Congratulations! You’ve climbed your way through elementary Japanese!
By now, you’ve mastered hiragana and katakana, and know some basic kanji as well.
And if your textbook of choice was “Genki,” you’ve bonded with some characters to whom you’ve recently said a tearful goodbye.
(“Oh, Mary and Takeshi…” *sniffle*)
But now it’s time to pick yourself up and look to the horizon, for a new challenge lies ahead: mastering the intermediate level.
It might not be as straightforward of an experience as the previous level was—the learning curve is quite steep!
And you know what that means, right?
New challenges, new textbooks.
If you don’t approach the intermediate long haul in the most productive way, you risk hitting a plateau in your Japanese learning career.
So let’s equip you properly for your trek ahead! In this post, we’ll take a look at four highly recommended textbooks that can help make your journey smooth and prosperous.
But before we start, let’s get our bearings…
How to Know If You’re at an Intermediate Level
Here are some questions to help you figure out if you’re an intermediate Japanese learner:
- Have you mastered the hiragana and katakana syllabaries?
- Can you give a proper greeting, followed by a smooth self-introduction?
- If you got lost, could you ask for directions and follow them?
- Can you read basic kanji, including, but not limited to: date, time, directions, numbers from 1-1000, etc.?
- Can you understand when someone is using keigo? Can you use it yourself?
- If you went grocery shopping, would you be able to spot words for basic foods such as fruit, vegetables, meat and the like?
- (Bonus) Have you had a dream in Japanese?
If you’ve answered “yes” to all or most of these questions, then you’re ready for the next level.
If your kanji is still a little rusty, I’d suggest the “Basic Kanji” workbook series by Chieko Kano. It covers 500 basic kanji, including those mentioned above.
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Up for the Challenge: 4 Intermediate Japanese Textbooks for Spirited Learners
There are two versions of this textbook: One is written in romaji while the other uses kana. The kana version also includes supplementary kanji lessons at the end. This may put off some students, as the kanji has not been properly integrated nor contextualized for the corresponding lesson, which can be especially problematic considering that Japanese is a high-context language and culture.
However, compared to some of the other books in this post, “JfBP” is relatively cheap. Therefore, if you choose this book, you’ll be getting a classically-renowned learning guide at a low cost.
This book is good for:
- Learning Japanese in a short amount of time, especially for a tourist situation.
- Developing more complex grammar.
- Putting vocabulary in its proper context.
I’ll admit my partiality towards this textbook, as it was the one I used in my third-year Japanese course (aptly titled “Japanese Reading and Conversation”) and I still use it today. As such, this next section will also reflect some personal experience with “Tobira.”
The biggest highlight of this book are the multimedia elements: There is high-quality supplemental material available on the “Tobira” website, which includes video clips, audio dialogues and kanji practice. This is a useful addition and shows “Tobira” to be a textbook that acknowledges the current information-rich society that we currently live in.
The book itself is nothing to scoff at, either. Each of the 15 chapters begins with a short and informative essay about Japanese language, culture or history. For example, the first chapter discusses the geography of Japan, while the next one discusses different forms of speech in Japanese, including formal, casual and gender-specific. There’s even a short manga detailing the invention of instant ramen!
Grammar is extensively explained, and while the long vocabulary lists might seem intimidating, important terms are boldfaced, so you don’t have to get too worried about mastering all of the content.
Additionally, the dialogues at the end of each chapter are highly relevant for those who wish to live and study abroad in Japan. Some notable dialogue subjects include asking a teacher for help on a report, discussing opinions on therapy and asking a dojo manager for entrance into their karate classes.
However, be forewarned—save for the grammar explanations and vocabulary definitions, Tobira is largely written in kana and kanji. If you’re on level, but still need extra help with your writing, there’s a supplementary workbook available called “Tobira: Power Up Your Kanji” that corresponds to the main chapters’ content.
This book is good for:
- Learning Japanese in a contemporary setting such as the Internet.
- Reading interesting and well-informed essays about Japanese history and culture.
- Practicing realistic dialogues—it’s useful for those planning to live abroad.
“Nihongo Through Newspaper Articles” is a bilingual book. But the Japanese content is always printed first to give you a chance at simultaneous immersion and self-evaluation. There’s a sample of the book available online, so if you’re curious about this one, you can check it out for yourself.
The book opens with a section called, “本書の使い方” or “How To Use This Book Section.” First, there’s Reading Comprehension, where you’re asked to “understand the main passage” and to read as much of the article as possible without checking the vocabulary list. Next, the CD provides audio that covers the same topic as the corresponding passage, but within the context of a radio or TV broadcast. And finally, the Dialogue section provides related dialogue in both polite desu/masu form and informal speech.
A relatively unknown book, “NTNA” will give you the challenge and encouragement you need to take your Japanese skills to a higher (and yet practical) level.
This book is good for:
- Studying for the JLPT N2.
- Experiencing Japanese newspapers firsthand.
- Gaining experience with realistic (yet graspable) news from Japanese media.
A well-known text in the area of Japanese language education, “Yookoso! Continuing with Contemporary Japanese” continues to focus on holistic integration of the four pillars of modern language acquisition. Additionally, “grammar is treated as a tool for developing the ability to communicate in Japanese, rather than as a focal point.”
While “Yookoso!” is used in many university classrooms around the world, it’s not without its critics, especially of the newest 3rd edition. While updates include a supplementary CD and text written in softer font, others include dated pop culture references, and homework sections do not always correspond with the day’s lesson. On top of that, it’s quite expensive: a used book can run as high as $150. Many people suggest that an older edition will work just as well.
With its density and culture notes, “Yookoso!” is one of those books that truly makes the language come alive, which is crucial for studying a language with as high of a learning curve as Japanese. Moreover, similar to “Tobira,” the content is relevant to daily life, dealing with topics such as travel, transportation, health, media and nature.
This book is good for:
- Holistic learning of Japanese.
- Numerous cultural notes.
- Learning vocabulary for daily life.
This list is by no means exhaustive. But hopefully it will serve as a solid starting point for your intermediate journey.
You can explore more possibilities for your level on White Rabbit Japan, an online store that sells everything from textbooks to Japanese snacks. Just go to the “Japanese Language” menu, select “Textbooks” and choose the “intermediate” tag, and you’ll have pages and pages of material to browse through.
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