Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by about 128 million people, primarily in Japan, where it is the national language. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family, and its ultimate derivation and relation to other languages is unclear. Japonic languages have been grouped with other language families such as Ainu, Austroasiatic, Korean, and the now-discredited Altaic, but none of these proposals has gained widespread acceptance. If you’re wanting to learn how to speak Japanese, then you have to master Japanese grammar rules. Japanese grammar patterns are quite different to those we have in English, and there is a lot to learn. Things you may not even realize are grammar patterns in English, you have to learn in Japanese. For instance, in English, we can say “I want to _.” Yes, it’s a grammar pattern, but it’s a simple one, and more a matter of learning vocabulary. Japanese grammar rules are different. That same phrase in Japanese requires learning how to conjugate the verb.
Don’t worry, after you read this article, it won’t be anymore. I’m going to demystify Japanese grammar, and make it easy for you to understand! Before we start learning actual Japanese grammar patterns, there are a few things you need to know about the Japanese language. If you haven’t gotten very far in your Japanese studies yet, then here are the basics.
- Japanese sentence order is different than in English and takes a little bit of practice to get used to. In English, the basic sentence order is subject – verb – object. Example: I play sports. “I” is the subject, “play” is the verb, and “sports” is the noun.
- But in Japanese, the order is subject – object – verb. That same sentence in Japanese looks like: (“I”, subject) , (“sports”, object) ,(“to do/to play”, verb). There are particles in there, too — which we’ll talk about in a minute — but that exact sentence in English would look like “I sports play.”
- The handy thing is, every other part of the Japanese sentence is flexible. If you add a location, a time, a preposition, etc., they can go anywhere in the sentence. As long as you mark them with the correct particle and the verb goes at the end, you’re good to go. So, the key to remember here is: the verb always goes at the end.
- In English, there are three basic verb tenses: past, present, and future. But in Japanese, there’s only present tense and past tense.
- Japanese Gender and Counters: Here’s another easy part of Japanese: there are no genders for words! So you don’t have to worry about learning which words are feminine or masculine like in Romance languages such as French or Portuguese.
- To form a question in Japanese is super simple: you add か (ka) to the end of a formal sentence. So 行きますか (ikimasu ka) means “You go?” Or you could say 名前は何ですか (namae wa nan desu ka) for “What’s your name?” Desu + ka is a common way to turn a statement into a question.
Master Japanese Grammar
I know learning grammar can be pretty dry, but having an understanding of some basic grammar in any language gives you a good head start. Then, when you’re listening to conversations, you can pick up the grammar more naturally. Especially when it comes to verbs — if you know how verbs conjugate, then you’ll understand them when you hear them in their conjugated form. There are plenty of resources, exercises, approaches and methods to studying grammar. Rather than prescribing one specific approach, I’ll give you a few ideas based on what worked for me.
Tips and Tricks to learn a Japanese Grammar
1. WRITE A GRAMMAR STRUCTURE DOWN AND FILL IN YOUR OWN WORDS.
For example, if you have the structure ~てみる which is to “try”, then and your example is 「この本を読んでみてください」 (please try reading this book), then you can take the sentence and replace words to make it your own. e.g.:
このパンを食べてみてください Please try eating this bread
その車を運転してみてください Please try driving that car
After you write it in your own way, be sure to get it checked by a native speaker.
2. GET A GOOD GRAMMAR TEXTBOOK OR APP
An app I use regularly for all levels of Japanese grammar is Multibhashi. It goes from beginner (hiragana, katakana, and basic vocab) all the way to N1 (advanced Japanese) grammar. I’ve found Multibhashi to be most effective when you do a little bit daily, and that also helps the review section not pile up.
3. USE A GRAMMAR REFERENCE DICTIONARY
My favorite grammar dictionary is A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui. It’s full of example sentences and easily describes the differences between similar grammar structures. There are 3 dictionaries: One for basic, then intermediate, and finally advanced. You can find enough resources for basic Japanese grammar for free online, so I suggest getting the Intermediate one first if you need a reference book for grammar. I recommend not using it as a textbook itself to work through, but rather as a reference to refer to when you encounter a difficult grammar structure. If you’re not keen on buying a book, you can always use a grammar reference website like jgram.org.
4. USE THE STRUCTURE OVER AND OVER
As soon as you learn something new, don’t just write it down in your notebook and forget about it. You can make an Instagram post using it, write a blog in Japanese using it, or even just talk to yourself or make a video where you use it. The more you say it, even if you just speak to yourself, the more it will become cemented in your memory.
5. ACTIVELY LISTEN TO AND READ JAPANESE
If you constantly listen to Japanese music, TV or radio, you might hear the grammar structure being used and then you’ll say “Oh! I remember that. Now I see how it’s being used in daily conversation”. You’ll feel good about yourself and you’ll be reminded of what you’ve learnt. You can also listen to podcasts actively and write down what the speakers are saying. If there are new grammar structures, write them down and look them up.
6. DON’T JUST RELY ON A TEXTBOOK
There are great grammar forums that you can use for reference to read more about grammar structures. I suggest the following:
Jgram (so good, even has JLPT level indicators and study lists)
Take Kim’s guide to Japanese
You can also use an app that focuses heavily on grammar. Remember, grammar is not just something to learn in isolation – you learn it faster when it’s in the context of a sentence, a situation or something you are interested in.
7. DON’T STUDY GRAMMAR AND IGNORE OTHER SKILLS
Learn from daily conversation and remember not to neglect reading, writing, and listening. Think of it as a workout. You can’t go to the gym and just do leg day every day. Your arms won’t be toned and your legs will be insane. You might be excellent at grammar and vocabulary but you may not have confidence to speak because you’ve never practiced speaking. Everything is connected, so by practicing Japanese daily, you’ll be ingraining grammar into your memory too. Just remember, practice makes permanent, not perfect… so make sure you check things with native speakers if you’re unsure.
You can see the benefits of learning grammar up front and now know how to learn Japanese grammar painlessly.Of course, too much emphasis on grammar alone will leave you knowledgeable in structure but deficient in certain skills. But an approach that balances theory and practice can help you save time, eliminate obstacles and—most importantly—become more fluent. Good Luck!!