Firstly, I apologise if this has been asked before or if I have asked this in the wrong place (should I have asked on the meta site?).

I've studied Japanese for (going on) 5 years, now. It's been mostly classroom based, but I gained a lot of experience and confidence when I travelled out to Japan (Fukuoka, Hirado, Sasebo and Nagasaki for those interested) that I don't think I'd ever have gotten in the classroom. But I've never studied the linguistic side of language study. By that, I mean terms like those found in the example provided in this question (over on meta).

I really want to study Japanese and take it to the next level, and I'm left wondering whether it would be worth studying linguistics in an effort to further my knowledge or whether it would just be worth studying more vocabulary, grammar and such.

I am very serious about my study of Japanese and it would definitely help in my current job, and I'm planning on visiting my Japanese friends again, soon. So, in the opinion of the fellow users/learners, would it be worth my time studying the field of linguistics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of studying linguistics?

7 Answers 7


I think it would be like a musician studying acoustics, or avid dog owner/trainer studying canine anatomy. It probably all depends on what your future goals are with Japanese. If you're planning to move to Japan, or just keeping that option open, and working and perhaps marrying a Japanese, then you should just remain as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) learner. Linguistic analysis of Japanese won't be of much pragmatic value, it's too technical, and it doesn't make for good dinner-party conversation. Most Japanese natives aren't even aware of the things that Japanese linguists study, much less care when you tell them about it. If, however, you've lost interest in Japanese as a social hobby, then going the linguistic route is certainly one way to progress in the study of Japanese. But linguistics is a science in the same way that biology or programming is a science in that it is grounded in formal model building. It's going to take a lot of time, and unless you're in school, you won't meet many people that share your interest. It's also not going to help you pronounce or write better. Just like studying calculus won't make you better with mental arithmetic.

They say that linguistics is the most human of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities, but without a doubt the demand for rigour and the application of the scientific method in linguistics make it a serious science. You should pick up An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics (Tsujimura, 2006). This book contains a short intro to some linguistic theory and applies it to Japanese. Although not a very rigorous book, if you find it boring, then chances are Japanese linguistics is not for you.

I'll show you some of my reading list for Japanese and linguistics books to give you an idea of what others like you might be doing. These are just some of the phonetics and phonology textbooks that I am currently occupied with and would definitely recommend. I haven't yet got to syntax or semantics, nor the other fields of linguistics, so I couldn't tell you what's good to read. Like you, I've been a JSL learner for about 5 years, but studying linguistics for about 1.5 years now. It's just a armchair hobby of mine, but studying linguistics sure has been an expensive hobby due to the cost of textbooks:

  1. Contemporary Linguistic Analysis, Sixth Edition In my opinion, the only intro level ling text you will need. Very good text. I haven't read later editions.
  2. Introductory Phonology Really good book once you have been introduced to a little phonology already
  3. Introduction to Japanese linguistics A little too easy for my taste, but an excellent place to start.
  4. The Sounds of Japanese with Audio CD Goes into the finer detail of articulatory Japanese, and covers IPA transcription for Japanese. The CD is useless though.
  5. The Phonology of Japanese A little more advanced, but one of the few textbooks on the subject.
  6. Acoustic Phonetics You will need to be familiar with Fourier analysis and a little bit of physics and computer science for this one.
  7. Principles of Phonetics 700 page monster on phonetics. Covers everything up to the acoustic signal analysis aspects of phonetics. I've only read parts of this at my uni library, but it seems like the most comprehensive treatment of phonetics in existence (within a certain level of detail and application of course)
  8. Mathematical Methods in Linguistics A real eye-opener on just how deep linguistic science is. Covers the mathematical model of language laid down (or at least advanced) by Chomsky. It has some pretty advanced mathematics, some of which certain schools reserve for graduate level classes, but it doesn't presume a background in calculus or linear algebra, so it is accessible, if dense, to a student in any program. Most people are not even aware that this subject matter exists, but if you take your shit seriously, I think you should read this.
  9. Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing Good for starting your own projects in Japanese linguistics. Assumes familiarity with statistical science
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    You should clarify that you have special interest in phonology or phonetics rather than linguistics in general. 3 is not particularly difficult but is not too easy as you say. 8 is a de facto bible for mathematical knowledge for linguists, but half of it is basic algebra necessary to do linguistics and the other half is what language engineer needs to learn (which was laid down by Chomsky but is not much relevant to his academic school today). 9 is for language engineers.
    – user458
    Jul 17, 2012 at 22:32
  • Wow! That's a lot of really useful information. I'll definitely be picking up a copy of Tsujimura(2006). Even if it turns out that I'm not interested, it might be worth a read just to know that I'm not interested... if that makes sense. I can certainly understand that linguistics is a science (being a computer programmer, I often find myself trying to use math of science to explain grammar rules and such). Thanks for all the links, I'll be sure to check them out - if Tsujimura(2006) turns out to be useful to me Jul 18, 2012 at 8:14
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    @JamieTaylor If you program, you might be interested 入門 自然言語処理 O'rielly, if you don't know about it already. I bought the PDF for $30US and I'm on chapter 2. oreilly.co.jp/books/9784873114705 This is the Japanese version of the original English text.
    – taylor
    Jul 18, 2012 at 23:54
  • That looks extremely useful. Although I feel as though I'd start with the English version. Simply because I don't know how complex the language about language in Japanese is... if that makes sense. Jul 19, 2012 at 8:20
  • @taylor, your first link is down...
    – Pacerier
    Feb 3, 2014 at 13:15

To the extent that studying linguistics helps you understand some of the more complex patterns, you will probably find it useful. But a great deal of linguistics is dedicated to finding common systems to describe all languages, which (by necessity) isn't terribly useful for using a particular language.

Some texts are written somewhat 'in the middle' for both linguists and people trying to speak/understand/read/write the language. I wouldn't necessarily ignore those, since they can be extremely valuable.

I've personally found Susumu Kuno's book, Structure of the Japanese Language, valuable in this regard.

One danger to be aware of is that language learners seeking linguistic explanations are sometimes seeking "the secret code" to how it all works, forgetting in the process that linguistics is a descriptive project.

  • Thank you for the book recommendation. I'll certainly look into getting that one. I'm not looking for any sort of secret code, I was just thinking that having a passing knowledge might help with my studies. I'll make a point of remembering what you have said, though. Mar 21, 2012 at 17:02
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    @JamieTaylor. It's quite pricey to get a new copy though: amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0262110490/sr=/qid=/…
    – Flaw
    Mar 22, 2012 at 0:42

From how I understand it, studying linguistics will give you knowledge about languages and how they work, but does not necessarily let you speak that language. My Japanese teacher studied linguistics, and while he could tell you anything about the German language, he couldn't speak it for the life of him (by his own admission). Of course, he was also fluent in Japanese and English, so I'm sure he could learn it if cared to...On a related note, you may not be able to focus on just Japanese linguistics, but others (German, Spanish, English etc) as well.

If you're really looking for a way to further your studies, I would suggest looking into studying for the JLPT. It's not exactly something that will set up for fluent Japanese per se, but it has a benefit of a nice certificate that employers really take into account, and some jobs even require it. I've also found it's a good way for focusing your self-studies, and there are a great many sources on the internet to help you out.

  • 1
    What's after JLPT?
    – Pacerier
    May 25, 2012 at 8:30
  • @Pacerier What's after JLPT? Um, I don't really think there are any official tests after that, unless you'd be interested in taking the kanji kentei. If you can pass N1 it will open up opportunities to live and work in Japan though! May 25, 2012 at 21:02

It never hurt to improve your knowledge, but I don't think you should do linguistic if it's not something you like already. It will be a waste of time and waste of motivation in the middle/long term. All the linguistic I know use it from the beginning of their learning because that's their way to do it and because they love it.

I don't know what your japanese level is but when you want to go to the next deep step; it is about reading newspaper/books, speaking/converse with people and write (you could start a diary in japanese), not emails, write for real, express your ideas, argue and everything.

  • I really like your point about keeping a diary in Japanese. That sounds really useful. Conversing with people in Japanese on a regular basis is going to prove difficult, but I'm not going to discount it. I already have some manga in the original Japanese (Yotsuba To for the easier stuff and Nodame Cantabile for the more informal grammar and advanced kanji) Mar 21, 2012 at 14:06
  • @Jamie: If you're really interested in keeping a Japanese Diary, (which is a good idea ^.^) check out lang-8, where you can post your work and have native speakers check it for free! You are encouraged to check other user's work done in English (or your native language) in exchange. lang-8.com Mar 22, 2012 at 14:39
  • That is an amazing website. Thanks for the link! ^_^ Mar 22, 2012 at 16:39

As the other answers have mentioned, it's not a bad idea to delve into linguistics as a way to break down a language into formulas.

But if your overall goal is further language fluency, you may just want to continue interacting with others in the language. Keeping up your literacy by reading news articles or books doesn't hurt, either.

Another thought is translation and interpretation. Those are marketable skills... and can end up helping with both your Japanese (as well as your English.)

  • 1
    I know that it might be seen as some as a bad idea, but I've been working on translating some stuff (from Japanese) as a way of boosting my vocabulary and such. Although, I do worry that it's going to end up being detrimental to my study. And, primarily useless if I ever want to get into translation or interpretation Jul 18, 2012 at 8:04
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    @JamieTaylor Actually, translating should help you; cool that you are doing some translating already :)
    – summea
    Jul 19, 2012 at 22:27

I will not comment on whether or not linguistics is helpful for learning a language, but just want to say that traditional Japanese study, most saliently known by the works of 橋本進吉 and is taught in Japanese elementary schools and junior and senior highschools, is harmful for either learning Japanese or learning linguistics. Its the kind of grammar that uses terminology like 五段活用, claims that 来る and する are the only irregular verbs, or that the verb 見る does not have a stem. It is just wrong or non-scientific. Do not waste your time with those unuseful terminology.

And, if you are picking a linguistic book, my advice is that a linguistic book coauthroed by too many authors is mere collection of academic articles and does not have a coherent structure, even if it says it is an introductory book. It would not be useful unless you are interested in a particular topic and would read only the relevant chapter. At the introductory level, pick a book that was written by a single author.


Just going to throw my 2¥ in here.

Learning anything is good. More information is always better than less information.

But learning linguistics is absolutely unneccesary when learning a language. Just as learning the physics of throwing a ball is not at all neccessary to playing a sport.

If linguistics excites you, then get into it. If not, don't worry about it.

For more discussion on engaging a language effectively, I recommend looking around on the web site All Japanese All The Time. I don't necessarily agree with everything there, but it does make the point very clearly that when it comes to learning language, how effectively you will learn is determined more by individual enthusiasm than by particular techniques.

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