How I Struggled with and Overcame Japanese Grammar

Everybody hates studying grammar. Even the kids who say they love it. They’re lying. Learning 2,000 kanji is easy and learning new words and reviewing a hundred Anki cards is pretty simple.

How To Learn Japanese Grammar Like A Winner

But for some reason I’ve noticed that one of the biggest troubles for a lot of people (including me) is the Japanese grammar. It often comes down to that a lot of people don’t know how to study grammar effectively.

The Two Methods (Two camps in the world of grammar-thought)

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First comes book-learning. This is where most people start before they learn that textbooks are really boring. Book-learning is learning grammar from textbooks and workbooks and Japanese-teaching blog posts. Usually these come in the standard grammar-point progressions; start with です, then learn だ, next comes は and が and さ, all the way up until you figure out what ございます really means. These are everyone’s favorite grammar books like Genki III and III, Japanese the Manga Way and Mangaland and Tae Kim’swonderful little website.

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The other  method, of course, is grammar intuition, and this comes straight from the Japanese language experience itself. The idea here is that if you read manga and watch anime all day and talk to a few friendly Japanese people, you’ll gradually be able to understand different grammatical structures and finally be able to figure out when you should use は and when you should use the stupid が because you’ll have had so much exposure to good Japanese spoken by people who know what they’re saying that it will be hard for your brain to not get it right.

This is where you learn how to conjugate 読む not because you read the Japanese conjugation list on Wikipedia ten times, but because a guy in this one video game is talking about all the arcane scrolls he read when he was young.

Unfortunately, both solutions have their drawbacks if you try either method exclusively. I’ve been at both extremes myself, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about.

When I started my Japanese-learning journey, I was all for team textbook. I bought Genki and its sequel, found a copy of Japanese the Manga Way to spruce things up, and loaded up Anki with endless Genki sentences and Core2k fun. This worked out really well until I tried reading something that real Japanese people actually say and tried to write in Japanese using the rules I thought I had memorized.

I got disgruntled and gave up on textbooks for a while.

Besides, they were boring and they didn’t have enough pretty pictures. So I read manga and watched a lot of anime and did all the cool things interesting Japanese-learners are supposed to do. But after all that fun, I still couldn’t figure out the difference between passive and potential and imperative and causative-form verbs, whatever those are anyway. To this day, I get scared if I see a られる. I could understand the gist of a lot of things, but a lot of the grammar just went over my head.

What is the best way to learn grammar?

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So here’s the moral of the story you’ve all been waiting for. Find the balance between the two methods. Book-learning and intuition are both important. Even if you spend all day learning what “について” means, you still won’t know where it would be appropriate to use it and where it wouldn’t.

Have you ever heard an English-learner say something and instinctively know that it sounds wrong, even if it makes sense? Likewise, even if you read “について” five times a day, you won’t necessarily understand what it means with all its nuances.

If you want to follow my great example, I spend my day reading and listening to Japanese and looking up grammar points I don’t understand and polishing that off with a glass of red wine and fifteen minutes of learning from my dear Japanese the Manga Way.

A few more miscellaneous pieces of advice for exemplary grammar-learning:

Google your grammar.

When I’m reading Japanese, I often find something grammar-related I don’t quite understand. I’ve seen the series of Japanese grammar dictionaries in all three flavors, but I find them to be a bit clunky and I can’t always find what I’ll looking for anyway. Sometimes I’m just looking for a weird Japanese phrase and you can’t find those in there. So I prefer just Googling everything like a lazy college student.

Usually you can just type in what you’re confused by followed by “Japanese” into Google and it will find you a few silly Japanese-learning websites that will explain it. I type in “なら Japanese”, click the top three results and find the one that explains it the best. That usually works, and if it doesn’t, I’ll give you your money back. This counts for book-learning, too, so if you don’t like textbooks, or are getting too smart for them, you can just utilize this “use as necessary” strategy.

What are the best Japanese textbooks and grammar-books?

My favorite is Japanese the Manga Way because of the all the awesome example sentences/manga it has and because it doesn’t beat around the bush and make me learn a bunch of words and phrases I don’t really care about. (Let’s learn how to speak Japanese at the post office! Yawn.)

Genki is really good too if you don’t mind a bit of superfluous information thrown in with some good grammar. Of course, if you’re poor there’s also Tae Kim’s grammar guide available for free on his website. He does a good job explaining things as well. Besides my opinions, you can also take a look at the best-Japanese-textbook opinion poll that was run a short while back if you want to see what’s popular.

Reviewing is good for your brain.

Right now you might be thinking “I’ve already read through [insert favorite Japanese grammar-book]! Do you expect me to keep reading textbooks until I’m an old, senile Japanese man?” Unless you have the memory of Superman, who must have a pretty super memory, you probably aren’t going to remember everything from your favorite Japanese textbook.

I’ve read Genki once, Japanese the Manga Way twice, Tae Kim’s guide and three volumes Japanese in Mangaland, and I’ve learned something new from each of them. Maybe I’m stupid, but you will forget a lot and reviewing and repeating old material helps gain new understanding.

You don’t have to read textbooks forever. Once you have a high level of competency and can read books and things that smart people make, you won’t have much need for studying grammar any more. By then, you’ll have enough book-learning and enough intuition to do anything you feel like doing.

So, how do you or how have you learned your grammar? Which side have you been influenced most by, or seen the most value in?



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Eric

Eric

A writer for Japanese Level Up, a part-time graphic designer, and purveyor of fine Japanese art (which consists mostly of anime, manga and weird music). When he's not wasting time in Japanese, you can usually find him making pretty pictures or studying something that sounds interesting.

Comments

How I Struggled with and Overcame Japanese Grammar — 38 Comments

  1. It was like this article was written perfectly for me. I do enjoy learning Kanji and Vocab, but learning grammar is the thorn in all my joy. Thanks for the tips, I’ma give dis a try.

  2. I wouldn’t say everyone hates grammar. I personally love every time I learn new grammar, whether from a textbook, class, native speaker or native resource. Especially so when I learn it naturally from a native resource. Sometimes when you hear something again and again in context from multiple sources (music, manga, drama, etc.) it suddenly makes sense. For me, I never had to look up the conjugation ~ず when I started coming across it, because it just made sense, maybe from exposure to it in multiple contexts.

    Googling is really good advice, as grammar cannot be looked up in a J-J dictionary, googling is the next step. Most often Japanese people also are curious about the nuances of grammar, especially when comparing to another grammar form and when to use each, so for people who have switched to J-J that can be insightful.

    • Good advice. I’m not personally proficient enough to be able to understand many Japanese-language articles and discussions, so I wouldn’t know, but it sounds like that would be a great resource as well. Do you just type the desired word/phrase into google.co.jp and find what you want there?

      • You will get there though!

        I usually type the phrase and then の意味 after it. Or if I want to compare two different words 「A」と「B]の違い.

  3. A healthy mix of the two is definitely the best way. A grammar point that you read about in a book might not click until you see it 10 or 20 times out in the wild, and something that you have read many times in manga might not make sense until you actually read an explanation for it. And there are some things (counting, verb conjugations, etc) that are just much easier to learn from a book, rather than trying to pick them up by immersing yourself. I think though that knowing instinctively when to use each kind of grammar is something that can only really come from exposing yourself to a lot of natural Japanese and hopefully having someone to correct you when you’re wrong.

    Once your language skills are at a certain level (you can use monolingual dictionaries, etc), I would recommend getting a Japanese grammar dictionary that is written in Japanese. Ones written in English can be a bit limited (they might not cover unusual uses of stuff), so a good Japanese one is useful. Also a Japanese person you can ask millions of questions to always comes in handy.

    • A Japanese-language grammar dictionary would be nice to have. A lot of the nuances just can’t be communicated well in English; I’ve spent enough time in J-J to know that. Asking other Japanese people is another great method as well, and they can usually explain it in much simpler terms as well. They’re usually happy to help.

          • Ha, it’s kind of similar to the English difference between “love” and “in love.”

            My favorite Japanese explanation is the meaning is based on the placement of the heart (心) kanji. Whether it’s in the middle (真心) or at the bottom (下心)

      • They’re usually happy to help, unless the person in question is your husband and you’ve already asked him about 50 times within the last hour. Hehe.

        • Yeah, I think 2 years of asking random questions repeatedly to my wife has taken its toll. Usually she just says 「もー、めんどくさい。」So 90% of the time I just have to fend for myself…

  4. I don’t think I ever “studied” grammar at all. I just did a lot of sentences and listening, and reading and I have pretty good grammar now. Apparently people say I don’t make mistakes or that I write “flawlessly” so that’s good enough for me, haha.

  5. Actually, I accidentally came across the usefulness for using google as a better dictionary. Yahoo jisho wasn’t working with the phrase, so I thought, what the heck. I searched for “そのとおり” and google automatically added “英語”, leading me to various japanese forums directed for japanese people polishing their english.
    I do agree with the article, that grasping grammar should have plenty of real-world exposure with some grammar explanations. This is essentially how English was taught to me. Consistently reviewing grammar we have been hearing, leads to near native judgments, like “it sounds funny”, or “that’s something someone from x-place or y-place would say”.

  6. Great article by the way, I was recently thinking to myself should I start studying a bit more grammar…
    I am half way through genki book 2, and I can read and understand it all, but give me a random verb and ask me to conjugate it… thats another story…

    I wonder how many anki cards it takes to have enough exposeure to enough grammar to just ‘get it’ without even realising.. I can only assume its at the 5-6k mark…

    • It’s different for each person. Right now, I can conjugate nearly every verb without thinking and I’m around the ~2k Anki mark. For conjugations, it really helps to write and speak Japanese which will force you to conjugate your own verbs. I know when to put a は and when to put a が or an を most of the time without thinking about it. Of course there’s still other parts I still mess up a lot. Sometimes I put a の between words that don’t need it, a で where there should be a に, and other more complicated mishaps. I wouldn’t put a number to it. I think it’s something that will happen without you even noticing it.

  7. I think using clozes instead of plain sentence cards really helps as well. It forces you to actually know the right particle or conjugation rather than just glossing it over once you know the meaning of your sentence.

    This is especially helpful for passing JLPT N1 which finally has some real relevance now. (In fact maybe Adshap should update his article about that now that it’s part of the highly skilled foreign professional visa.)

      • The idea is to take a point of grammar (e.g. a は, が or anything else you get regularly confused with) and wrap cloze delete tags around it, which hides it until you flip over the card. Then you have to answer what’s supposed to be in the blank before you flip over the card. Here’s how to pull it off in Anki: http://ankisrs.net/docs/manual.html#cloze-deletion

        • I have read the AJATT website a few times. I still don’t really see how a MCD is any different from a normal cloze delete though? I have a deck of roughly 2000 cards from the new version of the ‘Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar’ textbook (its actually the new version of the book recommended on AJATT) all typed out with voice added and ready to go once I have finished Genki book 2. I am thinking of just cloze deleting all of the particles and smashing through it at like 200 cards a day (because I should know most of the grammar already) just to reinforce what I may have missed, and force me to not gloss over the particles.

          • They’re about the same, but the emphasis of MCDs are the context. The idea is if you have a lot of context around the part/grammar you’re clozing, it’ll be easier to understand what’s missing.

        • What does the plugin do? Doesn’t Anki 2 already support cloze deletes?

          Yeah, Khaz from AJATT is the biggest proponent of them. I don’t think he really explains it very well, though.

          • The plugin is a less manual process. Instead of highlighting each thing you want to close you give it the whole text and what closes you want and how you want them processed. It’s really just a workflow thing and it still uses the close support built in to Anki 2.

    • I haven’t personally given them a try yet, but I’ve heard lots of praise for them. A lot of times I do skip over particles and other miscellaneous hiragana without even completely understanding them, so cloze deletes can be quite valuable.

  8. Hi,Eric!!!

    I’m glad to read your great article!!!

    You are so talented for writing article!!!

    I like your articles!!!

    By the way, my son whose name RIKU have also been learning Japanese at elementary school.

    He is 6 years old yet, and he can’t write and read “kanji” and difficult japanese words.

    I’m looking forward to reading your new article!!!

    Of course in Lang-8,too!!!

    If you like, please send me some message with G-mail.(hippo1122@gmail.com)

    And if you have LINE, my ID is “kapapiko” and please contact me on LINE.

    Thank you, Eric!!!

    See you!!!

  9. grammar is my strongest skill, I reach the point when almost everything that require some thinking was already done and I just need to continue to learn word like a little a happy little robot (yeah). It used to be the worst, I was convince the my grammar would appear naturally with the input like all those nihongo blogger say but this simply didn’t happened. And then, a good bad thing happened, I smashed my laptop and it broken :( I was giving my ass to anki thinking that it was the definitive solution but without it, I decided to give a try to Tae Kim, I downloaded the pdf version of his guide on my 兼帯 and started reading, although the immersion didn’t give the grammar it give familiarity, in every new topic I felt like “ah! and that’s why I see they saying that in that phrase!” and automatically “get it” forgeting wasn’t a problem since every time i read something or did reps I saw the grammar I learned in real life, it was very cool to fully understand the phrases that you input months ago but only got a general idea of the meaning thanks to the vocab

  10. First step when you want to learn a language : open up your mind.
    Once you’ve done that, you’ll have an easier time understanding (and accepting) that the language you’re learning works differently. Only then, you’ll have a chance.

    //Yeah.. calling grammar lovers liars might help you with your frustration but as for myself, I felt very offended

    • “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

      Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

      The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

      “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?””

      Blatantly stolen from here:
      http://www.myrkothum.com/the-10-very-best-zen-stories/

    • Sorry to offend. I was just trying to be funny, which I don’t succeed too often at :) I never really hated grammar myself, but I never found it particularly interesting. It is fun piecing it all together, though.

  11. Hello Eric,
    I’m the Marketing Category Manager for Tuttle Publishing Language. I read your post and was wondering if you’d consider reviewing our new textbook series: Beginning Japanese. http://www.tuttlepublishing.com/language-books/japanese/beginning-japanese-series

    Tuttle Publishing is one of the original companies to make Japanese learning books for Westerners but this is our first modern textbook series.

    Please let me know if you are interested and I can have some books sent to you.

    Best,
    Mike

  12. I got Japanese the Manga Way as a present from my parents when I was in elementary school, haha. At the time I thought “great, a dumbed-down grammar book targeted at otakus” and didn’t read much of it, but I rediscovered it at the end of high school and I agree, it’s a fantastic book. Walks you from nothing up to complicated grammar through native materiel in small, easy-to-understand chunks. Exactly how you should learn grammar.

  13. Thanks! I’m about to pick up a copy of “Japanese the Manga Way” as you suggested. I’m excited!

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