Japanese for everyone
When it comes to resources for learning Japanese, you may have heard of the popular ‘Minna no Nihongo’ book series. These are a set of books that are both written and published in Japan, intended to be used by people wishing to study the fundamentals of the Japanese language.
While there is a number of books to go for, there are two sets there could be considered the ‘flagship of the series, both named Shokyu (初級) or beginners series. They each comprise 25 chapters, where each chapter is a single lesson and contains vocabulary lists, conversations, and exercises.
One important note to make here is that the core books are entirely written in Japanese, however, there is a companion book to go with each that includes the translations.
After vigorously using these books, I want to give my impressions as to whether they are a useful Japanese resource.
Let’s dive in.
Audience and usage
All of the Minna no Nihongo books are designed for people at the beginner stages of the Japanese learning process.
The first in the series (the red book) is for people with next to no Japanese language ability whatsoever. The second (the blue book) is a small step up for those who have some understanding of the basic principles and a small degree of vocabulary under their belt.
With this in mind they should be ideal for taking the first steps into learning the language. The truth is:
Well it depends. It depends upon the environment you study Japanese in.
If you’re part of a class or group, it is certainly the case that Minna no Nihongo will be a great boon to you. Like with any language, you need to hear what is being said. This is especially the case in the early stages to help hear basic pronunciations and understand its basic rhythm. A textbook has a hard time getting those sorts of things over to the reader no matter how it tries to explain it. Within a class setting this no longer becomes a problem.
Whether it is the first set or the second set, these books are designed to get people talking. The contents do a great job in this environment and are well suited to make you speak to and listen to others who are at a similar level. This will force you to take in the core points of each chapter (lesson) much quicker.
This is achieved through a distinctive focus on choices that can keep interaction between others engaging and fresh, as well allowing you to come up with your own sentences within the parameters of the lesson.
Quiz style elements further push Minna no Nihongo into being a group based resource. In this kind of scenario, quizzing forces your mind to process and recollect information with more urgency — something that doesn’t exist when learning by yourself.
If you are attempting to learn by yourself at home, work etc. The experience will be a bit different.
As in, not good.
If you are a total beginner, the aforementioned pronunciation will be a problem and will require a bit more time to get to grips with. The accompanying book has a section describing how to pronounce some basic hiragana and katakana characters but even then the way that they are explained; I could see it being quite confusing to beginners and sometimes just unnecessary.
That aside, the companion book will work much in the same way as a teacher would in a group setting. With diligent study there isn’t much in the book you won’t be able to understand by the time you’ve finished, as they never include vocab or grammar that hasn’t already been seen.
It will be the case however, that your communication skills won’t be quite as good as someone who is using Minna no Nihongo in a group setting. You may find you spend more time looking at the companion book rather than the one that’s actually in Japanese.
But yet there is a feeling that Minna no Nihongo has specifically been designed for class settings. Everything that makes it enjoyable within a group has the opposite effect when it comes to studying alone.
Re-reading near identical sentences with one word variations becomes incredibly boring and quizzes become pointless when answers are not given.
And it comes down to the type of content that Minna no Nihongo offers.
Minna no Nihongo content
Now that we have an understanding on what type of learners Minna no Nihongo is best suited for, I want to get into specifics on what each book includes.
Within each chapter are several varying types of exercises with the aim at conveying that lesson’s material in a slightly different manner. They can be categorised into:
- Initial sample sentences.
- Initial sample conversation.
Practice section A
- Sentence forming with multiple choice components.
Practice section B
- Complete the sentence style exercises with written or visual prompts.
- Listening exercises (from included CD).
- Complete the sentences filling in missing particles.
- Monologue excerpt followed by comprehension questions.
These cover the majority of exercises you can expect to see. Despite how this list seems organised, Practice section A and B contains the bulk of a lesson. (They’re organised slightly differently in the book.) Within these sections are where you will find what I would consider the content most suitable for group environments. The rest is more beneficial when learning alone.
While the usability of the content, depending on your learning situation, has already been addressed, the general content style is also worth mentioning.
Style and authenticity
If you were to read the foreword of Minna no Nihongo, you’ll notice that it says:
“Minna no Nihongo is aimed at anyone who urgently needs to learn to communicate in Japanese in any situation, whether at work, school, college or in their local community.”
This whole sentence is worth paying attention to.
From the offset, there is a seemingly distinctive focus on business and work culture within much of its content. While not necessarily a bad thing, it’s something to bear in mind. This belief comes from the fact that a lot of the vocabulary you learn — especially early on — is business orientated, as well as are a lot of the scenarios that the exercises are built upon.
When learning Japanese, almost everyone begins by learning the polite way of speaking such as using the ~masu stem (~ます) of a verb and desu (です), the polite copula or roughly ‘it is’. The same is done here in Minna no Nihongo which complements the business focused content.
The trouble is, this all adds to an overall feeling of staleness. In truth it’s hard to put my finger on it. Something feels just … off.
For example: many example sentences don’t feel believable; they wouldn’t exist the way they do in the book, and some often feel oversimplified to the point that they become unusable in everyday speech.
There is the case for saying here that it’s because Minna no Nihongo is for beginners and you’d be right but I want to refer back to the foreword statement.
“Urgently needs to learn to communicate in Japanese in any situation”.
This is what it feels like. Minna no Nihongo gets you speaking Japanese. It also feels like there should be a “no matter what” or another caveat at the end.
My thoughts on Minna no Nihongo
There are several questions you need to ask yourself if you want to learn Japanese. Why do you want to learn? How do you want to learn it? Are two of the big ones here.
Depending on your answers Minna no Nihongo can be a great tool. It can help you get the very basics of Japanese down in a relatively short space of time and start conversing in a rudimentary way. For some people that would be perfect.
Outside of a small specific audience the positives of this book series start to drop off. Specifically, if you intend to study by yourself, I would say there are better options out there. If you want to study Japanese for the long haul, there are better options out there. If you want to really dive into and fully understand how the language works and all the ins-and-outs, there are better options out there.
I want to throw in another aspect of learning Japanese — the price. Minna no Nihongo requires two books at a time which are not cheap. At roughly £20 – £25 per book of which you need two (£40 – £50 for one set) they have to be able to deliver exactly what you want. For me, they didn’t do that.
It has to be said that these books were first published in 1998 and since then a whole wealth of Japanese related resources have sprung up offering different and more convenient ways to learn. It’s perhaps not the case that Minna no Nihongo is a bad resource to use, just that the way language learning has changed. If you have money to spend however — or sometimes even if you don’t with the prevalence of free resources — I would recommend trying other resources first.