Your typical study book for the test includes drills and more drills. The Shin Kanzen Master series for N4 and above are masters of this formula. So-Matome also has a very good series of books that really focus on drilling the grammar points you need to know in order to pass the test. And in order to pass the test, you will need to do some form of drilling in order to get used to how the test questions are asked. But, in order to use the language in the real world, you actually have to use it.
That is where a traditional textbook is obviously pretty handy. For years, the go to book for getting started with ‘real’ Japanese is Minna No Nihongo. This very fundamental, meat and potatoes book is what I started with after floundering around with a college textbook that was mandated by the college course I was taking. It provides a lot of good writing practice as well as pattern practice.
The Minna No Nihongo series does a great job of teaching Japanese, but doesn’t stick perfectly to N5. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, there are some out there that want a clear checkpoint to work toward. And if your checkpoint is passing the N5, it might take a little longer with Minna because of the lack of focus.
Try! takes on the task of trying to combine these two types of books into one. Giving you a more conversational approach to introducing grammar points and key points needed to pass the test. Sprinkled throughout the book are drill questions to test your question answering skills and prepare you for the N5. It almost delivers a perfect blend of the two. It manages to keep a good pace that isn’t the same formula over and over again. Despite occasionally dropping a few things here and there, it delivers most of what you need to pass the test.
Grammar points have been arranged into 8 chapters with the first chapter being devoted to set phrases. The chapters are occasionally split into two parts. Wedged into some of the units are small one-page vocabulary boosters to help you with some of the tougher vocabulary to sort out. I prime example of this is names of family members, which can get very confusing pretty quick. I certainly remember trying to sort out which word meant older sister from which meant older brother and so on.
Each chapter gives you a task you can do as well as a handy conversation that goes over the major grammar points that are going to be covered that unit. The chapter then goes on to go over each grammar point in turn with a brief explanation and sometimes some form rules. Then, there are usually some simple drill questions like unscrambling sentences to help lock in how the new grammar point is used.
The last chapter contains a brief list of vocabulary that you will see on the test. There is also a handy sentence pattern index as well as a Can Do List at the end. There is a CD with it that includes audio from the conversations that start off every chapter as well as some of the phrases introduced in the first chapter. There are also some listening questions spread out through the chapters to help tune your ears to the kind of things you will hear on the test.
Try! is a great change of scenery from drill and kill. The book flows well and is easy to work your way through. There are numerous charts of different forms spread throughout the book that you can reference for those tough irregular pronunciations for some of the counters.
It really combines the clear flow of Minna no Nihongo with N5 grammar points. The grammar is gradually stepped up from simple beginnings to the more complicated grammar points in the back. Along the way they point out pitfalls that people might fall into, and might very well be covered on the test.
It also has helpful little tips sprinkled around that help go beyond simple grammar rules. For instance, there is a good section on when to and when not to respond with そうです. This is a helpful thing to pick up in the early stages of learning that can make you sound a lot more natural.
Another good point to mention is that this book is not clogged up with all the translations, at least if you get the English version. A lot of other JLPT textbooks, in an attempt to sell to multiple markets, will shove 4 different translations of explanations into one textbook. I agree that this useful for others whose native language isn’t English, and the publisher is just trying to save money by only publishing one book instead 4 different translations of the same book, but it is still aggravating. I feel like the best solution to this is stickers, but hey, those cost money too, so what do I know?
For all its good points, there are a few things that it falters at. For example, I feel like the fine differences between two grammar points are not always teased out. A lot of grammar points are given a one sentence treatment and don’t really go into detail about some of the fine points that might come up on the test. This could be easily done with the practice questions or somewhere else.
Some other things, like conjugations are glossed over a bit. There aren’t a lot of clear explanations about how different types of verbs are conjugating. It also doesn’t go over the exceptions. If this is the first book you are using to study Japanese, you might have a hard time sorting out how to use verbs from their dictionary form. This doesn’t really empower the student to look up and use words on their own.
The nice flow and simple examples are very encouraging for people studying for the test, but the hand holding can be a little misleading. There are a lot of softballs, and not a lot of tough questions to make it obvious the level you need to be to pass the test.
I like this book because it takes a nice easy stroll through N5 and not a brutal assault like some other textbooks. In some ways, that is also a bit of a detraction. I would like to have seen tougher questions as well as a little clearer explanations about conjugations. Still, this is probably the best overall book you can get for the N5. I highly recommend it, especially if you are working with a tutor that can help fill in the cracks for you.
Try! is available worldwide from White Rabbit Press.