"Grammar" vs. "Japanese Grammar"

So, I’ve read about a zillion testimonials from Japanese language learners who state that they really struggled with grammar when transitioning into reading “real” Japanese.

My question is: Does having a solid background in “grammar” help with this? I’ve studied several ancient languages (both European and non-European) as well as English and modern French grammar, and feel like I really understand grammar as a basic framework. I get that now I need to learn how Japanese applies that framework to its unique language, but I’m just not afraid or worried. Should I be?

Is it really any more complicated than memorizing a new set of syntax and “accidence” as the grammar fogeys call it?

I think the key thing with grammar is being willing to adapt to the new constructions: try to think in Japanese, not translate it to English (there’s a middle ground to be found, of course).

Don’t worry, people just hate to study.


Other than already knowing grammar terms, probably not much.

People get scared because Japanese grammar is so foreign compared to English and most other languages. Nothing to be afraid of in itself though.


Probably because they didn’t build a sufficient base knowledge of Japanese grammar before attempting to read native material, overestimated how much knowledge they had actually obtained, or they were learning grammar through the lens of English (or whatever their native language is) grammar rules and once they were reading native material they were lost without that crutch. But those are all things that can happen in any foreign language you are learning. I don’t see Japanese as anything special in that regard.


I think having experience with learning at least one language other than your native helps immensely when learning grammar. Even if Japanese grammar is very different from all those languages, your experience probably makes it easier to adapt to the new constructions, like @jprspereira said. You kind of already know what to expect.


Yes. Yes it does. Having a background in linguistics while studying Japanese makes it a lot more easier for me to categorise and internalise grammar points. I can name a Japanese grammar point and put it neatly in a box labelled ‘for X use’.

When you have the words to describe something and extrapolate potential implications from it, it’s much much easier to figure out what’s going on with a new language.

(This does result in the frustration of having a good enough grammar but atrocious vocabulary to express your grammar with. I prefer knowing the grammar to knowing the vocab.)

You having more than 1 language (or 2, or 3) to compare Japanese with will make it easier for you to define what anything new you encounter does.


Also, to counter what others have said – it’s not the constructions that you’d be getting used to more easily, but the way of thought. Since you managed ancient languages, I’m assuming at least one of them had cases, so you already have the understanding of a loose word order in a sentence, and what determines the word order (it’s not arbitrary!). Learning to parrot the constructions doesn’t mean you understand the language or how it works. When you have a background in languages, you can better understand why they work.

(I’ll try to summon @Syphus. He might have more things to say on the subject.)

I agree with JP. And I think it applies to the Japanese language as a whole and any language really, though that’s not saying much because grammar is really the core of a language anyway. Learning new words, learning to read a new language, and learning how to construct a sentence… all that really requires on a fundamental basis is an open mind and the ability to remove our inherent “native language bias”.

I think if you’ve learned multiple languages already that are moderately different to your own, then you’ll find learning another one on top pretty easy, but only because you’ve gotten good at “learning languages”. Similarly to how you’ve come to accept that み is pronounced “mi” and so forth, the only hard part about new grammar is accepting that it’s the natural system for that language. Most of the difficulty people have, or the complexity they perceive, is in trying to equate the grammar from the new language to their native language, even despite significant differences in syntax sometimes.

I wouldn’t say it’s all that much easier or harder than any other language, and though I’m sure there’s some exceptions in specific instances of grammar between languages, I reckon that many if not most languages today are of similar grammatical complexity - and it makes sense when you think about it because excessively complex and hard to use grammar tends to be replaced for simpler grammar. If 130 million Japanese kids could learn it, I believe there’s hope for us :wink:


I agree with everything that been written so far.
So, yeah, you got nothing to worry about.

I do wonder how much time/effort those zillions strugglers put while learning to read their own mother tongue. When I learned to read I used to sit with dictionaries, encyclopedias and ancient idioms/phrases books, I also had to learn how to read ancient scriptures that used different words, grammar and punctuation.
I suspect some people tend to overlook those aspects of learning to read, hence the shock when having to do so the second time…


Totally. They seem to forget that when they were first learning to read aloud they sounded a lot like this:


Also, how many of these people complaining about Japanese grammar were reading appropriately graded material versus jumping in to something well beyond their knowledge? It’s not like Japanese kids in elementary school jump straight into reading high school material. Just like you didn’t do so when learning your own native language.


This this this! 100%!

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