The study of Japanese grammar is at the heart of learning how Japanese works. Grammar teaches you all about words, word forms and sentence structure.
Fortunately, Japanese grammar is largely regular. When you learn a series of verb endings that apply to the verb nomu, you’ll find that all of them also apply to sumu. You can successfully complete a table of all other Japanese verbs based on a few examples. The same applies to adjectives, which work a lot like verbs. A number of well-received books like Japanese Verbs: Saying What You Mean stand ready to aid you in your quest to master Japanese verbs.
Japanese sentences involve two components: sentence structure and the particle. Sentence structure is straightforward. Particles are not. Particles are small words that hold sentences together. You’ll use particles to indicate who’s the subject of a verb, the object of a verb, whether the sentence is a question or an exclamation, and so much more. I’ve reviewed books like All About Particles that help you make sense of Japanese particles and sentence structure.
Plenty of guides explain the ins and outs of grammar to beginners. The best of these present you with all the essentials: verbs, adjectives and adverbs, nouns, particles, measure words and sentence structure. The very affordable Barron’s Japanese Grammar, for example, offers all that with only one drawback: it includes no written Japanese script, only “Romanized” transliteration.
Learning to speak Japanese is a difficult goal. Ideally, you will find engaging exercises that closely mimic real-life speech. In reality, though, you have to find something that fits into your daily life. Conversational courses to the rescue! But which to choose?
You’ll first need to decide how to learn – with grammar and writing, or speaking alone. I highly advise you to lay out a personal study path that touches on all your goals, especially if you plan to achieve fluency in Japanese.
Beginners can start with a highly acclaimed course like Pimsleur, which also scored high marks on this site. If you go this route, I highly recommend skipping the “Basic” and choosing either the Conversational Japanese or the Comprehensive Japanese versions. Particularly if you’re an audio learner, there are few ways better than this. Visual learners, on the other hand, might enjoy Rosetta Stone: Japanese Level 1. Either way, expect to have a fundamental grasp of the basics, not a mastery equivalent to a fluent native speaker.
Other courses offer less intensive audio training, but for less money. Some more traditional courses include grammar and writing alongside dialogues and vocabulary, like the rather well done Colloquial Japanese (get the audio CD with this one). Other options available include Living Language Ultimate Japanese and Teach Yourself Japanese, although neither of these deals with writing head-on. All of these courses have their kinks, but they’re worth the investment if you can stand what’s missing.
Academically minded or just plain determined students looking for a course that emphasizes grammar & functional language but teaches it in the context of conversations & real written Japanese script should check out the textbook An Introduction to Modern Japanese and the accompanying exercise text/workbook. This is among the most thorough Japanese language learning products available.
The most challenging and complex aspect of mastering Japanese is unanimously agreed to be the writing system. Japanese script can easily overwhelm beginning students. If it gets to you, know that you have plenty of easy-to-read material in romaji to help you with grammar, pronunciation and conversation. But I still advise that most students study writing earlier rather than later. The key, though, is practice.
Japanese actually uses three different writing systems. Two are syllabaries. A syllabary has symbols that stand for whole syllables (instead of individual sounds, like an alphabet). In Japanese, these are called kana. The third system is a logographic one, called kanji. Kanji characters stand for whole words, or for one or more syllables that sound like words.
The two kana are hiragana and katakana. Both systems cover the exact same set of syllables. Hiragana are used for certain native Japanese words and parts of words, such as sa-yo-na-ra or hi-ra-ga-na. Katakana spell out foreign or borrowed words, like ta-ku-shi-i (taxi). Resources abound for learning the two kana systems, such as Let’s Learn Hiragana.
Kanji means Han-characters (or Chinese-characters). Japanese borrowed many thousands of these characters from China more than 1,000 years ago, and they still form the backbone of Japanese vocabulary. A basic understanding of kanji in daily life requires mastering just under two thousand “common use” characters. Yet many personal names and popular books contain characters beyond those “basic” 2,000. Whew!
To give you an idea of how kanji work, consider the character for “man”. It comes from a stylized representation of a person, and means “man” or “person”. The native Japanese pronunciation of that kanji is hito. The Sino-Japanese pronunciation is jin. You might speak about ano hito (that guy), but you’ll call a Japanese person a nihonjin, writing the same character for both.
Mastering kanji is often done after tackling hiragana and katakana, which I tend to advise as well. Once you’ve gotten this far, though, you’ll find plenty of kanji-learning materials to choose from. Among them, I recommend keeping Kodanshas Essential Kanji Dictionary at hand as a resource. Lesson books like Remembering the Kanji keep kanji fresh. And, if you find yourself enchanted by Japanese writing, don’t miss Kushner’s Crazy for Kanji, more of an anecdotal tribute than a lesson book.