Why do textbooks teach formal Japanese first?

I’ve noticed that Japanese courses/textbooks tend to teach formal Japanese (です/ます) first, when as far as I can tell, it’s better to teach basic/“casual” Japanese first since that lays the groundwork for the regular Japanese structure that you’ll commonly see in any sentence and makes understanding what です and ます even are (and digesting their quirks) easier.

I can maybe see why formal is often taught first - formality and politeness are a big thing in Japanese so it’s not like it’s unimportant, and at first glance formal verb transformations seem to have simpler rules than casual/basic form and are more “beginner-friendly” (attaching -ました to the い-stem is easier to remember than the several different ways verbs can change in the basic -た form depending on their ending syllable, for example.)

But it seems in the long run learning formal Japanese first trips people up since they’re kind of weird exceptions to the regular Japanese structure and it can give people the wrong impression of how Japanese sentences work. This is coming from someone who’s learned some basic grammar from Cure Dolly who starts with basic form first and doesn’t introduce formal Japanese structures until the like 17th lesson, and it feels like things are clicking a lot better than when I was trying to learn grammar with Genki I who gives you です and ます right out of the gate.

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Probably because formal is what people will usually use with you first and you’re also expected to start using formal Japanese with people and then it can develop to less formal as you get to know people

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Most common language that you’ll expose yourself to. Doesn’t really matter which end you start in, you’ll go through all of it eventually anyway. But I’d find formal japanese more helpful to learn initially since it’s so common in immersion. Casual is mostly used between friends, and as a language learner that will most likely not happen (all that much) until you have a sufficient knowledge of japanese already. Keigo you can just keep in the back of your mind as an afterthought, probably the least helpful of the three.

Formal and casual japanese also intersect fairly often, so you’d need both anyway.

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My assumption is that most resources are aimed at getting you off the ground using the language to some level as soon as possible. I’m sure Japanese people can recognize and forgive mistakes in levels of formality, but there’s some logic in starting with the form that you’re expected to use with strangers, minimizing the likelihood of causing offense or discomfort.

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I guess the “not offending strangers you talk to” angle is something I tend to forget about since I’m learning Japanese primarily for reading, not for speaking or writing to another person. So I’m not in any hurry to be able to have a conversation with someone else where I’d have to know how to speak formally. In my case I just need to be able to recognize formal vs. basic/casual sentences in written form.

That said, I still find it kind of unfortunate that polite form is irregular compared to basic form, for how common and useful it is.

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I think there is a lot of benefits of learning formal forms and verb stems first. It only becomes an issue if simple/plain forms are introduced to late in overall studies. But Genki introduces them eventually so it’s fine :slight_smile:

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Aye, if you go into Japan as a tourist, です/ます form is pretty much all you will ever need.

Be aware, mind, that this is called polite form. Formal form is a whole extra level higher (though in some aspects it’s also a different axis on the graph - plain-polite versus casual-formal). This table on Wikipedia covers it rather nicely, albeit with a comparatively simple sentence:

plain plain formal polite polite formal very polite formal
これは本だ これは本である これは本です これは本であります これは本でございます
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Right, I remembered that です/ます is dubbed “polite” form while there are higher levels of formality beyond that. But honestly I haven’t gotten into anything beyond the “polite” level (I’ve briefly heard of であります but that’s about it) so I can’t comment on those.

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Jokes on them, I learned formal Japanese so long ago, by the time I actually got to begin using my Japanese, casual was fresher in my head than formal so now I have to actively force myself to use formal

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Actually, there’s nothing irregular about the polite です・ます forms, they follow the same convention as the other forms. It just seems a bit complicated if you start out with it.

Those are the neutral polite forms and will be fine for a good long while. Anything beyond that goes into the realms of 敬語 can get very complicated.

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Most people who start learning quit before they get to even N5 level. These are people just going on vacation and stuff. There isn’t a long term for most people seeking beginner resources.

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That is very relatable :joy:

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I wasn’t aware that tourists were consulting academic resources like GENKI and other textbooks, lol

I was under the impression that textbooks were more meant for people looking to actually commit to learning the language past a shallow level.

I can’t speak for Leebo, but what I can say from my experience with textbooks is that even if you’re quite committed and pick them up with the intention of advancing as far as possible, there are very few textbooks that aim to bring learners to the ‘independent language user’ stage (i.e. the C1 and C2 levels on the CERFL, if you’re familiar with that proficiency description system). That’s a huge contrast compared to other commonly learnt languages like French or German, for which there are at least 2-3 major publishers that go up to that level while covering every level below it. For Japanese, when I think ‘textbook that covers/introduces students to technical language/complex standard Japanese natives might deal with as adults’, I can literally only think of two textbooks, and both of them are from the same publisher (the University of Tokyo). I strongly suspect that this has to do with the massive drop in demand from people learning at that level, particularly since even most bachelor’s degrees in Japanese only expect graduates to reach a high N2, not even an N1 (which is B2-C1 at best i.e. just beginning to reach that C1-C2 range). Beyond the intermediate level, most learners are on their own – test prep books aside – and to be quite frank, even though I own one of the two advanced textbooks I mentioned, I don’t use it very much because I have other study priorities at the moment.

Learners who pick up textbooks aren’t necessarily prospective tourists, but you can tell that a lot of textbooks are written for people having basic exchanges in Japanese, or perhaps students going to Japan for a homestay programme (when intermediate textbooks are involved). In many cases, the target audience is clearly people who are going to be sticking to fairly formal conversation, albeit I think most intermediate textbooks introduce informal language fairly quickly. Even so, that’s still not full-blown casual Japanese, which some people don’t discover even after reaching the N1 level. I think the fact is that most textbooks are geared towards helping students master fairly standard Japanese, and not much else. That makes sense since the first conversations most students will be able to have will be in formal Japanese, though it’s unfortunate that casual language is often very much something one will have to learn on one’s own.

As for your original question… I personally think that it makes more sense to learn the plain form first, but the truth is that the masu forms are – in my opinion – much more regular than all the other conjugations, and it’s fairly easy to learn to convert them back into dictionary forms (which is how I was taught conjugations). I don’t think it’s particularly problematic to start with them either, if one’s purpose is to give students Japanese they can use immediately without offending anyone. However, that’s just my opinion, and to be very frank, I’m not sure if free-form conversation practice is very common in most Japanese programmes – most textbooks I’ve seen require students to follow a model and repeat sentences – so perhaps that’s not even a priority.

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I didn’t say it was a large percentage of all tourists (that is to say, many tourists don’t bother, sure). But you do have plenty of people who pick up resources with the intent to study some, but no aspirations to master the language, and then they peter out.

Additionally, people going for business do often use textbooks because they might have less time and are trying to be efficient. There are textbooks aimed at them specifically too.

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So the general consensus I’m getting is that textbooks tend to teach polite form as a priority due to a combination of how commonly polite form is used and the fact that many people who touch Japanese don’t really study past what they need just to get by in Japan.

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It’s still odd to think about how most of the people that started learning at the same time as me ended up quitting. Like thinking about how most of the people in my first Japanese class probably haven’t touched Japanese in years. It’s weirdly motivating.

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I mean, Japanese is hard, no? :smiley:

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Hard, and the other factors involved like the time commitment to studying (and the fact that learning a language takes quite a bit of time in general; some people may just get demotivated and quit when they realize they won’t be a master in just a few months), having a substantial reason/motivation for learning Japanese in the first place, etc.

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Not only casual Japanese actually.

I think it is a mistake to teach the masu- form first. It is the same wrong thinking like the Japanese apply to their English teaching. In the end the result is very meager and the frustration is high.

Personally I think that any given person who starts learning Japanese from a textbook can’t speak Japanese anyway for the first three years.
In this time it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever if you answer with a casual or formal Katakoto Japanese. Maybe it would help Japanese understand that it is ok to drop Keigo if you talk to a beginner of Japanese, but if the first word you learn is 了解いたします chances are very low you will ever reach the point of real fluency. It’s not polite neither, its just strange.

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