Book Review: Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar

The book is Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar by Koichi NISHIGUCHI [基礎日本語文法教本 西口光一(著)]. に・ほん・ご き・そ ぶん・ぽう きょう・ほん ISBN: 475740168X

You probably know by now what I think about textbooks and studying grammar. Textbooks are the devil’s spawn; studying grammar is a confusing waste of time in terms of actually teaching you how to use the language. Grammar is a “why”, not a “how”. If you want to study about a language, whys are fine, but if you want to use a language, you need hows.

OK, enough speechifying. So why am I recommending a book to you that has “grammar” in the title. Well, first of all, you do still need to understand how to make a grammatically/syntactically correct sentence. That’s where this book comes in. A better title would have been “Logically Progressing Example Sentences on Steroids”, since that’s exactly what this book is. There is no more explanation of rules than is necessary to get the job done. In less than 200 pages (197), it packs just under 2000 sentences. It starts simple and grows gradually. You get to see a pattern repeated many times, allowing you to grasp it fully before going on to the next pattern.

I personally didn’t use this book, but I have read through it, and really wish I had had it back in the day. Momoko, however, did use it. In fact, she’s entered every single example sentence in the book into her SRS, and has since moved on to another book. I asked her what she thought about it, and this is a summary of what she said:

Pros

  • Simple, gradual progress.
  • No boring explanations. This book cuts to the chase. Good, clear explanations of exceptions.
  • Tons of example sentences.
  • Lots of repetition of concepts.
  • Kanji throughout, so that you are reading real Japanese, but with furigana on all the kanji. This book recognizes that you are a beginner, and helps you along, but without handicapping you (no romaji here!)
  • Can remain a useful reference after you’ve finished studying it. The table of contents is very detailed.

Cons

  • Not confusing, but it can get dull. The book is essentially limited to college student situations, which may not be relevant to some people. Momoko recommends skipping the boring or redundant parts, there’s no use hurting yourself.
  • Vocabulary limited (again, to college situations); you’re not going to learn a lot of words from this book. Although, arguably, the narrow vocabulary may help one focus on the grammar patterns and concepts.
  • Only has a few illustrations, these are all small and in black and white.

Like almost any book, this one isn’t without flaws. But overall, it makes a great starter, something that can comfortably give you a solid grammatical foundation and set you on the path to learning more vocabulary.


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  9 comments for “Book Review: Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar

  1. July 26, 2007 at 18:51

    Khatzu – Good on you for this site. I’ve been floundering for a while and since I stumbled upon this, I’ve been super motivated to get back on track. While these methods aren’t new for me, I admit it never even occured to me to get systematic on the setences before. What I would do occasionally is put some funny sentence (usually from Jim Breen’s Jdic) into my flashcard prog to help me remember some new word/piece of grammar. The sentences would invevitably stick and I could often whip them out for fun at opportune moments. One of my favorites was –

    それから、最後の恐ろしい叫び声とともに、怪物は山から下方の岩に身を投げて死んだ。

    I didn’t manage to say it too often for obvious reasons, but after the first time it was permanently imbedded in my brain.

    I’m sold on the children’s dictionary. I just ordered it. And the shipping costs more than the book which sucks (I’m in Thailand). I guess I’ve been laddering Japanese from Thai because I have too. I’ve never seen any Japanese-J or Chinese-C dictionary here and its kind of expensive to order them from abroad.

    I have another book to recomend which is rather fun and even a relatively high-level beginner could make use of…

    ドラえもんの国語おもしろ攻略 漢字・熟語を使い分ける (ドラえもんの学習シリーズ) (単行本)
    ISBN4-09-253189-3

    Its a kids book (Doraemon) so it has plenty of furigana for those characters you can’t read yet. It has a bit of everything: idioms(熟語), Homonyms (同音異義語), antonyms and more. The setup has Doraemon explaning all these things to Nobita. Check it out.

    PS – Can you give us some more starter sentences please ?

  2. Charles A
    December 20, 2007 at 18:41

    Yesterday, I went to the mall to replace the two Kodansha books I lost on the bus and happened to see one copy of this book on the shelf. Being only $17 or so (1900 yen), it’s not a big dent, so I bought it along with the other three books. I can see the benefit of it flipping through the pages. It’s as dense as Japanese for Everyone but without the wasted space of “exercises”.

    Now, I’m finding myself torn. I had just begun using Genki for structure and progression with Kodansha’s Verbs, Particles and Adjective books as supplemental sentence sources. This book kinda does all that for me. Oh well. I’ll go with UBJG as it’s less page flipping.

  3. March 13, 2008 at 14:16

    Hi Khatzumoto,

    I decided to buy this book after reading this review a while back. Thank you! I think it’s fantastic. I also picked up Japanese in MangaLand, because, event though I don’t read manga, it sounded like a cool concept.

    About the Nishiguchi book though, it’s just like you said it is. Each concept has more than enough example sentences to get the idea. And the concepts return later on in more detailed and complex forms, with even more examples. The last con on your list “only has a few illustrations, these are all small and in black and white,” is a pro! That means more room for grammar!

    About the MangaLand book…

    Hmm…I haven’t started on it yet. I was worried about wiring my brain with manga-speak before I got the basics down. But I did flip through it, and a lot of the example sentences I saw were really rude looking, a few mentioned murder and such. There was a pickup line that made me laugh, but I don’t think it would work in the real world. I think there was also a section devoted to how to read katakana onomatopoeias. This section seems fascinating though, because I had no idea that dogs and cats and cars make different speak dog and cat and car-Japanese. Lol…

    As far as sentence-mining goes, it’s about 90% English. I’m not too excited about MangaLand…but that was just my first impression. I hope it’s better than it seems…

    But thanks again for this write-up. This book is much more suited to the method than other books I’ve seen (Genki, JfBP, Japanese Step by Step <—Abomination!).

    You should add it to your Phase X pane, definitely!

  4. March 13, 2008 at 14:18

    Sorry about the derailed sentences, I should really read what I write before I hit submit.

  5. March 13, 2008 at 14:22

    I completely left out why I was on AJATT to begin with. Did you have a post about how many sentences are in each book? I could have sworn you did. If not, would you consider having the readers submit estimates for books they’ve used, and books you’ve used?

  6. Rum
    October 17, 2011 at 20:27

    Does anyone have any idea where this book corresponds with genki? Does it cover all the grammar in Genki I + 2, for example?

  7. James DiGriz
    May 15, 2013 at 11:57

    A book on learning a foreign language without an Audio CD is absolutely useless. I used that book and know what I’m talking about. By the way, by its vocabulary and grammar it is on JLPT3 level only – it also says so in the introductory message.

    Anyhow, this books feels like it’s a half-finished project. Very good idea, but very poor execution.

    • EskimoJo
      April 3, 2015 at 01:16

      Some years later, the new edition now comes with a CD. However, I can’t tell if it now goes beyond N4/JLPT3 or the grammar level has stayed the same…

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