Learning Japanese Grammar Naturally

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I’m a native speaker of English, but when I first started teaching English.   I ran into some problems.  Students would ask about English grammar rules – when do I use this?  Why is this incorrect? And I didn’t really know what to tell them, because, well, I didn’t know English grammar rules.

This is a pretty common experience right?  We don’t learn grammar rules for our native language, but for some reason, we pore over them when we go to learn another language. Language learning is sometimes approached more like any other subject – there is knowledge you need to know.  Study it and regurgitate it for the test.

But you don’t actually need to focus that much on grammar rules.  Rules are great because they help explain the pattern that is in our heads.  They help clarify something that might take a lot of exposure to learn otherwise, but they aren’t entirely necessary.

Also, after I had been teaching English for a bit and then went back to the States.  I realized something.  Native English speakers make a good amount of mistakes according to these grammar rules that everyone is suppose to be following.  Not everything we say is perfect.  It doesn’t need to be.

We make these mistakes because we are not using English according to the rules laid down in grammar textbooks, much to the chagrin of grammar nazis everywhere.  We use English by our own ‘set of rules’ that we ‘discovered’ for ourselves.  We have formed these rules through massive exposure to the language, through listening to parents, our peers, watching TV, etc…

Cracking the Code

When I was in junior high school, we had to take a math test every year.  And one of the components of the test was trying to figure out what number would come next in a particular sequence.    For example, can you guess what the next number is in the following sequence:

1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45…

I bet you could pretty easily deduce that it is 55.

So what is happening here? You are basically looking at a couple of examples of a sequence and then your brain, with a little coaxing, forms a pattern for you to use to come up with the remaining numbers. I bet you even had a little eureka moment when it popped into your head.

And actually, there has been some research into how young children learn language, and evidence points to children having one of these moments when it finally clicks and they get it right from there on out. I’m sure you have experienced the same thing with a couple of grammar points that you were learning.

This is most obvious when you are having a terrible time with a particular grammar point, like when to use the wo particle. You struggle with it and struggle with it, give up trying to master it and then, a few weeks, months later, you see a sentence or see some examples and it just clicks in. Sometimes you need to read grammar rules to help point out the things to look out for, but in general, it just has to click some day. Your brain has to form that pattern in order for you to use it naturally.

Pattern recognition

Your brain is making these patterns every day, not just for language but for everything we do. Your brain, which uses a ton of calories more than any other part of the body, is constantly looking for ways to think more efficiently. And having these patterns in place keeps your brain from overheating when you go to communicate, as well as help you speak at a pace that someone is going to pay attention to.

As adults that natively use a language, we have some pretty solid patterns to use.  We get use to them, and comfortable with them, which can make it hard for us to jump ship and build all new patterns.  Sometimes, we end up building patterns on top of the patterns we have now, which leads to us ‘translating in our heads’ a major problem if you want to ever become pretty fluent.

How to Start Cracking the Code

When working your way through a phrasebook or set of phrases, don’t try to reach for a grammar text book to look up every little point.  Try to form guesses as to how the structures are used.  Play with them and add your own vocabulary to them to see if they make sense. You can use a native tutor or a service like lang-8.com to check your handy work.  As a little tip, I find that if you write what you want to say in English on Lang-8, you tend to get a lot more feedback on your tries (because the checker can practice their English reading skills as well as know what the heck you are trying to say).

Another thing you can do is look through several example sentences with tatoeba.org or ALC’s 英辞郎 on the Web.  Try to find a few examples of the grammar that you are trying to figure out.  Hopefully after a few examples, you will start to see how it is used more naturally than trying to read how to use it in a grammar book.

Grammar refinement

Now, this method of naturally picking up grammar is really useful and will give you a good base of grammar.  You could probably make it through N5 and N4 with this method and a few practice tests.  It will help you use the language at about an 80% level, as in 80% of the time (or higher) you will be well understood.  Not perfectly correct, but well-understood, and that is the point of using a language – being understood.

Now, it is still helpful to have a grammar textbook around to look up and refine some of those points that just aren’t clicking to get those hints to help you understand it well enough that it’ll click for you.  You may even want to pick my N5 grammar guide along with the JLPT kit that has a bunch of helpful tips on how to study even if you aren’t taking the JLPT.  Or some other guides, like the Japan Times Grammar Dictionaries, which are pretty expensive, but very thorough.

The key here is that learning grammar by trying to find the patterns first will help it stick a lot longer.  You will still need some refinement here and there to speak well, but don’t get too carried away.  In my grammar guides I give you plenty of examples so that you can see it being used instead of studying a bunch of rules and attempting to make sentences from that.

Are you learning Naturally?

What is your preferred way of learning grammar?  Do you study grammar books?  What works best for you?  Let me know in the comments below.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • EskimoJo June 6, 2015, 6:32 am

    Graded readers are fantastic for this. Or were… I seem to be struggling to pick up/pick out N3 grammar as easily as I did N5/4. *sigh*

    • Andy June 8, 2015, 11:47 am

      Hi Eskimojo,

      You might want to check out the youtube channel Nihongonomori with free videos about N3 grammar. Maybe with videos and examples it sticks better.

      I would also recommend the Kanzen master Grammar book for N3 as it is very strict and really covers a lot of grammar (which is probably handy if you want to reach higher levels later on). I think it is handy for self-study if you are good at learning languages and experienced, otherwise you might need some help and explanation with some of the grammar points in the book as they are not too detailed. I hope this helps!

    • Clayton MacKnight June 8, 2015, 1:58 pm

      I think finding reading materials with N3 grammar in them can be pretty tricky. Kanzen Master will give you a good background and prepare for the test, but if you want to learn more in context, you will have to read through some mock tests, or jump up to N2 and read more general material. It’s kind of a weird level in terms of the grammar. It was designed to help learners make the leap to N2 more easily, but I find it to be a little too easy, to be honest.

      • Andy June 8, 2015, 2:10 pm

        I completely agree. I think around N3 you got to start reading general texts, like news etc. However when I look at the N2 material it still looks like a pretty big leap from N3..
        On N2 level they expect you to comprehend explanations of grammar in Japanese, so that’s also kind of a big step. We’ll get there though!

  • Cure Dolly June 6, 2015, 4:24 pm

    I hope you won’t mind a tiny bit of English vocabulary nazi-ism here, but I think the word you want is “pore”, not “pour”. We pore over books unless we are in a very destructive mood with our coffee!

    But I have to say I think you are absolutely right. Some people concentrate far too much in book grammar, but that can only take you so far. Others talk about learning everything from context, but grammar is an important shortcut and can really help one. I to see the patterns.

    I think the thing to remember is that learning theoretical grammar is not learning the language, it is learning *about* the language. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It does mean you should remember that it is like water wings or training wheels. Use it at first, and use it later when you need it. But don’t confuse it with real swimming or cycling.

    Being a rather kodawari-prone type (as you probably guessed from my first paragraph) I have to discipline myself not to look everything up. One useful thing here, once one is at the right level, is to discipline oneself by making sure that if one does look things up one does so in Japanese not English.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 8, 2015, 1:52 pm

      Thanks for the correction. I didn’t even think about it when I was typing. I guess I don’t see pore a lot written down.

      I always thinking language learning needs to personal and needs to be balanced. Some people will be able to follow a complete immersion model, but for others it can be a struggle. The point is to keep going and find what works for you.

  • Gyan June 11, 2015, 3:15 am

    Hi Clayton,
    I arrived here via the link on the 12th level of “Learn Basic Japanese” on memrise.
    I gotta say I agree with you on a general level, practice and intense exposure are the keys to jump from knowing a language to actually speaking it. that was at least my experience with english, which is not my native language, and even from my early beginner level of japanese I can see that might be the best approach to some of the japanese learning problems too, like the use of -は and -を particles, expecially because there aren’t any direct translations for them into english (or any other western language i’ve studied) and their use can’t be reduced to a rule fully understandable by a western speaker, if detached by their natural context. anyhow, if you care for a suggestion, I think that a slightly more grammatic-centered approach might be useful on the lowest levels of your memrise course, expecially for what concerns the conjugation morphemes (-ません, -ます and so on). learning them by the use is good, but a little focus on them as singular morphemes might help: grammar is still essential on such low levels, and their meaning is clear on his own after all!

    that said, thanks for what you do, and keep up the good work!

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