How To Use a Japanese Textbook

Textbooks for learning Japanese suck. All of them. We could end it right there, but then we would be whiners, and whiners we are not. Whining my feel good at the time, but it’s ultimately just self-destructive. In my humble opinion, it’s far better to be a naive teacher’s pet, doing what you are told no matter how ineffective it is, than a whining know-it-all forever flunking and sulking. There is a third way (and maybe a fourth, too); it’s a combination of the hard-working yes-man and the good-for-nothing rebel approaches. You might call it the “make lemonade out of lemons approach”. First:

Why Textbooks Suck

  • They’re boring.
    • I don’t know about you, but if I really couldn’t care less about John “Watashi wa” Smith’s adventures in Tokyo with Mr. Tanaka. You know, there are Japanese foods other than sushi, and things to watch other than kabuki plays and places to go other than Mt. Fuji. For crying out loud.
    • Boring isn’t just bad because it’s boring. It’s bad because it hinders your effectiveness. If you really want to learn Japanese well then you have to enjoy it, and to do that, it would help if your materials were enjoyable.
  • They’re old
    • Full of action set in like the 1970s and 80s, when Japan and Japanese were hot and cool to business people were into it. The outdatedness can be really, really annoying though.
    • They fail to be topical. What about video games? The Internet/Internet slang? And just slang in general that’s bubbled up from high schools into the mainstream? Not to mention children’s words that, as we all know in English, may not be “official”, but have there place. None of this is covered.
  • They use romaji
    • A lot of textbooks assume anyone who isn’t East Asian is genetically doomed to be illiterate or semi-literate in Japanese. So they take a laissez faire or even just a laissez approach to the writing system. It’s effing insulting. And if they do cover a kanji, they may half-heartedly show you a few dozen, but nothing so that you could actually be literate, and never in a coherent, logical order.
  • They cop out
    • Textbooks will bait you with their “this is the One True Way To Learn Japanese” blurb, and then, when they’re found lacking, they’ll pull the old “it’s beyond the scope of the textbook” switch or say that things outside the textbook are “irrelevant” or “fringe”. As the past several decades of technology have shown, today’s irrelevant fringe could be tomorrow’s mainstream.
  • They’re overbearing and overanalytical
    • Like a mother who won’t let her kids see reality, some textbooks so over-simplify things that it’s not even real Japanese any more. It’s Japanese, but it’s so wooden and awkward that it might as well not be. Japanese is real and alive and interesting and quirky. People mumble and hem and haw and are lazy about fully pronouncing things; they shorten stuff like crazy. You just don’t see that reality in a textbook, and, from my experience in learning other languages the textbook way, to wait until you “go to the country” to get the real, raw, gritty stuff is to wait too long. You’ll be so shocked by the reality that you might never recover.
    • Some textbooks so overanalyze grammar that it can scare you out of actually speaking Japanese. Japanese is a very, very simple language, especially when it comes to grammar. So is Chinese. That’s why a lot of Chinese and Japanese people often speak such bad-sounding English, to use a vicious ethnic stereotype: “I give you good noodle, 3 dollar only, special price”, actually makes sense in Japanese. Why is that? Because Japanese doesn’t change verbs for gender or person (I/you/he/they), and does a bare minimum of changing (inflection) for tense (past/present/future). Japanese is such a simple language that a lot of very smart professors get bored, so they write incredibly complex texts about Japanese grammar just to keep themselves occupied. Result? Fun for them, living hell…I mean, heck…for you.
    • Not only that, but as I’ve mentioned before, a solid knowledge of grammar is about as useful as an extra buttock, which is to say it can often be more damaging than useful. When the shiitake (here’s to you, Guy Kawasaki) hits the fan, you need to be able to speak actual Japanese, not tell me whether or not する is a Godan(五段) base 2 verb. I don’t even know what that noss means, which is the point exactly: analysis makes for nice topping, but crappy cake. Ultimately, I think your foundation must be real Japanese and not an analysis of Japanese. Better to know sentences than to just have random ideas from verb tables.
  • Did I mention boring?
    • Goofy, mindless exercises. I’m sorry but filling in blanks simply does NOT cut it. Filling out forms (taxes, immigration, banking)? Yes. Blanks? No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
  • Some have mistakes
    • This is pretty rare, but some textbooks do have typos. All your hard work and then someone goes and makes a mistake on you? For shame. It’s not like I don’t have typos, but then I’m not forcing you to buy/pay me. I’m begging you.
  • They’re expensive
    • A typical textbook is going to set you back a princely sum. And for what? Badly presented information that you could get elsewhere in a cheaper and more appealing format. That money is best spent on something good — movies, manga, anime, or even some of the books I’ve recommended on this site (I do get a kickback if you buy them, but they are good books, I give you my word) ;). You could even save that money and try to center as much of your learning as possible, at least in the early stages, around free Internet resources.

This isn’t meant to be a tirade against textbook writers. It probably is one, but it shouldn’t be. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a textbook; I’m not out there busting a gut trying to do it, and the publishers are probably improving. But methinks that textbooks’ improvement shouldn’t have to come at your expense. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself to some teaching methodology just because that methodology is in vogue or is “required” (i.e. regardless of its effectiveness). This is your time at stake. You need effective ways to learn Japanese starting right now before the boredom and confusion kill you. Every day and every moment is a day and moment you can and should be learning Japanese in ways that are enjoyable and effective. Now, this is a shameless plug of myself, but I would like to think that a lot of those ways are explained right here, on this website.

What You Can Do About It (The Rampant Suckage of Textbooks)

  • Not use textbooks
    • Not a bad option at all. But it could be scary for someone who, like me, likes that “anchoring” feeling you get from a nice, heavy hardcover textbook written by someone with big academic credentials. For such a person, then a limited use of textbooks could be OK, provided you:
  • Use textbooks efficiently
    • As Chris Mahon pointed out to me, there is good to be found out there. Let me be the second to admit that even textbooks have good in them. They present well-edited information in nice little topic-centered chunks. Like nuclear energy, you can use a textbook for good. Indeed, the problem with textbooks isn’t really that they suck, it’s that they ask you to devote yourselves to them; classes are centered around them and they are treated as the “final arbiter”, the ultimate authority on Japanese; they are supposedly infallible. And this is just wrong. Japanese is growing and changing, while that textbook gets more obsolete with every passing day. So I guess that the core problem isn’t the textbooks, but the way a lot of people treat textbooks, with this almost religious reverence of which they are undeserving; no single book out there right now is the be-all and end-all of learning Japanese; but there quite a few excellent individual books out there (none of them, to my knowledge, are textbooks) for and about learning Japanese. So anyway, a textbook can be used for good, and here is how:

How to Use Textbooks Efficiently

  • Skip the vocabulary lists; a list of words out of context (outside of a sentence) is nearly useless to you. Go straight for the dialogues and example sentences. Copy those into your SRS. If you work efficiently, you can mine a typical textbook in its entirety, over like 3 – 4 hours of actual working time, perhaps more, perhaps less.
  • A textbook could cost a lot, and using this method, you might only use it once — to mine for sentences. That being the case, rather than buy it, you might consider borrowing it from a local library, or, there is always the buy-and-sell approach.

In closing, while it seems that basically all textbooks are sorely wanting, not all textbooks are guilty of all the crimes we’ve mentioned. Some, like Yookoso!, are pretty decent. Not perfect, but good. If you use them effectively by extracting the example sentences, then they can serve you well.

  23 comments for “How To Use a Japanese Textbook

  1. Duran
    April 10, 2007 at 19:55

    Absolutely beautiful! I wish I would’ve read this before chucking over $100 USD towards Japanese textbooks. Though, I suppose I shall squeeze my use out of them, as you suggested.

  2. Alex
    June 29, 2008 at 13:26

    Japanese for everyone. Ok, bad textbooks aside, this one is excellent for both sentence mining. See, it doesn’t explain grammar much and has A LOT of sentences. Barely any grammar at all, but still learnable. Plus it’s less than twenty bucks on amazon. While learning kanji, I’ve been informally going through it and just absorbing the sentences.

    This is a VERY good source of sentences. You can go through from simple sentences to complex sentences, as a textbook would, which is an advantage.

  3. efeilliaid
    April 4, 2009 at 00:11

    Oh yes, Japanese for Everyone is THE book. In my opinion it takes you REALLY FAR and where grammar is presented, it’s presented in a *useful* way. The accompanying audio (‘out of print’) is great too and you can get it here and there legally, as it’s not in shops anymore.

  4. Johann
    May 24, 2009 at 05:23

    NHK offers a free textbook at www.nhk.or.jp/lesson/english/learn/story/index.html
    It has 100 lessons, and each of them comes with 5 minutes of audio (around 30 seconds of which are in Japanese) that you can listen to while going through the text. I’d say it’s pretty good for a bilingual textbook. It doesn’t even try to waste your time with useless tasks, it just gives you a few hundred Japanese sentences with English translations, wrapped up in a little story about a martial arts student who comes to Japan in order to become an Aikido master (you can do a lot worse for a textbook story).

    But, I have to say, “mining” this thing got boring pretty quick for me, even though it’s not all that long. I lost interest after lesson 36 or so… dem computer games I’ve got here are much more interesting, and going through them feels a lot less like work. Maybe I’ll finish up the rest of the book in a couple of weeks or so… but for now, finishing Planetarian 〜小さな星の夢〜 and Ever17 has priority 😀

  5. パウラ
    December 6, 2010 at 12:33

    Just anything, ANYTHING but “Japanese: The Spoken Language.”

    First of all, not only is there not a single Japanese character in sight in the whole freaking book, but it uses the most irregular romanization I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it’s terrible.

    Also, there’s pages and pages of uninterrupted, overanalyzed grammar. After “reading” them I just go ?_? (usually with an accompanying 何これ!?, right?) Seriously, it’s terrible. It’s scary. I should post a photo sometime– just, don’t do it.

    That’s beside the fact about it being outdated as hell. It still talks about “便利なタイプライター” (useful typewriters), okay? Typewriters haven’t been all that useful for YEARS. (I mean, it’s just an example but w/e.)

    Spare yourself your sanity. I only have it for school requirements, just like I use Windows purely for a school requirement, and…I digress.

    Point is, don’t do it! 🙂

    Great tips though, I’ll try my best!これからも頑張ろうね〜 仕様がないかも。

  6. Eri
    January 21, 2011 at 12:48

    Okay, so I’m not sure where exactly to ask this, but I guess here is as good as anywhere(?):

    I know textbooks suck; I have some I’ve used for sentence mining and by the second book I’m all “augh, I hate this, I want to mine sentences from the hordes of fanfics I have bookmarked!” But I find that even if I look up all the words in a sentence from something I see on a Japanese website I don’t understand the sentence. I know basic grammar, and I can sometimes guess how it’s supposed to go, but I hate not being ‘quite sure’. Currently when I mine sentences from Japanese websites I only put the meaning of words, even if i don’t understand the sentence. But is this really helping me? I don’t know… I feel like the only place I can get sentences that I understand is from those boring textbooks. This is kind of why I’m having trouble switching to Japanese-Japanese QA in my SRS. Well, that and even when I look up the definition of words with a J-J dictionary I can understand the definition at all… (Have I just not done enough reps with my 500+ cards… or what?)

    Thank you in advance for any advice you can give; I really love this website and all its content. 🙂

    • January 23, 2011 at 06:43

      I did what Khatz did with his initial 500, which was mining sentences from a J-E dictionary. They’re so simp-o. And everything is clearly explained.

      When I use the online Goo dictionary, I just borrow the Japanese example sentences they use to put the word in context. Then usually I can get a feel for it as well as the definition.

    • Jason
      February 22, 2011 at 04:49

      Can you write an example sentence of a sentence that you don’t understand?? Maybe I can help you.

  7. Suisei
    December 28, 2011 at 08:24

    Darn it. I just bought over 200 dollars for genki ;w; I should have spent it on AJATT Plus..:C

    • ahndoruuu
      December 28, 2011 at 20:24

      Nah.  AJATT Plus is cool but it won’t actually teach you anything.

      It probably would have best been spent on manga 😛 You know how much manga you can buy in Japan for $200?  Frightening amounts, let me tell you. 

  8. CHoPSTiX
    November 20, 2012 at 05:46

    I’m not sure if it can be considered a standard textbook, but “All About Particles” is really useful for learning particles (duh), has a lot of good (afaik, natural sounding) sentences and is nicely organized. And in any case it’s useful as a reference book if you come across some new combination of particles in a sentence, so I would recommend getting it.

  9. July 18, 2013 at 00:33

    You’re right dude. Basically it’s tempting to buy books for beginners; so that you have something physical to show that you are LEARNING something. I bought a book once entitled “Hablar ingles es facil” (to speak English is easy) basically written for Spanish who are trying to learn English. What I liked about it is that it focuses on situational phrases and dialogues and I bought it for only a couple of pennies from a bargain store.

  10. Nino
    September 30, 2013 at 05:47

    A good textbook to mine your sentences is the Genki series. It’s actually written by real Japanese people with godlike credentials.

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