Or, “You’re like a Japanese person!”
That’s what Japanese tourists said to me the last time I was in Bangkok.
And it’s common for me to hear stuff like that when I talk in Japanese. My spoken Japanese is pretty good, after all.
In fact, I started studying Japanese just before I turned 16. And when I landed in Japan at age 17, I was holding conversations in Japanese with my host family.
Now, I’m not telling you this because I’m trying to brag. I’m telling you this because I know you can learn to do the same thing yourself. With the right approach, anyone can learn to speak Japanese naturally and correctly.
My approach was simple:
- Learn the “big picture”—that is, learn grammar.
- Practice speaking…a lot.
It’s no secret that many people hate grammar. If you’re not one of those people, congratulations!
But if you are, let me explain why the big picture is so important.
5 Reasons You Should Learn Japanese Grammar Early
Whether you hate grammar, love it or don’t care, learning grammar first will save you lots of suffering later on. In fact, the sooner you understand the big picture, the easier it will be to assimilate the rest of the language. Here’s why you should learn Japanese grammar early:
1. So you can speak naturally.
If you spend time in Japan or with Japanese people, you can learn to understand them in conversation. Body language, vocabulary and context can all help convey meaning.
But if you don’t learn grammar, you could end up speaking spaghetti. The longer you go without studying, the more ingrained your mistakes will become. In ESL, these are called fossilized errors.
Internalizing grammar as early as possible will prevent these errors and give you the possibility of speaking effortlessly and naturally.
2. So you can read and write properly.
Reading and writing in Japanese is challenging enough with so much kanji to learn.
If you get to the stage where you’re studying kanji but don’t have a grasp of grammar, you’ll only make things more difficult for yourself.
As with speaking, when you learn grammar up front, you’ll increase your chances of being able to read and write naturally.
3. So you don’t struggle.
Grammar is the big picture of a language. Without the big picture, the various elements of a language can appear disconnected and daunting.
And although practice is vital, so is theory.
Learning the grammar is like learning the blueprint of a language. You know where everything goes and nothing appears out of place. Internalize the big picture soon and you’ll always have a map in your head.
4. So you can get it out of the way.
If you’re a grammar nerd, then I’m preaching to the choir. But if you’re like most people, grammar can feel more like a chore.
And, like chores, the sooner you get them done, the better.
Get those chores out of the way now. This will give you time to study other elements of the language that you find more interesting.
5. So you realize how easy it is.
Yes, Japanese grammar is easy. Many people consider Japanese to be a hard language, but those who’ve studied the grammar know that its grammar may be the easiest part.
The longer you put it off, the more you’ll stress.
When you do make the commitment, you’ll realize just how easy it really is, and you’ll be that much more relieved.
So all this sounds pretty good. But what’s the best study method?
How to Study Japanese Grammar
There are plenty of resources, exercises, approaches and methods to studying grammar. Rather than prescribing one specific approach, I’ll give you a few ideas based on what worked for me.
Buy a comprehensive grammar book.
Academic language courses often shy away from a “big picture” approach. By surveying grammar early in your studies and coming back to it repeatedly over time, you’ll actually understand what it is you’re practicing and you’ll learn new concepts much more quickly.
I used the first edition of “Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar” by Lampkin. The edition I used was only 160 pages and written entirely without Japanese kana. This meant that I was able to plow through the entire book in a matter of days, so I understood how Japanese grammar worked before I knew all my katakana.
A simple search on Amazon will give you several popular books to choose from, most of which are under $20. I recommend choosing a book that is organized by topic, not alphabetically. Books organized by topic are designed to offer you a bird’s-eye view of the language, while dictionary books are designed exclusively for reference.
Read through the entire book without expectations.
People get scared or overwhelmed by stuff they don’t understand.
Don’t let grammar get under your skin.
When you get your grammar book, give the entire book a real read. Don’t expect to soak much of it up or even understand half of it.
So why do a read-through then? Because each time you come across these concepts in your future studies, they’ll trigger memories of what you’ve read. New concepts won’t be so new and vague. You’ll be able to reference the book over time and the more you do, the better you’ll understand the big picture.
Practice sentence and word constructions on your own.
When I studied, I was pretty darn interested in the language. So it wasn’t hard for me to practice on my own and enjoy concocting sentences directly from the grammar book. But if that’s not your style, you can also buy an exercise-based grammar book or a separate textbook to get material.
Once you dig in to the book, you’ll realize how simple it is to conjugate words in Japanese and build basic sentences.
While a textbook will give you specific directions to turn “eat” (食べる/たべる) into “want to eat” (食べたい/たべたい), the right grammar book will give you the entire map. So you can practice turning “Eat” (食べる/ たべる) into “want to eat” (食べたい/たべたい), “ate” (食べた/たべた), “intend to eat” (食べようとする/たべようとする), “be able to eat”(食べられる/たべられる), “plan to eat” (食べるつもりだ/たべるつもりだ) and so on.
Do this and you’ll be able to eat classroom lessons for lunch.
Practice speaking and listening with natives.
And while you’re talking with natives, be sure to ask questions during conversations.
There’s nothing more exhilarating than hanging out with Japanese people and conversing in their native language.
For me, speaking and listening was the practice that I needed to internalize grammar and vocabulary. If you don’t have access to natives, you can use audio-based courses, online courses, self-study courses, movies, anime and Japanese TV shows as a substitute.
If you’re looking for authentic Japanese exposure from home to get a better feel for this grammar, check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized Japanese learning lessons.
Now let’s explore the rationale behind this grammar-first approach.
Language Learning: Theory vs. Practice
In my experience, Japan and the United States tend to take opposite approaches to language learning.
Japanese students, for instance, often know English grammar quite well. When given a sentence in Japanese, they can use their knowledge to construct and write a correct English sentence. However, despite studying English their whole lives, they still lack speaking and listening skills.
Simple: They spend too much time on theory and not enough on practice.
American students who study Japanese, on the other hand, can have the opposite problem. They may be stronger in speaking or listening, but lack a grasp of the language’s underlying structure. This, in turn, can create bad habits.
Though the above comparison is just a generalization, it still illustrates an important point. If you are lacking in one area of study, you’ll end up weak in corresponding skills. The best learning strategy is one that’s balanced and includes equal parts practice and theory.
These two learning strategies could be called theory-first vs. practice-first or big picture-oriented vs. details-oriented. These aren’t academically approved terms, by the way, but you get the idea.
A theory-based approach teaches the big picture through language systems, such as grammar or vocabulary, while a practice-based approach improves language skills, such as speaking or reading, through specific exercises.
If your academic studies focus on practice, then perhaps the best way to balance that out is with theory. And if it’s so easy to learn Japanese grammar and there are so many benefits to learning it early on, shouldn’t you take care of it as soon as possible?
Hopefully you can see the benefits of learning grammar up front. Of course, too much emphasis on grammar alone will leave you knowledgeable in structure but deficient in certain skills. But an approach that balances theory and practice can help you save time, eliminate obstacles and—most importantly—become more fluent.
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