Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Building the Sentence Structure

Recap of Previous Post
In the last post we looked at some tips to get us started with our language learning project. I hope you found them helpful and at that you are now well on your way to broadening your understanding of Japanese vocabulary. I recommended that you focus on increasing your vocabulary by focusing on verbs (動詞, Doushi). I recommended this because we are focusing on increasing our communicative abilities and with a wide range of verbs at our command, we can describe the other words, such as nouns (名詞, Meishi) that we don't yet know or have forgotten in the heat of the moment, but are necessary to express that which we want to say. This communicative technique, which I often use, also helps to build our vocabulary base in a natural and communicative way.

Learning Approach
There are many ways to learn, but I agree with the philosophy that "learning is social" (Vygotsky, 1962). I learn best in the "zone of proximal development," (illustrated in the photo below) just outside my "comfort zone" and I seem to retain the information better in a "mentor/apprentice" dynamic.

(Photo retrieved at:

There is no question that it will take a lot of effort on your part to remember vocabulary and it may be very difficult to find a conversation partner, as mentioned in the previous post, but engaging with someone else in the target language will have a profound effect on your retention and fluency.

Useful Materials and Texts
In order to converse with any amount of fluency we must understand how the sentence structure works. When I was studying Japanese language and culture at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, the text that we used was the Japanese for Busy People series (Cover pictured below).

This was my first formal introduction to Japanese language learning and the materials were very well organised and easy to follow with a nice progression from romaji in the first text to kana in the second. There is also a third text which is a workbook. If you are hard core and price is not an issue you can purchase copies for about $30.00 each or you may be able to find pdf. copies on-line.

I cannot even begin to cover the material found in these texts in this blog and strongly recommend that you augment your language learning with as many materials as you can. The most important thing in choosing a study guide or textbook for such a purpose is that it has to agree with you. That is to say, you should feel good when you are looking at it; it should be visually pleasing to you and easy to follow and progress with. The materials covered in language texts and work books are usually the same or very similar. Therefore, I recommend taking the time and looking at many before choosing the one that speaks to you. Remember you will use it to speak for yourself!

And now for the Lesson...
Today we will look at something that I found on-line in a recent search, "The Surprisingly Simple Logic Behind Japanese Sentence Structure" (Raw Lisard, 2016)
The paper covers the "Basic desu 「です」 sentences, how particles work, defining different roles, and expanding individual elements."
Today we will look at the "Basic desu 「です」 sentences."
Desu pronounced "dess" is presented as the "equivalent to the English verb "be" (am, are, is)." This usually comes at the end of the sentence. Simple sentences that use desu usually follow the same basic structure:
"[topic] wa は ... (something that describes the toic)... desu です。"
Raw Lisard gives some common examples.
I recommend trying to personalise this material by making and practising your own example sentences.

Raw Lisard gives the example (This and following examples will be written in English, then in romaji, followed by kana, and finally kana including kanji):
Example 1) "I am a person. Watashi wa hito desu.
わたし は ひと です。 私 は 人 です。"
This could easily be altered to, I am Marc. Watashi wa Ma-ku desu.
わたし は まーく です。 私 は マーク です。

By altering the subject of the example sentence, by entering your own name, you not only personalise it, you also make it more functional. In this case, you can use it in your self introduction.
Let's look at some more examples and consider how they can be personalised or altered to express something that you want to say using the same sentence structure.

Example 2) "This is a car. Kore wa kuruma desu.
これ は くるま です。 これ は 車 です。"

Notice the difference of the [topic], it changed from watashi to kore. Use kore for non living things; objects that are close to you in distance. The above sentence gives the impression that the person speaking is standing next to a car, telling something what it is. While it serves the purpose, it is not very practical. Perhaps it would be better to change the subject of the sentence; the car, to something else. A taxi stand, or a bus stop/station. Instead of saying ,"This is a taxi," it would be more beneficial to learn and practise this is the taxi stand kore wa takushi noriba desu. (noriba is pronounced "No li ba")

Example 3) "The Car is red. Kuruma wa akai desu.
くるま は あかい です。 車 は 赤い です。"
Again, here I feel that with slight alteration to the subject we can increase the functionality of the example. The following example comes to mind, but please consider your own:
 The (traffic) light is red. Shingou wa aka desu.
しんごう は あか です。 信吾 は 赤 です。
The point that Raw Lisard is trying to make in these examples is in the structure of the sentence itself. Within the examples are "three very important rules."They are:
1. The particle wa 「は」 identifies the topic of the sentence
2. The verb comes at the end of the sentence
3. The articles "a", "an",  and "the" do not exist in Japanese.

Raw Lisard states that, "these rules apply to everything, so using the first two in particular, we can adapt our sentence structure... [to]:
[topic] wa は ... (other information) ... [verb]. This is a very easy to understand format that is highly adaptable to use in "real life" situations. He closes the section with the following:
When the verb is desu 「です」, the 'other information' can just be a noun (kore wa kuruma desu これは 車 です) or adjective (kuruma wa akai desu 車 は 赤い です). In fact, the last thing immediately before desu 「です」 should be either a noun or an adjective.

If you can remember and aply this simple rule when developing your sentences you will be well on your way to communicating in the target language. The next step is to understand what you are doing more deeply so that you can develop more elaborate sentences by using "particles" correctly. But, speaking from personal experience, leaving particles out completely will not hinder the communicative power of your sentence in the beginning. The rule presented in this article is a very good one to start with!

I will finish off this post with a quick grammar point related to the above examples and ground this learning approach in the literature, but if you are not interested in that stuff, you can stop reading now and get to work with your conversation partner. Stay tuned for the next post where we will look at some essential Kanji to help you get around when you are travelling.

One Point Grammar Lesson
In order to understand this sentence structure, we need to know how the "particles," like wa 「は」  in this case, works. "Particles are like markers that identify what role each word or phrase plays withing a sentence" (Raw Lisard, 2016).

Grounding the Approach in the Literature
I should note that, the method of learning presented by Raw Lisard is very close to "grammar translation" (GT) This is a deductive method used for learning a second or foreign language. Courses are usually conducted in the students 1st language and the materials are translated word for word, line for line, like the above examples, with close attention paid to the grammar rules. This passive approach to language learning has a long history starting in the 1500 to learn Latin. It can be argued that this method became famous as the best way to teach English to Japanese language learners in the 1960 and has since become famous for how much English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers hate it in Japan now. I don't want to get into all of this in this blog, but you should know that there are many language learning methods and teaching strategies. Look around and mix and match them to create the best environment for you. But, personalise the material! It is not enough just to "...[know] a word (its spoken form) or [know what it] looks like (its written form) and its meaning...[we] need to be able to connect the two" (Nation, 2001, p. 47). We can do this by using word in "real life situations [which] helps learning... [because] each use involves instantiation. That is, each use is connected with a particular meaningful example" (Nation, 2001, p. 70). But, in order to do this we need to know "what part of speech it is and what grammatical patterns it can fit into" (Nations, 2001, p. 55). So, to some extent and in some respects GT has its merit in connecting these "dots."

You can go through each example in this fashion and make note of the grammar point, like the change from watashi to kore, but the most important part of this process is being able to practically use what you have learned, so be careful of what you spend your time on learning. The famous GT sentence is, "This is a pen." kore wa pen desu. And the argument is that this sentence is not functional. You would be better off learning "May I borrow your pen?" Which would make better use of the vocabulary learned. Another example is, "Is that a watch?" are wa ude toke desu ka. Again, not very functional for an adult who knows what a wrist watch looks like in any language. A much better sentence to learn would therefore be, "What time is it, now?" Ima, nan ji desu ka.

Take this approach and practise applying the vocabulary that you are learning by personalising the model sentences and pushing the limits so that you are just a little bit out of your comfort zone, in the zone of proximal development! If you have a language teacher, insist that they take you there!

In the next post we will look at some essential Kanji to help you get around when you are travelling.

No comments:

Post a Comment