Book Review

Japanese: The Spoken Language Part 1 by Jorden and Noda


Japanese: The Spoken Language Part 1 (JSL) is a greatly improved version of a frequently-used textbook for introductory Japanese. The new version is completely rewritten and printed on slightly better paper, with better typefaces (including lots of boldface). The older version, Beginning Japanese by Jorden, which is found in most bookstores, was published in 1963, is out of date and is definitely not recommended. The Asian languages dept. at Yale U. is famous for its excellent foreign language texts - for instance the deFrancis texts for Chinese, and this book is clearly also written by an expert linguist. The book might be useful for its explanations of the grammar alone. However, Yale is also infamous for inventing bizarre, non-standard forms of Romanization, such as the dreadful Yale Romanization for Chinese. This book also uses a Yale-specific Romanization (named JSL, apparently because it is only used in this one book). The JSL romanization is based on the Nippon-shiki romanization used in Japan. However, it has not gained wide acceptance for non-Japanese speakers, probably because of its ambiguities and non-intuitive features. For example, 't' is sometimes pronounced as 'ch', as in 'tomodati' (tomodachi, "friend"), sometimes as 'ts', as in 'tukuru' (tsukuru, "to make"), and sometimes as 't', as in 'tabemasu' ("to eat"). 'Ichi' ("one") is inexplicably spelled 'iti', 'ashita' ("tomorrow") is spelled 'asita', and so on. Most dictionaries have standardized on the more natural and consistent Hepburn Romanization instead. Thus, since no kana are given, a student using this book would have endless difficulty looking up or pronouncing words, and be forced to continually translate between the two Romanizations.

Another problem is that there are no kana or Kanji in the entire book. Instead, the reader is supposed to learn written Japanese in a different course. As a classroom text, with a teacher to provide the kana and Kanji, this might be acceptable. One professor at MIT rewrote the entire text into kana and provided that to the students. I can only imagine how tedious it would be to have to relearn all the basic words in such a written Japanese course. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to learn Japanese without learning the written form, at least the hiragana, simultaneously; this would be like learning English without bothering to learn the 26 letters, or learning Russian without learning the Cyrillic alphabet. If you ever progressed to an advanced level, an inability to instantly recognize groups of kana would be a serious impediment to reading newspapers, bus stop signs, backs of cereal boxes, VCR manuals, arrest warrants, deportation orders, etc. Also, for those students who already know the Kanji from having studied Chinese, seeing the Kanji also makes learning Japanese somewhat easier. If you do use this book, at least get the written Japanese supplement.

The written supplement, Reading Japanese, teaches the kana scripts and Kanji, using a vocabulary similar to that in Japanese: The Spoken Language. A conscientious attempt is made to use Kanji whenever they would naturally appear in normal Japanese writing, to avoid learning artificial constructions. This book would be suitable for a student totally unfamiliar with Kanji, or a good review of sentence construction and reading of characters. The vocabulary in the reading exercises is skillfully repeated to maximize retention, and although it is not a page-turner, the sentences have enough variation to be interesting. One problem, however, is that none of the reading exercises are translated. This would pose a problem in using this book for self-study, because if the student was unable to decipher some portion of an exercise, there would be no way to proceed.

There is also a two CD-ROM supplement, which contains short video clips. However, on my computer (a 266 Pentium laptop), there was a 10 second pause between clicking and the start of the video, which made viewing the clips tedious. A fast computer is definitely recommended. The CD is very useful, however, for learning Japanese body language - which is itself rather complicated.

In my opinion, self-study students might be better off using Japanese for Busy People, Kana Edition (ISBN 4-7700-1987-4), which, despite its unpromising title, is a good text, comes in kana and non-kana editions, and (like the present book) has beginning, intermediate, and 'advanced' volumes - an important consideration. Even Learn Japanese In Your Car, which teaches almost no grammar at all, is superior in many ways to JSL. One book not recommended is Interactive Japanese by Tomoda and May. It does teach both kana and Kanji; but this book is aimed at junior high school students and the Japanese is introduced at a very low level.

Actually, if you have a choice, forget Japanese and learn Chinese instead. Compared to Japanese, which has borrowed so heavily from its neighbors that it has become unwieldy and full of inconsistencies and exceptions (rather like English), Chinese is a model of simplicity and elegance. In Japanese, Kanji characters are polyvalent, that is, they may be pronounced in any number of different ways when they occur in different words. Each pronunciation must be memorized individually for each word. This means it is difficult to know how a character is pronounced from seeing it in print (although the characters around it sometimes provide a clue). A Kanji character also may have any number of syllables. In Chinese, a character always has a single syllable and is almost always pronounced in the same way, making it easy to determine the pronunciation of a new word from reading it. The reason for this difference is that, for Japanese, the characters are primarily a shorthand way of writing, whereas in Chinese, the characters comprise the lexical roots of the word. This primacy of the written form in Chinese is enforced by the phonological ambiguity in spoken Chinese. In spoken Chinese, determining which characters are being used from hearing the pronunciation can be difficult, because many characters are pronounced the same way. Therefore, the meaning of an individual syllable in Chinese cannot be determined until the meaning of the rest of the sentence is known.

If you decide to learn Chinese, Beginning Chinese, Intermediate Chinese, and Advanced Chinese, by deFrancis, are the textbooks of choice. Each of these comes in a separate Pinyin and corresponding Character Text (the series uses an unusual but effective combination of original complex characters and pinyin). The deFrancis books are impossible to miss - altogether they take 10 1/2 inches of shelf space, almost as much as the Microsoft Visual C++ Reference Manuals (which I purchased for 4 bucks and never used). However, you probably won't need to read the Pinyin text after the first volume. And you don't need to read the Visual C++ manuals at all.