Japanese Essential Edition by Living Language

6 / 10
full introductory conversational course; audio CDs let you listen to most every Japanese word, sentence & dialogue in the book; each unit builds up from vocabulary words to phrases to sentences to dialogues; deals with quite a bit of beginner Japanese grammar; appendix includes vocabulary glossary & lengthy grammar summary; extra “dictionary” works as a generous vocabulary supplement to the course book; inexpensive

although this course briefly introduces the kana, it’s entirely in romaji (foreigner-friendly transliteration); language explanations are short & terse; although some grammar and language function sections build on previous ones, presentation of topics is haphazard; exercises are simplistic & short – translation, fill-in-the-blank, or matching; lengthy vocabulary lists to memorize; formatting of book is a bit cramped

Complete Japanese: The Basics

Living Language’s older basic Japanese course (Japanese Complete Course: The Basics: Learn in 4 Simple Steps!) proposes a way for you to learn the fundamentals of conversational Japanese, including vocabulary and grammar. The course comes with four hours of spoken Japanese on audio CDs, a 40 lesson, 400 page coursebook (the heart of this basic course), and a “learner’s dictionary” that actually works as an extensive vocabulary list for the main coursebook.

Before I get into this old course, I want to mention the newer Living Language package (link directly above). Despite the package changes, their method still has that structured but approachable text-plus-audio feel to it – right in between a grammar book and a Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone. I’ll explain below.

The entire package is structured around the main book, with audio & dictionary sitting on the sidelines as enhancements. The presentation of each lesson isn’t out of the ordinary, particularly if you’ve learned with Living Language or other conversational program before. There are dialogues, explanations of grammar and language functions, culture notes, vocabulary lists and short practice activities within each unit.

The somewhat unique approach to Japanese here involves splitting each unit into four lessons, with each of the four building on the last, starting with 1) single words, moving onto 2) phrases, 3) sentences and, finally, 4) conversations. This cycle continues for ten units.

This words-phrases-sentences-conversations method comes across clearly in the Japanese vocabulary lists, sentence groups or dialogues that begin each lesson. (Dialogues replace lists of words & sentences in the “conversations” lessons.) Explanations, “nuts & bolts”, “tips” & practice exercises don’t maintain the distinction so clearly, particularly in later chapters.

The course covers a slew of vocabulary and phrases, with believable conversation in the dialogues, and the audio CDs read most of the Japanese in the book! All this makes for good listening comprehension practice.

The coverage of Japanese grammar is solid compared to most basic course books. For example, it teaches most every verb form short of the passive/causative passive. The general supplemental grammar appendix is thorough enough that it shouldn’t go to waste on dedicated students.

Coverage of the Japanese writing system, on the other hand, is very poor. In its focus on conversation, the course lets real written Japanese fall by the wayside. You’ll need to pick up to even start transliterating all this romaji into basic kana, and you’re better off learning some kanji sooner rather than later.

The course’s average, sometimes crowded formatting distracted me more than a few times, and the lack of an index makes it less of a reference resource once you’ve gone through it once. Still, an adequate table of contents gives an overview of the book’s organization. I enjoyed the extras, especially the thorough audio CD for such a low priced product, and even the learner’s dictionary (which you’ll quickly outgrow). The audio has some drawbacks (especially compared to robust programs like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, both of which I’ve reviewed). The pacing isn’t always great for learning, given that it’s entirely a passive listen-repeat-memorize affair.

For all it offers, I’m mostly ambivalent about the long-term value of Japanese: Learn in 4 Simple Steps! There’s not too much here that’s unique, and the course will seem like a blur of instructions and transliterated word lists once you’ve completed it. You’ll need something else to study the Japanese writing system, and active learners will require more student-directed audio or media to learn from. Still, as an introduction to the conversational language, this package is an affordable, surprisingly deep start for a basics-only course.

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