If you check out the Amazon best-selling books for learning Japanese, you will almost always see the Japanese from Zero books at the top of the list. I decided to finally get a copy of the first book so that I could see what it was all about.
Today I’d like to share with you my Japanese from Zero review, and go over both the content of the book (what it teaches) and also the methods of the book (how it teaches).
I’m going to break it down into several sections and explain what I like, or don’t like about them, keeping in mind that this first book is intended for absolute beginners.
The title does say “from zero after all!
The Overall Format of the Book
Alright, so each chapter in the book is a lesson, and although it does start off with some “pre-lessons” that focus entirely on a single concept like pronunciation or basic numbers, once you get into Lesson 1, it’s off to the races!
Each lesson is centered around a topic such as Creating Simple Sentences, Colors and Adjectives, Asking for Things (and so on) which is a nice way to learn when you’re starting off, and also really helpful when you need to reference something by looking it up.
In order to understand the way that it teaches, I’d like to use a metaphor:
Imagine that you are going to start swimming in a pool (Japanese). This book basically takes your hand and slowly wades you into that pool, allowing you to gradually get acclimated to the temperature, wetness, etc. so that you always feel ready for that next step.
So what do I mean by this?
Let’s take the writing for example. You only get introduced to a few of the hiragana characters each lesson so that you can learn them and practice them, while still continuing through the chapter.
What about vocabulary? It teaches you a fair amount of commonly used words for that chapter’s particular topic, but it certainly doesn’t overwhelm you.
It’s the same with grammar. You learn a little bit about the grammar that gets used in the examples, but it definitely does’t go over all of it.
I felt like this method of giving you a little bit of everything was very helpful for the beginner since you never feel like you’re being overloaded with information, which often happens when you try to learn everything there is on a single topic. For example, if you tried to learn the seven ways the も particle can be used.
Finally, you should be aware that this book is intended for the self-learner. What I mean by that, is there are a lot of exercises and practice drills at the end of each chapter.
There are multiple choice questions, fill in the blanks, translation work, match the hiragana with the romaji, label the picture, and even some more stuff.
Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of language exercises like this (read: I don’t do them), but I do acknowledge that studies have shown that people who are tested on information right after learning it have a higher retention rate for said information.
Better get your pencil ready!
How it Teaches the Writing System
Alright, so having talked a little bit about the overall format that the book takes, I’d like to switch over and go into detail on a few topics.
The first one is the information if provides on learning the writing system of Japanese.
First off, it only directly teaches hiragana.
I say directly, because it does include kanji and katakana in the vocabulary lists (in addition to romaji and hiragana) but it doesn’t teach you how to read or write them.
Again, this goes back to my metaphor with the pool. This book is only going to teach you the first writing system, and it’s going to do so throughout the whole book.
On the one hand, I felt like it was kind of a slow way to go about it, but you have to understand that (for me) I did nothing but practice hiragana for three days in order to learn them when I started off.
I think the reason the book takes it nice and slow is so that the self learner never gets bored or confused by too much hiragana. You don’t want to get hiragana-poisoning, right?
So I won’t knock the book for only teaching hiragana, and throughout the entirety of the book as well. Just be aware of that if you decide to pick up a copy for yourself.
Something that was really interesting is the PROGRESSIVE SYSTEM it uses to slowly wean you off of romaji, and onto only using hiragana.
The basic gist of it is that they use romaji, until you have learned a particular hiragana, and then that section of any new word will use the hiragana. Here is an example:
Let’s say that you know these three hiragana: か し と
Here is what the words would look like in the lessons:
- か kkou ii —- instead of かっこういい or kakkou ii
- sa し mi —- instead of さしみ or sashimi
- と ri —- instead of とり or tori
In other words, it uses a combination of romaji and hiragana that starts off primarily as romaji, but as you progress through the lessons, the words become more dominated by hiragana.
Personally I found it to be a unique method that seems pretty cool. I can’t say how effective it is, since I haven’t used it myself, but if any of you guys have used it, please let me know your thoughts on it in the comments below.
The final thing I want to touch on when it comes to how the book teaches the written part of Japanese is that, it provides a lot of detailed and very useful information that a lot of other books leave out.
For example, Japanese from Zero teaches you the three different ways to end every stroke when writing the language. Do you know the differences between them? A lot of people don’t, and I personally felt like it’s important to know for proper penmanship.
Also, the book provides the exact same hiragana in several different fonts so that you can get used to the different ways they look in the real world. If you thought that reading Japanese was hard, try reading it in a weird font!
This book at least gives you a helping hand in this department by familiarizing your eyes with different versions.
Finally, there are a lot of opportunities to use written system in the drills and testing sections, so definitely take advantage of that and really learn how to write hiragana.
The Focus on Conversation
One of the things I thought was really useful about this book was the focus it had on conversational phrases and words.
In my experience, the typically Japanese textbook focuses most of its time and energy on explaining grammar concepts and conjugation rules, and while Japanese from Zero (JFZ) does also teach that, the difference is that you will be able to talk to Japanese people as soon as you finish a chapter of JFZ.
To me, this is critical because what it does is it takes the Japanese language out of the realm of abstract, and it makes it something real, something concrete.
If you can start talking in Japanese right away, you really begin to feel like Japanese is a part of you, like it’s another way that you can express yourself and communicate with others (beside English).
I just felt like I should touch on that fact, since I’ve learned that there are some people who have been studying Japanese for months and years who can’t hold a basic conversation.
After using this book, you’ll be able to talk in Japanese (a real conversation). I mean yeah, it’ll be pretty basic, but that’s a great place to start from and then build upon.
In addition to that, it teaches a lot of real Japanese the way it’s actually spoken by natives.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the way people talk in real life usually has no resemblance to the way they talk in a typical textbook (this goes for all languages). JFZ does a great job at saying “Hey, even though most foreigners learn Japanese this way, here’s how Japanese people actually talk to one another.”
I mean, George Trombley (the author) did live in Japan for a long time and work as a professional translator for many years. I feel like it’s always nice to have an English native who is really good at Japanese teach it, since they know where other English natives are coming from.
Cultural and Historical Notes
Did I mention that this book is also pretty fun? Even though I skipped the drills, I absolutely loved all of the cultural and historical notes that it teaches!
It’s like getting a little bit of a deeper insight into the mind of the Japanese, which I feel helps the learner with Japanese since things like language, history, and culture and closely interlinked.
Some of the cool cultural notes are things like, why Japanese treats the colors green and blue as the same, the use of the word ぼく and when you can/should use it, the differences between things like sushi and sashimi, etc.
And for some of the history stuff, it talked about how originally women wen’t allowed to write kanji due to their low station in society. Since they could only use hiragana back in those days, what are some of the results and that, etc.
I’ve always found these tidbits of information to be really interesting. And sometimes, they’re actually pretty vital. The first time this kind of thing hit me was when a girl said she “felt like Urashima Tarou” and I was all like, “Uhh, who?”
So I had to go and read that Japanese fairy tail so that I could understand what she was trying to say. It’s nice that JFZ provides these types of cultural and historical notes so that you can understand the meaning behind the words, so to speak.
The Website: yesjapan.com
So, if I had to nail the book for one thing it would be that there is no audio accompaniment with it, and so you can’t really hear how Japanese actually sounds when spoken by natives.
However, I actually can’t ding it for this, because of the website yesjapan.com which is the author’s website that also teaches Japanese!
The website isn’t exactly the same as the book, because it’s actually a lot bigger. There are tons of videos, teachers that can help you with your questions, forms where you can discuss topics with other learners, and a lot more that you’ll just have to see for yourself.
It’s free to sign up and start learning Japanese, but there is a premium subscription that you can enroll in if you would like access to all five levels of lessons.
If you’re looking for a good online course to learn Japanese, then this might be exactly what you’re looking for. Check it out sometime and see what you think.
Final Thoughts and Where to Get
Alright, so I feel like I’ve gone over most of what the book is, and explained some of the really cool and unique things that Japanese from Zero delivers.
There’s obviously a lot more in it, but this ought to be enough to help you decide if it’s right for you.
As kind of a final grade, I would say that this book is perfect for the self-learner who is either a complete beginner with the language, or even someone who as just recently started studying and is looking for a good book.
You’ll learn how to speak Japanese, how to read and write it, and a lot of useful information about the culture.
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Let me also say that there are actually more Japanese from Zero books (four as of right now) so even if you already know some Japanese, it might be worth your time to check out the whole series so that you can get a solid understanding of the language from George-Sensei.
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Anyway, that’s all I’ve got!
Let me know your thoughts or experiences on Japanese from Zero with a comment down below!