Momoko is really amazing, she only recently started learning Japanese, but she’s had, virtually word-for-word, the same grammatical insights as one of the most respected (if controversial) Japanese writers: HONDA Katsuichi (本多 勝一). Honda discussed his ideas on grammar in his primer on how to write easily understandable Japanese: 日本語の作文技術 (Nihongo no Sakubun Gijutsu, Techniques for Japanese Essay-Writing). Between them, Momoko and Honda have taught me things that I never knew before; they have opened my eyes to new possibilities.
And it makes me sad. Sad because there’s so much that I don’t know; I am so ignorant that it makes me wonder what business I have running a site telling you how to learn Japanese? Why not just shut down?
I really was thinking that. But then it hit me: I am reading Honda’s book in Japanese and I almost never need to use my dictionary — I even know the readings of the special kanji he gives readings for. I am reading books about Japanese grammar and about how to write Japanese in the Japanese language. Something, somewhere must have gone right…
To paraphrase Honda: most people are taught in school, and continue to believe as adults, that grammar has been decided. It’s this list of rules that’s fixed, unchanging, was set down by intellectual superbeings in the ivory tower. And that’s a bunch of bollocks. Grammar is a moving target. As we speak, it is literally in flux, shifting like the desert sands. OK, slower than desert sands, but it is on the move. To see it as a fixed thing is to see it in error.
Which brings me to my first point: you are probably fluent in at least one language: your “native” language. In at least this language, you almost always know when a sentence is right or when it is wrong. And although you can almost never explain why, if you were to just read a well-written grammar book, you would very quickly understand why. That’s the thing about grammar: it’s only useful after-the-fact!
Grammar is like conspiracy theories: good at explaining past events, but lousy at predicting the future: too many exceptions, conditions, procycles and epicycles make it inelegant, much like Ptolemaic cosmology.
Grammar is an ex post facto analytical tool; it’s a tool for talking about language after the language has been written and spoken. But, as for actually learning/using language and knowing what to say before you need to say it, grammar is about as useful as an extra orifice at the tip of your elbow.
Before grammar, learn Japanese. Get fluent at real Japanese first. Learn the how. Afterwards, you can start to look at the why of grammar and be like: “oooooooh that’s why”. When you try to use grammar a priori, you only end up with verbal diarrhea for text and brain farts for thoughts; when you use grammar a posteriori, then you have insight.
Because grammar is a tool for discussing language, you first need some language to be able to discuss. In fact, you need a heckuavalot of language; you need a buttload of reference points in order for grammar to be at all meaningful. Anyone who has learned Latin in school knows this by counterexample: “decline the ablative singular of bellum”, says the teacher. WHAT? Who forking cares?! The ablative singular just doesn’t mean anything to most of us (oh, wait, it means “by/with/from/in/on/at”…yeah, thanks, that really helps: it totally makes sense now :(). The problem isn’t that Latin is dead; the problem is that almost everyone who studies it knows so little of it that a grammatical discussion has no analogue in actual experience and therefore is a form of verbal diarrhea. Make no mistake: humans are concrete beings; we talk of abstract generalisms, but we think in concrete analogies.
Focus on sentences, sentences, sentences. Learning thousands of correct Japanese sentences will build your Japanese senses; it will develop in you that child-like instinct to decide “this is the right way to say X”. And then, after that, when you want to sharpen the saw, you can read all about Japanese grammar in Japanese, written by a Japanese person who knows what the heck she’s talking about.
So that’s the deal with grammar. I know I’ve put some grammatical explanations in the sentence packs and in Dick and Jane, but those are just hand-wavy explanations to soothe your natural desire for a reason, and they come after the sentences because they are less important. What matters is actual Japanese; grammar may be cool for discussion, but it simply won’t help all that much when you’re up Shiitake Creek (a famous Japanese creek made entirely of mushrooms) without a paddle. When you’re alone on the ground in Japan, you don’t need to know whether or not “kuru” is a base 5 verb. You need to know how to open a bank account.