Is it just me or Western approach to Japanese grammar has problems?

First of all, I’m not an English native speaker so it’s just my two cents.
Secondly, you may ask why I don’t learn English through my native langauge? My country has a severe education system that does not deconstruct any knowledge or raise any question to any problem. When they try to teach you something they will just give you a structure to remember and force you to memorize it. You can’t go far with this method. So I cannot find a decent learning resource (not only talking about Japanese) in my native langauge, that’s why I’m using English learning resources.
Thirdly, I’m not an expert by any mean. I’m studying around N3 grammar, which is still about basic grammar I think.

After I learn more and more about Japanese grammar. I feel like they try to link the Japanese grammar structure to English grammar structure (to make it more approachable to English users I guess). Some of them even go as far as try to compare the sentence structures between English and Japanese one by one like 私は日本語を勉強します they might explain it as 私は(I am)日本語(Japanese)を勉強します(study in) and then if we swap around the order it will be “I study Japanese”. I think this is madness and make things even more confusing. Especially, when the structure is more complex in the higher level.

I’m from east asian contry so we have some shared culture with Japanese. That’s make many sentence structure or vocab like 負け犬 and 虫歯 make perfect sense to me. For example, the subjectless sentence is make sense to me (When I started learning English, I’m even annoyed by English sentence structure, why do I need to put subject every time even if it obvious what I’m talking about lol) and the double negative grammar like 毎日学校に行かなくてはなりません could be directly translated to my langauge and it would make perfect sense.

I think Japanese langauge learner or teacher should learn/teach Japanese with Japanese mindset and culture perspective. We don’t need to try to make Japanese make sense in English language structure, it won’t be.

Ps. I’m so sorry for my terrible English writting skill. I hope I don’t rub this subject the wrong way because the poor choice of words in my post.


I think it’s fair to say that lots of methods of teaching Japanese to non-natives are flawed in some ways.

But if you’re not a native English speaker, it’s natural that you would experience different issues using resources for English speakers than natives would. You already have a different grammatical perspective to relate to, but native English speakers do not have that.

We just had a thread the other day where someone was vigorously recommending to others to break sentences down in exactly the way you said was “madness.” For this person, it was super effective for their understanding.

So… maybe I’m not understanding the overall point, but it seems like you just want the English language resources to not frame things from an English perspective… and I think that’s unlikely to happen on a large scale any time soon.

I guess I’ll pre-emptively say someone is going to recommend Cure Dolly. I personally can’t stand the voice in the videos, or their clickbait nature, but lots of people here do like her.


Learning about some of those concepts and how the language is different from English is a big part of learning Japanese for most native English speakers, so it makes sense that content aimed at them would target that. It might help you more to try something like the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series where it has somewhat more technical explanations rather than trying to give a fast and easy gloss of the grammar structure like a textbook might.


Yeah, that is a really good resource

Here’s a link for anyone who’s interested in it

There’s also a good Anki deck for it too which is linked as the data source on the website


Seems like the usual SVO vs SOV/OSV deal; I believe this clash is one of the disadvantages language learning has compared to language acquisition.

In case of learning, you map the foreign words to their native counterparts, and you map the grammar to the native grammar you know, which, while very methodical and structured, is slow and inefficient.

In case of acquisition, you try to map the foreign words to the actual concepts they represent like you would if it was your native language, and you work to comprehend the grammar structures as-is. This can bring you to a higher and more natural level, but is quite unstructured and seems to depend a lot on your psyche.

– Or at least that’s my two cents on it. Which is why I’m also of a belief that not just Japanese, but all language courses are inherently flawed, if your goal is language mastery and not a quick, temporary solution for tourism or work/study abroad.


I think it just depends on what grammatical structures you’re already familiar with. For example, my native language is Dutch, which is grammatically quite close to English, so the explanations of Japanese grammar through English make a lot of sense to me. Japanese grammar is completely different from what I’m used to, and I can’t suddenly learn it overnight, thus an explanation of how different Japanese constructions map to English ones is a way for me to at least get a basic grasp on Japanese grammar. That way I can actually start reading some Japanese without having to first spend a year studying nothing but grammar to make sure I can parse a sentence :grin:

The translations won’t be perfect, they’re completely different languages, but they’re close enough to give someone used to the English grammatical patterns a foothold in the Japanese language, after which you can start actually reading Japanese, which allows you to then get a finer idea of how everything actually works. But throwing someone who’s not used to such structures into a Japanese-based explanation from the get-go would just make it needlessly complicated at the start. :grin:

I do understand that for someone whose native language is closer to Japanese this can be a bother. In that case it might feel like you’re just adding extra steps to the explanation. In that case it might just be better to just read explanations of Japanese grammar points directly instead of following along with English-based textbooks and courses. But for others whose native languages are closer to English, the English-based explanations are a decent way to get a grasp on Japanese, we need to be told not to use 私は every other sentence because that’s what we’re used to doing :grin:


Maybe I’m not fully grasping what you’re trying to say, but I’m not sure how else you would teach Japanese to English speakers. If you’re trying to explain what 私は日本語を勉強します means to someone (like me) who only knows SVO languages, you can’t just tell them to read it as SOV. They (or at least I) literally don’t know how to think in that way without breaking it up into parts and rearranging it into their native language. Eventually, through repetition and exposure, it becomes easier for native English speakers to understand Japanese in the original SOV form, but there’s no reasonable way to get there without first going through that rearranging process.


I actually find this is an exceptionally poor example, there are more or less three words in this sentence, how else could you possibly make sense of it?


First of all, thanks guys for answering my topic.

Some of you might ask how could I learn Japanese without trying to swap the sentence order around? I think you should learn how particles work throughly, then treat Japanese as a puzzle game. So you can use particles to link between words in a sentence.

I’m suggesting this from my English learning experience. When I was a kid I was told to learn English similar way to how you guys (westerners with language structures similar to English) learn Japanese. It was a chore to me. My fluency was really bad I need to make a translation in my head from my native language to English everytime I tried to do snything in English. However, things changed when I went to study abroad in Australia. I tried to stop thinking anything in my native langauge and deconstructed English grammar. That’s when English truely became my second language.

You may argue that without my prior English grammar knowledge I couldn’t do that in the first place. However, I know some people learning language differently so they don’t need to go in circle like me.

That’s what I’m currently doing with my Japanese learning. I’m slowly trying to understand Japanese in its original form. I don’t translate any thing in my head I just consume it as it is and check with the translation later if my understanding is correct or not.

I think this is the case that vanfem talked about. The different between language learning and language acquisition.

I will have a look on Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series. That sounds like what I’m looking for. Thanks phyro.


I’d explain a sentence like that in parts. The reason we Westerners often think 私は means “I” is exactly because no one bothers to tell us otherwise (to think of は topics as “As for (something)” or “Regarding (something)”), and we’re given simple sentences like 私はアメリカ人です and led to believe it is literally made up of the words “I”, “American” and “am”.

So we don’t understand that the subject is implied and just happens to match the topic. Simple sentences are exactly where these misunderstandings could be fixed!


This makes me think I perhaps was misunderstanding the point. I’m learning mostly through Bunpro and sometimes Tofugu articles and other miscellaneous resources when I want more detail, and pretty much everything after the most basic introduction to Japanese told me that 私は means “I is the topic, roughly translated as ‘as for I (me)…’”. Are people usually told that ~は can be directly translated to ~ in English? If so then I definitely agree with @Pizh that that’s not a great way to learn things.


I’d say 私は is “As for me”, while 私が is “I” for sure, though you don’t normally use the 私が unless you’re correcting a misunderstanding of some kind and need to be explicit (so it stands out).

For example:

  • 私はアメリカ人です。= “As for me, (I) am an American.” = “I’m an American.” in natural style, with the topic also being the subject and any nuance being lost when we translate.
  • 私がアメリカ人です。= “I’m an/the American.” (as opposed to someone else; the “I” stands out, almost like it’s in bold)

I’ve used sooo many learning resources, usually just for a while and then I’ve moved on (I feel like I have ADHD lol), and some of them do explain this pretty well while others skimp a lot on the details!


The main problem with this approach for beginners who have no mental model of how the Japanese language works or how any similar language functions, is that it just takes a long time to adjust. For most beginners coming from other languages translating into their native language is far less time consuming than trying to immediately understand Japanese. If you use your own language as a stepping stone, you can start actually consuming Japanese way faster than you would if you first had to build a mental model of the language including all common particles and their exact nuances. It’s a lot easier to start with a small set of rules telling you how to convert Japanese into something resembling English, then try to understand that, instead of trying to read Japanese directly. Eventually you’ll have to learn to do that too, but you can at least make it a gradual process instead of having to study for months before you’re able to parse a basic sentence.

Take something like 読まなくてはいけない. If you were to read it directly in Japanese, you’d have to parse a negative て, marked by は, then another negative verb, then try to understand what it actually means by putting it all together. For a beginner coming from a language with a significantly different grammar this will be hard, whereas just learning that なくてはいけない means “must” is easy. Later on once they’re more familiar with Japanese grammar they’ll eventually come to realize how the sentence actually works in Japanese, but until then taking a shortcut allows them to read more complex material faster.

It takes time to adjust to new languages, and until then having an easy shortcut based around your known languages is a decent way to at least get a grasp on a new language.



I agree, though I’m not sure it’s just the ‘Western’ approach. It’s natural for adults to use structured teaching based on their existing knowledge. In most cases, that’s probably the easiest way to teach (but not necessarily to learn), because it’s how we convey information in our everyday lives. But it becomes inefficient and sometimes counterproductive when your foundational knowledge differs significantly from what is being taught. It starts to take too much time and/or effort to overcome the differences.

Personally, I think the field of language learning would strongly benefit from a neuro-linguistic programming approach. (I mean, the neuroscience version of that term, not the psychology version.) Essentially, it takes into account what we know about how information and language are structured in the brain – which is quite a lot these days – and systematically and heirarchically trains/programs the target language into your brain from the ground up. Through most of that process, you are thinking in the target language, rather than mentally translating.

Military basic training works the same way: you don’t just read a textbook and practice. First, you are given the simplest tasks until they become instinctual. Then, you are given more complex tasks that build upon those instincts, until the complex tasks become instinctual. Each step builds the next level in the cognitive heirarchy, using small steps so your brain can internalize them instinctually rather than cognitively, whereas traditional teaching relies on your intellect to follow a described path, which not everyone can do well, depending on prior experiences and training.

[edit: Actually, the Karate Kid movie is also a great example.]


Normally by the time you learn this you would already know how なきゃ works, it’s actually not super important to learn the whole structure early on. I know that’s not your point, but generally speaking human beings (in general) don’t process grammar by rules and reason, only experience. Maybe it will get you over some initial hump or accelerate some process in an adult mind early on, but I think I do agree that our current methods are sub-optimal.


I recently was thinking about this issue with japanese textbooks since the grammar points are taught to be used in specific circumstances instead of just taught fully, as in how do you use this grammar in relation to other grammar/parts of speech and when do i use vs when do i not within the framework of japanese culture/society. I only got up to lesson 11 in Genki and it seems that learning more grammar points just makes learning way more confusing since i keep questioning how the sentences even work and how the different parts interact with each other because its not explained. I’m going to try to move away from textbooks and slowly use native material with dictionaries (vocab and grammar) as a reference for learning. For me, i would much prefer learning how the language operates rather than memorizing random grammar points. In order to get practice i’ll make my own sentences and make sure they align with the rules in the grammar dictionary. And if i’m still confused i’ll just ask someone. Furthermore, grammar terminology is something that you can slowly learn with the process of learning a language.


…which is also why there’s so much bad grammar out there :slight_smile:
Probably the most ubiquitous example I’ve seen is “try and [do something]”, rather than “try to [do something]”.

But even if you make such ‘experiential’ errors in Japanese, people will most likely understand you.


This really is a big problem for native English speakers learning Japanese too! I’ve seen a lot of resources and the clunky explanations frustrate me as well. You are not the only one!

One of the hidden frustrations of learning Japanese is that a lot of advanced learners who know what they’re talking about are either annoying people or use annoying gimmicks. I won’t name names, but there are two other prominent YouTubers who seem like total douchecanoes but I have to grudgingly admit that their knowledge is valuable.

I feel the same as you about Cure Dolly but I’m trying to endure and watch all those videos. Cure Dolly’s book, Unlocking Japanese, is a short but useful read that’s (mercifully) light on that gimmick.

I’ve taken classes in Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese (Japanese was my minor in college), and this has been my experience as well. The core of the problem is, as you said, a lot of it is quick & dirty lessons so learners can start saying something. On top of that, most of the language that we hear in classes is from other learners who also don’t know what they’re doing.

I would love to see classes that use a holistic structure to teaching, along with study habits like immersion and SRS. But in my experience in academia, I don’t see that ever happening. It’s a shame.

This is how I visualize Japanese as well. That’s why I believe learners should study minimal grammar until they know a lot of vocabulary. I try to hear and recognize words and then think about how they fit together.

I would agree with this. After all my years of Japanese schooling, I only remember and use about 5% of what I’ve learned there. The main benefit to those classes was getting kana into my muscle memory.

I think that’s why the most annoying thing about learning Japanese for me has been trying to juggle nuances and exceptions. Just yesterday, I learned ~ているあいだに, which I can remember well enough. But I have to drop に if the second part of the sentence uses the ~ている form, which I’ll never remember in conversation. I could drill this, but I’ll probably get it down better if I just keep listening to as much Japanese as possible and building an intuition of what sounds right.

Sorry this reply is so long. I’m autistic and bored.


You explained what I think how language work inside our brain perfectly.

Your writing ability is better than mine and I’m a native speaker. I’m jealous.

I try as much as I can to learn grammar in Japanese but sometimes it helps me to have the extra grammar explanation in English. It might not be the best explanation of the grammar but I’ll take what I can get.

I struggle with grammar a lot.