We sometimes liken Japanese to an RPG. A great open world where there are many things to see and discover, treasures to be found and monsters to overcome.
In some RPGs (like the Dragon Quest series), at a certain stage you can get a master key that will unlock lots of doors and treasure chests without your having the particular key for that item.
There is a key like that to Japanese grammar. It won’t unlock every door, but it will unlock a lot of them.
This key is the modular nature of Japanese. We learn early on about “conjugations” of Japanese words, but the truth is that while conjugation does exist in Japanese (for example, putting verbs into the past tense) much of what is called conjugation is not conjugation at all. It is something else that doesn’t really happen in European languages, but because textbooks and teachers describe Japanese in terms derived from Europe, it is never properly explained.
In Japanese words don’t only conjugate. They also metamorphose (or “morph”) into completely different kinds of words. Verbs regularly become adjectives, ichidan verbs become godan verbs, adjectives become verbs, nouns become adjectives.
You may be only partially aware of it because current Western teaching does not draw much attention to the matter. And it may sound very complicated and strange, but in fact it is very simple once you understand it.
Many of the things that are done in English by adding three or four extra words are done in Japanese by morphing the word into a different type of word meaning what the English phrase would mean.
The good news about this is that Japanese is almost 100% regular. Once you know how these metamorphoses work, you can build just about any meaning by morphing and lego-ing words and phrases together by methods that almost never change.
This is completely different from English and other European languages, which are a maze of exceptions and special cases where you have to learn many many things individually.
In Japanese, once you know how your box of lego-pieces works and how they morph and fit together you can construct just about anything.
Before you are ready to do this, you need to learn a few other things the textbooks never mention.
That is why we recommend that you read Unlocking Japanese, which leads you step-by-step to the point where you can use the Japanese morphing system like a pro.
Mighty Morphin’ Modularity is the ninth chapter of the book and by the time you get to it you will be ready to use everything in it.
Unlocking Japanese is a short book that you can read in an evening and grasp the essential points, but you will want it by you for a long time afterward because it gives the keys to understanding Japanese that the textbooks don’t teach.