Economical Language

Time to make some sentences, yo.

First, good-good-good news: Japanese is an economical language. When speaking, you can—and should—cut out any words that are not necessary in order to communicate your message. (←Read that twice.)

Most grammar books make this complicated, because they tell you that you need to understand all of the parts of complete, fully grammatical Japanese sentences. Actually, they do even worse than this. In the grammar books, they often give you a full or almost-full version of a Japanese sentence, even if Japanese people rarely say it that way.

Let’s say I’m teaching an ESL student common, casual English phrases, and we come across the following conversation:

A) What are you doing today?
B) Nothing special. You?

The way that most Japanese grammar books and classes approach grammar would be similar to me NOT teaching my student the sentence above. Rather, I would teach them this:

A) What are you doing today?
B) I am not doing anything special today. What are you doing today?

Yeah, there’s value in understanding how to make both of those examples, but we can’t sacrifice common, colloquial language just because it doesn’t allow for us to teach clean grammatical structures. That’s why we’ll be trying to understand (and reproduce) both categories of conversation shown above. We’ll look at both (1) the full, grammatically correct structure of Japanese collocations and (2) the common, often contracted, way that such language will be used in everyday Japanese.

In Japanese, context is king.

In common, everyday Japanese we cut out all unnecessary words that can be replaced by context.

Let’s look at an example. Several years ago, I was teaching English to a very low-level Japanese student, and the book exercise we were doing had two English sentences:

  1. The windows were dirty.
  2. Now they are clean.

Here is an English paraphrasing of the conversation we had (in Japanese) about these two sentences…

Student:

Why do I need to say “they?”

Me:

Because, unlike in Japanese, we almost always include the subject in our sentences.

Student:

Why don't you just say “windows,” then? Why do you have to say “they?”

Me:

Because we use pronouns instead.

Student:

I don’t get it.

Me:

It’s confusing, right? Because in Japanese, you don’t use pronouns like this. Instead, we would just leave the word out of the second sentence:

窓は汚かった。
まど は きたなかった。
The windows were dirty.
Literally: "window + は [topic marker] + was dirty."

今は綺麗。
いま は きれい。
Now they are clean.
Literally: "now + は [topic marker] + clean."

(Note: The は in those sentences is pronounced wa, not ha. That's because this is the topic-marking particle は, which we'll talk about more in an upcoming lecture.)

In the second sentence, we don’t need to say the subject, “window,” because the listener understands that we’re talking about the window. It’s unnecessary. But in English we need to include a pronoun like “they” because English speakers almost always include subjects in their sentences.

Student:

I'll never get used to this.

Me:

Sure you will. You’ll learn it naturally over time. I promise.

And the same is true for non-native speakers of Japanese—you will learn the weird grammar quirks naturally. In fact, English will start to sound overly complicated and convoluted. You’ll start to wish that we could just say:

  1. Window was dirty.
  2. Now clean.

That’s how simple Japanese grammar is. A lot of grammar guides will try to make you start by learning the complicated “correct” grammar of full, written Japanese sentences so that you can “build a foundation.”

More like, “build a weird smattering of stiff, awkward Japanese.”

In this course, however: (1) we’ll look at a super simple construction, then (2) I’ll explain the complicated grammar going on behind the scenes, then (3) I’ll tell you not to worry about all that, then (4) we’ll focus on how to produce similar, simple constructions of Japanese.

Once again, that’s a four-step process:

Bunkai Beast Grammar Acquisition Process

Step #1:

Look at a simple, commonly used type of phrase.

Step #2:

Understand the (complicated) grammar structure behind it.

Step #3:

Tell ourselves to stop stressing about grammar.

Step #4:

Learn to (masterfully) reproduce the simple, common phrase-type.

My hope/goal is that at the end of this strange grammar adventure, you’ll understand the weird-o grammar rules without having to worry about them too much. Put simply, it’s the way I wish it had been taught to me.

If I fail at teaching you, then you must be stupid or something.

No, not really. That’s on me and my forever-inadequate explanations. Just let us know if something doesn’t make sense, and we’ll update the guide to make more sense. Teaching, like learning, is a lesson in failure, after all. By habitually repeating small, productive actions, we develop skills.




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