese Expression that was different from English Expression and must inevitably be mastered to become fluent. However, I do not feel this is the case. Moreover, what learning a language truly requires is careful observation and imitation. Making your students figure out how to express something when they have never seen how a Japanese person would express it won’t develop their skills; it will only make them work hard to develop their own artificial Japanese that the will later need to correct.

    Rather than spending hours on an exercise where you “have to think”, I think one must accept that learning a language is about memorization. There is no way to avoid it. If you simply spend the same time learning all the basic grammar and then learning vocabulary, you can avoid some of the trouble. When I worked through the class exercises I described above, I spent hours every night on Japanese but made little progress. Worse, there was no way for my teachers to tell me that what I wrote was not how native speakers would write without making me memorize everything by wrote anyway; they chose not to tell me and the utility of the exercise (but not the time required) was reduced to the that of a rote exercise. Only when I stopped writing and started listening, reading, and memorizing did I start to make real progress.

  2. You make a good point about input before output. There’s a delicate balance between getting the necessary amount of input before producing output of similar complexity. Which is why writing such a textbook like this is so difficult! However, at some point, you really have to venture into trying to expressing your own thoughts otherwise you end up in a common situation where you can comprehend but cannot speak. (I’ve seen this in a number of people)

    One assumption I didn’t mentioned is that the writing/conversation topic has to be completely doable based on the concepts that student has already learned. In my example, I compare testing the たい conjugation with writing your own sentences using the same form. It was implied that the student had just learned the たい form and already knows から (because) to explain why. I believe as long as the necessary concepts have been taught, this is a good opportunity to explore vocabulary with help since simple words are mostly a case of memorization.

    But it really is the most difficult in the beginning because they can’t apply anything. They don’t even know the topic particle! That’s why I’m still stuck at Chapter 1 and having a lot of difficulty.

  3. Amen, taekk. I’ve been doing many of the things you outlined here — trying to learn by creativity, not by example alone, and it’s been working great. The only thing I’m still holding back is the language partner part. I guess I’m too shy for that.

    It’s hard as hell to come up with phrases by yourself, but once you manage to do it, the feeling is great. Sure, you can’t do this without some good amount of input, so that’s why I’ve been trying to read a lot, from multiple sources.

    This is something that definitely should be encourage: how to find source material, and learn from example, and then trying to use that source to come up with sentences by yourself.

  4. “However, at some point, you really have to venture into trying to expressing your own thoughts otherwise you end up in a common situation where you can comprehend but cannot speak.”

    The phenomenon you’re talking about is definitely real, but I’ve actually been wondering if this isn’t more due to gaining passive recall of vocabulary and grammar without practicing reproducing them (especially reproducing them quickly). In other words, I wonder if you really have to try to produce paragraphs of text or speak at length all the time, or if you only need to practice reproduction of individual grammar items or vocabulary. Are there really people who have huge vocabularies that they can easily pull words out of, and wide knowledge of grammar that they can use freely, but who can’t combine these abilities to produce speak coherently?

  5. As a junior high JET, I’ve discovered time and again that a majority of plug in type drills with a smidgen of open ended questions is best time-management-wise. The kids just aren’t ready for independent thought/creativity. This could have something to do with the rest of their education though.

  6. Hmm… I was thinking more of adult learners. Teaching children/young adults is a whole different ballgame. Nevertheless, balance is definitely a good thing. Maybe some drills to get the basic down then more open-ended exercises.

  7. I teach teenagers and adults and my mostly practiced routine looks like this:

    – showing model sentences and discussing vocab and grammar.
    – doing something random: teaching kanji, singing songs, doing a random activity on what the student already knows (based on what is their technique of learning)

    Following lesson:
    – reading a textbook dialogue/passage or some other text connected with the grammar/vocab points given previously, dicussing it
    – giving a homework on this material consisting mostly of “fill gaps” type of question (proper form, proper particle, connecting, crosswords, tell info about a picture, etc.)

    Yet following lesson:
    – starting the routine from first lesson + checking the homework. Explaining everything that might be a common mistake suggesting not understanding the material covered.
    – Giving a lil’ harder homework consisting of open questions enabling student to tell something about himself. Open questions, sakubun, exercises based on video/audio, etc. etc.

    It’s a lot of effort put both from me and from the student (I mean, both of us need to devote some time to each other [Japanese] daily), but it works. It’s only possible with teacher’s pre-prepared materials, because no book alone would fit my schedule. Yet combining few of them (in my situation, up to 10 for one lesson! And not always the same) yield great results.

    Amen X3

  8. It sounds like you’re working hard for your students! It sounds like a great mixup. Is your class discussions in Japanese?

    In most classes I’ve seen the class consists of discussing vocab/grammar and drills. The homework consists of rote exercises and _maybe_ an occasional paragraph. There is virtually no conversation, only simple question/answer asked in turn like 今日は何曜日ですか?

    In a standard 3xWeek Beginner/Intermediate University course, here’s what I would do.
    2xWeek -> Teach Vocab/Grammar (For advanced level, class discussion in Japanese)
    1xWeek -> Individual conversation with Japanese tutors if available. The teacher would mostly walk from group to group. If not an option, break the class time up to do 1-1 or small group private sessions as the class size allows.

    10% drill and grammar practice
    20% short conversation summary list of things learned/discussed
    20% writing/reading penpal emails with Japanese partner
    30% reading assignments
    20% paragraph responses to simple open ended questions about the reading and topics as they pertain to the lesson

    I would also take some useful things learned from conversation and have the student share it with the rest of the class.

    Final Exam
    Oral and essay. No question/answer paper exam as they are meaningless.

  9. Hmmm, I think for the “oral and essay” bit, you’d have to make it clear that you aren’t looking for an English-styled essay, with complex comparisons and contrasts, or similies and metaphors. To be honest, the hardest part of learning Japanese (in the beginning) was that I was afraid that the professor was going to expect me to churn out English level essays from the get go. Maybe I’m not the norm, but until I realized that I was virtually regressing in grade level in order to learn this language, I just basically shut down, and didn’t learn anything the way I should have. In short, make it clear that the kids are going to have to kind of “regress” in there communication levels in order to understand the fundamentals.

  10. I don’t use many conversional practice as I mainly teach individuals – if I have a pair or a small group I include that too. Either way, I am trying to reinforce as much Japanese as possible from the start for example not using Polish equivalents of “Good morning” or “See you soon” Right away from the first lesson up. Also things like “wakarimasuka”, “kaite kudasai” “kyou wa suiyoubi desu ne” and ASAP asking a lot of “doushite?” “itsu?” “dou desuka?” go very early. Around lesson 10 I’m already explaining grammar points in Japanese to them, doing a lot of mimicing, pointing, noises, writing, so it’s very fun, but I’m glad they get it.

    I hope my lessons will never get boring. >,<
    I’m retiring as soon as they does.

    But I would make the exams looks diffrent. Obviously a kanji reading/writing part.
    I also would definitely go for the grammar part like putting something in brackets (forms, particles, words fitting the contexts) – mostly because I know VERY WELL students will try to trick you and use only what they feel very confident in. I don’t care if they can conjugate “iku” in every form, when they might not be familiar with “kuru” forms as they are irregular and they’d try therefore to refrain from using this word. I also need to know if they memorize crucial words.
    For example I’d ask them to write a letter date included.
    Writing it in kanji, would be so obviously simple they might make only a mistake of ordering it right (year first). Hence, of course, choosing any date and writing it in hiragana might be the answer? No. They will choose any date with adding only “-nichi” (like 23rd). And what about the dates with japanese readings? I MUST ORDER them somehow to write “August 9th” to be sure they memorized all the reading of key words. Maybe even a table to fill!

    It’s not so easy to make decisions as a teacher in fact.

    I would not let them mail Japanese people, beause I couldn’t possibly control what kind of person would they choose and if the person wouldn’t be offended by their simple, unpolite Japanese.

    Logging off. <3

  11. On one hand, I can see how the fill in the blank exercises are beneficial. Speaking from a personal point of view, if it’s a conjugation that you’ve just learned, sometimes it’s nice to have the verb provided and only worry about how exactly to conjugate it. So perhaps, at the beginning of the chapter give them the more simple here’s a sentence, conjugate the verb deal and by the end, give them more open ended questions with more thinking, thus driving the lesson more fully into their brains. But this is also how I’ve been taught in my Japanese classes since I started taking them, so perhaps that’s why I find this method to be so effective.

    Also, if you do make this text book, you should offer some of them for free to some of the universities on the east coast since they are still using the sorely out dated and ineffective method of learning Japanese called the Jordan Method. It’s a charity case, I think. Think of all the poor Japanese students you’ll save by showing them they can learn Japanese without first having to learn a rather other romaji system but can actually skip right to the kana.

  12. @Aaron

    Yes, the assignments would need some kind of focus such as use this or that grammar etc. Obviously the lessons taught so far would dictate what kind of writing I expect.


    I agree that any random person wouldn’t really work for the penpal part. You would probably need to collaborate perhaps with an English teacher in Japan. Worst case, you can simply have them hand them in and the teacher can grade them while writing short replies for the students to respond to in the next assignment.

    Personally, as someone who took many bracket/fill in the blank type of tests, I feel they don’t really prove anything. After all, nobody in real life is going to ask you to fill in a blank during a conversation or reading.

    Certainly, you can test them on irregular readings such as the 14th of the month, but not on a final exam. I feel a final exam is about being able to integrate everything you’ve learned cohesively and over a broad range of uses. The oral exam can determine whether they can conjugate irregular verbs correctly. The written exam ensures that they can arrange and communicate their thoughts effectively. I might even through a reading in there and have them write about it. I don’t care how many hours they spend or how often they check their dictionaries and textbooks, if they can communicate orally and on paper, they’ve succeeded in my book. And it’s something they can directly apply in real life.


    I agree that drills are great exercises for beginning practice. My only complaint is its overuse and even doing them in class (what a waste of time!).

    I’ll think about what to do with the textbook once I’ve written it! Right now, there’s not much to share anyway!

  13. Your guide to Japanese is indeed a bold and admirable project.

    Can I ask what level of Japanese proficiency you had when you first
    embarked on the guide six years ago?

    Did you learn the language through writing the guide, or wrote the
    guide based on what you already knew about the language?

    I’m asking this since I’m learning Korean and have found no resource
    online as valuable as yours, and was thinking of doing up a guide for that
    language modelled on your Japanese one. But having learnt it for just over
    a year, there is a high risk of writing something inaccurate, which does
    more harm than good.

    What’s more, there is also a dearth of good Korean language learning books
    (I don’t mean textbooks, but reference guides) in the market.

  14. I wrote it based on what I already knew about the language.
    But you can certainly try to write one for Korean. You’ll know when you reach the point it becomes useful enough to share with the world, warts and all.

  15. I have found your grammar guide very useful and used it as a reference for a few years. I am intrigued that you want to write and publish a textbook though. Have you any experience of teaching in a classroom (of any language)? Good textbooks are very difficult to write as you said, and even good textbooks will not always be useful to every type of learner out there. What type of textbook would you want to write, one for use by Japanese teachers, or solely by independent learners?

    I think there is an argument for both controlled conjugation practice and also more general questions. You need the foundation there first of all. Once you have some simple conjugation exercises then you can move on to more general questions later on in the same chapter.

  16. I was shooting for a textbook that could be used both for the classroom and individual study. For the classroom, my target is full time students above High School level. I have a little experience teaching English to small groups and know how difficult it is, especially outside of school where people don’t have time to study with their full-time jobs.

  17. Tae it sounds like you’re diving into this textbook project somewhat haphazardly. Have you written an outline for the content? How much grammar will your textbook contain? Will it be split into multiple volumes or will you write only one?

    I think you’re spending far too much time on figuring out how to write exercises at this point. If you’re not done writing the first chapter, I’m not sure why you would even think about what kind of exercises to use. Focus on the lessons first and foremost. May I ask that you also refrain from including lessons about how to teach yourself? That should be reserved for an entirely different textbook, one written by a person who has studied several languages and not just two. No offense, but that is my opinion.

    I think you should have the first chapter explain hiragana and katakana all the way through. The second chapter should cover sentence structure. Disregard any grammar issues (although keep it simple) and just write sentences to demonstrate that verbs go at the end, etc. After that I think it’s up to you how the content should be introduced.

    At the end, I recommend something along the lines of what my Korean textbook does: devote several pages to further reading and additional learning materials you feel are useful to a learner who wants to take their studies to another level.

    Something I am a little irritated at is the reputation Japanese has developed for being some sort of impossible language that provides endless challenges. It is not and does not. Those were the beliefs of failed learners of the language who happened to have a loud voice.

    Here is further listening for you to help in the writing of your textbook. Please watch all of the Foreign Language Learning Review videos.


  18. Nope, I have no outline. Actually trying to write it gives me the best idea of what order makes the most sense. My textbook will contain all the grammar in my original guide but not in the same order. I’m not worried about how many volumes it’ll take right now.

    I might put stuff not directly related to the lesson in an appendix for better separation. But at some point, I’m going to reduce the hand-holding and assume you can teach yourself the kanji.

    qkilx, I think you have to be careful not to forget how difficult everything is for someone new to the language. Hiragana and katakana is very easy once you already know it. But personally, learning it for the first time was very difficult for me and it is more complex than it appears. Despite all the weekly quizzes, using it in context was what ultimately made it completely natural for me. I’m just trying to speed up that process.

    I agree that the difficulty of Japanese is over-rated. But I think ALL languages are challenging.

  19. Well it sounds like you may need to split it into 2-3 volumes, given how much context you want to offer the learner, and this is certainly fine, and probably for the better. You may decide offer a page or two of kanji study tips at some point in the book, as Chinese characters do indeed deserve their own study methods. But I think some of those methods depend on how well you want to leran the kanji. From a technical standpoint or just enough to read and write?

    I think you’re right about the alphabet though. It has been about 4 years since I started to learn it and it was somewhat difficult. I remember the days of making flash cards and practicing them daily and having quizzes 2-3 times a week. Sadly, this was high school and at my school it takes a year and a half to learn both alphabets, which is utterly ridiculous when in college it takes only one semester, which is also utterly ridiculous since I know many people who have learned them in only about 2 weeks.

    And yes, ALL languages are challenging, I just don’t think any one language deserves to take all the challenge away.

  20. It may turn out to be quite large considering the grammar guide is already over 200 pages for just the grammar piece. Currently, it’s in docbook so I don’t have to worry about it any time soon.

    A year and a half is simply outrageous even for high school. After all, kids are smart enough to learn Chemistry and Calculus. At my college, we spent roughly 2 weeks on hiragana and katakana each but it look a lot longer before we fully internalized it.

  21. 200 pages??? D8

    A year and a half is a wonderful display of the educational system here in Hawaii. What impresses me is that some of the students forget some of their hiragana over the summer break between Japanese 1 and 2. I really wish I knew what I know now back when I was in high school, then I could be SO much better at Japanese by now and might even have another language or two in the works other than Korean. Oh well.

  22. From my personal experience I must say, that even with those general questions (not fill in a very small gap) there are problems.

    1. As might have already been stated, this should be done ONLY in class (especially at the beginning) so that immediate feedback can prevent wrong memorization.

    2. Don’t make people make up bullshit 🙂 I just attended a year of Japanese class, where we actually had free questions, but on things nobody in class was interested in. Or in the rare occasion of someone having an opinion, it was too hard to put into Japanese for that person (we were still only lower intermediate level in there). So you spend 80 % of your time thinking of what you could talk about and then using the remaining 20 % to try and produce a sentence. Not only did I not learn to speak properly (even simple sentences are still a problem when I have to do it quickly) also WHAT I learned to say was never what I actually would talk about with anyone, since I constructed fake opinions to satisfy the teacher.

    3. … forgot 🙂

    BTW, hiragana should not take longer than 1 or 2 days… this is also an advice for your textbook issue (more recent post). Learning hiragana is not a problem at all… You know… you try to study them from first class to the second one and if you come prepared (even if you are still having problems remembering some hiragana) the class which is already using hiragana will help memorizing. As long as the teacher helps out those who still have trouble that should work fine and get rid of the problems you have with a first-week-no-hiragana approach.

  23. You know what? I’m also thinking about writing a book about learning Japanese. I’m majoring in Japanese now at BYU, and am actually also learning Chinese like you as a minor. I’m just sick of hearing the most confusing English words ever when trying to learn these concepts that are ALREADY foreign to us. I want to make a book that is understable and uses REAL English as much as possible. I must say you do a good job of just speaking Normal English without all the complicated crap I hear from Linguists. Good luck with your book. If you can make something that makes sense and really helps students learn, it’ll sell. Because as of right now, there aren’t really any understable ones out there that I’ve seen. That’s what I’m going for. I’ve thought of the idea of collaboration, but I’m not necessarily suggesting it. I would explain a few things a little different in a little different format, but yea. I think the way you explain things REALLY, REALLY influences how the students learn- whether they just get confused, or if they get it faster and more completely. But your explanation of wa/ga is very good. So, keep up the good work.

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