I've used many textbooks, online courses, and apps to learn Japanese over the years. One of the recurring themes I encountered was that most of them teach new words in isolation. This was especially true early on in each case.
After spending many hours learning words this way and then progressing on to common phrases and complete sentences I came to the realization that there are several, powerful benefits of learning Japanese through sentences that can't be obtained through the traditional word-list method.
Here are some of the reasons why I now believe Japanese should always be learned through complete sentences, and even more so when you are first starting off.
It Helps With Pronunciation
One of the foundational skills in learning a foreign language is the ability to recognize and create the correct sounds.With Japanese, it feels simple at first because the language is rather limited in the amount of sounds it contains compared to other languages such as English.
However, certain sounds of a word can change depending on what word immediately preceded it, or which one appeared right after it.
A common example is when one word ends on a vowel and the next word begins with the exact same vowel. Rather than reiterate the vowel which is a natural tendency for beginners since these are two separate words, most native speakers will choose to hold on to the sound for an additional beat when continuing with the second word.
This can cause confusion for a listener who is anticipating a pause between words and who mistakes what the native said to be a single word when in fact it was two.
Another situation is when the [i] or [u] vowels are at the end of a word and the beginning sound of the following word is an unvoiced consonant. In some situations this will prompt the native speaker to devoice the [i] or [u] vowel.
If a person has only studied these words in isolation then they will probably expect to hear these particular vowels which are dropped by the speaker in normal speech.
The key point here is that the way an entire sentence sounds naturally, is often times different from how each individual word sounds on its own. The solution to these potential problems is to study Japanese in full sentences, and this is especially true when it comes to listening practice so that the student can get used to how natives treat certain sounds when speaking naturally.
You Learn How Words Are Really Used
Learning Japanese words on their own can be confusing since there can be multiple words that all have the same English translation. If you look up the word for "smile" you get back 笑み, 笑顔, にっこり and several more.
Without seeing how they are used in sentences, it is hard to know which one is correct for what you want to say. Even if you decide on one to use, it can be tricky to figure out the right way to use it. In this case, the word you would choose to say "he smiled" is not the same word you would use to say "his smile is nice."While choosing any of them might be sufficient to get your message across, if you want to sound natural and be easily understood by Japanese people then it is recommended that you learn the contexts in which these words naturally appear so that you know when to use each one.
There is a common technique called "sentence mining" which is where you search the internet, native material, or anything else you can get your hands on in order to find complete sentences in the language you're studying. You then learn new words within this sentence and notice how it's used.
How this concept applies here is that when you want to learn a new Japanese word you search for examples of natives using that same word in sentences and then focus on understanding the meaning behind the construction to see if it matches what you are wanting to communicate.
This also helps you learn which words naturally go together. This is especially helpful for Japanese since there are often words combined with one another that wouldn't naturally occur to someone from an English language background.For example, the word 笑み (emi) which is one of our words for "smile" often goes with the verb 浮かぶ (ukabu) which translates as "to float" in English. In this context it is actually used to say that someone smiles, has smiled, or is smiling. It can help to think of the emotion of a smile floating to the surface of a person's face.
When you find these words together in a sentence, and you understand the overall meaning, you can start to see how they work with one another and create those associations in your mind. If you don't use this sentence level approach, there is a fairly good chance that the verbs you choose won't match the nouns that you want to use.
It's a Practical Approach to Learning
In addition to the previous advantages of learning how words sound and how they should be used, another key reason to learn the language by studying complete sentences is that you can immediately use the new information that you've learned.
If you study a list of words, you might recognize them if you encounter them again, but that doesn't mean that you will know when and where to use them yourself. But if you learn an entire phrase in Japanese then you can start using that same sentence yourself as long as you understood the context that it was used in.
I won't go into the different levels of politeness in Japanese here, but the thing to keep in mind is that the things that friends say to one another is useful when talking to your friends, but shouldn't be used when you need to have a conversation with your Japanese boss.In the last section we talked about the action of smiling, but when we get to the word 笑顔 (egao) which also translates as "smile" in English, it is actually used when talking about a person's smile and appears in phrases such as "she has a nice smile."
- egao ga suteki desu.
- (your) smile is wonderful.
When you learn complete sentences like this last one, you can add them to your go to phrases for communication and start using them right away to have authentic conversations in Japanese.
You Understand Grammar Intuitively
Grammar is a rather abstract concept when it comes to languages. It's easy to learn words like "dog" because most people know what a dog is and have had experience interacting with one.
Gaining experience with grammar can only really be done through interacting with the language it belongs to. While it is helpful to look up specific rules to clarify any confusion you may have, it's hard to become comfortable with grammar from just reading about it in a textbook. This is even more so with Japanese grammar since it shares very little with the rules we use in English.
What I have always found to be most effective is going through 10-20 examples of a single new grammar rule right after I've learned about it.
But the power comes more from the example sentences than it does through the explanation. If I could only take one, I would choose sentences every time since the human mind tends to figure out these types of patterns given enough exposure.
When you take in a lot of Japanese sentences through listening and reading, you get a lot of natural exposure to the different forms of the most common grammar patterns.
You can spend your energy focusing on understanding the overall meaning of the sentences and use them yourself without having to know exactly what is happening at every point along the way.
When you have a lot of exposure to Japanese grammar through sentences like this, you begin to develop a feel for when to use one form of a verb or adjective instead of another since that's how it has always appeared to you in similar situations.
Even if you do decide to spend some devoted time diving into a particular grammar rule to fully comprehend it, it actually makes a lot more sense after you've consumed a lot of examples from full sentences of it that you can reflect back on.
Use What You Know To Learn What You Don't
When you're learning Japanese at first, the focus should be on comprehending the overall meaning of the message. This is normally achieved through full translation of the text and any helpful explanations on words or phrases.
Once you've learned a fair amount of words and gotten sufficiently used to how sentence structure works, it opens up the doors to learn new words that you haven't encountered before from nothing but the surrounding context. In other words, you can use the Japanese you've already learned to figure out the meaning of new words!
This approach is often referred to as "n+1 learning” because you're taking what you currently know (n) and adding a single new piece of information (+1). It is a very rewarding and useful way to go beyond the beginner and intermediate levels of Japanese and bring your vocabulary up to a point that begins to resemble that of a native's.
This is yet another reason to study Japanese in full sentences since it eventually allows you to gracefully let go of the English explanations of new words and fully immerse yourself in Japanese.
Get Used To Real Japanese
There are a lot of benefits to be gained by studying Japanese through complete sentences which don't appear in word-lists or grammar explanations. The biggest reason to learn the language this way is because it's how it gets used in the real world by natives.
By consuming whole ideas this way and focusing on the overall meaning each sentence brings, you begin to acquire the language naturally from both a vocabulary usage and grammar pattern approach.
Finding these types of sentences, especially ones that can build upon what you've previously learned can be tricky unless you have the help of someone who has already put them together in a comprehensive system.
That's one of the reasons why I love Glossika's Mass Sentence Method. They give you thousands of Japanese sentences in both written and spoken form that you can learn and start using yourself. Check out the free trial and get started learning Japanese today!