Friday, July 07, 2006

Decent Books for Learning Japanese

Are there any? Not many that I have seen, but there are a few. Most written in Japan--or before the late 90s anywhere seem to be based on some type of "grammatical accuracy is everything" behaviorist ideas. One I used in Washington State University in the late 80s and early 90s was Learn Japanese. These texts were basically audiolinguistic drills with vocab lists to memorize and tons of grammar drills. Grammar was explained by charts and diagrams and used grammatical terminology which required you to spend as much time trying to figure out the diagrams and unusual terminology than we did learning the grammar. The professor didn't even use the grammar explanations for the book half the time. If the instructor---like mine---did not add any communicative activities, these things were horrible. You can still find them in Tokyo, but I would not give you 1 yen for the whole 4 volume set. I went through all four, and even though I could easily do the grammar drills, I could not understand nor use half of what I had learned. Such are the results of drill and accuracy exercises. (Can you say Berlitz pre-2004?) Even worse, these things were full of nihonjinron nonsense which was often even more absurd---and inaccurate---than stuff published by the Japanese. (These were published by the University of Hawaii Press, written by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano).

The Japanese for Busy People texts have been very popular in Japan for over 10 years. There are also based on dialogs and drill, drill, drill. For some reason, I liked them better than the texts above. The grammar studied is less complex and the explanations are easier to understand. The workbooks for these texts DO have communicative activities, good listening, and good reading exercises. All in all, not a bad set of texts, especially in the hands of an instructor who understands what a language is. (Hint: it ain't abstract grammatical constructs.)

My favorite is published by the Japanese Times. Unfortunately, it only covers the beginning level, but it is interesting, and was written by people with a knowledge of modern second language acquisition theory, and who knew how to teach: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese Genki. The CDs, the workbook the text, the reading exercises, the listening exercises are all good. Even if you are studying alone, I would recommend these above any of the others I have personally seen.

I am now studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 2, which is a huge jump from level 3. Huge. 1000 kanji, 6,000 vocabulary words, and much more complex grammar knowledge is required. So far, I have found NO especially useful texts. I love to read, so I did pick up some reading practice texts. One is published by Kenkyusha and has some decent readings with Q&A. I also have one form ASK (ASuKu) which has a slightly different focus. It uses reading materials form a variety of sources, advertisements, warranties, instructions etc which focuses on general meaning as well as details.

The Japan Times also publishes and intermediate-level text, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, but frankly, it sucks. It consists only of fake stories written about the lives of a foreigner studying at a Japanese university. This might be interesting if that is what you are doing, but otherwise it is boring as hell. The folks who wrote it seem to have some sort of huge penis-envy for the US. One story is of a woman who went to New York City, but was disappointed. The only thing as good as, or better than Tokyo, was the fact that she could see squirrels there. Kanji are introduced in the text with furigana above it for only the first encounter. I hope you can memorize it instantly, or else you will repeatedly be going back to the first use to remember the damned thing. This is very common with most Japanese-published texts. One could get the impression that someone is living in 1956 and has not kept up with the field of education since.

For extensive reading---nearly vital in learning a new language---I read kid's books, books without a lot of kanji, and if they do have kanji they always use furigana too. I find that those for 1st or 2nd graders are about right. They do have a good series of manga-style history books which I am reading. The point of course is that it is easy to understand and I can read it without being frustrated by too many kanji or unknown words, or grammar forms. (Did I ever mention what one of the Berlitz salesman/teachers told a student about extensive reading? Oh, sorry, I can't go there again, I will puke.)

Listening material. Good luck. I nave yet to find any that is interesting that I can listen to on my own. Again, this is vital, so my Japanese teacher gave me a CD with a Japanese TV series on it and with her help, I am using that. It is very tough---too tough really---but it is interesting.

For kanji? Kanji cards help, but in the end, I think you have to write and write and write them. It is the only way that I can really remember them. Cards are good, but the differences in some kanji are small, and if you don't write them, you often don't notice the small differences which can make a big difference in meaning. And you can bet, those will be on the JLPT.

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