If you are brand new to Japanese, you need a good phrasebook. If you’ve been studying Japanese for a while now, you need a good phrasebook. And If you’re visiting Japan for any time at all, you need a good phrasebook. But what is the best Japanese phrasebook?
I’ve got a few criteria for what separates the good Japanese phrasebooks from the bad ones, and I’d like to share those things with you. I’ll also be referring to five of the ones that I own (a crazy amount, I know!), and the pros and cons of each.
If you’ve already got one of your own, you might want to whip it out and compare it to the list of qualities that “makes or breaks it” when it comes to the best Japanese phrasebooks.
Alright, let’s begin!
First of all, it’s gotta have some Rōmaji
Many people hate Rōmaji (ローマ字), and others like it a little too much for their own good. I tend to take the middle ground and use it when it’s useful, but try my best not rely on it all that much.
The reason why a good phrasebook will have it, is because a good phrasebook has to be usable for beginners from day one. If a person who has no training whatsoever picks up a Japanese phrasebook and spends an hour or two working with it, they need to be able to speak several phrases after that initial hard work, if not right off the bat.
Unfortunately, if all that’s written in the book are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji then it’s going to be pretty useless for the newbies.
The first phrasebook I ever had was an old one from 1985 (older than me!) and all it had was Rōmaji! Which brings us to the flip side of the coin – a phrase book must also have more than just Rōmaji.
If all it has is Rōmaji, then people can start the race, but never finish it as they won’t ever learn the written part of the Japanese language.
That was the biggest drawback of Passport to Japanese (my first).
But even though it wasn’t enough to satiate all of my learning desires, it did do something that a startling amount of classes and courses don’t do – it got me speaking Japanese from day one!
After my very first week of using it, I could actually hold a five-minute conversation entirely in Japanese, believe it or not!
Of course, it was THE SAME conversation every time, but that’s not the point!
Next, it needs a good guide on pronunciation
Japanese is one of the easiest languages for Americans to speak, and also anyone else who’s native tongue is English.
That’s because the Japanese language actually has fewer sounds contained within it than English does. There are only a few things that are a little tricky (like the Japanese “R”), but 95% of it is a piece of cake.
However, having said all of that, you still have to know what’s correct and what’s incorrect. While ideally you would be able to listen to native Japanese people speak and pick up the correct sounds from them, the phrasebook has to be able to stand on its own legs regardless of whether or not the student has access to native speakers.
And a guide on correct pronunciation is a crucial part of that.
A good guide will contain:
- An explanation on the basic vowel and consonant sounds
- An explanation on elongated vowels and the pause between double consonants
- An explanation on when vowels are “silent”
- An explanation on the equal stress all syllables receive
In addition to all of those, I always want to give some extra credit to the phrasebooks that have an “American pronunciation guide” of sorts so that if you’re new to it all, you can use what you already know to learn something that you don’t know yet. Let me show you what I mean by this in line three of the below excerpt:
Phrase in English: It’s nice weather, isn’t it?
Rōmaji-Japanese: Ii o-tenki, desu-ne?
Sounds like: Ee’ ee o-ten-kee, dess, neh?
This was a lot more common in older phrase books than it is now, and I don’t think it’s 100% needed since the student should be able to remember correct pronunciation from the guide, but it can still be a nice thing to have when you’re on your own.
Of course, there has to be a dictionary included
The great thing about phrase books is that they teach you useful, complete sentences that you can use as soon as you learn them. But what if the phrases that you learned were only about 80% of what you needed to say in a slightly different situation? You want to ask for some milk, not more tea right?
That’s where the dictionary comes into play. You just look up the one or two words that you need, swap them out with the unnecessary words in your phrase, and you’re good to go!
An interesting thing that I’ve found is that the dictionary included in a phrasebook is small (since the entire phrasebook also has to be small) and this provides you with a very useful benefit:
Since phrasebook dictionaries have to be small, they only include the most useful and commonly used words!
You’re not going to learn about kidneys or livers, but you will definitely learn about numbers, food, stores, and so on. This is great since you can focus your time on the things that you will use every single day, and you can leave the obscure or specialized vocabulary until later when you’ve got a good amount of Japanese under your belt.
That being said, make sure that the book you get has both an English to Japanese dictionary, and the reverse, a Japanese to English dictionary. You’d be surprised how many word look ups you do from both sides of the fence when learning Japanese.
Don’t forget about the physical size of it
For the most part, phrasebooks are small enough to fit in your pocket. That’s good as you’ll want to take them with you when you’re hitting up the town in Japan.
But I have seen some that were a lot bigger. The kind that are better left on your bookshelf, rather than in your pocket during a trip to Akihabara.
Nowadays you can get a lot of them in digital format, which is pretty awesome! If you decide to do it that way, then you won’t even need the one in your pocket, your phone can do all the work!
The only downside I’ve run into with this is that I personally find it harder (slower) to look up certain sections and words when you’re whipping through your phone, instead of flipping through the pages of a physical book.
Does anyone else have this same problem?
BONUS! Does the phrasebook have any cultural notes or maps of Japan? These are things that are super nice to have and can help you out when you’re in a pinch or when you just want to understand the Japanese people on a deeper level.
Finally, the topics are really important
Of course, a phrasebook would be nothing if it didn’t have useful words and phrases contained within it. What you want to look for in this part are situations where you will need to speak Japanese every day.
That means things like shopping, eating out at restaurants, introducing yourself to others and so on. These are the golden topics that you absolutely MUST HAVE included in the Japanese phrasebook that you pick.
But other sections such as “being in an airport,” or even “going to the doctor’s office” aren’t really all that useful. The main reason is because pretty much everyone speaks English at the airport, and when you’re at the doctor, all you have to do it point to the part that hurts and say “itai” for “this hurts.”
Every phrasebook has some sections in common, but each one also does some things the others don’t. Just be sure that the one you pick up has the topics included that you actually plan on doing while you’re in Japan.
The Pros and Cons of Phrasebooks
Some of the great things about phrasebooks are:
- You learn very useful stuff that you can use in the real world, immediately
- You learn (implicitly) how Japanese grammar works
- They are super cheap
But even as great as they are, they can’t really give you a full education when it comes to learning Japanese. Some of the things that I think are drawbacks are:
- No audio for you to listen to
- No detailed explanations on grammar (more important at higher levels of skill)
- Mostly in the polite form, so little exposure to the casual or honorific forms of Japanese words
Having said all of that, how do you actually go about using a phrasebook to study and learn Japanese?
Here’s what I like to do:
Create dialog in your head between two people!
I say “in your head” but you should really be speaking out loud when you do so. Here’s what one of these situations might look like:
Person 1: いいホテルを教えてください。
Person 2: はい、帝国ホテルです。
Person 1: どうやって行くんですか？
Person 2: この道にまっすぐ行ってください。
Person 1: Could you recommend a good hotel?
Person 2: Yes, the Teikoku Hotel is good.
Person 1: How do you go there?
Person 2: Go straight on this road.
By asking and answering questions to yourself like this, you can quickly build up a vocabulary that will allow you to talk with people for a surprising amount of time, regardless of your current skill level.
Let me ask you this: Isn’t it true that you generally have the same conversation with people when you meet them for the first time?
Or when you run into them after a long break?
Or when you order food in a restaurant that you go to, and so on and so on?
These types of “scripts” that you can write for yourself will allow you to prepare mentally (and language-wise) for the real thing to happen to you, in real life. You will not only know what to say to people when you’re in those types of situations, but you will also know what to expect from them as well.
Seeing as how the Japanese language relies heavily on context, knowing what is generally said in these different types of situations is like knowing what all the questions are on the school exam before you even have to take it
Said another way, it only makes sense logically for certain words to be used in conversations between you and your waiter in a restaurant. So if you study those particular ones, then your brain will be ready for them when you encounter them.
So get yourself a good one
Hopefully you’ve already got a pretty good Japanese phrasebook that you can use and apply this Scripting Technique to.
But if you don’t, then at least now you know what to look for when you do get one. I personally think that the latest versions of Lonely Planet and/or Berlitz are really good and pass the standards I’ve talked about above.
Does it have to be said that you should try to avoid older, outdated phrasebooks? Not that the language changes a lot over time, but people generally become better at presenting the information to students the tenth time, rather than the first time.
I got both of my modern Japanese phrasebooks off of Amazon for super cheap, and you can do so as well if you’d like.
The first one is Lonely Planet:
|Lonely Planet Phrasebook||Checklist|
|Physical Size?||Back Pocket.|
The second one is Berlitz:
|Physical Size?||Back Pocket.|
Got any questions or comments to share? What’s the name of the Japanese phrasebook that you currently use? Is it pretty good?
Let me know with a comment below!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: