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.