New Selecting a Japanese Textbook
One of the first questions a potential Japanese student asks is, "What is the best Japanese textbook to get?" After much trial and error and also watching the experiences of others, the answer to this all-important question is: "all of them." Unfortunately, an average search will usually not reveal many of these good books, so the purpose of this guide is as much to bring some of these titles out into the light, as it is act as a reference.
Each textbook meets different goals in differing orders, but the final result for nearly all is a student that can speak--if not read--Japanese well. It is important to not waste time looking for a better textbook once you've already started. Persevere and study daily and you will be learn Japanese well.
Know your goals first
Learning a new language is about goals before anything else. Why are you studying Japanese? If you know your goals, then you can select a book that caters more effectively toward those goals.
The first thing you have to decide is speed. The faster you need to learn one thing the greater the sacrifice you need to make somewhere else. A diplomat might be satisfied with a spoken course, while someone that just wants to read manga will be happy with a written course. In terms of speed we can rate the courses from fastest to slowest.
- Travel Guide
- Spoken only
- Written only
- Both spoken and written
For example, a spoken course does not need to worry about learning Kanji which adds a significant amount of time to learning Japanese. Likewise, a strictly written course has no need for pronunciation or speed drills. The longest route is learning to be good at both. Still, there is some room for variety. A course emphasizing literacy might emphasize reading (passive recall) but not writing (active recall).
Primers are great for the tourist that wants get more out of their tour guide or a thrifty parent of a child that wants to learn Japanese. They give a smattering of everything but are weak on vocabulary and like travel guides often have no audio component. Because the primer is much cheaper than a full course, it can be used as a gauge of the child's discipline. If the child is able to complete the primer, then the parent might more seriously consider buying a full blown course. Primers also can be good supplements to a more robust course.
Travel guides are written for the clueless tourist and can generally get someone by, provided they spend a week or two learning the format of the book. Although primers can easily become a source of aggravation for all parties, they also contain a lot of categorized vocabulary so an intermediate student or upper beginner might find them useful as a study guide. In truth, they can be a godsend even for the advanced student that goes to Japan then suddenly discovers a hole in one's knowledge.
Because a good course is designed to advance a student to the intermediate level. Any course that does not have enough material to make a student self-sufficient at about the intermediate level will be rated as a primer.
Spoken courses come in three varieties, spoken only, romaji, or kana. Although there is a bit of controversy over the use of romaji, a spoken course will not be criticized for that here, however, a written course will.
Know the format before buying
I highly recommend examining any course before buying it. Even though I try to recommend courses that are well formatted and are paced in a way that is easy to stay motivated, it might not work for you. It is a bad sign when the page layout incites a headache, so make sure you like the format and pace before buying. Generally, many short lessons seems to be easier to remember and progress through than few longer more in-depth lessons.
Also, this list will now attempt to cover all media formats. Software, audio only, and web site courses as I see them will be added to the list. Textbooks will continue to be the preferred format, because you can take them with you anywhere, but other formats will be mentioned.
To save some trouble this list is for those who want a quick answer. Most courses are rated on quality not speed. I do plan to make a note of any courses that seem to emphasize speed. Better courses are listed above weaker courses, but to be listed at all in the "Best" list is a good sign. Please realize that these "Best" courses are rated extremely subjectively. If something is not on here, that doesn't necessarily mean it is bad, also you might prefer a book not on this list. Hopefully, after reading this page, will know enough to judge whether a given course fills your needs by yourself. Usually I will try to give a reason one title is listed over another. If you don't see the book you want here, check out the complete Japanese Textbook List. If Clay is selling a recommended book, I'll point the link to his store in thanks for hosting the site.
- Barron's Japanese Vocabulary by Carol and Nobou Akiyama. This is as the title says, mainly a vocabulary list, so it's more for someone that has already knows Japanese grammar. It is the only book of it's kind, however, to list such a large number of themed vocabulary. Vocabulary words are listed under the most appropriate topic, "Clothing," "Likes and Dislikes," "Jobs and Professions," etc.. Kanji are given for words in the back, and the book says that it also notates changes in pitch, but very few accented words are marked. In spite of this negative, the book is very portable and can be used to quickly look up a word at need.
- Colloquial Japanese by H. D. B. Clarke. This can be bought as the book alone or the book and audio can be bought together as a package. Great for someone going to Japan in the near future or that wants a good overview of the language before starting a more intensive course. This moves at a fast pace but does not overload the student with vocabulary. Also, the vocabulary builds on each previous chapter very well. Unfortunately, there are a relatively large number of typos throughout the book that the student will need to keep their eyes out for, however, they all seemed rather obvious because the parallel text will not match. Primers usually don't come with audio so this gets the highest recommendation.
- Easy Japanese by Jack Steward. This little primer has a lot going for it. It strongly emphasizes pattern sentence and substitution drills, one of those boring things that you only appreciate later and something many courses neglect because they are unpopular. No audio.
- Barron's Mastering Japanese Written by Eleanor Harz Jorden author of Japanese, the Spoken Language is a technical course designed for the self-study. Even though this textbook is old, it gets the highest recommendation because of the extensive drills in the book. The benefit of extensive drills is well worth any perceived negative factors associated with this course.
- Ultimate Japanese and Japanese Complete Course by Living Language are both spoken courses even though UJ does teach Japanese writing it is segregated from the other material and can be easily ignored. UJ is a technical course while FCC is a conversational course. JCC therefore, better meets the above stated purpose of a spoken course. UJ acts as a sort of bridge between a spoken course and a written course teaching too slowly to really benefit from a spoken only approach but the segregated writing system removes the benefits of an integrated course. Both are mentioned because the marketing for both courses is confusing.
- Pimsleur's Japanese This conversational course comes in 3 volumes of 30 lessons each. The course is weak on vocabulary but strong in pattern sentences and completely spoken (CD or Tape); there is no accompanying text. This can be a problem because the untrained ear often cannot distinguish some sounds, however there are PDFs of the lessons floating around the internet. The course is very expensive, but seems to be at many libraries for free and is worth checking out. If nothing else, the lessons are very memorable and can give some insights in how to structure one's study sessions for maximum retention.
- An Introduction to Modern Japanese (Bowring & Laurie). This is an extremely detailed 52 Lesson course that has the stated goal of enabling the student to read--with only a dictionary for reference-- short stories by the half-way point and newspapers by the end. It comes with a workbook, essential for taking full advantage of this course, and emphasizes the subtleties of _written_ Japanese. Thus, making this course best for the student with the primary goal of Japanese literacy over spoken fluency. It covers more Kanji than any other known course and gives detailed explanations of each grammar point.
- Japanese in Mangaland With the addition of workbooks this book series graduates from a gimmicky grammar book into a legitimate Japanese course more dedicated towards the student that wants to read manga. Has good explanations, mini exercises and more specifically targeted vocabulary. For example, onomatopoeia and sound effects are taught from the very beginning. Currently 3 textbooks and 1 workbook; workbooks 2 and 3 may be in the works. There only seems to be one workbook at this time, so utility for using this course may fall off quickly after the first book.
Spoken and Written
- Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. This is a 2-book course with a strong following. Each book has an accompanying workbook and audio. It is one of the more expensive courses but worth the money. However, this is not so much better than Nakama that you should ignore a good deal if you find it.
- Elementary Japanese. Also a two book series, it has the advantage of an audio CD that does not need to be ordered separately and has lots of exercises, although it does not have an accompanying workbook at this time, rather exercises are all within the book, making this a bit thicker than many other textbooks.
- Japanese for Everyone is equally good, maybe better, but I rank it lower because it teaches at a faster pace to make up for it's 1 book length and the audio must be purchased separately--and seems difficult to acquire and there is not many exercises. This faster pace can be too much for many people, although the pace did not seem to be extraordinarily fast. I'm sure many will find the pace perfect.