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[Review] Tuttle’s Basic Japanese

I… cannot decide how I feel about this book and this is quite a rare occurrence because usually I’m quite clear about how I feel about a textbook! Let’s get into the review proper.

This basic Japanese book appears to be more suitable for someone who has some basic knowledge of the Japanese writing system as it completely skips the usual hiragana / kanatana table. I’m quite used to most beginner textbook having at least one chapter dedicated to the Japanese writing system (or even just having the tables) so this is rather unusual. That said, Chapter 1 essentially introduces the Japanese pronunciation, rhythm, syllable, voicing, vowels, consonants etc which to me was rather strange cos… why have these basic information and yet not introduce the writing system?!

Chapter one also started out with some basic dialogue and basic vocabulary which is written in hiragana, katakana and kanji (without furigana). Ok, I can deal with that, it’s authentic and how Japanese should be written. But why kanji without furigana? …. and WHY ROMANISATION. The whole book uses romanisation which… personally I find an eyesore. I would way rather see furigana on the kanji! It also does not help by romanising Kanji – e.g. 息子 is just romanised as musuko. As a beginner how would I know if 息 is read as mu or musu?

Fine, as a learner, I can ignore the romanisation if I need to (and I still think you should). Although it’s terrible that the romanisation is in bold so naturally your eyeballs are drawn to it. Also, in the explanations, the book uses the romanisation ONLY. Which to me is a huge turn-off and a nono. Because in this case, I see it as an encouragement to rely on romanisation, and romanisation is no longer an “aid” to help you to read the actual Japanese characters.

And at this point, I don’t quite know how to review this book anymore.

Which is a real pity. Because I do think that this point offers quite good structured lessons and detailed explanations of the grammar points, with decent (doable) exercises for the self-learners.

Overall thoughts

What I like:

  • Use of hiragana, katagana and kanji right at the start
  • decently structured lessons and explanations of grammar points

What can be improved:

  • Reduce the reliance of romanisation – either leave it out after 2-3 chapters, or STOP bolding it
  • Stop using romanisation only in the explanations

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  • Reply
    12 May, 2020 at 9:13 AM

    I felt the EXACT same way about Tuttle’s Elementary Korean. I only saw a preview but I don’t know what to think. It has some of the best explanations of Korean grammar I ever saw (luckily no Romanization, just Hangul!), but it approaches verbs in some strange reverse way to avoid dealing with irregular verbs.

    Korean irregular verbs are not difficult to remember at all. But this book, for example, introduces “덥다” as “더w-”

    Not only do I hate to see Roman alphabet mixed in with Hangul like that but it makes it so much more difficult to look up words in a dictionary just to avoid a few rules for irregular verbs. I think that makes the textbook unusable for me.

    As you said, a real pity.

    • Reply
      14 May, 2020 at 12:28 PM

      I went back to see what I wrote about Elementary Korean years ago and yes I did love the detailed grammar explanations too! It’s so frustrating when you want to like a book but had to be disappointed.

  • Reply
    Elevic Pernis
    15 March, 2022 at 9:02 AM

    I have this book, and I would have to disagree somewhat with your attitude towards romanisation. I used to think like you. More on that point below.

    This book is a revision of Samuel Martin’s ‘Essential Japanese’ and that book is all in romanisation.

    The only reason why I bought this book is that this is a revision of Martin’s book. I have Roy Andrew Miller’s ‘A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering The Written Language,’ which recommends going through Martin’s book first. (Miller’s book, in my opinion, is one of Tuttle gems. It’s a gem among many crap that they publish. It also has bolded romanisation instead of hurigana in its word lists. I reckon that not giving Miller’s reader the time of the day due to its use of romanisation is a pretty petty reason, if you ask me.)

    Going back to the revised book which is under your review, it was never intended to teach the writing system in the first place (remember, it’s originally all in romazi). It’s a book that will teach you to be conversational with some good grammar notes.

    With that said, and we may be in agreement, I don’t recommend it as a standalone book. It does not replace a comprehensive beginner textbook such as Genki or Minna no Nihongo.

    It also lacks exercises. There’s not enough, and it may be a good idea to find a workbook for this.

    Me personally, I use this as reference thanks to its good grammar notes, but perhaps there are other products that are more helpful for learning conversational Japanese.

    I’m talking about audio-lingual programs such as Michel Thomas Japanese.

    With that out of the way, I have learned that kana is just as useless as romazi. The name of the game is learning kanzi. Romazi and kana are just different representations of Japanese words.

    What’s important is knowing how these words and sentences are actually spoken by native speakers. (Pitch accent!) Thus, as long as you can hear this in real life or in audio, it doesn’t really matter if a word is represented in kanzi, kana, or romazi.

    This revised book has this advantage over the original book. It has audio, which you can find on the CD or download from the Tuttle website. You can use these files to immitate the pronunciation of native speakers.

    I can agree with you though that for anyone who wants to read Japanese at a high level, one should wean off romazi (and hurigana for that matter eventually.) But use romazi and hurigana for what they are, a beginner’s tool.

    P.S. This is mildly related to the book, but I would like to talk about my thoughts on romazi phobia, which is prevalent in Japanese learners who are native English speakers.

    They say that romazi messes up with your Japanese pronunciation, and I can see why. It’s due to the stress-timed nature of English. Even though there are basically only 5 vowel letters, there are many different vowel sounds and these are not represented well in written form in English.

    Me as a native Tagalog speaker, I don’t have that much of a problem. My language’s vowels maps out well with Japanese. Our vowel sounds are only 5 and they’re short. It’s also syllable-timed (Yes, I know, Japanese is mora-timed), and that’s why it’s much easier to learn Japanese phonology.

    Since we don’t use our native scripts anymore to write and instead use Latin letters, Tagalog speakers like me are in effect using romazi in our day-to-day life.

    I suppose that it really depends on what your native language is if romazi will prove to be detrimental or not.

    But there’s one thing that anyone, native English speaker or not, cannot avoid: the need to immitate the pronunciation and intonation of native Japanese speakers.

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