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!

26 thoughts on “My textbook introduction and first dialogue

  1. Some nice dialogues covering both polite and casual forms, but I don’t like the first example – it seems wholly unrealistic. “Is this a book? No it’s a pen.” Who would mistake a book and a pen? I understand getting kanji and katakana in there together but perhaps there are alternatives that are closer to each other, like 鉛筆 and ペン.

  2. That’s why I used the setting of a Japanese class, heh heh. It’s realistic because Japanese classes use unrealistic examples all the time. Quite clever of myself if I must say so.

    I originally wrote 鉛筆, then I debated whether to use the rather rare and not very useful kanji 鉛 or just use Hiragana. Then I thought, “Man, people in Japan don’t even use pencils anymore” and changed it to シャーペン. Then I thought, “How would the students be able to distinguish between a pen and mechanical pencil?” So finally, I switched it to 本. As you can see, I put a lot of thought into this.

  3. 「私は、まだ難しいよ」 is a great start indeed. I’m not so sure about that 「・・・はい?」 on the other hand. Doesn’t that scream 行儀悪い? Textbooks do tend to overemphasize polite forms and all, but it might not be advisable to begin with an example of being rude to one’s sensei (albeit involuntarily). How about:

    先生: はい、そうです。なんの紙か、分かりますか。
    キム: いいえ。

    It does contain an indirect clause, which may be premature. It might be an interesting sentence to play with, though.

  4. “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.”
    Amen. If you introduce 5 Kanji per chapter, you’ll be able to read a newspaper in… what? 30 years?

    So when would you recommend that a learner knows enough Japanese to begin study outside of the textbook; i.e. attempting conversation, browsing Japanese language websites, etc?

  5. I just want to make a comment about learning in general, don’t know if it can influence your textbook construction in any way but: I spent a full year in Japan with full time language study everyday in a uni. I believed the whole “think in Japanese” mantra, and so for an entire year I heard people use the words 別に and 微妙 but refused to ever look for a detailed English explanation because I thought hearing them in context so many times should suffice. Now, 4 years after the fact, I finally really know what those basic basic super common words are all about thanks to your two old blog entries. Maybe you can emphasize words that appear in every conversation, but cannot be deciphered from the dictionary? “ですけど” also comes to mind.

  6. I think it might be a good idea if you go a little easier on the kanji. It’s a great thing, but I think in the first chapter, you might just include furigana, and slowly remove the furigana as chapters move on. Just a thought. But I like the way that you’ve decided not to do any “spoon-feeding.”

    「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!」 Ha! Nice! But yeah, definitely way too advanced for the first chapter.

    Actually, I think it’s a really good start. Looking forward to reading more about how it’s coming along.

  7. @mt-i
    That’s a good point. I’ll certainly think about that bit some more though I don’t think it’s that rude. It also depends on how you say it. In this case, I think it’s an expression of honest bewilderment.

    Exactly! At the rate that Japanese classes teach you kanji one-by-one, you’ll be done in roughly 20 years of classes, I’m sure!
    As for when to venture out beyond the textbook, I think the earlier the better. But you should be familiar with at least the ultra basics and how to use dictionaries. In fact, I think after the first section of my not-yet-written textbook would be a good point.

    All that stuff will definitely be in the many readings and dialogues I intend to write. I’ve learned from my first attempt to resist the temptation to explain every single thing in English. You can’t, there’s just too many things and pretty soon I was ending up with a lot more English than Japanese. My approach now is to let the Japanese speak for itself. So the ultimate goal is to give as many different contexts and usages as possible to make it really clear how it all works.

    I mean, can you believe most textbooks never teach you なるほど? I think it’s practically criminal that they leave out such a useful expression.

    There will be a kana-only version of all dialogues for at least most of the earlier chapters. I think furigana combined with kanji is too distracting and hard to read so it will be completely separated perhaps in a two column side-by-side format (though then I have to think about where to put the English translation).

  8. And where do you intend to explain many expressions like おはよう、 これで終わります (おわりましょう)、 はじめまして etc?
    I mean, this is a very good dialogue for explaining grammar. Will you leave cultural/honorific expressions out.

    BTW, it’s very well though and so diffrent from many textbooks.
    Still, the opposite of 簡単な is 複雑な and of 難しい - 易しい , should you mix it?

  9. I’ve been thinking about what you said in your previous post, about trying to approach writing a textbook in a different way, so I thought I’d just throw some ideas at you.

    I don’t think you have to explain all the basic expressions etc, there are so many other free resources out there that take you through common expressions that (eg Japanesepod101) that you can just focus on grammer, and how japanese fits together.

    As for dialogues, could you use actual dialogues from jdrama to illustrate certain points. From daddicts and you can get drama scripts in japanese. This may be a way to engage readers that they are learning real life japanese.

    Another way to engage students may be at the end of the chapters have an advanced/slang section which is optional reading. Eg you might teach kore wa, sore wa, are wa etc, and then in the advanced section teach the variations like korya, sorya etc. This would address the common sentiment that people never speak like the textbooks.

    Just some ideas, otherwise thanks tons for your guide, it’s helped me lots

  10. I’ve just started to learn japanese and I want to thank you very much for your Guide to Japanese Grammar

  11. Wow, just reading the dialog excerpt gave me a glimpse at what you really have ahead of you. When you said that you didn’t want to introduce negative verbs, my gut impulse screamed “why not?” Then I had a flashback to my earlier days and how paranoid I was about little things like that (not necessarily negative verbs but…) Keep it up!

  12. I like it in that it prepares the student for a lot of real, practical teacher-student interaction which can be used immediately.

    I don’t like it in that it seems too much like an inside joke for those of us that have already learned Japanese in spite of bad Japanese textbooks. Is the point of the textbook to really help students, or to show up other textbooks? I know that your real intent is the former, but somehow it ends up feeling like the latter to me. Is your focus really on the student, or are you more caught up in what other textbooks have done?

    I think you’re getting somewhere.

  13. @Mizuu
    Expressions will be covered when I get to them in additional dialogues. The goal is to have a dialogue/reading for everything so that the student can see it in some context.
    I consider 簡単 and 易しい to be synonyms, with the former being more commonly used.

    The problem is each dialogue is specially crafted to demonstrate certain things so using drama script as they are won’t work very well. Also, the copyright issue… but I’ll certainly be using drama-like themes and ideas. Maybe I’ll read the scripts for ideas. Can you give me some links?

    Your welcome!

    Yeah, a simple dialogue takes a surprisingly large amount of thought!

    Thanks John.

    Actually personally this dialogue was a recognition of the value of traditional teaching methods. Even though examples like, “Is this a pen?” sound inane and silly, from a teacher’s perspective they are very valuable for showing basic but important concepts. I just couldn’t think of how to fit it in a realistic context so I came up with the trick of using a classroom setting.

    I intend to expand on the key concepts in the grammar portion with more examples and perhaps a little more traditional dialogue. But I wanted the first dialogue to be as interesting as I could make it while easy enough for newbies and usable in the classroom. (Not an easy task!)

  14. Allow me to provide this following bit of feedback since it looks like it won’t come from anyone else.

    Please rewrite your introduction to be in the 3rd person. After being told by my English teachers so many times over the years, high school and college-level, it feels awkward to read something like a textbook in the 1st person.

    I think the first two dialogues are perfectly fine, but for some reason the third feels kind of stiff and impractical. I think it’s the frequent usage of はい. Also may I ask why the は particle has a comma after it in every sentence?

  15. So your English teachers told you to never write in 1st person? I mean, I guess I can say “the author” but it sounds a bit pompous to me.

    Adding a comma after は is pretty standard practice usually for longer sentences when it’s not obvious which part of the sentence the topic applies to. In this case, even though the sentences are short it helps to split the sentence up for new learners.

    I removed the last はい. Maybe that’ll make it sound a bit better.

  16. Ooooh, so you really need a lot of dialogues with separate one for every thing considered!

    BTW – will you please include long passages which are NOT dialogues? A great dose of textbook is based on dialogue only, and I hate it personally.

    And maybe a song or a poem or two? (*murmurs* Te-o hiraite….)

  17. Question:

    Why 特別な宿題 instead of just 宿題? Is it just to work in a な-adjective? Granted, my exposure to Japanese is much more limited than yours, but I’ve never heard the phrase 特別な宿題 uttered, and it sure seems like at the entrance level you should be sticking to high-frequency words and phrases. Your usage of the phrase is already #5 in Google’s mere 137 instances of it. (What is 特別な宿題, really??)

    I also think that trying to cram as much grammar into one dialogue as possible is the primary reason that there are so many weird or unnatural textbook dialogues out there. Don’t fall for it! な-adjectives can wait…

  18. I was never told to never write in the 1st person. I was told that for essays and any informative texts (among other things that I don’t feel like looking up) that writing in the 1st person is looked down upon by editors and certain audiences, writers being one of them. By 3rd person I mean never mention yourself or the author of the book. Anyway, after rereading your introduction I realized that I misread your blog entry to have more than one instance of 1st person, of which it really only has one.

    “It is my opinion…”

    In addition, this is your introduction, so perhaps I’m talking without thinking. So I’ll just say to carry on and I’ll be quiet about this. Strike two for me. 😀

  19. With all due respect to qklilx, please ignore everything they said about using 3rd person in your textbook.

    Using 3rd person throughout the book is almost certain to disengage readers with your material. Some research suggests (…I have the link somewhere…) that using first person and ‘you’ in informative prose (ie textbooks) engaged readers more effectively by subconsciously tricking the brain into thinking it was in a conversation. Therefore, they pay more attention and remember more.

    Thirds person would be fine, of course, if you were writing a technical manual; eg A Dictionary of Grammar, but for something designed to actually teach people: your focus should be on their understanding. The best way, in my opinion based on my reading, is to use conversational-style prose.

  20. @John

    I was trying to make the dialogue interesting and was not particularly trying to fit in a certain type of grammar. I admit the last few lines have a bit of awkwardness which I might have to rethink. Like I mentioned in the blog, I had to cut out a lot of what I really wanted to maintain simplicity.

    For me, this page is already #3 with 1,370 instances but there’s plenty of other perfectly reasonable usages such as:


    For comparison, “special homework” returns only 6,070 results.

    Having said that, nothing in the dialogue is set in stone and I will probably change some things depending on how the rest of the lesson is laid out.

  21. John,
    I might be wrong, but you may have misunderstood part of the dialogue (sorry if this is not the case). The 「特別な」 carries a necessary meaning of “homework prepared appositely for Kim”. Removing it cancels this meaning, and most of the humor of the dialogue.
    Furthermore, 「時別な」 is an adjective, and adjectives are free to be applied to any noun. The fact that this has rarely be done on a particular noun before doesn’t make it wrong or unnatural.

  22. I agree about the kana. The student is just going to have to learn those, period, and the sooner the better. As for kanji, I think the readings should be given (in kana) for every kanji used, for the first chapters at least, and in later chapters it’s probably still a good idea to give the readings for kanji that have only recently been introduced. If the student has to look up every other character in a dictionary just to be able to pronounce it, the lessons will take aeons to read through, and it’s boring, and the point will be missed.

    Speaking of dictionaries: some good information on how to use them to look up kanji would be really nice, if that’s even realistically possible for a beginner in the language. Personally I find that prospect somewhat daunting; even if I knew all three hundred and however many dictionary radicals, *and* what order they come in (holy cow, do Japanese kids have to learn that just to look up words they don’t know?), I find that the relationship between a given kanji and its component radicals is not always entirely obvious to a non-Asian. Take 会 for instance: according to the Show Elements feature of WWWJDICT, it’s made out of 二, 厶, and something that looks like an extra-large caret and apparently doesn’t have a unicode representation, because it’s an image. I can see 厶 in there now that it’s pointed out, but I am not sure I would have been able to figure it out without knowing to separate it from the horizontal line, and I definitely don’t see how I could have seen 二 in there without knowing…

    And don’t even get me started on stroke count. Is 厶 two strokes or three? Or maybe just one? Who can tell, especially if you happen to see it in a sans-serif font (or, with han unification in unicode, a font that happens to draw it in the Chinese or Taiwanese fashion, which can be a bit different in some cases…) Knowing based on how you write it may be all well and good for kanji you’ve already learned, but for new ones that doesn’t fly. All of that to say, any helpful information you can include on this subject would be very useful for beginning students.

    qklilx: The third person is obligatory only in extremely formal contexts, mostly involving the esoterica of upper-eschelon academia (e.g., dissertations, research papers), but it’s just plain silly to expect that level of formality in a textbook for an introductory course, intended to be read by hoi polloi. That would be as awkward and inappropriate as speaking Japanese using only the honorific forms all the time.

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