Jan
7
2010

Making Out in Japanese by Todd & Erika Geers

Score:
5 / 10
Pros:
lots of everyday, “street” Japanese phrases about basic topics (not just seedier ones); good layout and use of space; topics chosen cover a variety of social situations; explanations usually succint and relevant to specific phrases; full Japanese script and romaji for each phrase; rumor has it you can hear these phrases on an accompanying audio cassette

Cons:
proposes to help you learn to speak real Japanese, but only presents pages of phrases; no index and poor chapter titles make individual phrases hard to find; the more colloquial or slang phrases are out of date; introduction does a decent job of explaining the book’s niche, but fares less well in coverage of grammar, writing and pronunciation; really an extra rather than a main course, even as a travel phrase book


Making Out in Japanese offers you 120 pages of Japanese phrases divided between various topics in 14 chapters.

This phrasebook covers basic conversational situations like speaking on the phone, dining out, talking about the time, and so on. Each of the chapters tackles one such situation, listing phrases in English on the left and Japanese on the right. Explanations, sometimes long ones, break up the flow of these phrases, usually clarifying word use or some relevant social aspect of Japanese language & culture.

The Japanese is written in transliterated romaji and full kana/kanji with furigana readings. Little male and female gender symbols indicate when a certain phrase is used exclusively by a man or a woman. The layout is clear, and leaves enough space between and around phrases and explanations.

The main selling point of this book is its bent towards “real” or “fluent” Japanese phrases. The book contains little beyond the phrases themselves, and musings about certain expressions and social topics. It’s misleading to claim that this book will teach you to speak “real Japanese”. Instead, you’ll get a beginner’s overview of street Japanese phrases, with some extra info.

But what do we mean by “street” Japanese? While the title suggests that there’s plenty of lascivious content in store once you crack open the cover, you may be surprised to find mostly ordinary, everyday phrases. In fact, apart from a chapter on romancing and one on cursing (both rather tame), there’s not much shock value. On the other hand, even the regular expressions come across as less stifled than the conventional formal business language of textbooks and classrooms. Unfortunately, Japanese speakers confirm that the more colloquial expressions here are a bit dated, which dulls this book’s edge.

The chapters contain confusing and unclear titles, so it’s far from obvious what kind of phrases to expect in a given chapter. Since this book has no index, and the table of contents merely lists chapter names, you’ll have a tough time finding specific phrases.

In the introduction, the authors give a few pointers on pronunciation, vocabulary (word choice) and grammar, but nothing too remarkable. There’s a also kana chart, but it’s unrealistic to call that an introduction to Japanese writing.

Making Out in Japanese does a good job of focusing on more realistic, informal Japanese phrases. It even chooses mostly useful expressions, grouped by topic. It can’t be studied like a leson book – it’s a phrasebook, and a poorly indexed one at that. In the end, if you’d like to supplement your travel with a street-wise, less formal guide, you’ll find this a good start. And if you really enjoy it, there’s a sequel!

Jan
5
2010

Master the Basics: Japanese by Nobuo & Carol Akiyama

Score:
8 / 10
Pros:
see pros for Barron’s Japanese Grammar; review exercises/tests for every unit; tests a bit conventional but well thought out

Cons:
see cons for Barron’s Japanese Grammar; Japanese text is now printed in black rather than stand-out dark red; more of a well-crafted grammar reference than a lesson guide


Part of Barron’s Foreign Language Guide series, Master the Basics: Japanese expands the contents of Akiyama’s Japanese Grammar. Since the heart of the book repeats the entirety of Japanese Grammar, it’s worth evaluating my review of that book (link in the pros/cons above) first.

This lesson guide is bigger than the pocket sized Grammar, allowing for larger print and more space for notes. Apart from changing title and section colors from red to orange and Japanese examples from red to black, I don’t notice any changes to the text.

The star addition here is a series of practice activities at the end of the book that test your knowledge of each of the twenty-two chapters. Additionally, there’s a short diagnostic in the beginning that claims to illuminate how much you already know from the starting gate.

The lengthy test at the end of the book has a range of question types. All these questions test your understanding of a specific Japanese grammar topic. Each page of the exam tests you on a specific unit in the book. You’ll answer multiple choice and fill in the blanks but also do matching exercises, a word search and a crossword puzzle.

Unless you’re set on the small size or the red text, this book is recommended over the original Barron’s Japanese Grammar. It offers all the same great info, well laid out and well indexed, enlarges the text and gives you a better way to use the book by adding practice exercises. For beginners and early intermediate Japanese language learners, this is a great grammar resource.

Dec
30
2009

Japanese Step by Step by Gene Nishi

Score:
8 / 10
Pros:
good pacing and organization between chapters and sections; great use of and number of examples; all examples in full Japanese script as well as romaji with intonation; wonderfully focused explanations attuned to the needs of busy adult learners looking to understand grammar; decent extra material; great for adult learners looking to charge through all the basics of formal Japanese grammar and learn about writing and pronunciation along the way

Cons:
lack of exercises will bother practice-oriented students; lack of audio to help students pronounce all these example words and phrases; some longer word lists to memorize out of context; solid appendix material (esp. verbs on pages 78-84) are presented as lists that break the flow of chapters


It’s hard for beginners to judge what makes one learn Japanese book innovative, easy, step-by-step or complete and another not. At first glance, not a lot distinguishes Gene Nishi’s Japanese Step by Step: An Innovative Approach to Speaking and Reading Japanese from other book lessons with grammar explanations, sample sentences and vocabulary.

In the introduction, the author reveals where his intentions differ. Working as a language instructor with busy adults, he found many time consuming courses using the “direct method” (expose the student to as much Japanese as possible). These impractical courses did not meet the needs of his students. He set out to create a course that logically presents the structure behind Japanese. But how, and how well does it work?

The first chapter explains pronunciation, paying attention to syllables over single sounds, even carefully explaining intonation. Japanese tones are included in all examples, which are written in full script (kana & kanji) as well as English-friendly romaji beneath. High toned syllables are in all caps, while low tones are not capitalized.

Chapter two does a decent job of introducing kana and kanji. Katakana and hiragana tables list the characters for every syllable, then students must read a series of words aloud written in each syllabary. This is hard if you struggle with kana, so I recommend using another resource to conquer the two Japanese syllabaries. Kanji are explained well enough, but you’ll definitely need much more practice before you even get the gist of these complex characters.

Chapters 3 through 13 present grammar and language structure topics in well-paced sections. Each chapter is broken down into bite-sized increments. For example, you’ll begin by learning sentence patterns ending in desu and masu. As you do, you’re given concise, pinpoint explanations for only that topic. Then, you’ll work through sample Japanese phrases relevant to that topic (with English translations). You’re encouraged to read these out loud and practice writing them.

Within many sections, material in gray boxes depicts the relations between the structures you’re learning, or gives a formula for remembering the structures (NOUN+desu, for instance).

By the end of chapter thirteen, students can expect a good level of competency in reading the standard written language (and spoken if you’ve been reading along and supplementing your learning with conversation). You’ll cover nearly every aspect of beginner and early intermediate Japanese grammar.

The book ends with an appendix of useful phrases, an appendix of kanji radicals, one of numerals and classifiers, a short verb conjugation chart, a three page index and hiragana/katakana tables. The table of contents is also detailed enough for a quick reference.

The course has no practice exercises in the traditional sense. With so many useful Japanese sentences, it would be nice for beginners to have an audio accompaniment, particularly if used as a learn-on-your-own course.

Busy individuals who want to learn on their own, or small adult classes focusing on practical Japanese grammar for educated formal speech will get the most out of this book. Nishi’s Japanese Step by Step charges ahead at its own pace, but it’s a good one for the right type of learner. I’m not sure it’s all that innovative (it is at least a little compared to other resources I’ve reviewed), but it really works.

Dec
24
2009

An Introduction to Modern Japanese (Book 2) by Bowring & Laurie

An Introduction to Modern Japanese is a challenging, rewarding year-long course that recieved an extremely high rating on this site. Book 2 offers a textbook full of practice exercises that complement every chapter of Book 1. (Don’t let the name fool you – this is a companion, NOT a sequel!) The activities do a thorough job of testing your ability to use the Japanese language rather than your ability to fill in blanks or answer multiple choice questions.

Like Book 1, this activity book uses the full Japanese script (katakana, hiragana and kanji), although it introduces and uses those pesky kanji characters methodically. If you’re progressing through the lessons, you’ll be able to keep up.

See this post for a full review of both books.

Dec
22
2009

Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication by Taeko Kamiya

Score:
9 / 10
Pros:
excellent sample Japanese sentences demonstrate how to form a variety of Japanese expressions; practice translation exercises for every sentence pattern; great index and phrase list makes expressions easy to find; expressions grouped into chapters by topic; extra examples of every sentence pattern; great explanations answer doubts but remain concise; appendix includes list of numberals, classifiers, verb and adjective tables; full Japanese script alongside romaji for every example; for a productive reader this is like owning your own Japanese build-a-sentence machine

Cons:
invites students to use this as a practice or lesson book, but doesn’t offer much guidance on how to pace yourself; many examples simply a review for advanced students, while often too challenging for beginners (but start learning sooner!); topics are function-based rather than conversation-driven, which hurts a certain type of learner


Japanese language students run into a very particular, frustrating problem. They find that they can learn and understand the nuts and bolts of Japanese grammar – the verbs, the particles, even the sentence structure. Yet they have trouble trying to formulate a good, fluent Japanese sentence that expresses the same ideas we can convey in English. What gives?

The author of The Handbook of Japanese Verbs (also reviewed on this site) has helpful solution called Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication. The book begins with forty pages of Japanese expressions broken into twelve sections. These twelve sections cover an array of language functions. Then, each of those expressions/sentences is analyzed in a series of twelve chapters.

Each chapter, or set of expressions, focuses on one language topic (like the ability to identify people and things, or making comparisons). Key sentences from the introduction are presented in gray boxes in English, then directly below in Japanese.

Beneath that key phrase, there’s an explanation of what’s going on in the sentence, and how to form similar sentences. Then, the author gives relevant practical examples in fluent Japanese, each with an English translation. This is followed by a practice exercise that asks you to translate similar structures from English to Japanese (with answers directly below – no peeking!).

This formula of presenting potentially challenging Japanese sentences, discussing how they work, giving examples, then asking you to participate in activities, continues throughout the rest of the book. It’s a simple formula, but it elevates the book from a sit-on-your-shelf reference to a practical guide to dealing with a very complex aspect of the Japanese language.

The book ends with an appendix of Japanese numbers, those devilish counter and measure words, and adjective and verb conjugation tables. On top of that, there’s a good index in the back, and the list of Japanese expressions at the front, all cross-referenced with page numbers. You’ll have little trouble finding what you’re looking for when you come back later.

The Japanese is given in full script (kana and kanji), along with romaji and English translations for every sentence. Presumably because of the romaji, kanji do not include furigana readings, unlike in Kamiya’s other books.

Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication presents intermediate and late-beginner Japanese students with a thorough, well organized, well indexed invitation to understanding how sentences work in Japanese. The choice of sample sentences alone makes this an intelligent acquisition. The effective explanations and practice exercises serve as an open invitation to anyone struggling to create expressive, long, fully-formed Japanese sentences. Start to add variety and fluency to the way you speak the language with this product.

Dec
22
2009

Teach Yourself Japanese by Gilhooly & Mikiko Kurose

Score:
5 / 10
Pros:
plenty of material covered (grammar and language structure); dialogues and examples introduce a lot of standard, polite Japanese conversation skills; variety of exercises and challenges keeps the course helpful and – sometimes – engaging; audio CD good for pronunciation practice

Cons:
poor treatment of writing (nearly all romaji); author’s explanations get lengthy and dense; little guidance to help learners pace themselves; vocab lists and new phrases scattered throughout become overwhelming; organization of material haphazard at times; some of the random memory tricks are too fanciful and imaginitive for no-nonsense students; learning to speak with the audio requires listening, memorizing and repeating Japanese words, sentences and conversations


Teach Yourself Japanese is a book-and-CD program that aims to instruct self-taught students in beginner and intermediate grammar and conversation skills. Like other Teach Yourself courses, the book leads the way, with lessons divided between written dialogues, “key word”-driven vocabulary lists, explanations of grammar, and practice exercises.

The book contains thirteen lessons or units. Each unit covers a heavy dose of language material before moving on to the next. The audi CD mainly reads dialogue, vocab lists and sample phrases aloud.

Units begin with warm-up activities, which help explain new concepts and offer a limited amount of practice before moving on to a series of “explanations”. The explanations introduce Japanese grammar and language usage in dense paragraphs, tables of word forms and example sentences. You will even find yourself confronted with more vocabulary lists in these sections. Fortunately, many explanations are followed by short activities, which require you to parrot back variations of the structure you just learned.

Then, you’ll move to a main dialogue with a through-story throughout the lessons. Typically, these conversations involve one native Japanese and one foreign (English or American) character. The written dialogue takes up a half to full page of text. A vocabulary list is attached to each dialogue.

Following the conversation, you move on to the practice activities. These exercises aren’t innovative, but they offer variety and are rarely too dry. You’ll fill in blanks and answer true-falso questions, but also give directions based on a drawn street map or listen for specific information as you overhear a native speaker (listening comprehension).

The course has been updated to cover the Japanese writing system, as mentioned in the author’s introduction. While you progress, you’ll find the end of some units devoted to teaching kana and, later, kanji. Unfortunately, these are dealt with very roughly and not used regularly. In fact, outside certain short reading selections, the entire course uses only romaji transliteration. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s easy on foreign eyes, but it’s not the way real Japanese is written. If you plan to read and write Japanese, find another course with a clear focus and implementation of Japanese writing.

Outside the lessons, which make up the bulk of the text, you’ll run into a few expected “extras”. The beginning includes a cursory pronunciation guide (although notice that trickier features like intonation aren’t indicated). Answers to the exercises, a short English-Japanese and Japanese-English glossary, a list of verbs by conjugation type and a short grammar index end the book.

Teach Yourself Japanese packs a lot of grammar material, vocabulary and conversation topics into twelve lessons. Getting through the course will involve quite a bit of reading. You will need to set your own pace through the dense and sometimes jumbled structure of the book. For that reason, I hesitate to recommend this book/CD program.

The audio helps your Japanese pronunciation if you listen and repeat along (preferably multiple times), but this book doesn’t offer much to students looking to write as well as speak Japanese. It’s hard to find this much coverage of Japanese at this price, but the course’s shortcomings mean that you should bump other comprehensive Japanese language products ahead of it on your wish list, even if that means spending a bit more cash.

Dec
17
2009

Guide to Learning Hiragana & Katakana by Henshall & Takagaki

Score:
8 / 10
Pros:
lots of practice writing each character (this is a workbook full of writing activities); emphasizes space for you to practice writing in designated boxes; covers all kana; introduces 10 syllables at a time, then words using those syllables; good final review test; simple, straightforward and effective – just what Japanese students need at an early stage

Cons:
pacing of characters is only so-so (simply goes through the kana one by one); missing bigger context for writing characters; limited sense of progression; little more than space to write (where to go from here?), which isn’t the case with other courses


Henshall & Takagaki’s Guide to Learning Hiragana and Katakana provides Japanese learners with a bit over 100 pages of practice writing the two kana syllablaries.

If you’re just starting to learn about written Japanese, the kana are two sets of alphabet-like syllable systems used to write Japanese. Each one is used for different types of words. Learning them is the first step toward mastering Japanese reading and writing. Then, as you progress, you’ll learn more and more kanji. My page about learning Japanese grammar, writing and pronunciation has more info.

The introduction explains the layout and use of the book. It continues with eight pages discussing kana, the way they work, their pronunciation, and their use.

After that discussion, the entire book is taken up with writing exercises. You will practice writing sets of ten characters twenty times each. Tables for each character show how to write it (stroke count), how to say it (pronunciation, like “a” in “car”) and the origin (beginners generally ignore this, but it’s historically relevant). After each set of ten characters, you will move on to write whole words containing the characters you just practiced. You will write each word a few times. This goes on until you’ve written all the kana syllables in both katakana and hiragana.

The appendix has a few noteworthy extras, including a final review in which you copy two pages of a text written in kana. There’s a three-page list of food, flora, fauna and personal names to transliterate from kana to romaji, a kana word search (you’re given the romaji) and a blank series of kana tables for you to fill out.

Through a condensed version of the rigorous and repetitive writing exercises familiar to Japanese children, English speakers learn to write all of the kana in this Guide to Learning Hiragana & Katakana. It’s missing the progression and pacing of other workbooks, but it shines in regard to the amount of practice it offers. If you’re up for it, use multiple sets of resources together (this with Let’s Learn Hiragana and Let’s Learn Katakana) for a rock-solid foundation in kana that will really kickstart your ability to read and write the Japanese script.

Dec
17
2009

Speak Japanese: A Textbook for Young Students, Book 1, by Kiyo Saka and Hisako Yoshiki

Score:
6 / 10
Pros:
overall good pacing; lots of useful Japanese words and phrases for absolute beginners; manages to cover some grammar without tedious explanations; consistent use of kana; lots of exercises; drawings help visual learners

Cons:
intro to hiragana and katakana is too quick for first-timers; exercise drills are repetitive and intended for classroom use; few explanations means you’ll need a teacher or Japanese friend to help make sense of things; long vocabulary lists to memorize; no kanji taught at all (works for this course, but not some learners)


Kiyo Saka and Hisako Yoshiki shoot for younger students with their course book, Speak Japanese. But how do they tailor their twenty lessons to learners beyond the age of basic children’s material, but not yet ready for adult Japanese textbooks? More importantly, does it work?

From the outset, kana – both hiragana and katakana – are used, with no romaji transliteration. The first two chapters only scratch the surace of learning to write these two syllabaries (listing every character in tables), so it may be beneficial to complete a kana course first. Lesson 2 then asks you to learn a series of common words, giving you five pages of pictures (drawings) and hiragana to memorize, and a much shorter list of katakana vocabulary.

Lessons focus on vocab words and phrases alongside role-play and fill-in-the-blank exercises. There are few explanations apart from cultural notes and directions to the practice exercises. Further along, you’ll find some explanations of Japanese grammar and usage, but even these are short. In other words, this book is intended for use in a Japanese language class, with a teacher and multiple students.

By the end of the book, learners work through longer sentences and several diaolgues, have been exposed to a range of basic vocabulary and phrases, and have read lots of kana. These lessons cover the basics of verbs (present, past and -te forms), adjectives, ‘be’ words (desu and aru/iru) and a variety of particles.

The text ends with a vocabulary index with page numbers, but no answers to the exercises (presumably requiring a Japanese teacher).

Speak Japanese makes a good effort to cut out the fat and potential confusion of adult Japanese course books. It offers plenty of opportunity for classroom exercise drills, and covers a decent amount of beginner material along the way. The repetitiveness of memorizing its vocabulary lists and using those words in drills makes for a tedious learning experience at times. ITs immediate use of kana hinders some beginners, but that’s worth getting over (particulary since no kanji are used here).

I’m hesitant to recommend Speak Japanese to anyone but the target audience (the too-old but too-young classroom students mentioned in the book’s intro). While this lesson course serves their teachers’ needs, its shortcomings keep it from being an easy introduction to Japanese for a wider audience, particularly if you’re learning to speak, read and write the language on your own.

Dec
17
2009

Japanese All the Way by Hiroko Storm

The book & cassette tape (!) lesson course known as Japanese All the Way is now published as Living Language’s Ultimate Japanese. I don’t notice a difference between the two besides the updated cover and CDs, and I have reviewed the newer version (follow link above).

Dec
17
2009

250 Essential Japanese Kanji Characters, Volume 1 & 2


Tuttle has issued separate editions of 250 Essential Kanji for Everyday Use (Vol 1 and Vol 2). These are the same books that received stellar reviews on this site.

Some of the small changes make these newer revisions an easier read for some students. For example, chapter titles are now given in English and Japanese rather than Japanese alone.