Learning grammar Japanese
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Memorise example sentences

I think that learning example sentences by heart is the best way to pick up grammar patterns rather than by studying theory, at least initially.

Record yourself reading out example sentences 

The best way I've found of memorising example sentences is by recording them and playing them back to myself over and over again.

The first thing you'll need to do is to find some decent example sentences. A good place to start is with Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui's "A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar" or the follow-up, "A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar".

There's no need to record all of the sentences for a particular grammar pattern. Just pick out the few which seem to you to be the best examples.

Generally this is the method I follow.

  1. Read out the Japanese sentence (nothing longer than 5 seconds)
  2. Say the Japanese sentence in your head
  3. Read out the English translation
  4. Say the English sentence in your head
  5. Read out the Japanese sentence again
  6. Say the Japanese sentence in your head again
  7. Pause, then go onto the next item 

Repeating the sentences in your head gives your brain some time to process the information. Recording examples in this way has the added benefit of making you aware of your own pronunciation.

As you listen to your grammar recording, repeat the Japanese during the pauses to give yourself practice at actually verbalising the new grammatical items.

Elicit feedback from Japanese people around you

As I've already mentioned, you need to be quite obsessive about eliciting feedback as people will generally let your mistakes go by if they get the message.

To avoid this, I recommend peppering your Japanese with the question, “atteru?” (or more politely, “atte'mas'ka?”). This phrase means “Is that correct?” and will let your listeners know that you’re interested in feedback on your language.

Notice I say "pepper" your conversation. Too much pepper isn't a good thing. In a similar vein, saying “atteru?” every second will make you an extraordinarily dull conversationalist. You’ll need to work out a balance here.

Write your own examples and get them corrected 

Try and write examples which are meaningful to you and best capture the essence of the grammar pattern you're trying to learn. If you can, try and craft some of the sentences in such a way that only the grammatical pattern you're interested in - and not similar ones - can be used.

For example, there are instances where “tara” and “ba” (“if”) are interchangeable, but other times where they are not. Thinking about how to differentiate between the two in your example sentences will make you more aware of the differences when you're speaking in Japanese.

It goes without saying that getting feedback from Japanese native speakers is vital to make sure you’re on the right track.

When reading Japanese, read aloud

Okay, you're not going to be able to read aloud all the time. (Well you can try but don't say you know me, okay?) When it's appropriate to do so, however, go for it. (A bit of whispering might also work.)

Reading aloud is cool on many levels.

Firstly, it makes you aware of what you can pronounce and what you can't. This may apply to kanji for which you haven't learned the reading, but also to sequences of sounds that you're struggling to come to grips with. (I remember ~rareru was something I had to work on for a while, for instance). I find it's a good idea to practice saying these difficult sequences when they crop up.

Because it's harder to do, reading aloud also focuses your attention on what you're reading. Heightened attention means better recall.

Third, it gets your mouth used to speaking fluent Japanese without your brain interfering. Speaking grammatically then becomes more a case of what your mouth feels used to rather than the result of a bazillion and one heavy-duty mental computations of grammatical rules.

Here's what I mean.

When I'm unsure about how to say something, I roll it around in my mouth and see if it feels natural. When I say "feels natural", part of what I'm paying attention to is the actual physical sensations in my mouth. I don't have to say the word or phrase out loud. Sometimes just getting ready to say something or thinking about saying something lets me get in touch with these sensations.

I can do this now because, thanks to all the books I've read aloud and the TV announcers I've mimicked, my mouth has had lots of practice speaking fluent Japanese. After paying attention to the sensations in my mouth I generally stumble upon something that feels familiar and I start speaking grammatically.