Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar

Understanding basic Japanese grammar is a must for anyone who wants to learn the language. But what exactly does that entail? And how would someone who is new to the game get started on this?

Today I would like to give my personal thoughts and opinions on this topic, based on my own experience and the advice that I’ve received over the years from people who were further along the journey than me.

Let me take a little bit of time to talk about “basic grammar” and then I will explain how to learn it. At the end, I will provide some recommended resources that you can use to get started.

What Makes It Basic?

When you start learning grammar, it tends to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Basic
  2. Intermediate
  3. Advanced

But what exactly makes a particular grammar “basic” as opposed to the other two options?

I would say that it’s primarily a matter of frequency. In other words, the basic grammar is the stuff that you see and hear every day in Japanese. It’s the stuff that will appear in nearly every single sentence that you encounter.

It’s also the essential pieces used to form you own sentences, and if you want to communicate simple thoughts to another person (“I’m hungry, let’s watch a movie, etc.”) then you’ll use these parts to do so.

By contrast, the advanced grammar is something that you rarely encounter and only seen in specific situations such as a formal speech.

You could ignore learning the advanced stuff and still be able to live comfortably in Japan with natives.

Looking at a real life example, we could say that the basic grammar is the stuff that used by native 5 year old’s when they communicate with their friends and family.

What Is Included?

What exactly is included in this “basic grammar” list? I would say that it contains a little bit of everything. If you think of it as a pool of water, we could say that it’s pretty wide, but shallow.

Overall, this would include word order and how basic sentences are structured.

Diving into it a little deeper, we would say that it included verbs, adverbs, and how to conjugate or inflect them. It would include polite language and casual language, and explain when to use each one.

It would talk about inner and outer circles (a culture thing), and how word choice differs between them. And of course it would include particles and counters that are used in most sentences.

To give an example of this, the particles は (wa), が (ga), and を (o) fall into this category of high frequency grammar that’s used every day by both adults and children alike.

When learning basic Japanese grammar, you would want to spend you time learning these common ones and, for the moment, completely ignore the lessor used particles like だの (dano).

The reason why I say this is because it’s easier to learn the ones that appear most often (there are more natural examples of them) and it gets you understanding the language faster.

As a side note, I’ve only ever encountered だの in native material a handful of times.

Now let’s take a look at the two-step process for learning basic grammar.

Step 1: Clear Explanations

In my experience, the easiest way to learn Japanese is through comprehensible material. That simple means you understand the message that is being said.

Since the English language is vastly different from Japanese, it’s important to have clear explanations on what each Japanese word means and how they function in a sentence. I say this because it won’t be how you naturally assume based on your native language.

Taking an example from earlier, when it comes to learning the を particle a good explanation might start with the dictionary definition, “indicates direct object of action” and then we could explain it again in a different way with an example.

Just putting this into my own words right now, the particle を gets attach to the end of the word that receives the action in the sentence.

An example would be “I hit the ball” where the “ball” is receiving the action of being “hit.”

  • ボールを投げる
  • bōru o nageru.
  • (I) hit the ball.

Since the ball is being hit, the particle を gets attach to the end of it. Even if there was a different verb, like “to pick up” as long as it was being done to the ball, the を would still attach to the end of it.

Hopefully, I didn’t butcher that explanation too much!

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s essential that you get a clear explanation on whatever basic grammar concept you’re learning so that you don’t have to guess at what it means and potentially attach an incorrect meaning to it.

The other essential element of learning new grammar is that you get an example that illustrates how it works.

The reason for this is because grammar is such as abstract concept, that we need something solid to really cement the understanding of it into our minds.

That being said, in order to learn the concept at a deep, unconscious level you actually need a lot of examples.

Step 2: Lots Of Examples

If I had to highlight a common weakness that I see from textbooks or courses when they teach a new piece of grammar, I would say that it is the small quantity of example sentences that they use to show how it works.

Generally speaking, they will spend a couple of minutes talking about the grammar and then only provide 1-4 examples of it before moving on to the next thing.

I understand why they do this, to keep the material short and concise, but the human brain really needs to experience dozens and dozens of new and different examples before it begins to lock the information in.

The goal after all is to be able to understand and use it without having to think about it. It’s kind of like when you first learned how to ride a bike.

Initially, you had to concentrate heavily and struggle to keep yourself upright. After enough practice however, you could hop on the bike and start riding without a single thought.

For me, I really like to have more along the lines of 10-20 example sentences that all show the new grammar working is various situations. This really helps lock it in and see it in action at the beginning.

It also gives lot of material to use as a review later on to help keep the understanding of it strong.

Recommended Resources

Now that I’ve shared my philosophy on learning the basic Japanese grammar with you, let me point you towards a couple of resources that you can utilize.

The following links are all reviews that I’ve written on each one so that you can learn more about them.

The first is the Japanese in MangaLand series that I’ve used and learned a lot from. This first book is all about the basics and helped me gain a solid foundation on the language.

The second book is about Japanese Sentence Patterns and follows the idea that lots and lots of example sentences are needed to help understand a new concept. This book is pretty unknown, but was a tremendous help.

The last one is JapanesePod101 which has arguably the largest library of lessons on the Japanese language. What I like about them is that they have audio and transcripts so that you can read and listen to it no matter where you are.

Personally, I think all three of these are great resources, but if you’re got any that you think are worth mentioned then please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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