Verb endings

One of the things that confused me the most about Japanese when I first started to learn was the difference between “desu” and “masu”.

On first teaching a student Japanese, the teachers have to make a tradeoff at the very beginning.  Do they want to teach how the language works?  Or do they want to teach in such a way that the student can use what they know immediately without pissing people off with rookie mistakes in politeness level, etc.?  Most teachers seem to do the latter, but after starting to learn dictionary (plain) form and how kanji words are formed, I’m starting to wonder if this really does a huge disservice to the learner.

Here’s why.

At their core, Japanese verbs are essentially a kanji with an ending.  The ending varies depending on whether or not the verb is a godan, ichidan, or suru verb, but this is the structure of almost all of the verbs out there.  The verb ending is essentially the ofurigana at the end of the word.

So “masu” is then simply the conjugated ending of the verb in the polite form.

Simple, right?  Actually, it kind of is.

But if you teach in the style of, say, Rosetta Stone (ptooey) you’ll never understand that distinction, because you start off just thinking “oh, sometimes I stick masu on the end, and sometimes desu, but it’s not really clear which go where and when”.  Because you don’t really understand how it all works.

I’m not being too critical of teachers, though.  One of the major problems with learning Japanese is that the bootstrapping is the hardest part.  How do you even begin?  Maybe the way they approach it is the best way of a bunch of bad ways.  I don’t know.  I do know that I’m at the point now where everything I learn just explains the stuff that they taught by rote several months ago, and honestly, I don’t really like that feeling.  It’s kind of a “Why didn’t you just tell me?  This could have been so much easier!” experience.  It’s very discouraging because it feels a bit like I wasted a lot of time.

But alas.  Still moving forward.

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