Yesterday I finished book 2 of Japanese From Zero, which is my main means of learning Japanese. I thought it would be a good time for a short evaluation.
Japanese has three ways of writing: The syllabaries hiragana and katakana (together called kana), and ideographs from Chinese characters, kalled kanji. In Japanese From Zero 1, you learn hiragana. Level 2 teaches katakana, and at level 3 they start teaching kanji, which I really look forward to.
In short, I liked this with Japanese From Zero:
- You really learn Japanese from zero – no prior knowledge at all required. And yet you learn how to read and write Japanese. Some other books either anticipate you already know the syllabaries, or focus only on talking. Japanese From Zero was just the level I wanted.
- All lessons have the same structure: They begin with new grammar and vocabulary, in the middle the new kana is introduced, and in the end you practice your new knowledge in a set of grammar and vocabulary drills. This is as close you can come to a classroom lesson, and I liked that.
- The grammar is pedagogically explained – it’s easy to understand.
- The “progressive” method (see below) of learning kana apparently works.
- The books are pretty “nice” in style; personal rather than dry.
And disliked this:
- Since I’ve studied languages at university level, I prefer a more academic approach. Japanese From Zero is not totally layman, but it’s somewhere in between. (The authors are an American interpreter and his Japanese wife, without degrees I suppose, or else they would probably mention them.) Most people would probably appreciate this, but I can’t help thinking: What is it that you don’t tell me because you think I can’t take it?
- The strange vocabulary selection. In one of the first chapters we learned words like “body fluid” and “high blood pressure”. (Words that I have, as opposed to “dog”, “meal”, “storm” etc, now forgotten.) There is also an American bias; you learn how to write Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and so on, in katakana. Good for Americans…
- The typos. One typo in a language learning book is one too many. But these books are full of them – as confirmed by my Japanese tutor, and also as pointed out by many Amazon reviewers. That’s a real scar and makes me think of the Japanese From Zero series as an unpolished diamond. It could have been so good, but the typos are a serious nag. The authors should really take a day or two per book to give them a real proofreading!
The “progressive” method of learning kana means this: You learn a set of syllables in each chapter. Once you’ve learned them, those syllables will be written in kana instead of with roman letters. I was irritated by this method at first, because I learned all hiragana in the first days through a training site. Despite this, I think it’s a good idea to learn the syllabaries peu à peu like that. It makes the characters stick, and you learn to draw them the right way. It also made me want to finish these books quickly, since I was eager to read the Japanese without the annoying roman letters, which really look ugly in the middle of a kana word.
Yes, it’s hard to get some flow when reading kana. It’s tempting to read the words in rōmaji (as it’s called when roman letters are used), because it’s so much easier. But the way I see it, you must force yourself to read all Japanese in kana as soon as possible. Only that way will those characters become more natural to you. I think I’m well on my way. I’ve already developed a kind of rōmaji aversion, meaning it’s irritating to repeat older chapters in the books, where the kana is mixed up with rōmaji.
The books are thick (about 300 pages each), square and printed, probably digitally, on very white paper. I think that format works great. And I just love it when it’s time to order the next level book – I like sticking to one series.
Japanese From Zero is a part of YesJapan.com, a pay site with lots of Japanese learning videos, games, as well as the book lessons. I haven’t tried it. I’ve bought the first three books for about 20 euro each in less than 2 months, and I must admit it almost feels a bit strange not to gain access to the site after such a loyal spending spree. Each book could for example come with one month’s free membership. (The first book took me 3 weeks, the second 4.)
Anyway, there are lots of free and smart p2p resources for language learning out there. I will come back to them in a later post.
I didn’t do much research before I ordered Japanese From Zero. I chose it because of its title – my Japanese knowledge really was zero – and the fact that it was a series with which I could continue after I had left zero.
On that subject: It’s always tempting to do lots of research when you learn a language (or anything else), but those who spend hours finding the right means of learning have missed an important fact: It’s not the means that is most important. It’s you. And your devotion. So I try to keep away from the web searching for different strategies to learn Japanese, and just focus on my book. It’s the hours you spend with it that matter, not which book you use.