Sunday, January 20, 2008

Language Instruction: Part 2 Japanese Books

Here is the second part of the list of language instruction resources. There are a lot of resources for Japanese some of which are of dubious quality. Even if you ignore my list take my advice and try to avoid materials with a profuse use of Romaji. Written Japanese can be represented by Romaji the phonetic spelling of the language in Roman characters, in other words English with phonetic symbols. Books that use a lot of Romaji can make the learner dependent upon it and prevent one from picking up the writing systems of Japanese (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji). Books with CDs or tapes should be preferred the sounds of the consonants and vowels in Japanese is a little more consistent than English which can take awhile getting used to hearing or saying.

Like with any language in general I prefer to have a good textbook first. As with Spanish I'd recommend the Living Language series of books since they are comprehensive and well structured. Of course the main problem with this particular series is its high cost. Like most of the Living Language series the glossary leaves a little to be desired but that is solved with a good dictionary.

If you don't want to put up the money for the Living Language books and are willing to deal with a college textbook Elementary Japanese is an easy to follow gentle introduction to the language. There is only the briefest use of Romaji to introduce the phonetics of Japanese. Some of the exercises and vocabulary make it clear that it is aimed at college students. There is also a good mix of vocabulary and discussion of the different levels of politeness.

The Genki series from what I've seen of it is geared mostly towards students in college who are going to be studying in Japan. A lot of the vocabulary and drills are of situations that students living abroad may find useful. It can be a great book if couple with a good teacher or other resources. It seems designed for increasing your score in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

The textbook I had in college is Japanese: The Spoken Language. My general recommendation is unless you already have the language almost mastered or have a really good teacher skip the title. It is geed very heavily toward grammar but is very slim on vocabulary. It is all Romanji and doesn't introduce the Kana or Kanji until later in the series. The presentation and exercises are a little unwieldy but some people may benefit from the mostly Romaji approach though the Romaji used here can be hard to grasp.

Japanese in Mangaland is a decent way to back up a more comprehensive textbook especially if the interest in Japanese comes from manga or anime. For the teachers and parents out there be aware that a lot of the more colorful language is presented. So if you are worried about your kids cursing behind your back in a foreign language it is something to keep in mind. If your interest in Japanese is only in reading manga then this can be a primary book, you'll get basics of the language without a complex approach to grammar.

Now that you have an idea of the textbooks on the offing it's time to get serious with some vocabulary and grammar. One of the main considerations is the Japanese writing system. There are three main writing systems in Japanese. Katakana and Hiragana are collectively called Kana and are syllabaries, meaning they represent phonetic elements. Katakana is used to represent foreign words and in manga represents mechanical sound effects. Hiragana is used to represent native words in books for children, grammatical particles, sounds by humans in manga. Kanji is the other main writing system, it consists of ideographs borrowed from Chinese. Kanji is used for writing native names, words, it can be used for numbers etc. There is no one system that can be ignored since all of them could be used on one page of a manga or a newspaper.

The complexity and sheer number of the ideographs being what it is you'll need a few books and I would suggest gravitating to the ones with the Kanji "spelled out" in Kana. This reinforces your understanding of the phonetic systems which can help learn new words.

Modern Japanese Vocabulary is a good up to date resource for vocabulary. The words are broken into sections with the Kanji, Kana, and meaning in separate rows. You'll find many computer, business, and science terms listed here as well as the general vocabulary of colors, directions etc.

Kanji Pict-O-Graphix is a book of Kanji with little drawings that act as mnemonics. It works off of the principle of relating a ideograph to an easy to remember visual. If you are a visual learner it can make the study of Kanji a lot easier than the usual rote method. I bought the similar Kana guide for my nephew, it's really helping him pronounce them on site.

If you are looking for more of a systematic approach to learning Kanji you may wish to check out Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. The book presents the 2000 Kanji that are needed to be considered proficient in Japanese by the Education MInistry. The ideographs are presented in the order in which they are learned by Japanese children so you won't get into the 20 or more stroke ideographs until you are fairly comfortable. This book also has the etymology of many of the ideographs which is quite helpful as they can be mnemonic devices. I know it helped me pick up some of the roots of other ideographs and get the meaning quicker, seeing the trees in the ideograph for forest for example. Some people may hate the etymologies but for those language nerds like myself we can't get enough of etymologies.

Building Power in Japanese is a book on suffixes and prefixes. It's a decent way to increase your vocabulary with little effort if you memorize a few affixes to attach so that your speech and writing becomes a little richer.

Japanese Particles are one of the hardest parts of grammar to get a handle on. How to tell the Difference between Japanese Particles does a good job of making it all more digestible. The included quizzes are great for review and drilling.

The fact that Japanese adjectives and adverbs conjugate makes learning them a little hard to master. The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs makes it a little easier to get through.

Now that you have some vocabulary and know how to conjugate some adverbs let's move onto the verbs. Japanese Verbs: Saying What you Mean is a good introduction. You'll need some grounding in the basics and some vocabulary but it gives decent coverage of verb conjugation. Has loads of examples of usage. It presents the verbs in Kanji, Kana, Romaji and English translation.

A little cheaper but harder to follow as well is The Complete Japanese Verb Guide. There are less examples and no glossary so you'll be doing a lot of flipping to find the right word. If you don't need the usage information you can save a few bucks.

Now on to everyone's least favorite part of language learning, but arguably the bone structure of the corpus. Japanese grammar requires a good book since the sentence structure isn't close to English. If you want to speak fluently or at least move your sentence patterns out of a kindergarden level don't skimp too much here. A dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar is laid out like the grammar guides in the backs of dictionaries so you can find relevant sections quickly. It's part one of a series. The intermediate book goes further in depth to help in the mastery of the language.
The books covers the particles, politeness etc. Not all of this is used in everyday Japanese but the same can be said of guides to English grammar. If money is tight don't get a book on the particles or affixes but get this book.

The last part of the foundation is a good dictionary. Fortunately, one can find a few inexpensive Japanese-English dictionaries. The Oxford Beginner's Japanese Dictionary has the best layout. You can look up words in English to find Japanese equivalents or vice versa using Hiragana. The Kanji are presented beside the Hiragana so the learning of them is aided.

Another option around the same price but is usually a few bucks cheaper in most bookstores is the Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary. The layout is a little more conventional, presenting Romaji forms of Japanese Words beside Kanji. Some may find this easier to use but it does delay learning Hiragana if you use the Romaji as a crutch.

Now that you have a foundation it is time to jump to that higher level, reading for fun. Seeing a language used in entertainment tells the learner a lot about the intricacies of the language and the culture that are hard to find anywhere else.

Breaking into Japanese Literature is a parallel text covering seven graded stories. There are downloads of sound files, dictionaries etc. A good choice if you are looking for a guided approach and just getting your feet wet.

If you want to take the manga approach, let's be honest anime and manga re the main reason many people learn Japanese in the first place, there are a multitude of choices.

The Japanese in Mangaland Workbook is a good companion to the main book and it can be approachable for Japanese learners in general. The book presents a manga story with exercises to translate the text from Japanese.

For those looking just for a good manga to read in the original Japanese Amazon has a whole category just for you. For those low on cash and without concern for copyright you can just do a search for raw manga and you'll find resources. Some comic book stores carry raw manga, if you are in a big city.

If you are looking for Japanese books but not a fan of manga resources are not as readily available as with SPanish but you can find the occasional book in the foreign language section of bookstores from time to time. or you can always try Amazon's Japanese website to have something shipped.

1 comment:

Jon Bischke said...

Hey Jonathan. These are great posts! We've just launched a language learning resource blog at and are looking for authors to write articles like the ones you've beeen writing. Drop me a line at jon at edurev dot com and I can give you more details. Keep up the good work!