Book recommendations for learning Japanese
March 21, 2009 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn Japanese and I'm looking for book recommendations, especially for someone who can read Chinese.

Of course books are no substitute for full immersion, but at the moment I'm mainly interested in learning the written language.

I consider myself a fairly experienced language learner, so I'm not interested in casual "listen to tapes in your car" courses or phrasebooks. I am not interested in Pimsleur.

I'm looking for something structured which doesn't shy away from grammar, but not to the point of being a grammar reference. Ideally it would have some interesting dialogues and reading selections, exercises, and perhaps some notes on culture.

I can already read Chinese characters, but I'm aware that their Japanese meanings can be very different, and of course I don't know their Japanese pronunciations, so it's important for me that the book stresses kanji. I've seen a number of books for learning Japanese, but most seem to have Japanese text in romaji or only kana. I would be OK with Japanese textbooks written for a Chinese-language audience (if they can be obtained in North America).

I would be studying on my own, so books intended to be used as part of an in-person course probably wouldn't do. Bonus points if the book has included CDs or tapes. Thanks!
posted by pravit to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
These days with the internet and all I think self-study is an excellent option.

The free online tool Pop Jisho generally does a pretty good job of breaking down text into understandable fragments.

Amazon.co.jp sells the first two Japan Times-published grammar books. These are the best I've seen -- the generally replicated what the first two years of my Japanese uni classes covered, grammar-wise. (Amazon.jp will tack on $36 for shipping bringing the total for the first two books to $106). You can also get them here for about the same price apparently.

Japanese is a wonderfully regular1 and well-structured language so with a bit of grammar -- and the kanji squared away -- you can begin to tackle the content that interests you without having to deal with intermediary "textbooks".

IME I found I learned a lot from just watching TV music performances, because these are generally subtitled in Japanese. There's like a couple of thousand words -- 愛、輝く etc etc that are repeated so much that they're drilled into your brain.

This advice is just what I found useful over the past 20 years and I think other people who started this decade might have more useful advice to offer!

[1] -- except for the "On yomi" and otherwise random readings you'll find of the characters, these are all over the place.
posted by mrt at 2:36 PM on March 21, 2009


You need to learn kana (Hiragana and Katakana). There's no way around it. Japanese grammar is based on kana, and, besides, most Chinese characters used in Japanese can be conjugated as verbs (kun'yomi), and the kun'yomi has nothing to do with the Chinese reading of the character. You only need to learn Hiragana at first. It should take about a month.

I learned up to intermediate-level Japanese by using these books.

They're hard to find these days, but these are the very best textbooks for foreign students of Japanese.

After I mastered the 1000 kanji in these books I switched to the 日本漢字能力試験 study books, the kanji test developed for Japanese folks.

Of course, if you already read Chinese and understand stroke order and stroke count, then you can use a Japanese kanji dictionary to look up how words are pronounced (you'll need to understand Hiragana, though).

Windows XP's IME for Japanese also has all sorts of cool tools for looking up the meanings of unknown kanji.

If you use Firefox, rikaichan is an indispensable tool, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:35 PM on March 21, 2009


I just reread your question. Sorry if my answer above doesn't quite make sense.

Anyway, the 新日本語の基礎 series has different versions for different learners from different countries. 新日本語の基礎 is probably the most common book used for "Japanese as a Foreign Language" teachers in Japan itself (it's the textbook I used in Japan 15 years ago).

Here is a grammar book for Chinese learners: 新日本語の基礎 (1 文法解説書 中国語版)

If you search for 新日本語の基礎 + 中国語版 I'm sure you'll come up with something.

But I still swear by these books, plus the 漢験 books for Japanese learners.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:45 PM on March 21, 2009


You only need to learn Hiragana at first. It should take about a month.

~50 flashcards. Took me one sitting, on a slow night at work.
posted by mrt at 6:51 PM on March 21, 2009


You have to learn to *write* them.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:43 PM on March 21, 2009








問題なし
posted by mrt at 9:37 PM on March 21, 2009


Thanks for the answers!

To clarify, I have nothing against learning kana. What I meant was that I don't want a book which has text only in romaji or kana as a means of avoiding kanji (like many beginning Japanese textbooks for Western audiences).

KokuRyu, you mentioned that you learned up to intermediate Japanese with the books at this link. For me, the link shows several kanji books. Do they explain grammar as well, or do they mainly teach kanji?
posted by pravit at 9:44 PM on March 21, 2009


I used Genki I and II when I was first teaching myself Japanese. They include kanji with furigana (the hiragana readings) underneath. Each chapter has a dialogue, a vocabulary section, a grammar section with 5-10 distinct pieces of grammar, and a practice section. Each chapter is accompanied by a reading/writing chapter at the back of the book. There are also a few Expression Notes sections that talk about how the language is used in daily conversation or other important things to know that are not strictly grammatical. The reading/writing sections introduce 15-20 kanji each lesson, which is a bit slow, but thorough, and there are a few reading selections about various cultural aspects. I found the practice questions mediocre and a bit repetitive, though, and sometimes they leave things unsaid when they first introduce grammar, forcing you to relearn it properly later. There are CDs available, but I've never used them.

After finishing Genki, I moved on to An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, which I think is much better, and has several reading selections and bits about culture. It assumes fairly strong basic knowledge, though, so you may not be able to use it right away, and it doesn't teach any kanji (it just provides a list every chapter of kanji you ought to know by this point, and leaves the learning up to you). It does provide furigana for words that are not extremely basic/common, though.

You might find something like the Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary useful; it lists all the readings for a character and the different senses in which it can be used depending on the okurigana, as well as several example compounds for each meaning. Alternatively, if you want something more structured, there might be a book based on learning the most commonly used kanji (the Jouyou kanji) in the same order they are learned in Japanese schools (I use the DS game Kakitori-kun, but since you already know Chinese hanzi the writing practice would be superfluous for you).

Although you want a textbook and not a grammar reference, Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese is amazing and I think would make a great supplement for any textbook-based self-study. There are always going to be parts that are unclear when you're learning alone, and the more perspectives/different grammar explanations you have, the more complete your understanding of the grammar will be. Besides, it's free!
posted by daelin at 11:18 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The issue is, though, that you need the kana as much as anyone else. Maybe even more so. Knowing hanzi gives you two advantages when learning Japanese: (1) You can write kanji (or close-enough variants), and (2) You have at least a general idea of what each individual kanji means. These are big advantages that will save you lots of time, but it's important to note that knowing hanzi only gives you limited information about kanji compounds in Japanese, and almost no useful information about how they're pronounced (there are correspondences, of course, but they're not very accessible or useful for learners -- it'd be like trying to fake pronunciation of latinate English words based on a firm grounding in their French cognates).

So you won't need to waste all that time drilling written kanji (although, to be honest, no-one does unless they want to do a lot of handwriting in Japanese), and once you get up to intermediate level you will be able to learn new words more easily and make educated guesses about the meanings of compounds and so on. But as a beginner, starting with kana and the sounds are vital. (Don't worry, though, there aren't many courses or textbooks worth bothering with that stick with just kana all the way through.)

Can you give us more of an idea of your goals here? Do you want to do business in Japanese? Travel there and make friends? Read Murakami in the original? Watch anime without subtitles? If you don't have anything particular in mind, just want a basic grounding in Japanese, I would recommend going to a big bookstore, flicking through a few textbooks, and buying the one that appeals to you most.
posted by No-sword at 11:36 PM on March 21, 2009


But as a beginner, starting with kana and the sounds are vital.

the poster just didn't want only kana. Which is important since already knowing the kanji is about a third of the battle.

Learning the 48-odd kana is not a challenging task!

but it's important to note that knowing hanzi only gives you limited information about kanji compounds in Japanese

I'm taking Mandarin now so I can disagree with this to some extent. You're right that the readings won't be evident, but the meanings of compounds and single-characters most certainly are common with hanzi, at least for 95% of what I've seen so far.

After two years of college study, in my first year living in Japan, I acquired Heisig's book and did his approach, which was just memorizing the English meanings of all the Joyo kanji and not their readings. This was a great help in my further learning the language, since after that I could READ, and reading is the fastest way to learn. With the internet now, Popjisho and other tools do a good job of doing the look-up for you, so for self-study you can create vocab lists to study on your own.

One angle that I've found most helpful is to really tackle the Japanese verbs. Since every phrase and sentence ends with one, if you don't get the verb you won't understand the sentence at all -- I guess about a third of the language is mastering the verbs and their tenses and how they are assembled (te-form, stem-form, etc).
posted by mrt at 1:44 AM on March 22, 2009


Well, the poster said "What I meant was that I don't want a book which has text only in romaji or kana as a means of avoiding kanji (like many beginning Japanese textbooks for Western audiences)." The spirit of wanting to get closer to normal written Japanese is good. I'm just trying to emphasize that kana aren't just a poor substitute for kanji—they have value in their own right, especially for someone still learning the sounds of the language. (Even romaji have their place—it makes little sense for an English speaker to learn Japanese verb forms using anything else, for example.)

the meanings of compounds and single-characters most certainly are common with hanzi, at least for 95% of what I've seen so far

True enough (depending on field) but I wasn't really talking about meaning. More nuance, formality level, collocation, things like that. Maybe I was being overdramatic—obviously you can apply your knowledge of one language when learning the other—but the "oh, I know this" trap can rob language study of both pleasure and value. If you've got no pressing need to get to a certain level or learn a certain amount of jargon by July or whatever, best to assume that you don't know, slow down, and enjoy the ride.
posted by No-sword at 3:15 AM on March 22, 2009


KokuRyu, you mentioned that you learned up to intermediate Japanese with the books at this link. For me, the link shows several kanji books. Do they explain grammar as well, or do they mainly teach kanji?

The books are useful for learning in kanji and kun'yomi verbs... Grammar, not so much. I learned on the Nihongo no Kiso books, which have a Chinese version.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:43 AM on March 22, 2009


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