Is there a significant difference between the two? For Japanese students who don’t live in Japan and rely on textbooks for studying, are you missing out or not? 

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For people who have a keen interest in Japanese, it usually starts out by looking up a few things online and eventually leads to using standard text books. For some lucky people, this will eventually lead to taking classes and maybe even flying off to study Japanese where it matters, in Japan itself. Obviously, not everyone can be able to do the latter and try to study using resources that are easier (and less expensive or life changing) to obtain–videos and textbooks! But is it enough? The main goal for students when studying Japanese is to be able to understand and speak as fluently as possible. For people who base their Japanese studies on what they read in textbooks, does it sound natural? Is there a significant difference between Japanese in textbooks and real, spoken Japanese? Is it enough to study only via textbooks?

Real Japanese and Textbook Japanese

Being good at spoken Japanese is probably every Japanese students dream. Sounding like a native speaker is great because not only can you show off your multilingual skills to other people, but you also have the ability to converse and form deeper relationships with native Japanese speakers. Of course, if you plan on living in Japan, this will also greatly convenience your overall life while residing there. No more confusion when changing trains, misunderstandings with Japanese natives will be set to a minimum, reading a Japanese newspaper or manga will be a piece of cake, you can finally watch your favorite anime without the subtitles… The list goes on! 

A lot of us probably started learning Japanese with textbooks–it’s one of the most reliable and easy-to-find sources of Japanese anywhere in the world. Every Japanese student has at least one or two textbooks lying around somewhere in your home. It’s portable, compiled in a reasonable sequence and is perfect for reviews if you plan on taking the N5N1 tests. As the Standard Japanese tests are usually a combination of reading, writing, and listening tests–textbooks can technically be considered your best friend! It applies the tested and proven old-fashioned way of studying, note-taking–which helps you with your reading and writing. Religiously studying using your textbook is great for standardized tests but is it enough to sound fluent? Are you speaking REAL Japanese?

The biggest problem one might encounter when differentiating real Japanese to textbook Japanese is how spoken Japanese sounds different to how you read Japanese in your textbooks–it’s faster, overlaps, and has so many nuances that can’t be learned from a book. One example could be how bridge and chopstick are both “Hashi” in Japanese but are pronounced differently and can only be determined by listening to the pitch or intonation. Reading it will be easier as the kanji is different but verbalizing it might be a bit different. Textbooks, unfortunately, are not great at expressing or explaining how a word might sound like. In the case that your main goal is to converse fluently with native speakers, you might need to think about branching out to other methods of learning Japanese. Textbooks will not be able to teach you the correct intonations or breaks in sentences that will make you sound fluent–this is something that you can only learn with a lot of shadowing, listening, and if possible, a lot of speaking or conversation practice.

As mentioned earlier, textbooks don’t really have a lot of explanations in them which might cause confusion while studying. Textbook Japanese does not accurately represent what Japanese people say in conversations. You might end up using textbook Japanese which is Japanese that native speakers don’t regularly use. This will have the opposite effect, making you sound robotic and unnatural rather than fluent. The simplest example we can give you is the usage of “Watashi wa” in the beginning of sentences in most Japanese textbooks. In real life conversations, you usually leave that out–of course, this is mainly done in textbooks for “clarification” but this causes hard to lose habits that will be difficult to “unlearn” when you are reaching fluency. Focusing on learning textbook Japanese might be a disconnect when tasked with casually conversing with an actual native speaker. Native speakers usually use very casual Japanese with other people and slang, which is rarely found in textbooks. 

One benefit of learning textbook Japanese though is always sounding polite and respectful which is great as polite Japanese is vital in the workplace. Japanese culture and the Japanese language revolves around respect so using the wrong type of Japanese might get you in trouble. Textbook Japanese erases that problem–you will however, sound a bit weird. Learning textbook Japanese is great for conversation starters but might not be great for continuing the conversation and might even hinder you from deepening your relationship with someone. Real spoken Japanese has that personality and warmth attached to it that textbook Japanese doesn’t have. Real spoken Japanese is just way more personal as it breaks that shell all Japanese people have. The levels of politeness in Japan does not only change depending on ones social class, but also by relationship. You become less formal with people you are close with and are more formal with people that aren’t in your social circle. By the gist of this blog, you have probably determined that textbook Japanese is quite polite and formal, making the way you talk sound a bit cold and distant. This is the main reason why textbook Japanese is great for more formal situations.


I think it’s quite obvious that both have their own merits and place of use. Textbook Japanese is great as it can be used in formal situations and will make you sound very polite. It does however, sound a bit more distant and unnatural–great if you plan on working in Japan or plan on getting your Japanese certificate in the future. On the other hand, you won’t find real Japanese in textbooks and won’t be able to use them in tests but it is warm and can build deeper relationships with people. They are very different from each other and have their own benefits. It really depends on what your goal is though but the best route to take is to have a balance of knowing textbook Japanese and real Japanese. Mastering both will surely make you sound native and will benefit your social and professional life. Personally, I want to master both. How about you?