Teaching Japanese Verbs Well

A Successful Experiment

For someone not intending to mess with the written  Japanese language, verbs,  or doushi (動詞), are one of the largest hurdles to forming one’s own sentences in Japanese.  Forming sentences is a major positive step for the early learner.

It had been a while since I’ve been teaching another early Japanese learner, and this time, it’s a bright girl who has prior language learning experience, but whose focus is on understanding and speaking the language rather than complex reading or writing (at this stage in time). Yesterday was her first bite at the apple for learning verbs, so I considered this a critical stage.

Pleasantly, the lesson went extremely well. Her being bright helps immensely,  but success was not an  accident on  my part; I know I helped greatly through these principles:

1.  Logical progression, covering aru and iru first along with desu before starting anything else.

2. Use of taberu (“To Eat”) as a simple, easy to use verb to demonstrate present, past and progressive tenses (eats, was eating, is eating)

3.Teaching both plain and polite levels for all verbs covered

4. Avoiding negative forms (except for aru and iru, to show the negative forms of desu) to cut out fully half of the mental burden

5. Use of examples, student reading of phrases, variations in sentences, etc.,  to increase familiarity with new concepts.

For more on aru, iru, and desu, see this post.

Of course, I’l be covering the negative forms with her soon enough. It’s just futile to do so when the concept is still fresh; I would have only harmed retention for the time being. A student can only juggle so many new balls at once.

Actually, this is a key point for me. Finding a way to deliberately restrain the lesson made it far more effective. This done, I could focus attention on the matters at hand, answer good questions by the student (always a joy), and all in all, it went extremely well.

I wanted to write about this because, well, I think it’s a very positive thing, and I think I will be using this as a template for any other verb teaching (in Japanese or English) that I find myself doing in the future. Soon enough, I should be working as a webmaster too, but I’ll probably still tutor part-time.

Here’s a few thoughts, posed in a question and order format.

Q. Why teach the plain and the polite together? Classrooms only use the polite.

A. Well that’s the problem.As soon as you step out of the classroom into the real world, the “polite” level (ex.: “hito ga imasu”) isn’t the only one you encounter. You can easily encounter the “plain,” but not rude, level of speech (ex.: “hito ga iru”). If your Japanese is only valid inside a classroom, you’ll be tripped up as soon as real life departs from the script.

Q. Why all the variation in examples? Doesn’t that confuse the student?

A. The student needs to learn that there is a pattern to verbs. The most basic present tense of the verb is always its “root” form, also called the dictionary form. When you look verbs up in the dictionary, they’re under things like iru, taberu, and so on and so forth. That’s your starting point, and conjugations flow from this root. Once you learn the patterns, your familiarity level rises immensely.

Having said this, it’s variation within a range. Too much will bury a student, so familiarity with a restrained number of variables is needed first. You can add more later.

Q. Why teach the progressive tense at such an early stage?

A. Because “John eats an apple” isn’t especially natural sounding for normal speech, neither in English nor in Japanese. “John is eating an apple” is far more natural. That present is very useful for general statements, such as “Dolphins eat fish,” but for individual people and individual acts, the “progressive” tense (which I informally call “the continuing present” to describe it to people) is far more natural. Natural is good.

Q. Why is logical progression important?

A. Because learning a language is a different process than memorizing it. If you memorize, you will forget; if you learn,  you more or less won’t. At worst, you’ll get rusty and need to be reminded of something.

To learn a language, it needs to start making sense to you as a learner. That’s why logical progression is very important.

Also, there are certain irregular features in all the languages I know of that simply can’t be avoided; you just need to learn them the hard way. Example: the fact that nai is the simple present negative form of aru, but that it’s also used as the negative form of the copula desu. It’s also the trend-setter for all negatives in Japanese verbs.

In addition, teaching iru serves two functions: letting me preach the iron clad difference between aru and iru (the former is for inanimate objects; the latter for animate objects, i.e. people and animals and nothing else), and to show how iru is the second verb in the progressive form of taberu. That is, tabeteiru uses “iru” at the end. This means, “is eating” (as in, John is eating an apple; John ga ringo o tabeteiru.)

My Conclusions

This was a highly successful experiment. While my task was made easier by the brightness of this student, my lesson organization and complete command of the material was a big factor in her picking things up to the extent she did. Future lessons will capitalize on this, with extra grammar curtailed (in the short term) to add new vocabulary and keep raising that familiarity factor.

The key is limiting what the student has to juggle at any one time. Obviously,  a more advanced student can juggle more advanced things, but the total number of new variables has to stay at some kind of reasonable level.  Rushing would not have increased the pace of progress. The lesson was not slow, but everything was paced to give each element the student’s full attention, as well as mine.

Also, my policy of always being open to questions that interrupt my lesson (in one on one, mind you) has never been more vindicated. When a student asks a question, that student is concentrating on that issue. It increases the likelihood of what you say being remembered. Being ready to teach outside the script can make that teaching a lot more effective.

I think that you still need a script… when handling fundamentals. This girl is dedicated enough to re-read my PDF format lesson at a later date, so I designed the lesson with that in mind. A script disciplines me and prevents me from going too far, too fast.

The Goal

The real goal of all this is to empower the student to create her own Japanese sentences as soon as humanly possible. This is very important for student morale, a sense of progress, keeping attention focused, and most of all, seeing new vocabulary etc. from many different angles, which helps  immensely in learning for the long term.

In other words, rather than teaching a mountain of vocabulary and then expecting someone to learn grammar by happenstance, vocabulary and grammar are used to reinforce each other. By the same token, drowning in grammar without enough vocabulary only leads to frustration; vocabulary and grammar are instead used to reinforce each other.

The result is a student who can learn  a new word and instantly try to plug it into her existing knowledge. She’s not always going to succeed the first time, but that thought process alone is extremely valuable in strengthening long-term learning.

It’s way better than trying to memorize a foreign language.  It’s only when you feel empowered that you feel like it’s a second language. That is a goal worth aiming for. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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