Japanese is a Ham Sandwich

Learning a new language is a bit like making a ham sandwich. But how?


This morning, I was busy turning some old class notes on Japanese grammar into material for my under-construction Japanese Guide–pretty par for the course, as far as my mornings go.

But as I was writing, I had an epiphany: Japanese is like a ham sandwich.


Let me explain.


Consider the components that make up the Japanese language: vocabulary and grammar. I’m gonna go the extra mile here and throw in the writing system, which is made up of hiragana, katakana, and kanji, as well. Roughly speaking, vocabulary is the content, grammar decides how that content is put together to create nuanced meaning and context, and the thousands of squiggly characters that make up the writing system are used to visually represent that content.

It’s safe to say that these components all play a major role in your Japanese making any sense.

But when you’re knee-deep in a conversation, your kanji-writing skills aren’t really going to help compared to having a rich, deep vocabulary pool to draw from. And given that some learners are more concerned with their ability to hold a conversation or read a menu, and couldn’t care less about the stroke order of 鬱, I wonder: Is it possible to prioritize and isolate certain components to fit your needs? And should learners spend more time on any one thing in particular?


The Four Skills

It’s true that in language learning, we often split “ability” into four categories: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Learners also tend to rate themselves in each category. For example, I would consider my reading skills to be much higher than my speaking skills, and this usually affects the way I approach both how I study and use Japanese in real life. This has its benefits and drawbacks, but that’s a topic for another day.

The point is that you can indeed separate language learning goals into digestible chunks.

If you want to work on your speaking, and you live in Japan, go outside and talk to people. Engage more with your co-workers. If you don’t live in Japan, there are plenty of websites that will match you with an affordable tutor, or you can try to make a Skype buddy on Lang-8.

If you want to hone in on your listening, watch more TV and movies. Even better, if your goal is to be able to watch a specific kind of entertainment, like anime, then guess what you should do? Watch anime.

It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many learners I’ve seen over the years ask, “How do I learn Japanese so I can watch anime?”

The answer is pretty simple. Just start watching it. As long as you’re sticking to a solid study regimen and have a road map laid out in front of you, you just need to keep watching anime. Get used to the sounds and start listening for common words. Eventually, your ear will start becoming attuned to the things characters say and the way they speak. Things will start making sense.

man watching TV
Just, you know, make sure you go outside on occasion.


Three’s Company

While I think it’s generally harmless to focus on particular skills based on your learning goals, it’s possible to overdo it. Grammar, kanji, and vocabulary are intertwined and should be studied together, if only for the sake of efficiency. You can’t meaningfully study grammar forms without understanding the meaning of the words in a sentence, and you should be including kanji on your vocabulary flashcards.

(While you’re at it, include audio in your flashcards. Shadow along with the native speaker in order to improve your pronunciation and practice listening to example sentences on new flashcards before reading them, as a means of testing listening comprehension.)

Actually, studying kanji outside of context (i.e. vocabulary, phrases, sentences) will hurt you in the long run. This rote-style of learning will, in the end, only improve your ability to memorize individual characters, not to actually read kanji. This is why I’m not a big fan of the Heisig method: I think there are more efficient ways to invest your time as a learner.

The only people I would recommend to go out of their way to concentrate on something as specific as grammar forms is someone who is preparing for a standardized test like the JLPT. On the N1, for example, your ability to differentiate between rather obscure grammar forms will be tested. Note that these grammar forms aren’t that rare; it’s just that you would be hard-pressed to find uses for them in everyday Japanese, hence the need to isolate them and study them on their own.


Vocabulary is Key

As for the question of whether learners should spend more time on any one thing in particular, well…

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that vocabulary is the most vital component to language learning. Some people will disagree with me, and that’s OK. But hear me out.

If you’re reading a newspaper article or participating in a conversation and cannot recognize a certain percentage of the content you’re being exposed to, then you’re stuck guessing. And guessing based on context only goes so far. Grammar, body language, and tone of voice are all useful for putting unknown pieces of the puzzle together, but the most important part is the actual content, the vocab: the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, onomatopoeia, all that good stuff.

words on paper
Vocabulary: the other, other white meat.


So when you think about it, Japanese is kind of like a ham sandwich. The vocab is the meat of the sandwich. Without it, you’ve got a pretty sad looking sandwich that doesn’t have much meaning. Kanji isn’t absolutely necessary to communicate in Japanese, but it sure makes everything look nice and neat, not to mention easier to understand. Japanese just wouldn’t be Japanese without it, just like a sandwich isn’t quite a sandwich without the melted cheese, the grilled onions, the juicy tomatoes, and the crispy, fresh lettuce.

And of course, grammar and syntax make up the bread that keeps it all together. Some learners pride themselves on being walking dictionaries, but if you can’t string any of those words together to communicate ideas in a coherent fashion, then why are you bothering to learn another language in the first place?

Just the same, if you’re just going to throw together some meat, veggies, and cheese without any bread to hold it all in place, can you really call it a sandwich?