j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
[personal profile] j_rant
I could also have titled this post "A defense of 'useless' knowledge" or "Shut up, your textbook's not that bad!"

The thing that you have to keep in mind about any foreign language is that, just like math or being able to read in your native language, it's a tool. If what you want to do with Japanese is read manga, it makes no difference whether manga are written in "normal" Japanese: If you can't read the word for 'teleporter' or 'psychokinesis' or whatever it is on that manga page, your tool isn't useful. So what if you know how to say 'hello' really, really politely! But, equally, if you've learned nothing but how to say 'psychokinesis' and you try reading one of those josei office romances or a historical series, you're going to get lost the first time someone busts out the keigo.

I see a lot of complaints from beginning Japanese students about how paper textbooks can't possibly keep up with the speed at which the Japanese language evolves. Implicit in these complaints is the idea that Japanese evolves unusually quickly compared to other languages (bullshit) and that boring or old things aren't worth knowing (again, bullshit). Read enough, watch enough, and every single "boring" thing from your textbook will eventually show up. Have the right tastes, and everything boring from your textbook will show up right away.

There is no such thing as good language and bad language or useful language and useless language. There is only language that you need right now.

Most textbooks do an acceptable job of organizing the grammar from easier, simpler patterns to more complex ones. You do have to start somewhere, after all. But textbooks are no good at teaching useful vocabulary. They can't be. Aside from a few verbs so basic you can hardly find a paragraph of Japanese without them, there is simply no way for your textbook to guess what you'll need to know. The word lists in your book are just there to give you enough vocabulary to practice the grammar patterns. This is not an excuse for hating your textbook...

But it's also not an excuse to stick to the textbook. You want to know what words are used in "real Japanese"? Go find some real Japanese you want to read, make a list of everything you don't understand, and look it up. There are your useful words! Make flashcards. Use Anki. Read more stuff you like. There are some more useful words!

You may find that your textbook is actually pretty good and that Japanese doesn't evolve that quickly after all, or you might find that it's preparing you perfectly to read a bunch of manga from the 70s or to watch Kurosawa films or to talk to Grandma. (70s manga, mid-20thC film directors, and Grandma are, after all, rather unlikely to be using slang from last year.) Or you might find that neither your textbook nor any current slang dictionary prepares you to deal with sewing patterns or science fiction or whatever it is you enjoy.

Don't hate your textbook. But don't rely on it for vocabulary either.


j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)

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