JLPT BC 42 | Japanese Grammar, What is it Good for?

by on August 24, 2011

Anti Japanese GrammarI’ve started using my new computer completely in Japanese. This is a pretty big departure from before as my old computer was all in English with an English keyboard. Simply having a Japanese keyboard is a big boost because I don’t have to keep clicking on the IME button to switch between English and Japanese, and to have the entire OS in another language is a complete change.

It is pretty challenging sometimes to puzzle out what the computer is asking and it can slow you down a bit if you aren’t familiar with how windows works. This is my first time using Windows 7, so at first I was a bit lost, but I’m starting to get a handle on it now. I would only recommend it if you are about N2 or above though.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, in the meantime, let’s get to the feature segment.

Japanese Grammar Who Needs it?

There is an argument put forth by a few language learning gurus that learning grammar is a waste of time. Or, I should say studying grammar specifically in a grammar textbook is a waste of time. The argument goes something like, babies don’t have to learn grammar so why do you?

Instead of studying a grammar book, you should be able to get your grammar from native materials. You can just absorb the grammar from the materials and eventually, over time, you’ll begin to learn what sounds right in the language automagically.

Although I’m personally a bit skeptical of this method, I thought I would take the time to present both sides of the argument. I’ll be playing the role of devil’s advocate if you will. Next week in episode 43, I’ll present the pro-grammar argument, but for this episode let’s just pretend I’m completely against studying grammar.

Studying Japanese Grammar Wastes Time

Time is precious. Everyone has something to do these days it seems, maybe you have work, family obligations, or maybe you raise prize-winning chinchillas in your free time. Whatever the case my be, chances are you probably don’t have a whole lot of time on your hands. So, you always want to make the most out of your studying time.

Studying grammar rules and doing drills is pretty inefficient way to spend your studying time because you aren’t using the language in a realistic way. What good does it do you to form sentences out of a book and write them out or say them out loud in class if you are never going to use them in real life. Those words in the textbook are not your ideas, they are the textbook writer’s ideas, so why are you just parroting what he says?

Those grammar books are stuffed full of proper out-dated uses of the language, too. Real Japanese is full of mistakes and shortcuts, blurring of sounds, dialectal differences, and slang. So what is the point of spending all that time studying the grammar when the native speakers don’t even us it properly themselves?

Not to mention the fact that grammar textbooks are typically bland tasteless pieces of literature anyway. Most them just have tons of text and a few pictures. It can be incredibly demotivating to try to hammer your way through chapter after chapter of grammar that you aren’t using and may never use.

You can Pick Up Japanese Grammar from Immersion

By immersing yourself in Japanese movies and dramas, you’ll be able to extract tons of vocabulary and grammar. For things you have trouble figuring out, you can ask a native speaker friend to help explain them to you. In this way, you’ll be learning and using grammar and vocabulary that is important to you not just important to the textbook writer.

With total immersion in the language, you’ll be hearing and using tons of examples of how the language is really used, and get a good feeling for what the language is like. In this way, you’ll be able to use the language a lot more fluently because you won’t be bogged down thinking about grammar rules when you are making sentences.

If you have the opportunity to speak to native speakers, you’ll be able to get instant feedback on whether you are using the language correctly or not. If they don’t understand something you said, you can try again using another phrase or word, or you can simply ask how to say it if your native speaking friend knows your language.

The point of learning a language is to use it and use it to communicate with someone else. As long as you are getting your point across, who cares whether it’s in correct grammar or not? You achieved your goal didn’t you?

Besides grammar reminds me too much of high school and memorizing those large charts of conjugations and genders for Spanish class. I don’t want to stick my nose in a book, I want to use the language already!

Stand Up and Be Heard

What do you think of grammar? Is it time to throw your grammar textbook out the window? Let your voice be heard in the comments.

P.S. If you are a secret grammar lover, and need some support, join my newsletter and get a free guide, discounts and tips.

P.S.S. Are you fed up with grammar? Great, go tell iTunes about it.  Or if you have comments or suggestions for the podcast, by all means let me know in the comments below or contact me and let me know what I can do to improve the show.  Thanks!

Music by Kevin MacLeod

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lars August 24, 2011 at 11:32 am

i tried NOT studying grammar for a long time, because i suck at grammar and hoped i can “immerse” it. but it just doesn’t work. not in japanese where everybody speaks different and there is no real way to study japanese. it’s taihen. :(

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Mac August 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm

My thoughts exactly. But, there are people that swear by this method. I find it to be far too difficult. As much as I’m not a real big grammar fan, it is good to look back and realize you can naturally use all of the grammar that you struggle so hard to remember. :)

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Barbara August 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Personally I think grammar books are great as long as you ‘use’ what you learn. I always split a chapter in Minna no Nihongo over a few days to make sure I ‘understand’ the grammar and not just conjugating verbs or whatever is the focus. Then I use the language. For me this includes keeping a hand-written Japanese diary everyday (great for practising kanji), posting on Lang-8 and e-mailing Japanese friends. But I do believe in immersion – just a balance between reading, writing, speaking and listening is bound to be good and keeps it fun and not a chore.

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Mac August 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Good advice Barbara. I try to do a good balance like that myself. I think it helps you sounds more correct. I have to admit I do a lot of writing on my PC and smartphone so I’m not great on writing kanji. I need to do more hand-writing like you do. :)

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サラちゃん September 30, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Grammar is good. Grammar is great. If you don’t understand it, no one will understand you.
I started learning japanese from an antique grammar book from the 1950′s. (i.e. watakushi ha isha ja arimasen)I never use that kind of language, but it was the foundation of my Japanese. I understand the modern way of speaking better because I began with its roots. And anyway, if one were to be in a business situation, that kind of grammar-based japanese is required.
When you read grammar books, though, you always have to form your own sentences out of it or you won’t remember. It’s not too hard, just change the subject and object of the sentence (and learn new vocabulary as you do it)
I think a better way to immerse yourself in the language is to use skype or some sort of chat-thing to chat with native speakers. Make as many friends as you can on language exchange websites, get a microphone and talk as much as possible (after you learn at least some basic grammar) Movies and such are good, but you need some participation and motivation for anything to really stick. There’s a big difference between repeating what you learn from anime to your friends, and actually having to put it into context in a real japanese conversation.
I think the most important grammar to learn though, if you dont like grammar and just want a short-cut, is the particles (no, ga, ha, wo, ka, ni, he,…) and verbs.
One final word, you don’t have to have good grammar really… but if you don’t understand the verbs… it just won’t work. verbs are the building block of a japanese sentence… sometimes the only part of it. (i.e. nomu? nomu. taberu? taberarenai)
ok im a nerd..

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Mac September 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I don’t think you’re a nerd!

This is great advice. Interaction is absolutely key to learning any language. There is some new research that is coming out that points to this actually. They did some research on how babies pick up a language and discovered that babies only learn from another human being, not a TV, not a book, not even a video conferencing lesson, but someone physically in the same room as them. So, you have to make the language your own, you have to play with it, mold it, and experiment with it. That’s definitely the best way to learn.

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Jordan C October 23, 2011 at 8:38 pm

I think you are right about babies, but after humans advance far enough to understand concepts through spoken or written language they can begin to learn from other sources, derived of course from the human mind. You explained that you have to learn to make the language your own, playwith it, and mold it. I believe that a language follows a set structure and the way you leave your impression in that language is by personal choice of vocabulary. With the exception of slang expressions, and partial information carrying phrases, motos, and logos. There is a proper and improper usage of a language and breaching those lines is inventing your own language with a large sum of loan words. =) Language does evolve over time. My preferance with language is to learn proper grammatical form and create unique expressions through use of vocabulary and choice phrases. I don’t try to change the rules of soccer, but prefer to use unique strategies.

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Mac October 25, 2011 at 6:38 am

That is an excellent analogy. Speaking a language is a lot like playing a sport. They both have rules but everybody has their own style.

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Jordan C October 23, 2011 at 8:28 pm

I have been studying Japanese for a little while and so far I poorly understand the grammar. If I had a book full of examples and easy explanations of how to create somewhat educated and structured sentences, I would be very happy. Why do I have to play Sherlock with Japanese sentences until I pick up on shitty spoken grammar? Why can’t I learn proper Japanese and use proper language? It isn’t a waste of time if you want to speak proper Japanese and sound educated. If you want to just speak the language and be limited to what slang expressions and grammar you have heard go ahead. I have heard my fair share of foreigners and I would prefer to use better grammar than them. It is my preferance.

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Mac October 25, 2011 at 6:36 am

Yeah you definitely need a good basis in grammar. I’ve heard a lot of foreigners who can speak really good slang but can’t string sentence together to save their lives.
The flip side is also true though. I feel like sometimes I need to learn small pieces of slang to talk fluently. Otherwise I end up sounding like a book

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caramel July 29, 2013 at 2:21 am

I have tried immersing myself with the dramas, movies, animes, talking to twitter and skype. I did not learn grammar for years but now I am trying to pick it up. I think I understand why you have to do it. It’s the foundation, just like learning English. If you don’t know where this thing comes from and originated it would be hard to be flexible with the language. By knowing grammar you are able to switch into the informal and formal mode without having much problem. Although, I am not yet even at 1% of the grammar rules in Japanese, I am seeing how different it is.

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Clayton MacKnight August 4, 2013 at 6:26 am

I think grammar really helps you to see the patterns of the language and the different styles of getting the message across. These are things that even native speakers don’t really pick up on.

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