Tactics

Bunpou – A How To on Japanese Grammar

Grammar is often considered SCARY when it comes to learning a new language. And I can definitely relate to that… It’s hard!

But it actually doesn’t have to be. I often think back to how I became proficient in English grammar. This may come as a surprise to you, but it wasn’t from reading about grammar in my school books! It primarily came from reading fantasy novels when I was a kid.

You see, when you read a lot of stories you get to experience all the rules of grammar in action. You don’t try to understand them abstractly like a text book would teach you to. Instead, you just “get used” to how it works naturally and after a while you can just tell (or feel) when the grammar is correct or not.

I’m going to give you a HOW TO on Japanese grammar and show you some ways to pick it up naturally and quickly. Let’s get started!

A Present from Tim Ferriss

TimFerriss
Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is the author of several different books. One of his books is called The 4-Hour Chef and despite its name, it is actually a book about rapid learning. His goals in that book are to give people the tools that they need to learn any skill they desire, in as little time as possible.

When it comes to learning languages in particular, Tim found that there are thirteen short phrases that show the grammar of any language.

It’s a pretty awesome tool for anyone who wants to learn several different languages. I’ve gone ahead and translated the thirteen phrases into Japanese and put them into a nice PDF that you can download and use.

Think of these phrases as a framework for anything that you might want to say. If you want to say something different than what’s in this list, all you have to do is substitute the words (nouns, verbs, etc.), but keep the structure of the phrase the same.

*Click the picture below to download* 

I’ve got this sheet on my desk for quick reference any time I want to construct a new sentence in Japanese that I might not know.

Also, a few notes about this sheet and Japanese grammar in general: You may have noticed that the word for apple (ringo) is sometimes written in katakana, even though it’s not a loan word. Why is that?

It’s because Japanese people will sometimes use katakana when the kanji is very complicated. In your opinion, which looks easier to write 林檎 or リンゴ ?

Katakana is also used for the names of animals or plants when they are defined in technical terms, so using it for the name of a fruit would be considered a normal thing.

Also, many times in conversation the topic (marked by the は wa particle) is omitted when both people know what it is. This fact that Japanese is a context heavy language makes it hard to translate sometimes. Even so, if you start the conversation with any of the above sentences then be sure to include the topic!

You’ll also notice that Japanese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural like we do in English. The word リンゴ (ringo) can more both “apple” and “apples” depending on the context.

Learn Japanese grammar automatically with this

I alluded to it before. In order to learn Japanese grammar automatically, all you have to do is read Japanese manga! It seems so simple, but you will receive some profound benefits from doing it.

(1) – First of all, since manga has pictures of the action and the scenes, most of the words in it are dialog. Rather than learn lots of words that you may or may not use very often (like you would in a textbook) the things you will learn by reading manga are what Japanese people actually say to each other.

Granted, manga can get a little crazy at times, so don’t repeat every single thing you learn, but for the most part you’ll pick up on how people actually talk to one another.

(2) – Secondly, you’re going to learn how to talk in the casual form. You see, when most people start learning Japanese from a textbook or a course, they are taught the neutral/polite form so that they make a good impression on any Japanese people they meet. The casual form that is used in manga is something that you would only use with people who are your friends or family.

So by reading lots of manga, you’ll get to experience and learn the causal form that your normal Japanese learning material won’t teach you.

(3) – Lastly, and to the point, you’re going to get to see how grammar is used in action. By reading lots and lots of manga (that you enjoy), you will get exposure to Japanese phrases. And it is those phrases that show how the grammar actually works.

The best part is that you don’t have to focus on learning the grammar from the manga, you just have to read it and enjoy! When your conscious mind reads phrases, your unconscious mind picks up on how the grammar works. After you read enough, you will eventually just know what the correct grammar is. It will become your normal way of speaking and writing Japanese.

I wrote more about how “using conversational phrases” is one of the BEST ways to learn Japanese. Click here to check it out!

But sometimes it IS a good idea to just read the rules

Sometimes you just need to know how one particular particle works. That’s when it’s a good time to pull out a textbook on Japanese and look it up. Or when there is something that you’re just not entirely clear on.

But generally speaking, learning the “rules of grammar” is something that should be focused on once you’ve attained a certain level of proficiency. I’d say an intermediate level or higher is appropriate.

I don’t recommend it for beginners though, because grammar is kind of boring for most people. I think it’s because grammar is used to hold the rest of the language together, but by itself it doesn’t have much meaning.

Also, grammar is an abstract concept, so it’s harder to learn by itself as opposed to learning it by actively using it, like you do when you read.

So here’s my recommendation for anyone who is a beginner at learning Japanese: Read lots of phrases, sentences, and manga as your primary method of learning grammar naturally, and have a book you can reference that goes over Japanese grammar in details for when you need to look something up.

If you enjoy manga, you’ll like this one.

So that’s what I recommend when it comes to learning Japanese grammar. Not the conventional way, for sure. But it’s what worked for me, and I believe it will work for you too. Enjoy!


What are your thoughts on learning grammar by reading lots of manga? Are you a person who enjoys learning grammar for its own sake? Let me know what you think! Leave a comment!


 

6 Comments

  • Ayako

    This is a great page, esp since a lot of people think grammar is scary (it’s hard even for native speakers!). Japanese in MangaLand looks like a great book for beginners. Do you have any suggestions for movies or animes for beginners that I can recommend to friends wishing to learn Japanese without going to formal classes?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, for sure! If they’re just starting out, then any anime that is made for young children is a good choice. It may sound silly, but Sailor Moon is actually an excellent one to watch for this! It’s got a lot of polite/formal and casual dialog in it. It’s got lots of basic vocabulary in it too.

  • Ayako

    Hello Nikku san

    Thank you for sharing your great website. I was very impressed to know that you’ve learned Japanese in five years– that’s pretty impressive!

    I liked your webpage on bunpou, as grammar is always scary topic and many people seem to have fear toward grammar.

    Manga is a great way to learn Japanese and Japanese culture. Can you say the same about learning from anime or movies for people who prefer to learn from hearing?

    Since my boyfriend has been struggling with learning Japanese for years now, I’ll recommend your website to him!

    Ayako

    • Nick Hoyt

      Konnichiwa Ayako san!

      Yeah, I think watching anime and Japanese movies is a great way to improve your listening skills. It’s a lot harder if you’re just starting out, but if you’ve been working on Japanese for a while then you can recognize a lot of words and phrases, which is very encouraging!

  • Bassam

    This is a great article, it helped me out a lot. Japanese does seem to be a very hard language to learn for native english speakers, I read somewhere recently that Japanese, Chinese, Mandarin, Korean, and Arabic are the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers, maybe the fact that I am fluent in Arabic can help me.

    Is there any book you recommend for beginners that want to learn Japanese? like level 1 learning?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I’ve also heard that those are some of the hardest to learn if your fist language is English. But, learning Japanese should be much easier for you in particular, since you’re already bilingual. It’s easier to learn a third language than it is a second (go figure!).

      If your’e just starting out, I would recommend either a good phrase book to get you speaking the language quickly, or a book that teaches you how to read, if you like manga. I’ve talked about both before and you can learn more about each one here:

      Book to learn how to speak Japanese

      Book to Learn how to read Japanese

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