Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you wrong

Japanese is so much harder when it's explained like this! Here's how to flip it right-side-up!
Japanese is so much harder when it’s explained like this! Here’s how to flip it right-side-up!

In learning Basic Japanese Grammar, you will use standard texts like Genki or Tae Kim. And you should. They are very useful and thorough.

However, there are a number of things they don’t explain. They tend to treat Japanese grammar as if it were West European grammar. With the same categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives. This is helpful for grasping the concepts. I do recommend reading the “classic” explanations (if you haven’t already) along with our articles.

But…

The “classic” Western-grammar-based explanations do falsify Japanese to some extent and this makes it much harder to get an intuitive grasp of the language.

In many cases, because Japanese is presented in terms of European grammar and English uses, it is turned upside down and becomes near impossible to understand correctly.

Simple explanations like

コーヒーが好きです
(watashi wa) koohii ga suki desu
X I like coffee

日本語ができます
(watashi wa) nihongo ga dekimasu
X (I) can speak/understand Japanese

are unfortunately just plain wrong and confusing. They do not represent what the Japanese is actually saying. They represent what an English speaker would be saying in a similar situation.

If we were translating an anime for an English audience, this would be fine. But when students are told that this is what the Japanese means, it lays the ground for confusion and difficulty, especially at a later stage when things get more complicated.

For example, it sows complete confusion about how the ga-particle works. And the ga-particle is the single most fundamental element in Japanese. There is a “ga” in every Japanese sentence whether we can see it or not. Ga is always there, either implicitly  or explicitly, or else it is not a sentence.

If we are confused from the beginning about what ga actually does (and the “translations” above create exactly that confusion), the very clear and simple structure of Japanese – one of the most regular and logical languages in the world – becomes obscured.

So how do we turn Japanese the right way up in our minds?

We just need to learn a few simple facts about the language that the textbooks never teach.

Because there is such a need for this information, we have put these facts into a very short concise little book called Unlocking Japanese. It isn’t another heavy task to add to your study schedule – it is a simple, clearly written book that you can read in an evening (though you will probably want to go on referring to it for years).

It takes you in a clear step-by-step way through the “hidden” basics of Japanese that the schools don’t teach.

If you don’t know any Japanese grammar this isn’t the book for you, but if you know even the very beginnings you should read this, because it is going to make every step easier and much clearer.

If you have been studying Japanese for years, Unlocking Japanese will make a lot of things fall into place. Intermediate Japanese learners report that the book is full of “Aha!” moments.

We apply the knowledge contained in Unlocking Japanese throughout this website, but we highly recommend reading the book first because it prepares you in a systematic way for so much of what we have to tell you here.

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11 thoughts on “Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you wrong

  1. I’ve lived in Japan for decades, and know Japanese reasonably well, but this was nonetheless a very useful article.

    It’s a point that I never really thought about explicitly, but really does make sense in hindsight….

  2. Perhaps I have somehow missed the gist of the article, but don’t we still have to memorize a list of “exceptions” in order to know which verbs we have to use が instead of を with? And if we do, is there a list of such exceptions somewhere?

    I do find this article very useful, and thank you for writing it, Cure Dolly. It does help us to understand written or spoken Japanese sentences like these a lot better. But can it help us to choose the right particle (が or を) when we are trying to form a correct Japanese sentence of this kind ourselves? My best guess is that you were trying to say that we should use our “feeling of Japanese” in order to do this, but I still don’t understand how it is possible. Could you please explain it? Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your kind interest and for your thoughtful question.

      The answer to it is that no, really there are very few exceptions in Japanese.

      が marks the doer of an action (including the manifester of a quality or identity – eg “being red” or “being Mary”). を marks the receiver of an action. The object or person that has something done to it by the (explicit or implicit) が-marked doer.

      The difference between は and が can sometimes be very subtle, but the distinction between が and を is always crystal clear so long as we understand how the given sentence actually works*.

      The difficulty is not that there are significant exceptions (even the passive, which at first appears to be exceptional actually isn’t as I explain in Unlocking Japanese), but that there are quite a few cases when English would put it differently. This means that if we try to translate the sentence into English it gets confusing.

      Saying that

      ケーキが好きです

      means “I like cake” really sows the seeds for this kind of confusion.

      It does not mean “I like cake”. It can’t possibly mean “I like cake” because there is no verb in the sentence. It is an adjectival sentence.

      “I like cake” is how we would say a similar thing in English.

      This may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but it has important consequences. If we think it means “I like cake” then we are left in complete confusion about the function of the が particle, and it seems to us that this is one of the many “exceptions”.

      It isn’t, and there aren’t many, if any exceptions. The が particle is working exactly the same way here as it does everywhere else. It is marking the doer of the action or the manifester of a quality or identity. In this case, the manifester of the (adjectival) quality of being-liked.

      This is how the phenomenon of liking is expressed in Japanese (very much as it is in Spanish).

      So no, there are not lists of exceptions to learn. Japanese, unlike European languages, really is terribly regular.

      What we have to learn is how Japanese expresses itself – not by means of any mysterious “feel of the language” but by seeing how Japanese sentences actually work, rather than treating them as if they were working the same way as the equivalent English sentences.
      ___
      * As noted in the article, a verb conjugated to -tai-form occupies a place somewhere between a verb and a verb-like i-adjective and thus the corresponding noun can take either が (treating it as an adjective) or を (treating it as a verb). The meaning is the same either way though there is a slight difference in nuance.

      1. Thank you for a very detailed reply. You convinced me that these are not “exceptions” since they are regular from the point of view of the Japanese language. In other words, they will not look like exceptions to a Japanese person should he or she decide to think about it. But they still “look like exceptions” to someone whose mother tongue is English or some other European language. (Except Spanish, perhaps? I would rather doubt it, since “ga suki desu” is not the only expression that fits to the pattern in question and I wonder if other expressions of this kind are also expressed exactly like this in Spanish.)

        I would say, instead of talking about “exceptions,” we should talk about disagreement (or non-coincidence) of patterns between English and the like, on one hand, and Japanese, on the other. So don’t we still need a list of such “pattern discrepancies?”

        I’ll try to list examples:

        1. Anpan ga tabetai.
        2. Watashi wa keeki ga suki desu.
        3. Watashi no iuimi ga wakarimasu ka?
        4. Watashi wa nihongo ga dekiru.

        I could also mention the phrase “Anata wa nihongo ga wakarimasu ka?” from the very first lesson of the Pimsleur audio course. I remember that I was greatly surprised when I first heard it, because I had no idea why “ga” and not “wo” was used. Now I would tag it as a “pattern discrepancy” between English and Japanese. It corresponds to the item (3) in the list above.

        Well, I’d say, my questions still remains, only now I would rephrase it as, “Is there a (full) list of such ‘pattern discrepancies’ somewhere?”

        1. I’d like to make a correction to what I said in my last comment. I think we should separate “が vs. を” for adjectives and “が vs. を” for verbs. With adjectives, only が seems to be possible, because adjectives do not take direct objects. So, there’s no pattern discrepancy with English here. That means, we only might need a list of verbs which require が instead of を in Japanese. (That is, there is a pattern discrepancy with English here, because in English we would have “verb + direct object,” so we would expect to have を in the corresponding Japanese phrase, but instead we must use が.) Therefore, so far, there are only two items in such a pattern discrepancy list:

          1. Watashi no iuimi ga wakarimasu ka?
          2. Watashi wa nihongo ga dekiru.

          So I wonder if there are more verbs/phrases that we can add to this list?

          By the way, I found an interesting article on the topic of “が vs. を” in Japanese:

          http://www.imabi.net/l111gavswo.htm

          In fact, this article is a part of a very large web site devoted to the Japanese grammar. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to be very popular though.

          According to this article, there is still a choice between が and を with verbs like “wakaru” and even with adjectives like “suki,” depending on how much of a free will we would like to express. In other words, even in situations when the traditional grammar books tell us to use が only or を only, both are in fact possible depending on the meaning that we would like to express. Which makes the whole situation with が and を even more entangled and complicated!

          So, what do you think about all this, Cure Dolly?

          1. Thank you for responding in such detail and please accept my apology for so late a reply.

            The point I have been trying to make is that we really should not be looking at Japanese in terms of English. Perhaps that sounds over-prescriptive, but what we recommend here is Japanese immersion, rather than staying firmly based in English and trying to relate Japanese to it.

            Of course either approach is possible but I do think that seeing Japanese through the eyes of English leads to a great deal of confusion and to endless lists of “exceptions” that aren’t exceptions at all.

            Unlike European languages, which really do have pages and pages of irregular verbs etc., Japanese is very, very regular, which is a huge boon to people learning it. But only if they start treating Japanese as Japanese rather than seeing it as English gone wrong.

            We could make lists of occasions where usage differs from English but that isn’t the way I would recommend approaching Japanese, and I think it is one of the things that makes Japanese as it is commonly taught so much more confusing than it needs to be.

            In many cases, as I mentioned in the article, it isn’t even that the Japanese way of saying a thing can’t be translated directly into English, it is just that it isn’t the usual way of putting it.

            分かる, for example, is nearer to meaning “be clear” than “understand”. English can handle the concept of something being clear very easily. It is just that it has a strong tendency to prefer human agency, and so most often says “understand” in cases where Japanese prefers 分かる. Japanese also has a term for understand (理解する) but it tends to prefer “be clear” (分かる) in many cases where English would not.

            Again, できる is closer to meaning “be possible” than “be able”. This is why が is generally used for the thing that is possible and not for the person who is able to do it.

            In Spanish, similarly, gusto/gusta is closer to meaning “be pleasing” than “like” and it would save a lot of confusion if it were taught that way. It is taught as “like” because that is what an English speaker would most often say under the same circumstances. But it is perfectly possible to say “coffee is pleasing to me” in English, which is much closer to what Spanish speakers are actually saying.

            I agree that there is some fluidity in Japanese, especially in the potential and 〜たい forms. 聞こえる can mean both “able to hear” and “hearable” (though most often the latter) and will therefore give the が to the hearer in the first case and to the thing heard in the second. But note that the use of が is still perfectly regular and means what it always means. It is precisely because of its stability and regularity that it can be used to indicate where agency is being placed in a given instance.

            What we recommend on this site is organic immersion: i.e. “entering” Japanese and seeing it from its own point of view rather than from that of English. This may not be applicable in all cases. For example if one wants to be a translator or interpreter, it may be best to approach Japanese from a cross-language perspective.

            Or one may simply want to maintain one’s “rootedness in English”. There isn’t anything wrong with that. It is a personal decision. My feeling is that the majority of textbooks and teaching materials tend to take that decision out of the student’s hands by presenting Japanese in largely English/European terms.

            I am trying to present the other approach. That of organic immersion rather than studying Japanese from the English sidelines. Not to say that everyone must take this route, but to point out that it does exist and to try to indicate how to use it if one is so inclined. I personally believe that it makes Japanese a lot less confusing.

          2. One piece of advice I can give is to always try to use a native Japanese dictionary when possible, instead of a Japanese-English dictionary.

            The reason is that native dictionaries give a _definition_ for the word, which reflects what it really means, whereas most J-E dictionaries instead try to give idiomatic English alternatives for saying something similar. Because of the differing communication strategies between Japanese and English, the difference can be significant.

            I’ve found that in many cases, simply looking at a real definition makes things far more clear.

            [One feature I’ve always looked for when buying an electronic dictionary is the the ability to enter a word and then quickly switch between dictionaries on the device using that word… comparing what different dictionaries say about the same word can be quite illuminating!]

  3. Hello,
    May I ask why does your title say:
    Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you *wrong*

    Don’t get me wrong,
    But I feel that it feels better if you say “incorrectly” or “wrongly”
    I feel that when you say “wrong” without “-ly” would be …are teaching you (to be) wrong.
    Well, in casual setting, that’s the first thing my mind came up for this construction.
    Source: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/15966/did-she-judge-him-wrong-or-wrongly
    http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/144737/when-to-use-wrong-or-wrongly-as-adverbs

    Feel free to have a chat with me. I love Japanese and English too! (I’m learning Japanese Literatures right now in a college and your blog sometimes shed some new perspective to me) – thanks!

    1. You are right. “how the textbooks are teaching you *wrong*” is “slangy” English and not grammatically correct.

      Actually this sort of thing is used so often that some people justify it as correct since it is a common usage. Personally I am not inclined to do so. I believe that it is overcolloquial or substandard English and I consciously used it in that way. I have also on occasion been guilty of using common ungrammatical phrases like すごい上手 (it should of course be すごく上手) in Japanese.

      I wouldn’t write like that on this site because it is confusing to people learning Japanese. I do occasionally use over-colloquial English though. ごめんなさい。

      I am always happy to chat about Japanese (or other things), though I prefer to do it in Japanese.

  4. Very well explained, thanks for the insight! However, the Spanish example you use is grammatically incorrect, the correct sentence is: “Me gusta el tequila”

    1. Thank you for the correction. My Spanish is shameful I am afraid!

      I have corrected it in the article.

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