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First Line Game

JAPAN | Wednesday, 2 March 2016 | Views [310]

I haven’t had that much experience with different Japanese textbooks, so it’s hard for me to know what works and what doesn’t. But Tobira is starting to grate on me by not placing like concepts together. The grammars are grammars used in the readings, and they’re explained in the order that they appear. So it doesn’t matter if two grammars are very similar, or if their construction is nearly-identical. If they appear in different places in the reading, their explanations are spread over several pages.

Also, the grammars are all weighted equally in terms of space in the book and expectations of use in class. Though in practice, some for the grammars are way more helpful than others. As Dan described it, “A third of the grammars are really useful and I’ll use them a lot. A third I don’t really know, but maybe I’ll use them occasionally. And a third I’m not sure when I’ll ever use.”

That’s fair. Personally, my breakdown is “A third I’ll use a lot, a third I probably won’t use much, and a third that I refuse to believe is a new grammar.”

For example, the first chapter had 16 new grammars. Among them, we got another way of making non-exhaustive lists, (always useful) the way to change an adjective into a noun (super important!) and a formula for defining new terms. (Yamaguchi-sensei refused to explain things if we just repeated the word with a question mark in our tone, so that was critical.) We also got things like a connective style that is only really used in writing and a way of saying what something was made out of. Japan is made from islands, wine is made from grapes, and soylent green is people.

And then we learned things like “Not only A, but B too.” Which is especially striking, because “Not A, but B” is a grammar in chapter two. And if that sounds like it’s something that should be really easy to say… it is. “

Not A” is literally something you learn on your first day of Japanese class. “Is that a cat?” “Yes, it’s a cat.” “Is it a dog?” “No, it’s not a dog.” It’s simple and it’s important, so you learn it right away.

Connecting sentences is a little harder, so you probably don’t learn that until week two or three. But there’s still nothing complicated there. “Nai,” meaning “It’s not” behaves the same way an adjective does, so you learn how to say “It’s not A and” the same time you’re learning how to say “The cat is cute and white.” From there, it’s just a simple step to “It’s not A and it’s B” (literally) which, with a little practice in Japanese or logic, you can restructure as “not A, but B.” I would be shocked and disappointed if I met someone who had been taking Japanese for more than a semester who didn’t know how to make that kind of sentence. But here Tobira was introducing it to us like we could somehow get through two  years of Japanese and not figure that out for ourselves.

And it wasn’t introducing this as a new grammar once, but twice. Because “Not only A, but B too” is the same freaking grammar. You need to add the word “only.” You need to pay attention to your particles to make sure you’re switching one of them to “mo” (too.) And then you’re done. It’s not that complicated. It’s not new. And it’s certainly should not be separated by an entire chapter from “Not A, but B.” They’re the same grammar!

So Tobira is kind of weird. Find me a Japanese textbook that isn’t. (No, but seriously, please.) Explaining Japanese to English-speakers is hard, and there are always going to be eccentricities. Interestingly enough, it didn’t bother me the first time around, when we were spending much longer on every chapter. I think it’s because Wang-sensei paid more attention to which grammars were more complicated and/or important and we spent more time in class on those. Which helped.

Only about the class was there during Spirituality. Which was unfortunate for the half the class who had decided not to show up, since the professor had brought in books that we could choose for our midterm report. She spread them out, and we went around paging through and choosing which ones interested us. Options ranged from very dense, highly academic books about religion to self-help guides to Buddhism and Eastern thought to more narrative books about Japanese mythology. I ended up picking up Lafcadio Hearn’s Kokoro, which appears to be a collection of essays about Japanese spiritual experience. It was the only option she had there that looked like something I would voluntarily pick up to read on my own, so that was a start. I might go and see if the CET or university library have books about Japanese mythology, but for now it seems like a decent choice.

During this time, Midh and the professor got into a discussion where it was clear that neither party understood what the other person was saying. Midh, (like Rachel and Sara, who were absent Tuesday) are auditing the course, and in fact won’t even be there the last month because they’re going to be taking classes at an art college in Osaka. So since they’re not going to be receiving credit for the class, there’s not much of a point in doing the book report. Although Midh did find a book on Buddhism interesting, and wanted to borrow it. Which seems like about the best the professor could hope for.

The professor heard Midh’s explanation and thought “but they’re going to be around in March. they can do the book report.” I’m not sure if she didn’t understand what auditing the course meant or if she just thought that book reports were so much fun she wasn’t sure why students wouldn’t want to write one, but the two were not seeing eye-to-eye on that issue.

Obviously, there’s a large difference between liking a class enough to show up once or twice a week and liking a class enough to write a book report and give a 10-minute presentation to the class on it. No one liked the class enough to want to do that, so if the professor wanted to insist on that, they were all going to stop showing up.

The rest of us just needed to hope that our judging books on the cover and first lines had not led us astray. There’s a saying about one of those things, but my family does the other all the time, so I’m a pretty good judge of character from first lines. “Yesterday a telegram from Fukuoka announced that a desperate criminal captured there would be brought for trial to Kumamoto today, on a train due at noon,” might not seem like a clear winner, but it was a lot better than most of the other options.

Tags: books, grammar, japanese, spirtuality, textbooks

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