Japanese learning through context?

Except a) German also has verbs that are both transitive and intransitive (“Ich esse” - “Ich esse Pizza”), and b) English also has verbs that can only be used intransitively (“to rise”) or transitively (“to raise”). English and German are not really different in that regard.

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Rise and raise is a pretty good example. George should definately have thought of that. Maybe it’s more his hate for scholarly type explanations.

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Or he’s taking things in his native language for granted because he’s so used to it. It seems to me that many people struggle to formally describe things in their own native language.

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But then again. I did say similar, not 100% the same. My language has a pair of verbs like rise and raise for every situation. As for videogames, I’d usually go for Morrowind because of the written language over spoken (that pace thing), but there is no Japanese version of it sadly.

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Now that I think of it, Essen is not a very good example. If you say you are eating, you are just omitting what you’re eating. Like rising is when you are going up, and rasing is when you are making something go up. But with eating vs eating pizza it’s not the same.


I can speak to this as a native English speaker who learnt German first, and then Japanese.

I had German classes at school and dropped it after 5 years with much relief, by which point I could pretty much only buy a stamp. When I was 20 I started regularly visiting Berlin and realised that wasn’t going to get me very far and so went to German evening classes. I wasn’t a very diligent student as far as grammar drilling went but outside of the classes I watched a lot of Die Sending mit Der Maus and Lindenstrasse (RIP) and started reading German magazines, and my German progressed without much effort.

When I started learning Japanese, I kind of thought I’d do the same thing. Started evening classes in September 2017 and by Christmas of that year I was struggling. I realised I was going to have to put in A LOT more effort than I had with German or quit and, since I’d paid for a full academic year of classes in advance, I didn’t want to waste the money. So I spent the Christmas holidays studying for several hours every day, started Wanikani, began using SRS flashcards in earnest and I’m still going 3 years later.

All this time I’ve been watching a lot of Japanese content with english subtitles but over the last year I’m gradually making the switch to entirely native content. Doing so is definitely enriching my Japanese but I don’t think you could learn from just that.

As evidence: For the last 10 months my husband and I have both been working from home due to covid. He has been (very generously) spending his lunchtimes on the sofa next to me watching japanese YouTube. Apart from 美味しい and めっちゃ美味しい (we watch a lot of food vlogs), the only words he can pick out audibly are the english-based katakana ones.

Grammatically, Japanese has more similarities to German than I’d expected and realising those similarities has often made it seem less intimidating to me. But you are going to need to put in some formal study before and then alongside your immersion in order to get over the initial barriers. However once you’re past that point, immersion will definitely help you.


The way I see it, learning from context is possible in every language, and it’s a very important part of language learning. However, not everything is equally easy to learn from context. The reason is this: learning from context requires some sort of indicator of what you need to acquire and what is correct. For example, the use of ‘a/an’, which you mentioned, is relatively easy to pick up in English, because the rule is universal (at least in standard forms of English). There’s no doubt that it’s correct, and there are no complex nuances to figure out. In the case of Japanese, something similar might be… H sounds becoming B sounds after ん? At the very least, it’s quite common after 三(さん), especially with counters. On the other hand, something that might be difficult to pick up from context is the two different meanings of 〜ている, which can be equivalent to either ‘to be ~ing’ or ‘to have done ~’. It’s certainly something you might be able to spot given enough examples, but otherwise, without translations or external help, it’s not immediately obvious what’s happening, especially if you’ve already settled on one translation in your L1 and have assumed that that translation works in all contexts. (I’m speaking from experience, unfortunately… I didn’t find out until I started noticing that some translations didn’t line up/make sense.) How much you can pick up from context depends on how much nuance you’re already aware of, be that thanks to prior knowledge or thanks to explanations and translations provided by a teacher or textbook. To put it another way, even when everyone is presented with the same context, not everyone will see the same things.

I believe that learning from context is possible at any level, but the less experienced you are, the more explanation and help you’ll need for any sort of immersion or context-based learning to be effective. (When I started Japanese, I used a textbook written in French that essentially facilitates guided immersion by providing explanations and translations, so again, I speak from experience.) At the lower levels, textbook learning is generally much faster than immersion because textbooks simply feed you the basics with ready-made rules and other facts. That saves you a lot of time because you don’t have to figure anything out on your own by noticing patterns, even if immersion can help cement what you’ve learnt from a textbook. You also won’t need to gather and structure knowledge yourself, because the textbook will have done that for you. Beyond the intermediate level, however, immersion becomes much more important, particularly as you start to approach materials meant for native speakers. This is the point where textbook learning is only about as fast as immersion learning, because the most a textbook can do at this level is gather together a certain amount of material about a fairly broad theme, giving you just enough knowledge to start making forays into the subject. Textbooks won’t be able to cover enough for you to become an expert in the words used in that area. As a result, immersion learning will essentially do the same job as a textbook, with the main differences being that textbooks will provide more information without extra effort on your part, whereas immersion material is more likely to interest you than textbook material. To summarise what changes as you progress, let’s just say that languages are like trees: there’s a relatively small amount of core knowledge that you absolutely need to know in order to get off the ground. Those are the roots and the trunk. Once you hit the advanced level, however, languages start branching out into all sorts of lexicons relative to the fields in which they are used. That’s the point where textbooks become increasingly useless, because there’s simply too much knowledge to pack into a language textbook. As a result, in short, immersion learning becomes more helpful as you become more advanced.

(What is all this based on? Mostly on my experience becoming fluent in French, but also on my experience learning other languages like Chinese (my second language, which I started as a toddler at about the same time as English, but way before French, my third) and Japanese. I’ve also studied some German and Spanish, but I’m not very good because of a lack of practice. That’s another way in which immersion can help: if you have material that actively reminds you of words you already know and how they’re used, you have a better chance of retaining those words.)


learning through context is very much my thing. but as others here have pointed out, it is very difficult when you have no context, and japanese is so different to western european languages that acquiring context is very difficult. in addition, if you want to read and write, learning kanji is unavoidable, and seems almost impossible by context alone.

i wanted to add a suggestion for increasing the amount of context you get. take something you already know well, and switch that to japanese. for me, i’ve switched Stardew Valley to japanese. it’s a game i love and have several hundred hours of playtime in, so i know what is going on. that gives me a lot of context for everything which happens, and i have much higher chances of figuring things out than without context.

…now i just wish i got to play a bit more often :wink:


Stardew valley doesn’t seem like a very text heavy game to me from what I’ve seen. That’s why I prefer those mostly oldschool rpgs like the Elder scrolls series, The 2 first Gothics (and the third just out of appreciation for the first two), Baldurs gate and the like.

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on the other hand, stardew valley has a lot of casual interactions about everyday stuff with the npc’s, which is why i chose that. plus as i said it’s a game i personally have a lot of context for, so i can learn by context.

for someone whose never played stardey valley, i’d reccomend a different game in which they have more context.

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Thank you very much for your insight. :smiley: I’ll try my best to keep up textbook studies as well as immersion learning.

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Switching a game I already know by heart seem like a great idea. I’ll start doing that once I’m a little further down the road. Stardew Valley and Skyrim are the first 2 that come to mind. Maybe stardew in the beginning since it’s not that text heavy and later when I have far more experience I’ll do the same for Skyrim. Thank you :smiley:

Thank you very much :smiley: Hearing that the Japanese language has some similarities to german from someone who speaks german as well as japanese is relieving. I’ll be sure to keep up formal studies. I might tune them down a little though once I’m a little more comfortable with the language.

There really aren’t any more similarities between German and Japanese than between any two languages you’d pull out of a hat at random.

I the case of American English, I am going to say that Americans struggle to explain it because it is never taught in most pubic schools (not excusing anything here, a person who teaches language for a living should be able to explain the distinction). The only time it was ever mentioned to me was when my Japanese teacher talked about it (that is the usage in English) so she could then talk about it in Japanese. It was clear and concise and she was a native Japanese speaker (although also a linguist and living in America teaching at a university level so fully fluent in English). After a brief explanation it made perfect sense though. She started off with, basically, “y’all are never taught this for some reason I don’t understand so imma teach you some English now…”. Best English teacher I ever had was my Japanese teacher :laughing:


The thing I’m struggling with is the “when do I start relying more on context vs textbook?” Especially when it comes to a language as different as Japanese.

My goal is to start learning grammar when I get past level 10 of Wanikani. Learning grammar without context practice seems pointless since textbook examples don’t give enough practice (and are boring as hell). On the other hand, in order to learn through context, I need to be able to read and know a basic level of vocabulary so that reading a book/article/manga doesn’t become a slog where I have to look up each kanji and or word. Also, learning new vocabulary AND learning grammar at the same time is too much for my little brain to handle.It takes me a minute to read a simple sentence in hiragana!

Listening/watching media like movies and shows isn’t worth it right now since I don’t know enough base words and watching subtitled means I’m just focusing on what’s being written and not focusing on spoken dialogue.

Should I start tackling grammar earlier?

it blows my mind that people are still recommending textbooks in this day and age…

there are pre-made anki decks with the most important grammar explained and with examples, in a format (anki, spaced repetition) that will make those grammar basics stick faster than any textbook possibly could. you could get double the contents of genki down in a month or two this way, rather than the 6 months to a year that people usually take drudging through textbook exercises (and forgetting a lot of what they previously learned as they move forward).

get yourself a good premade grammar deck, aim to study 5 new cards a day, and in 60 days you could have 300 grammar basics (as well as whatever vocab is used in the examples) down so quickly.

By “textbook”, I do not literally mean a bundle of paper with words printed on - I mean any resource that mixes explanation, examples and exercises. Personally, I use Mango Languages, which is basically a flashcard system interspersed with brief explanation of grammar points and the nuances of certain words.

I do not think that just using flashcards is a workable approach for learning a language because figuring out things like the は/が distinction, the nuances of when to use keigo or the -ている form, or the いる/ある distinction can be just figured out from context. Some of those can be explained in a sentence or two - but they still need the explanation.

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my take is that the “exercises” portion is usually not necessary and yet often takes the largest amount of time
since the biggest priority of any beginner learner is gaining the ability to make sense of the language - to understand it with increasing reliability, study should consist almost entirely of things that support that. explanation and examples, and reviewing those examples until theyre second nature.

but… of course flash cards aren’t all you need for the entire language… i was talking for beginners who wouldve otherwise used a textbook to get he basics down. a good flashcard collection that has the grammar explanations they need can get that done efficiently, so they can move on to reading and listening native material as the basis of the rest of their study.

I strongly disagree about both the claim that exercises aren’t necessary and that the biggest priority is “making sense” of the language.

If you want to learn how to speak a language (rather than just understand it), actively using it through forming sentences yourself is absolutely essential. By just using fixed phrases in an SRS, you always risk that you just memorise those set phrases, which means you do not build the ability to actively express yourself in said language. That is why “meatspace” language courses rely so much on presentations and the like.

Admittedly, Mango Languages (who still do not pay me to shill for them) does not have exercises as you might know them from high school, where you had to translate sentences or write essays etc by the dozen. But whenever they introduce a new grammar point or a new way to use a certain word they first give you an English sentence to translate, giving you the chance to figure it out for yourself (and usually it is very much possible to do that, based on your knowledge from previous chapters), and then the sentence goes into the SRS.

We might have a bit of a discrepancy here on what exercise actually means, because an SRS is, in itself, an exercise as far as I am concerned.

Aside from that, the kind of textbook that is actually a book is usually designed to be used in courses, and offers a whole bunch of exercises, where the decision of which ones are actually necessary ultimately comes down to the teacher of any given course. As an autodidact, if you just do all of them, you end up wasting time, obviously. (In 13 years of school I have never had a single textbook that didn’t contain at least a couple of pages the teacher ended up skipping.)

Again - I am not arguing that you should just buy a book and follow it to the letter, I’m just arguing that learning a language requires more approaches than just watching media in said language and hoping you can figure out the rest yourself. You need structured approaches, be they textbooks or learning software or a community college course or whatever.

And at the point where a flash card collection contains detailed explanations, I honestly wouldn’t consider it a “flash card collection” anymore.