Japanese

We’ll find links on the menu and the side bar to the notes of the Pimsleur Japanese I course. I do not speak Japanese by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been taking classes for a while so now that I can understand these lessons that used to puzzle me, I went back to my notes, fixed them, and am here making them available to anyone that might find them useful. This material is study material for me too, so my apologies for any unintentional blunder that I may have written.

I like Pimsleur Japanese because I can listen to it while commuting, the length of the lessons is just right, and I get to listen to native speakers talking at natural speeds. The course uses the formal Japanese type, respectful in any situation, and the dialogs are about situations that adults would find while traveling in Japan as tourists, or as new arrivals. Actually, I like the course format so much that though I could add value to it, supplementing some of the issues that, in my view, it lacked.

Formal vs. casual talking

No course is perfect and Pimsleur is no exception. The first problem with Pimsleur is that it focuses on formal language, i.e., the Japanese that we would hear at the office, talking to coworkers. This is also fine when we speak politely to strangers that we might find in the street. Sadly, I have no plans to travel to Japan anytime soon, or to work there. Instead, I have always been fascinated with the Japanese culture. I am a fan of Japanese series and movies, everything from ‘Kagemusha’ to ‘Totoro’ to ‘Your name’; likewise, I like Japanese music and can’t understand why it isn’t more popular around the world.

The problem with Pimsleur is that in music, animes, dramas, and movies, the spoken Japanese is of the casual type, not the formal one. Hence, Pimsleur helps us carrying out a business conversation, but it doesn’t help much understanding the lyrics of a song, or the dialog in most movies. Worse, the appeal of many movies and series is that they deal with conflict (e.g., under-world cultures) and change (e.g., young-adult culture), neither of which is concerned with formality; on the contrary, both reject formality as a way to either rebel against the establishment (e.g., criminals) or as an assertion of self-identity (e.g., teenagers). Characters in movies and animes will most often speak something between a casual Japanese and a vulgar one. For example, in ‘Your name’, the characters refer to each other using the casual ‘ore’ and ‘kimi’ instead of the formal ‘watashi’ and ‘anata’; likewise, many main-stream animes, like ‘Bleach’, use street-talk, so we have the main characters, Rukia and Ichigo, saying ‘you’ as ‘kisama’, an over-casual ‘you’; and ‘temee’, a downright vulgar term. Thus, if we want to understand this type of productions (and I do), there is no option but to supplement Pimsleur.

I made a page for each lesson of the Pimsleur I course, commenting on the words that the lesson introduces. Many of the comments include how to say the same words casually. I bundled the lessons in chunks of eight; each bundle has a summary and a page of tiny clips from the wonderful ‘shigatsu wa kimi no uso’ (‘Your lie in April’), available now (2018) in Netflix. I wrote the dialogs of the clips in both formal and casual forms. The clips are tiny in both size and length, so hopefully it’s clear that they qualify as ‘fair use’. The other reason they are tiny is because it’s very difficult to find dialogs that contain only the words introduced in the lessons that span more than a sentence or two. In many cases, the dialogs had additional words not covered in the course, which I just left in, after explaining what they meant.

Transcripts

The dialogs at the beginning of each lesson are pretty useful because they are spoken at a natural speed. However, when I first listened to them, sometimes I could not understand what they were saying; I kept rewinding and playing the same portions of the dialogs over and over, e.g., “did he say ‘wa’ or ‘ga’?”, “was it ‘sumoshitai’ or ‘sugoshitai’?”. It’s not a matter of disagreeing with the listening-only Pimsleur method, but I sorely missed a transcript, and apparently many other people do too.

Actually, it is writing down these transcripts that originally motivated me to write these webpages, because I though they would be useful to other people using Pimsleur; I also thought that the transcripts would motivate people to buy the course because their absence is one of the most cited complaints about it. So I went ahead and transcribed them all, and publish them, but then I found out that people that have done so for other Pimsleur courses have received notices of copyright infringement; although I think that the transcripts add value to the course, in the end it’s Pimsleur right to do whatever they want with the material they created. Hence, I removed the lessons that already had the transcript of the dialogs, am replacing the original dialogs with original ones, and slowly publishing them again; in summary, the dialogs in the pages are not those from the recordings, but hopefully they are still useful; they are graded Japanese dialogs that roughly follow the Pimsleur Japanese course.

Writing

It’s very difficult to introduce writing in a Japanese sound-only course. However, Japanese writing permeates the culture and it has its own appeal. Japanese writing is what really makes Japanese difficult; it is a mix of foreign and original writing systems. The written language is a mess, but it is a mess that is respected and highly valued; its learning reflects a love for tradition, beauty and hard work. And heck… I want to learn that too! Maybe I won’t ever be able to read classic Japanese, but I want to be able to read a manga, or signs on the street, or a newspaper, and Pimsleur is just not the way to even get our feet wet with writing.

Basic Japanese writing, with kanas, is not more difficult than learning the alphabet. Granted, learning the alphabet is not necessarily trivial since it took us several months to learn it when we were kids, at a time when our brains were like sponges, able to acquire new knowledge fairly fast. Still, hiragana is about as simple as the roman alphabet; katakana, although equally simple, tends to be more difficult to learn because there are less words in Japanese that use katakana than hiragana, so there is less opportunity to practice it.

Kanjis are another story but… baby steps. We’ll find a section about Japanese writing for absolute beginners (who are the folks using Pimsleur I), that talks a bit about the writing. I also wrote the dialogs – and some of the comments – in 4 ways:

  1. the translation in English
  2. the romaji version – the sounds if they were to be written in English
  3. the kana version – Japanese writing using only hiragana and katakana
  4. the kanji version – the normal Japanese writing, i.e., kanjis and kanas

If we are total beginners, we can use the English translation and the romaji versions, and just ignore the kana and kanji versions:

I/me → watashi

With a relative small effort, we can memorize the kanas – the hiragana and the katakana syllabaries – and be able to actually write in Japanese:

watashi → わたし

This is a half-baked solution because any Japanese would understand what we are writing, but no Japanese would write using kanas alone, unless s/he is writing a children’s book. Hence, learning the kanas allows us to write anything in Japanese, but we would still be far from being able to read Japanese.

Finally, we can learn how to represent words using kanjis – a life-long effort but… every journey starts with one step:

わたし → 私

I’ll point out some basic kanjis as they come up, but only those that are considered ‘beginner’ kanjis, taught in 1st and 2nd grades; these are the kanjis that are most likely to appear in the JLPT N5 Japanese proficiency test.

If we don’t know kanas or kanjis (or don’t care about them), just ignore them, but as we learn them, we can go back over material that we already know and learn a bit more Japanese.

Grammar

The final problem that I see with the Pimsleur Japanese course is the issue of learning a language by studying its grammar, like adults do, vs. learning it by ear, like children do. Pimsleur uses the later approach, and I think it is the right method, but only if you are a child, and are totally immersed in the language, in which case you to not need Pimsleur; otherwise, expecting to learn a language by ear using a few lessons is unrealistic. Most foreigners not living in Japan that want to learn Japanese have a non-japanese life, non-japanese spuses and children, and co-workers, and clients, and friends: immersion is non-existent and the motivation is usually a fascination with the Japanese culture, which is a powerful motivation but also one that is not vital for survival. So what can we do? Pimsleur just don’t cut it. It is really great that Pimsleur spoon-feed us tiny sentences that we can memorize and repeat, but to make up for our lack of immersion, we need a way to make sense of those spoon-fed bits, to generalize them, and that is grammar.

Grammar is the distillation of the rules of a language. I think that for most of us, a combination of learning a language using both grammar and listening is a better approach that focusing on either of them. Fortunately, there is a lot of great Japanese grammar material. A couple of examples are the Genki series and the ‘A guide to Japanese Grammar’ by Tae Kim, that is available in its totality as a book and at the website. Neither of them is for casual reading, though.

In my comments of the Pimsleur lessons, I added some grammar pointers that cover some aspects of the lesson. They are not exhaustive; there are things in the lesson that I do not talk about, and bits that I add that relate to the lesson but were not covered in it, but that makes sense to introduce early. Hopefully, this makes sense.

In the end

I think Pimsleur is great: it fits my lifestyle, I like listening to it while I drive, I like the pace and I like the material. However, I want to make up for its deficiencies: I want to be comfortable with the casual style, to be able to read and write some Japanese, and to understand the rules of the language, and these pages are my attempt to do a bit of that. They are time consuming to write, though, but as an initial goal I’d like to finish those for Pimsleur Japanese I.