Inductive or Analytical Approach to learning Japanese: Where do you Stand?

Textbook dialogues are the worst though. Nobody speaks like that!

Nobody speaks like anime characters either tho :cry:


I don’t know what you’re talking about, I say お前はもう死ねでいる at least once a day.

It’s also pretty irrelevant, because adults do not function like children, and are not also developing their brain. It takes two years for babies to even start making the smallest of sentences while their understanding is still pretty low. Then beyond that language develops over the next 10 years, it’s probably until around 5 that children are even able to comprehend the idea of a word having multiple meanings.

Then of course there’s the fact that no matter what a child learns their L1 from nothing while an L2 to some extent is based on metalinguistic knowledge we know from our L1.


The difference between children and adults is that children’s brains can suffer big modifications. They’re still in an “immature” kind of state. Adult brains are way more well defined. This is why it’s easier to create good habits/break bad habits when we’re younger. That is also why adults can maintain their routines easier. It’s called neuroplasticity (ability to change). Learning also stimulates neuroplasticity.

Children can learn through exposure because their brain is like a dried sponge ready to suck the water in (high neuroplasticity). Our brain is already busy with a lot of stuff and prioritizes routine (lower neuroplasticity)… So we have to do it differently.

Exposure needs context. If you’re lacking context, exposure serves nothing. It’s like building a puzzle without having the corner pieces and the map. Leads you no where. However, if you find a place for that context, then both knowing the rules and the exposure create their own synergetic effect and you learn better.

My 2c though :slight_smile:

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Also Neuroplasticity has been used for all kinds of bullshit pseudoscience. It’s one of those things like Quantum Mechancis that sounds fancy, so you use it to say all kinds of stupid things.

Anyway, I think “routines” is another good point, that’s why will and volition come into play. Which is why there are so many people who live in Japanese for so long and have shit-poor Japanese skills.

Anyways, I think even people like Krashen rely on “comprehensible input”, and yet people seem to routinely ignore the word “comprehensible”.

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I’m certainly of the latter type. I can’t really learn grammar from being taught it point by point, although I do check my understanding by looking them up!

Mostly, I’ve learned Japanese grammar through exposure to people speaking it and them correcting me when I am wrong. :sweat_smile:

Good question. I think a mix of the inductive or analytical approach is the best, although I lean a bit more towards the inductive (or should we say “intuitive”?) side of things for a couple of reasons:

  1. Think of the end goal. I am assuming most people want to converse freely without having to do a calculation in their heads. (Let’s see, I want to say I just drank, so I’ll user the verb “nomu”, which is a “U” verb and then I’ll have to put that into the te-form and add bakari. Now, let’s see…what is are the conjugation rules for “U” verbs into the te-form again. How does that song go…) Twenty minutes later: 飲んだばかりです。

  2. As a musician who likes to “jam” and play improvisational music, I first thought the secret was to learn a bunch of scales, arpeggios, and the rules for improvising over chord changes. I learned and learned, but could never quite improvise. Then, I started just figuring out tunes by ear, and trying to improvise, in other words applying things and doing things. I started improving at a greater rate, and then had the idea that all of the music theory was mainly useful for describing what seasoned musician were already doing. But those musicians weren’t thinking in the way I characterized above for the fictional Japanese speaker. In other words, they weren’t thinking, lets see, it is an Abmin7b5 chord going into a Dmaj9 chord, so the chords tones are Ab, D, Gb and B, and then…

  3. When non-native speakers of English ask me, a native speaker, grammar questions about English, half the time I have no idea what on Earth they are talking about. Dangling particles, countable/uncountable nouns, preterite imperfections, etc. Yeeech! I even had someone ask me when one should use the word “choose” instead of “select” and vice versa. I realized I had no good, explicit, formalized answer. But, of course, I always knew when to use which, and when it didn’t matter.

  4. Of course, I think those that mainly use the inductive or intuitive approach, do actually know all of the rules, whether in language or in music. It’s just that those rules of grammar or music theory are stored in their lizard brains - that is to say they’ve been stored in the subconscious part of the brain through immersion and exposure.

OK. That is my general thinking on the topic, although I know I have a few things wrong in there. I often see nan-native speakers of English who have lived in the US almost entirely in English and still make grammar mistakes that native speakers seldom, if ever make. This contradicts much of what I’ve said above. I think this has to do with the unfortunate fact that the brain gets less pliable for language after it learns the first one and as it’s subject gets older. Also, if a non-native speaker is right 95% of the time, he or she is probably not going to be corrected by the locals for the 5% that is wrong. People just feel it is impolite or unnecessary. For these reasons, whittle I favor the inductive/intuitive approach, I think almost all language students will benefit from supplementing their immersion with grammar study.


My two cents on this question, which I haven’t seen mentioned yet, is that the “right balance” between the two will depend on your “initial” and “target” language(s).

For example, I’m a native French speaker; which gives a pretty solid grammar foundation to learn Spanish / Italian / Portuguese / English by exposure, as the structure/grammar of these languages is largely similar, and exposure is enough to relate what you see/hear with concepts you know, and assimilate exceptions as you encounter them.

To a lesser extent, the same applies to German/Dutch, which have some very different structures at times (e.g., verb at the end of a nested clause) but share the same fundamentals (e.g., articles, tenses).

Now, I have no idea how someone could, in a reasonable timeframe, go from French/English to Japanese without explicitly studying grammar, as I feel like the disparities between the languages are just too large to be absorbed.

The advice “Read a lot without focusing too much on what you don’t get” makes perfect sense to me for languages which are related, because you can extrapolate on your initial knowledge to guess most of the gaps - but if I did that in Japanese, I would need side-by-side translations all the time, and I can’t imagine anyone would want that - and that’s not exactly easy to come by in my experience.

I’d be very interested in hearing different opinions, as well as perspective from other languages I’m not at all familiar with (e.g., Russian, Arabic).

Also, I’d be very interested in anyone’s experience learning Chinese; from what I know of it, there is very little “grammar” in a traditional sense, so it might be easier to pick it up by exposure (but based on my 8 months in Taiwan, I remain skeptical!)


(side comment: I’m not sure it’s clear that simplified input is important for language development in children. Also, while there is motherese/baby language that parents use when talking with children, I don’t think it scales linerally–I think it’s either on or off. But it would be interesting to see how parents talk to their infants as they get older.)

A former colleague of mine, Karen Lichtman, did her dissertation on the topic of whether children and adults learn languages the same way. Here is the abstract to a related and shorter 2013 paper of her’s (which I could not find online). If you want to read in detail, you can check out her dissertation, which I did find online.

TLDR: Language learning differences between children and adults seems to be at least partially a result of how they are taught–there may or may not be neural differences.

Conventional wisdom holds that children learn languages implicitly whereas older learners learn languages explicitly, and some have claimed that after puberty only explicit language learning is possible. However, older learners often receive more explicit instruction than child L2 learners, which may affect their learning strategies. This study teases apart the effects of age from the effects of instruction by comparing child and adolescent classroom learners of Spanish on tasks tapping implicit and explicit knowledge separately. Results show that implicitly instructed children favor implicit knowledge. Postpuberty learners receiving the same type of implicit instruction as the children pattern like the children, performing better on tasks tapping implicit knowledge, and unlike postpuberty learners who receive explicit grammar instruction and perform better on tasks tapping explicit knowledge—in other words, instruction trumps age. This suggests that the bias toward explicit learning in adulthood may be at least partially an artifact of explicit instruction.

And the full dissertation (it’s a link to a link of a 220 page pdf file–the description of the implicit/explicit paradigm used starts on page 99) Google Scholar

Anyways, this goes along with what Syphus was saying

Like, we as adults already have a foundation we can spring from, so why not do that? Does it mean that adults can’t learn the same way as infants or don’t have the same ability to learn language? No. As others have pointed out, at least one difference between infants and adults is that adults 1) can fall back on some other language (bad bad English-speaking expat in France here) and 2) have other things to do with their lives.


There’s a lot of stuff going on here, so I just want to be clear. The study right there is about children vs adolescents learning Spanish as an L2? Cause my original point was in relation to children learning their L1. But certainly the idea of “kids learn better” can be talked about in L2 learning as well.


It is a lot to unpack. Sorry!

The focus of the study is more about adult language learning strategies than child language learning strategies but it is indeed done through the lens of adult and child L2 acquisition, rather than adult L2 and child L1 acquisition.

It would be interesting to see if (very young) children use different strategies in acquiring their L2 compared with their L1. I have no idea about that line of research.

To summarize the point of my own post:

Conventional wisdom says that children are better at learning languages than adults. There may be a “critical period” after which people seem to get worse at learning new languages and (according to some scholars, although there is only very very limited, sketchy data) if a person doesn’t have a fully developed linguistic system by this point they’ll never acquire one.

(Critical periods are a well established developmental phenomenon. For more, general reading: Critical period - Wikipedia)

Karen’s research shows that adults can soak up language like a sponge, just as children do (ie they can learn through implicit methods). Whether adults learn an L2 as fast or well as children learn their L1 and whether children learn an L2 as fast or as well or in the same was as their L1 is unknown.

If there is a critical period, it is involved with some other aspect of language acquisition–it doesn’t seem to be related to implicit “sponge”-like language learning strategies.

However, I feel that the above mentioned unknowns should not be taken for granted and should be tested (there is a free dissertation topic for whoever is interested).

EDIT: “whether children learn an L2 as fast or as well…as their L1 is unknown”. I lied. Children develop their phoneme/consonant and vowel inventory very early (within the first year of life). Acquisition of new consonant and vowels after this “critical period” is poor–I’m linking wikipedia here but it is consistent with the literature I’ve read in the past. Phonological development - Wikipedia

What about grammar/syntax and words?


The plasticity argument is an old one, and is generally rejected by good studies these days. Studies in which kids were compared to adults in L2 learning consistently show that adults learn better than young kids under controlled conditions, even when the method of teaching favors learning styles geared toward kids.

The biggest issue, really, is that teaching methodologies haven’t kept pace with research results. There’s a lot of good info on learning styles that are significantly more natural to the brain than formal grammar study, and comprehensible input is a big part of that. As adults, it’s silly not to take advantage of our superior ability to contextualize input for faster learning, but it’s also far from ideal to rely too much on cognitive-heavy models (such as formal grammar study) as the primary form of information ingest.


Are there any good papers on the topic you can recommend? Maybe a lit review?

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read through the various studies, but here’s a start for neuroplasticity in general:

Particularly section 3.4: Are age and proficiency of the learner both crucial for structural brain changes?

"While evidence points to clear malleability of brain structures at this age range [18-30], and while we are certain that the brain is highly adaptive before this age, what happens after this age?
Although the older participants showed a smaller GM effect when directly compared with younger adults, these data in general suggest that age per se is not limiting factor for structural neuroplasticity. These are highly encouraging data for aging individuals who consider to learn a new skill."

Also, section 4: General discussion and future directions

“First, the timing of second language learning is important, which we doubt anyone would dispute. The extant data from both functional and anatomical brain studies suggest that L2 age of acquisition is an important factor, albeit not the “critical” factor as suggested by the “critical period hypothesis”.”

“The encouraging evidence for learning, whether language or not, is that the brain can continually modify and reconfigure its function and structure, even at a later stage […]”

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The difference is purpose. The purpose of the sentences in grammar books is to teach you the grammar. The sentences themselves have no relevance apart from this. The reader wants to understand the text in order to understand the text.

The purpose of the text in a comic or manga is to tell a story. The reader wants to understand the text in order to understand the story. (The dialogues in Genki do actually have something of a story: the relationship between Mary and Takeshi develops. So maybe these have some purpose, and this applies more to the example sentences.)

Purpose is important. When we use language in the real world, we communicate for a purpose. Language use without purpose cannot be communication. There is a lot of discussion about why communication is important for language learning, but here’s a short article about the difference between language and communication and how to create comprehensible input:

If a sentence “doesn’t stick,” it may be because it serves no real-world purpose. It’s empty, there’s no reason to attend to the meaning because the meaning is useless.

Not saying grammar study is useless. But this may be one reason why grammar study doesn’t stick for some people.


I would agree that Chinese certainly seems more grammatically simple than English or Japanese but then again it has it’s own barriers to fluency, namely the tones.

I struggled for far too long to try to not so much ‘get my head’ around tones so much as ‘get my tongue’ around them. It’s one thing being told that such and such a word comprises of a high level one and a dipping and rising level 3 tone. But in practise actually putting them together in the natural rhythm of a sentence is maddeningly difficult and trying to think ahead what each and every tone is while speaking is a huge barrier to production of the language, made even more difficult when any experimentation often gets blank looks or chuckles because it’s littered with errors.

My wife is native chinese speaker from HK (speaks Cantonese & Putonghua) as well as English. Whenever I asked her help with the question ‘Which tone is it?’ She’d always reply. We don’t learn that way. Which begged the question. If she didn’t learn that way why am I trying to do so. And nor does my 3 year old son who is also learning Chinese as his L2 and doesn’t of course understand the concept of tones yet.

My new method of chinese study is borne out of this realization coupled with knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses in language learning. So tired was I of hearing myself trot out the endless excuse of ‘tones being too difficult’ as a reason for not speaking more chinese when asked, I decided to adopt a similar attitude to tricky grammar. Leave it till later.

So now I am learning lots and lots of phrases and I am listening more and attempting to copy the sound of them in my own production. I’ve recently stumbled across the Glossika method and am finding it extremely beneficial given my new focus. I get lots and lots of model sentences graded by difficulty which I can use to practise speaking. Also since the Glossika method has the same sentences for all it’s languages. The pdf transcript is a good means of reading practice, which simultaneously highlights grammar differences between them (particularly in word order) when I read through them.

I’m at the early stages of this method at the moment but so far so good and I definitely feel like I can now more easily hear the tones within the sentences rather than trying to preload tones to construct my sentences, if that makes sense.

Your description of the challenges of learning tones is spot on; understanding them what they are is fine, memorizing the tone of a given word is alright, but actually putting them together in a sentence is completely overwhelming for me.

Interestingly enough, though, if I say one of the few sentences I know fast enough without caring about tones at all, my girlfriend (Taiwanese) typically compliments me on how natural it sounds…
But, same as for you, the moment I get into new sentences I’m experimenting with, which I would then pronounce more slowly, or with hesitation, then she looks at me as if I was speaking an alien language.

Terribly frustrating, because what I perceive as minor/negligible differences seem to make me unintelligible - but they will happily do stuff like suddenly pronouncing a “sh” sound like “s” and be like “Oh yeah that’s just what some people do to sound funny/cute”. Urgh.

Good on you for actually pushing through the pain and deciding to actually just go for it, though!
I have never heard of Glossika, but I will now have to look into it! While I’m really less attracted by Mandarin as a language, it feels a bit rude to be learning Japanese while my girlfriend’s family speaks Mandarin - so I’ll try to force myself a bit more.

(By the way, if you like WaniKani, I feel like the Zizzle app, for Chinese, does a good job at providing good mnemonics in a similar way - but it seems a bit pricey and I haven’t seen a lot of the content yet. If you have any experience with it, or any other alternative, I’d be interested in your thoughts!)


I’m not really sure how I stand on the topic. I find that Grammar in western languages is maddening, and to study it to learn the language is fool’s errand because there are too many arbitrary rules (declensions in Germanic and Latin languages for example), and the conventions for writing and speaking are completely different. On the other hand I’ve noticed my recall of Kanji improves when I’m given a better understand of role hiragana plays in the Kun’yomi readings (things like words ending in U being verbs). I recently graduated in the “pain” phase of WK and received email recommending that I pick up a Japanese text book around level 20, but that level 10 would be okay too, and I’ve been seriously considering picking up a book too see if expanding my knowledge in grammar and conventions would help improve my studies of Kanji.

Analytical. I know it’s not as helpful, and now that I live in the country, I’m obviously doing my best to pick up the flow of, and phrases used in, natural speech.

But at the end of the day, every useful new phrase I pick up on goes into a Word document for later study, and I often find it extremely edifying to break down the literal logic behind different phrases or grammar points (from the Japanese perspective; obviously the logic often bears no relation to English). I find this helps me understand new phrases and generally get a feel for the flow of grammar faster too.

But part of that’s because I’m out of the age range for easy acquisition (I’m twenty-seven). If I’d immersed myself when I were younger, I’d probably lean a lot more toward induction, and worry about breaking down all the nuts and bolts later. Right now, understanding those nuts and bolts both provides a foothold and is kind of fun as a learner.