Learning Japanese The Classics Way

Recently while stuck at the dealership waiting for my car to get fixed (flat tire), I got into a weird thought exercise about how to learn Japanese language. I started learning Japanese on my own way back in the late 1980’s (back when Japan Inc was super cool to impressionable teenagers) and then in college in a formal setting, and later again when I studied for the JLPT exam on my own (reached JLPT N2 in 2012).

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Needless to say, I’ve learned Japanese a number of ways over the years, and I’ve never quite liked any of them. Japanese as a language is pretty fun and interesting, but I have come to dislike most approaches to explain Japanese grammar because either they weren’t very clear (explaining the differences between particles は and が supposedly can fill a book, I was once told), or they they just didn’t produce good results. I still get the conjugations of 切る and 着る, both read as “kiru” but conjugate different, mixed up on a regular basis, and I don’t want to even mention the Heisig Method of learning kanji.

Thankfully, there are some really nice, modern approaches to Japanese. I really like Tae Kim’s excellent Guide to Japanese and I can say that it helped me to fix some old, bad habits, while also explaining grammar concepts in new, fresh ways. I just wish it had existed when I was learning Japanese.

Meanwhile, as a fun personal exercise under lockdown, I’ve been (re)studying Latin through the Great Courses class taught by Hans-Friedrich Mueller. Learning Latin, probably the most studied language in Western culture since antiquity, made me realize that Latin’s approach to learning is pretty effective in some ways. The way things are categorized, dissected and studied means that if you learn Latin properly, you can learn Latin surprisingly quick. It’s a fair amount of work upfront, but once you get past that first hill, it’s actually not that bad.

As with Japanese, I had learned a bit of Latin before ages ago, but while the books were well-respected (and fun), they were not always effective. I would quickly get bogged down by the time I got to the third-declension nouns, and I never quite recovered. Trying again with a fresh, different approach through the Great Courses really helped me get past the old hurdles, and now Latin makes a lot more sense. The issue was never the language (just as with Japanese), but how it’s conveyed, and how people build foundations.

So, while at the dealership, I got to thinking, can the same approach be applied to a totally different language like Japanese? Is there better ways to build solid foundations in Japanese to avoid future headaches and frustrations? I think “yes”. We can’t always rely on tradition to teach a fascinating language like Japanese, we as language students (and educators) should be tilling the soil over and over to find better and better ways. Latin has had the benefit of this for 2,000 years in the West and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same for other languages.

This post is a first-attempt at applying a Classics-style language course to Japanese. It’s far from perfect, but if you’re studying Japanese and have even a basic Classics education, hopefully this will make sense. And if you have never learned Latin or Greek, I highly recommend Professor Muller’s courses. They’re terrific.

Nouns and Particles

Nouns are particularly easy in Japanese because there’s no conjugation at all. What you see is what you get. The tricky issue comes with how they interact with particles. Particles have no direct analogy in Latin or English, but nevertheless, they can still be translated the same way.

For example in Latin there are five conjugations to express which part of the sentence a noun belongs to (major credit to Professor Muller for this explanation):

  • nominative (the subject) – mīles, a soldier
  • genitive (of the noun) – mīlitis, of the soldier
  • dative (to or for the noun, indirect object) – mīlitī, to or for the soldier
  • accusative (noun as the direct object) – mīlitem, something done to the soldier
  • ablative (by, with or from the noun) – mīlite, by with or for the soldier.

Ancient Greek has the first four, for what it’s worth. Plus both Greek and Latin have plural versions of these conjugations too.

Japanese particles fulfill the same roles, though, even if expressed differently. Instead of changing the ending of the noun as shown above, you take on an extra syllable:

  • nominative: use は (wa) or が (ga, more on this below) – 犬は・が, the dog …
  • genitive: use の (no) – 犬の, the dog’s, of the dog
  • dative: use に (ni) – 犬に, to or for the dog
  • accusative: use を (wo) – 犬を, something done to the dog.
  • ablative: で (de) or と (to) depending on context: 犬で, by the dog or with the dog (instrumental case), 犬と with the dog (accompanying).

As you can see, Japanese particles do not map 1:1 in usage and context as Latin/Greek cases, but you can see that between them all the essential grammatical bases are covered.

The whole は (wa) or が (ga) issue was hopelessly complicated to me when I was in Japanese language classes in college, but Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese does a really good job of clarifying this. The particular が in particular is really just there to address three possible questions: who, which and where. By contrast, は just marks the topic, or is used for contrasting with other topics/subjects.

Verbs

Verbs are important in Japanese, especially since you can have a whole conversation in Japanese with verbs only (everything else is implied by context):

A: tabeta? (from context, “did you eat”?)

B: nn, tabeta. (“yup, I did.”)

Verbs in Japanese have their own inflections that don’t exist in Western languages, and remembering the conjugations can be tricky, especially because there are two types:

  1. ichidan (一段) verbs, sometimes called “ru-verbs”.
  2. godan (五段) verbs, which also include some “ru-verbs” (such as “kiru” above).

Example inflections for 切る (godan) and 着る (ichidan), both read as “kiru”, are as follows:

切る (kiru)着る (kiru)
dictionary formkirukiru
te-formkittekite
potential formkirerukirareru
causative formkiraserukisaseru
polite (masu) formkirimasukimasu

You can see how the subtle differences can throw of a student in Japanese.

So, in Latin (and Greek), verbs are usually expressed as a series of principal parts. The verb “to read” is expressed fully as legō, legere, lēgī, lēctum whereby legō is present active (“I read”), legere is the active infinitive (“to read”), lēgī is the past tense (“I read”) and lēctum is the perfect passive participle (“the X who’s reading”). By memorizing the entire set of principal parts up front, the rest of that Latin verb can be conjugated quick and easy.

To me, the same approach can be applied to Japanese verbs, just with different principal parts. By knowing both the dictionary form, and the te-form of a verb you can quickly identify if it is a ichidan verb or a godan verb and conjugate accordingly. I would probably also throw in the “masu” polite form and maybe something like passive form too for completeness.

So, for 着る, the principal parts in my mind are 着る、着て、着ます (kiru, kite, kimasu). The “ru” stem in dictionary form + the te-form with no small “tsu” tells me that this is an ichidan verb.

Similarly, for 切る: 切る、切って、切ります (kiru, kitte, kirimasu). The “ru” ending in the dictionary form, plus a small “tsu” in the te-form tells me that this is a godan verb, so I can conjugate accordingly.

For other verbs, for example 飲む (nomu): 飲む、飲んで、飲みます (nomu, nonde, nomimasu).

…and so on. The key here is that by memorizing a verb by its principal parts, you can easily intuit what type of verb it is, and know how to form the rest. The te-form is used in many ways, so memorizing it upfront, even you don’t know how to use it yet, saves a lot of headache.

In the case of Japanese this is less crucial in some ways than Latin/Greek because you can easily figure out the rest by converting the verb ending to the right ending for the right conjugation, but knowing the “root forms” that the other conjugations are based off of is a time-saver, especially when dealing with ichidan verbs and godan verbs with “ru” endings. There are quite a few.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Since Japanese doesn’t use grammatical gender like Latin and Greek verbs (no masculine, feminine, etc) they are fairly straightforward to conjugate. Unlike Latin, Greek or English, Japanese adjectives can express negative (not) and past-tense, but again the grammar is very consistent and easy to use.

In place of learning grammatical gender for adjectives (as in Latin/Greek), I think it would be sufficient to teach adjectives simply as their dictionary form + dictionary-negative form. For example:

  • 安い: “cheap” which has forms 安い、安くない
  • 静かな: “quiet” which has 静かな、静かじゃない

For the “na” adjectives, such as “quiet”, I don’t know if it’s proper to include the な at the end of the adjective or not, but since it’s not used in some forms, it seemed proper to leave it out but then again, as with the verbs and principal parts, knowing up front that it has a な will tell you how to apply it to modifying nouns and such based on established grammar rules. The key here is treating these as teaching aids, I think.

Adverbs of course are super easy, barely an inconvenience. You just attach them right before the verb. Voila.

Conclusion

This whole mental exercise in expressing Japanese with Classics-style teaching aids needs a lot of work, and folks who are much better at Japanese than me will understandably disagree. What I wanted to do is to stimulate thinking about how to teach Japanese more effectively, more concisely so people can establish good foundations. Japanese is different than English, a lot different, but when you come to grips with its own internal logic and structure, it’s really not that hard. The trouble is how its conveyed in language education, and I hope people will continue finding newer, better ways to overcome that hurdle.

頑張りましょう!

P.S. yes, kanji is a pain, but you shouldn’t be brute-force memorizing them anyway.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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