Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Japanese textbooks, the tiny towels of education

This world is full of things. Right now you're reading this on a thing. It's probably on top of another thing. You might even be wearing a thing on your eyes that lets you see every other thing. These are good examples of helpful things. Glasses, computers, desks, anti-bear spray: all very helpful things. Notice how most helpful things are well designed. So on one hand (leg?) you have pants: extremely helpful and well designed. On the other hand you have Japanese textbooks. In the past, pants were not the stain-proof, wrinkle-proof, cargo pocket having space-age wonders you know today. No, they had to evolve to that point from their humble beginnings as itchy wool leg warmers. Pants evolved into usefulness while Japanese textbooks remain stuck in perpetual awfulness. "WHAT?!" I hear you say. "But Joe! According to the your popular 'All About Joe' fansite, YOU use a Japanese textbook!" This is indeed true. I use the popular "Minna No Nihongo" series. Arguably the best Japanese textbook created so far. But as for being well designed, it ain't. Let's go back to pants. Let's say instead of pants all you have is a towel, and that towel is just a little too small. You wrap it around your waist, but now you have to hold it. Does it work? Well, yeah. I mean, no one can see your naughty bits any more, but because it's so poorly designed, to get it to do what you want it to do, you have to manually force it to do its job. This is my experience with every Japanese textbook I've seen. They're like tiny towels. let me explain:

You buy a Japanese textbook for two reasons: you want to learn the Japanese language and you want to learn how to speak it like a normal (Japanese) person. So you open your crisp new textbook and start your first lesson: "Watashi wa Joe desu." They tell you it means "I am Joe." Right off the bat we get LIES. The book is taking a sentence from English, translating the words, and putting them in order according to Japanese grammar rules. Sounds good right? Except nobody talks like this, and even if they did, this doesn't mean what they say it does. To begin, "watashi" is a polite, gender neutral "I". OK. "Wa" just shows you what the topic of the sentence is (which here would be "watashi"). But in Japan they just drop what's not necessary. If you're introducing yourself, we already know the topic, and that the topic is you. So we get rid of "watashi" and "wa". Now we just have "Joe desu". In real life, this is how I introduce myself. It works out well. You might be saying "Ah, I see. Now we just have 'Am Joe.' I guess that makes sense." No, no, no, no, no. This is not English you silly person. The book is just trying to trick you into thinking it is. There is no "am" in Japanese. "Desu" is usually translated as "am" because thinking of it that way makes people feel safe and happy. In reality linguists can't even agree on what "desu" is let alone give it a simple one word translation. In this example "desu" shows that you are politely stating something. And that's it. So when I meet someone I introduce myself by saying "Joe" and add "desu" so they don't think I'm a super-jerk. Wow! That's a lot different from what the book said! So out of your two goals: 1, Learning the Japanese language and 2, Learning how to speak it like a normal person; you have achieved zero. Congratulations! On to chapter 2!

I need to stress that this is true for all the most popular Japanese textbooks.

There is also another way they un-teach you: many don't even bother to have you use the written language. This way you can easily make the same mistake I did and end up buying two versions of the same textbook because the first one you bought was only in Roman (i.e. English) characters, which are never, ever used by Japanese people. So in addition to not teaching you how to actually speak and understand Japanese, textbook companies also conveniently give you the option to not learn how to read or write anything too! How thoughtful!

Why are the books like this? The answer is simple: I have no idea. If I had to guess, I would say the writers are trying to make it easy for someone to "learn" "Japanese". They think it's easier for you if they just hand you a phrase that mirrors English. Of course they won't start you off doing crazy things like dropping subjects like in my example up there. That's too foreign! Doing things their way, you can just plug in your own name in replacement of "Joe" and BAM! You're speaking Japanese! Well, at least a Japanese person will be able to understand your meaning. Of course their response will be incomprehensible to you.

I guess my explanation didn't really clarify the tiny towels simile. For me, the textbook worked, but I had to always give it a hand to make sure it was doing the job it was supposed to. For example "desu" is the polite form of "da". Of course normal people almost always use "da" when talking to each other. When did the book decide it was a good time to teach me "da"? Chapter EIGHTEEN. And it's not just "da". The book ONLY teaches the politely conjugated form of verbs. It's handy when you're talking to your boss, but not when you want to speak to all your new Japanese friends. Since I didn't start studying Japanese until after moving to Japan, and I didn't just study it to sweet-talk my boss, if I just went by the book I wouldn't be able to understand the people I want to talk to for 18 chapters. So like I said, I had to force the book to do what I want. Whenever I would start a new chapter I would de-conjugate all the verbs. This was pretty difficult since they don't even mention conjugation until chapter 14. Using my Japanese textbook to actually learn Japanese involved a lot of guessing and double checking every word in my dictionary. Also, the hilarious part, the un-conjugated form of Japanese verbs are often called the "dictionary" version. Why? Because that's how they're entered into a dictionary! So, by going by the book, I wouldn't have been able to even look up a word in a dictionary for 18 chapters. These ridiculous tiny towels!

So what can you do if you want to actually learn Japanese? There are books and other resources that actually exist that teach you what I can only call the correct way to learn Japanese. The best one I've seen so far is Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese. This blandly named website contains everything you need, in an order that makes sense, to learn Japanese. And it's FREE. I think the guy has a book too, but he still keeps the website updated.

Don't make the same mistakes I did. Never forget: study smart, and wear awesome pants.


  1. Great post, although I have to disagree about learning the polite form first. For a couple reasons. First of all, it's much easier to err on the polite side and then learn how to ease up when talking to acquaintances. Second of all, you may not realize how many points you can score with the natives (natives with power and influence) by being able to speak even just a bit of keigo (basic desu/masu stuff). Win friends and influence people with desu, learn how to da later on.

    But great, great point about textbooks and the watashi wa.

  2. Hey Joe - very nice, as per usual.

    I'm going to agree with Daniel that I think it's best to learn the polite form early on, but I also agree with you that learning the short forms shouldn't come so late. I started off using the Genki books, and I don't recall exactly how they did it, but I don't remember having to deconjugate verbs to find their roots. That does sound pretty bad.

    Makes you wonder - is Japanese perceived to be such a difficult language because it truly is, or because the usual forms of instruction (a.k.a these textbooks) are so poorly executed?

  3. I did downplay the importance of masu/desu a bit didn't I? What I really feel is that normal Japanese just shouldn't be introduced 18 chapters in. Go ahead and teach polite grammar first, but at least give me both the masu and root forms of new words.

  4. You should check out Jay Rubin's excellent little books "Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You". There's a preview on Google Books.

  5. "Book" not "books". Sorry for cluttering.

  6. Hey Tom, coincidentally I JUST bought that. I haven't cracked it open yet though. I've heard good things

  7. I'm in a Japanese class at college. I remember learning the polite forms first, but we learned more informal ways of talking and writing the first year. We use the Nakama series in our class, and it's been a really good mi of reading, writing, speaking, and grammar the whole way. I feel right now in Nakama 2 that they're just throwing grammar at us, but it seems a lot better than what you described.