Japanese is a tough language. In fact, according to the U.S.’s Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is perhaps the hardest language for native English speakers to learn. Of course, kanji is a significant barrier, but much of the difficulty actually lies in the fact that the Japanese grammar structure is so different from English’s. That’s why it’s important to have a good book to help you learn all that grammar.
Naturally, there are a ton of options, and not every one is going to work for you. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you cut through the junk and pick the right book for you. In this guide, we’ll give you some tips to figure out what you want from your Japanese grammar book as well as a few of our favorites–separated by level–for you to start your search.
How to Choose a Japanese Grammar Book – Buying Guide
Buying learning materials can be tough (and costly). This guide will help you figure out what you need from a grammar book so that you can get learning as quickly as possible without wasting time or money.
Choose a Book Based on Your Level
A book with 500 different grammar patterns isn’t very helpful for those who don’t know any Japanese. Nor is a colorful, comic-filled book with basic structures very helpful for advanced learners. Naturally, you should always choose a book that’s helpful for the level that you’re at.
Beginner: Look for an All-Inclusive Beginner Textbook that is Part of a Series
For absolute beginners, just having a grammar book isn’t going to help much. Instead, you’re going to want to have a textbook that can teach you the writing system, vocabulary, and grammar together. This also means that when you’re looking up a grammar point you’ll have more context and examples available to help you figure out how to properly use it.
You’ll also want robust English translations and explanations that leave no room for misunderstanding.
Books that are part of a series are good for beginners because when you finish one and are ready to move on to the next one, your intermediate textbook will already know what you have and haven’t learned, minimizing the risk of redundancy.
Intermediate: Look for Books with Context, like Reading Passages and Example Conversations
As an intermediate learner, you’ve mastered the basics. You can quickly flip any verb into its te-form and saying “it was warm” only takes you three tries to get right. You’re ready to transition from spitting one out-sentence answers to stringing together a longer response.
Look for books that provide short reading passages and conversations that utilize a number of beginner to intermediate grammar points. Not only will you learn how to use your new grammar points naturally, but it’ll also function as a review for all that you’ve learned before.
Advanced: Look for Reference Books
At this point, you probably already know enough grammar to get by on a day-to-day basis. So instead of something that teaches you grammar, it might be more helpful to have a book that can help you quickly figure out what “omoikiya” means when you stumble across it in your reading and move on.
A good reference book will also help you to differentiate the minute differences between similar usages and forms.
For those who are sufficiently advanced, it would be good to look for a textbook completely in Japanese. Not only will you be able to more fully understand the nuances in the language, but it can also serve as a good practice tool.
Find a Book That Fits Your Goals
By thinking about what your Japanese learning goals are, you can tailor your purchase to meet your needs as closely as possible.
Business-Focused Books for Work
If you’re learning Japanese for work, you’ve probably already figured out that Japanese work culture is pretty formal. Unsurprisingly, that also applies to the language used. Business situations often require not just different vocabulary, but also different grammar than you’d normally come across in everyday conversation.
In order to sound professional, you’re going to have to know how to use them together (after all, it can sound odd and amateurish to use formal grammar patterns with informal vocabulary).
So, you want to find a comprehensive book that teaches you both grammar and vocab, preferably with some good examples and culture notes to show you how it’s done. (Yes, because there is a proper depth to bow–depending on your situation, you should either bob your head, go down 45 degrees or a full 90.)
Comprehensive Tomes for Long-Term Learners
If you’re in the earlier stages of learning Japanese but know that you’re going to keep studying the language for quite a while more, it might make sense to find a book that can be useful to you at every step.
So rather than just picking up the colorful, manga-covered beginner’s book (or in addition to it), it can pay off to go for the less exciting book that starts off slow and easy but builds up to things you’re not quite ready to handle yet. Unless you get bored easily—then we recommend going for the manga before giving up altogether.
Look for Books with Robust Practice Sections and Examples or an Accompanying Workbook
The best way to learn a language is practice, practice, practice. Find a textbook that allows you to get your hands dirty testing out new grammar patterns and shows you exactly how to do it.
Look for some kind of hands-on approach, like short-answer and translation quizzes. Simple quizzes with only one right answer, such as fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions, are good if you’re studying on your own, as you can check your answers against a key.
If you are one of the lucky few that has a native friend or mentor–maybe you meet up with a language buddy at a café every week–then look for freer exercises like essay writing (especially if you’re advanced). You can’t check it against a key, of course, but essay-writing is an important first step in teaching you to express your thoughts fluidly in conversation and talks.
Find a Book with Cultural Notes and Explanations
Unlike English, in Japanese, your grammar often reflects the amount of respect you’re showing to another person and your personality. There are feminine and masculine grammatical patterns, as well as casual and polite (Who’s ready for some keigo?).
There are grammatical patterns that are used exclusively in writing and some that are used exclusively in conversation. There are old-fashioned and defunct grammatical patterns you will hear if you like watching historical anime or NHK samurai dramas.
Explanations about the contexts in which it’s appropriate to use a certain grammar point in are necessary for intermediate and advanced learners–and it’s also just something fun for beginning learners as well.
Match Your Learning Style for Best Results: Manga Panels and Audio CDs
Language learning can be particularly difficult and tedious. So to make sure that you’re optimizing your learning, be sure to choose a textbook that works for your learning style.
For those who need a little more stimulation, many Japanese textbooks have manga sections, since that’s what draws in a lot of learners to begin with.
For those who are better audial learners, some books come with CDs with audio instruction and practice. Though, CDs can be useful for almost everyone, as you get to learn the grammar point two different ways–by learning and, if you shadow, by speaking as well.
Top 3 Japanese Grammar Books for Beginners to Buy Online
Starting from the bottom of the ladder–here are the best books for Japanese learners who are just learning how to introduce themselves.
3. Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals
Comprehensive Text for Absolute Beginners
This book from Japanese interpreter George Trombley Jr. might just be the best way to learn Japanese short of actually moving to Japan. It takes you through everything from writing to grammar to culture points and does it in an engaging, easy-to-understand way, introducing new points at a refreshingly quick pace.
While there aren’t as many illustrations as the cover might have you believe, this book is also supplemented by a series of Youtube videos produced by the authors. This book is just the first in a series of five books, so if you find that this book is as good as the 500+ 5-star Amazon reviews might suggest, then you can continue on to the next four as well.
2. Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure
Illustrated Grammar Guide for Beginners with a Stable Foundation
This book by Wayne Lammers uses examples from real manga to teach you beginner and intermediate Japanese grammar. Each point is provided with a four-tiered translation–after the original text comes the same text in romaji, followed by a literal translation, and finally a polished English translation.
Although it uses manga, don’t underestimate it. This book is thorough and fast-paced with detailed explanations about grammar, sentence structure, and pronunciation. However, as it is a grammar book, it’s best to use it along with a more comprehensive text for best results.
1. The Japan Times – A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
A Perfect Reference Book for Beginning Structures with Detailed Notes
As the title of this book would suggest, this is a dictionary of basic Japanese grammar. The book itself, however, is far from basic. It goes incredibly in-depth, teaching you exactly what each grammar point means and how to use it. Before trying to use this book, you should already have a basic grasp on sentence structure, but otherwise, it’s great for anyone beginning to learn Japanese.
This is just a grammar book, so don’t count on it to teach you much about the language as a whole. Nor will it really teach you grammar. It is, exactly as it claims to be, a dictionary, which makes it better suited for looking things up for clarity rather than learning in context.
Top 3 Japanese Grammar Books for Intermediate Learners to Buy Online
Moving a rung up–here are books for people who can speak about themselves and their families and their hobbies already and are looking to hold their own in any kind of everyday conversation.
3. Japanese Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook
Grammar Drills for the Lower Intermediate Learner
This book isn’t a textbook. Instead, it’s a workbook full of examples and exercises with real-life applications. Instead of just hitting you with a wall of text, this book breaks things up into helpful charts and infographics for easier understanding. Outside of grammar practice, you also get a few helpful language tips and cultural insights.
While it does technically introduce the basics of Japanese language and grammar, it spends the majority of the book on more advanced points suitable for intermediate learners. And although it claims to work as a standalone course, it definitely focuses heavily on grammar and will almost certainly require you to supplement your learning with other materials.
2. The Japan Times – A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
For Clear Explanations and a Multitude of Examples
This book is nothing more than it claims to be. It is a dictionary of intermediate Japanese grammar. Rather than teaching you grammar points, it lays them out in an easy-to-lookup configuration, giving you in-depth explanations where your usual textbook might be lacking.
Where this book really shines is its abundance of example sentences. The best way to figure out how exactly to use a new grammar pattern is seeing it in action in a variety of different situations, and this book delivers. It also refuses to hold your hand–no romaji is given, and kanji are only given furigana on their first appearance.
1. University of Hawaii Press – Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar: Comprehensive Acquisition
Grammar for Those Who Want to Know It All
This book presents Japanese grammar in a well-laid-out, easy-to-understand way. In it, grammar points are organized by categories like particles, dictionary-form compounds, stem-form compounds, passive constructions, etc. Unlike many texts, this book not only tells you how you can use specific grammar patterns but also how not to use them.
It should be said, though, that this book can feel a bit heavy at times. While the author does break up the text with diagrams every so often, it is aimed at linguists, Japanese educators, and others in more academic fields. So, it might be a bit too thorough for more conversational learners.
Top 3 Japanese Grammar Books for Advanced Learners to Buy Online
So now you’re ready to pull up your socks and get down to business, right? Here are books that cover grammar points that you aren’t going to hear on a day-to-day basis.
3. Kodansha International – Japanese for Professionals
Business Japanese of Various Formalities
This book is aimed at those doing business in Japanese, particularly in the realms of trade, commerce, and government. It covers the various formalities of language required for communicating with colleagues, subordinates, superiors, and clients. For those less familiar with Japanese business, it also includes a few chapters about Japanese business practices.
The instructions and dialogue in this book are fully bilingual with a few key sections where additional English explanation is given for the sake of context and clarity. While it focuses on spoken Japanese, it does require you to have a decent grasp of written Japanese as well.
2. Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar
Grammar for Literature and Academia
Unsurprisingly, this book is an advanced dictionary of Japanese grammar. It contains over 200 grammar points that advanced learners might come across in texts such as newspapers, literature, and academic papers. With thorough explanations and multiple examples for each point, this book is considered by many to be an indispensable resource.
As this book is part of a series (A Beginner/Intermediate Dictionary of Japanese Grammar are the other two), for the advanced learner who’s been studying Japanese for quite a while now and might be forgetting some of the nuances of less used, previously studied grammar points, it definitely helps to have all three.
1. A Handbook of Japanese Grammar Patterns for Teachers and Learners
Price: $49. 23
The Japanese Grammar Bible
At 760 pages and weighing nearly 2 pounds (softcover!), this book is massive. It contains around 3000 different grammar patterns that extend beyond JLPT N1 level including a number of spoken-only constructions. It also offers an incredible number of examples with 3-10 sentences for each grammar point.
While it is extremely comprehensive, basic patterns are given less explanation, and the book assumes that you already have a firm grasp on the patterns of the Japanese language. For those who are even more advanced, this book is an English translation of a beloved Japanese language grammar book, and you might want to use that one instead. You can find that version through Amazon Japan.
Extra! The Most Unintuitively Helpful Japanese Grammar Book
Learning’s a little different for everyone, and sometimes unconventional methods click in surprising ways. So here’s a book that offers an out-of-the-box way to ramp up your Japanese grammar.
Olivia & Hill Press – English Grammar for Students of Japanese
Improve Your Japanese by Learning English?
Okay, fine. This sounds a little fishy but just listen. This book explains the fundamentals of English – think parts of speech, tenses, verb forms, etc. – and relates them to their Japanese equivalents, showing how the two languages are similar and different. It does so in two steps: first, by explaining English terms in English contexts, and second, by deconstructing Japanese sentences and showing how the parts of speech in each language appear in different places in the sentence.
While this book might not teach you very much new Japanese grammar, it will definitely help to teach you about grammar, giving you a deeper understanding not only of Japanese, helping you to more easily grasp new patterns down the line, but also of English.
Yes, Japanese is hard. Yes, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. But are you left on your own? No! You’ve got a ton of books to guide you on your way, and now you know how to figure out which works best for you.
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