Learning Japanese Grammar

Learning Japanese Grammar post image

Packed full of good ol’ grammar.

I get a lot of emails from readers every week, and although I can’t respond to every single one sometimes, I do read them all. It is a big help as to what to write about next on the blog, so by all means keep them coming. One theme that seems to be popping up lately is how to learn grammar.

Grammar is always a bit of a weird animal to tame. For vocabulary and kanji, you can just spend time doing spaced repetition and going out and using it to get it down pat. But, grammar involves rules and exceptions to those rules, and meanings that are sometimes just not translatable.

The JLPT, being the relentless little bugger that it is, tends to prey on the small nuances that come up with grammar usage. Knowing the difference between particles like に and で can mean a big difference in the grammar section of the exam. And being able to recognize a conjugation of a verb or adjective in the listening or reading section can clear up a lot of confusion.

So how do you go about mastering the grammar that you need to pass the JLPT? When you first look at a list of grammar points that are covered for a particular level, you might be under the illusion that you only need to memorize those 100 points, then you are all set. Well, that is close, but it is a little more complicated than that.

Real Life vs. the JLPT

In real life, when you are talking and interacting with a real human being, you have a second chance at being understood. So, if you misuse a particular grammar point, you can try again. Or, more often than not, the person you are talking to can kind of guess what it is you are trying to convey and the conversation keeps going.

This is one reason (I believe) that some individuals that are pretty fluent with the language have a hard time with even N4. I’ve heard from a few people that have lived in Japan for awhile and use Japanese on a regular basis to chat with friends, still have a little trouble with N4. They will probably pass with a little studying, but it isn’t guaranteed.

Now, some of that has to do with the ability to read kanji fast as well, but you get the idea. Being able to hack your way through a conversation doesn’t mean the test will be easy.

Because the JLPT can be painfully strict sometimes. And the test makers want to tease out all the common mistakes that learners make. There are times when an N5 question might give me a little pause at first glance. They really put a lot of thinking into making the test as difficult as possible within the specifications for that level, well at least for some questions.

So how do you deal with this mismatch? How do you get the little nuances down, that, let’s be honest, in real life probably wouldn’t interfere with comprehension. Of course, knowing how to use the language will make communication a lot smoother and make you sound a lot smarter as well. So, it is good to have pretty good grammar.

Analyze and Get Corrections

There is no cure-all for learning grammar. Every language guru has a different method that they like to promote, but at the end of the day, how you learn grammar depends on you. There are some best practices though, like use the grammar, don’t just read about it. Or to learn more from examples with context than just a list of grammar rules.

Those basic rules will get you pretty far to be honest. But, my rule of thumb is to always be experimenting. This is something that you should be applying to all of your studying, but it is especially true for grammar. If one thing is starting to lose its effect, or if you are getting bored of writing out grammar sentences all day, try something different.

Try a couple of different methods and see how effective they are. I usually buy and use at least two grammar reference books for each level of the test. And I use various online resources as well. Sometimes one explanation will just click and that’s all you need. Other times it might take a couple of people’s explanations before you really get it down pat.

Do you like some new tool? Try it out for a little bit and see if it works for you. Did you discover a new textbook? Give it a try and see if you can get a different perspective on things. Even as an English teacher, I like to look at several different kinds of textbooks to see which one explains a particular point well.

How do you Study Grammar?

Do you study it explicitly with drills? Or do you try to absorb as much as you can from examples? Do you do a lot of writing practice? I’d love to know in the comments below.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Tagg July 27, 2013, 3:47 pm

    I learned 85% of the grammar I know from the Situational Functional Japanese texts (vol 1 – 3). It has served me well. Passed N4 immediately after completing the series with almost no other instruction and having started Japanese only 7-8 months prior. Now if I come across something I don’t know I use the little yellow grammar book or just search for on the internets or via one of my ipad apps.

    • Clayton MacKnight July 30, 2013, 3:30 pm

      They look pretty interesting. I’ve never seen them in the bookstore before, so I’ve never really been able to try them out, but I might try to find a used copy somewhere.

      Thanks for the heads up. For anyone that is interested, you can get them on Japanese Amazon.

  • gakusei107 August 2, 2013, 12:19 am

    Hi Clay, I live in the US and have never been to Japan. Learning Japanese self-taught as a hobby.
    I’ve tried many books and audio. Nothing seems to work:
    Japanese For Busy People I (it took me well over a year and a tutor to finish this book).
    JFBP II (can’t get past lesson 3 or 4), Genki I, Japanese For Everyone, Tae Kim Grammar (website), Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication (good book but it uses too many kanji that I don’t know).
    On and off I have been studying for over 4 years and seem to be making no progress.

    I found used copies of Situational Functional Japanese and will buy them just to see if it helps.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 4, 2013, 6:29 am

      I would say what you probably need to do is try to start using it as much as possible. It sounds like your learning style doesn’t quite match up to book learning. It might be useful to get a chat partner and struggle through a few conversations. I’m sure it might be a little difficult, but most conversation partners will know enough English to guide you along when you need it.

    • Aaronn September 1, 2013, 1:04 am

      Japanese is a language which may be practiced within 6 months of beginning it. Always start with your foundations; the two syllabaries, and a small amount of kanji (enough to get the hang of what they are). From there, study a bit of grammar, what’s most important, is the particles. Everything else in grammar (aside from conjugations) may be learnt as it is encountered.

      I’ve been learning for two years and I can translate manga and speak sentences of Japanese. Where I lack is vocabulary (I have only memorized what I read often because I don’t use anki as devotedly as I should). If you’ve been spending 4 years and still can’t speak simpler sentences, or read intermediate sentences, I’d say that you’ve been spending too much time trying to learn from lessons, and too little time actually practicing. Learning is as simple as a quick peek at a dictionary or guide. The actual skill comes from putting it into practice, whether by reading or by using flashcards.

      I personally have spent at least 2 hours every week reading or translating manga, and on occasion, watching subtitled anime or following along with Jpop. What is your methodology? Studying a book about Japanese is completely different from studying Japanese, as the latter deals with the Japanese itself, rather than trying to clumsily explain how the grammar works in English. After about 6 months of serious practice with Japanese, find an excuse to think about it often. Maybe try translating a manga (the raw files if you can get a hold of them), or perhaps try following along with some jpop. You don’t need to go to Japan to get a hold of Japanese anymore, and English information about Japanese isn’t confined to universities. Conversation partners are an excellent resource, and although I haven’t had the schedule to try that study method out, it is probably the best way to study.

      In essence, you can spend decades studying the study of japanese and trying to learn X language in Y months. You could decide to spend mere years studying Japanese itself and devoting a couple hours every second day or so to it, or, you can spend months devoting a couple of hours to conversation and a couple more to reading. The closer you are to using Japanese, the more each of your hours is worth. The more hours you put in, the faster your mind adjusts to Japanese and becomes more efficient at processing it. As of now, at the two year mark, I can glance over a sentence and understand it, provided that I’m familiar with the words or the kanji.

      Your brain is naturally attuned to learning, and the only accommodations your brain needs are as follows: new information, old information that is similar to the new information, and review. The brain is associative, not logical as a computer is. Perhaps one of the most helpful skills I learnt by trying to decode Japanese, is that I can now mentally draw the lines between each word in a sentence and process them independently. In trying to listen to Japanese, I’m beginning to naturally comprehend pieces of sentences. By trying to form sentences in Japanese, I no longer must think entirely in English; I only need English when I am trying to describe things in detail.

      The brain forms associations, and every time that association is made, it is reinforced. Spaced review reinforces, whereas repetition has been shown to undo associations (try saying a a random word a few dozen times; it starts to sound ‘weird’ because your brain has desensitized itself from the meaning). Essentially, by processing Japanese, and allowing some time to finish processing it, your brain will naturally form structures that let you decode Japanese quickly. The brain has two chief skills that form the core of everything else. association and recognition. association is the act of seeing things in the same context/putting two ideas together. recognition is the act of cutting an idea out of context. So there you go, our greatest gift as humans, is the ability to jump in and out of our experiences; we can deny or validate our experiences. Other animals play through their programming. We can reprogram ourselves through our imaginative/abstract thinking.

      Keep up the effort, and wean yourself off of the belief that a better study method works better. In the end, the best study is done naturally by your brain. You can maximize the associations, or remove the deficiencies in making associations (mnemonics, visualization, method of loci).

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