The luckiest Japanese language students begin their studies at birth, possibly even earlier. The rest of us start somewhere else along the way, either on the streets or in a classroom. The streets are a rough teacher, but they can be rewarding as well. Classroom instruction may seem like a better option, but you have just as much chance of ending up ashi wo sukuwareta (足をすくわれた, having your legs pulled out from under you) as you do out on the streets, immersed in life in Japan.
I ended up feeling this way because of dōshi (動詞, verbs), just a few weeks into my initial study. I can’t fault my teachers completely — they insisted that we start with masu-kei (ます形, masu-form) and master it. So I learned shimasu (します, do), nomimasu (飲みます, drink), tabemasu (食べます, eat), and their negative equivalents, shimasen (しません, don’t do), nomimasen (飲みません, don’t drink), and tabemasen (食べません, don’t eat).
You’ve probably realized by now where masu-kei got its name: Every verb ends with masu or masen (or mashita and masendeshita for past tense). This felt reasonable enough. I had studied Spanish in high school and was used to conjugation charts with up to five different verb forms for every tense. Now there were just two for present and two for past. So I went about my studies.
But then I tried to look up a verb in the dictionary and couldn’t find it. Where was aimasu (会います, meet)? How would I ever learn the meaning of naraimasu (習います, learn) or look up the definition of shirabemasu (調べます, look up)?
Shortly thereafter, the teacher taught my class jisho-kei (辞書形, dictionary form), and this is when I felt like Neo in “The Matrix:” I had been living in a masu-kei world and now I knew nothing.
However, a masu-kei world is not a bad world to be living in. It’s also known as teinei-kei (丁寧形, polite form) because it is more respectful. My teachers always called it “neutral,” but I think they did that because secretly they didn’t want us to know that it is actually a kind of keigo (敬語, polite speech), albeit a neutral one compared to other forms. Concerned with our future prospects socially and in the workplace, the teachers had us all default to masu-kei, which includes the use of desu (です), the copula that loosely corresponds to the English verb “to be.” Desu gets attached to the end of nouns and adjectives in masu-kei constructions.
You might be thinking, Yappari Nihongo muzukashī desu ne (やっぱり日本語難しいですね, Japanese really is difficult), but it’s not so bad. You can default to masu-kei in the workplace and with strangers, and then use futsū-kei (普通形, plain form), another name for jisho-kei, with close friends and family.
Learning jisho-kei effectively adds another two versions to each verb: Tabemasu and tabemasen become taberu (食べる) and tabenai (食べない). For ichidan-dōshi (一段動詞, vowel-stem verbs) like this, switching back and forth is as simple as replacing masu and masen with ru and nai.
But godan-dōshi (五段動詞, consonant-stem verbs) added a whole different level of difficulty, and this is where I think teachers of Japanese could adjust their approach.
One example of godan-dōshi mentioned above is nomimasu, the jisho-kei of which is nomu (飲む, drink). Nomu and nomimasu are similar, but it’s not a simple replacement as with ichidan-dōshi. The negative nomimasen, for example, becomes nomanai (飲まない, don’t drink).
I wish now that the teachers had started off by teaching gokan (語幹, verb stems) and emphasizing the fluid, flexible nature of the stem when they first introduced the order of hiragana. Yes, students learn あいうえお (a-i-u-e-o), かきくけこ(ka-ki-ku-ke-ko) and onward down the line, but these are just disembodied noises.
Why not introduce gojūonjun (五十音順, the order of 46 sounds in the Japanese language) in context with something that will be useful? This would be a great opportunity to also introduce how verbs work, namely how the use of the verb changes with the change in the front half of the verb; in the case of nomimasu, for example, students could familiarize themselves with まみむめも (ma-mi-mu-me-mo) by learning noma, nomi, nomu, nome and nomo.
Noma is the stem for negative plain-form (nomanai) and other forms. Nomi is the building block for masu-kei (nomimasu). Nomu is the jisho-kei verb as mentioned earlier. Nome is an example of a plain-form meireibun (命令文, imperative). And nomo is the start of the plain-form volitional (nomō).
Are nome! (あれ飲め！, Drink that!) and Are nomō! (あれ飲もう！, Let’s drink that!) are simple and easy to remember sentences that could be helpful for students trying to grasp both how the verb changes and what those changes are used for.
This strategy would pick key verbs for each of the kana verb endings: u, ku, su, tsu, nu, mu and ru. Say, for example, au (会う, meet), kaku (書く, write), naosu (直す, fix), tatsu (立つ, stand), shinu (死ぬ, die), nomu (as previously mentioned), and wakaru (分かる, understand). Learning how these verbs change would cover nearly all the kana characters and at the same time instill students with a basic understanding of how the Japanese sounds are ordered.
A renewed focus on the front half of the verb would benefit students in the classroom. Yes, the endings masu, mashita, masen and masendeshita are also important, but the real puzzle pieces here — the ones that are the most different and carry the most weight in terms of meaning — are the verb stems. Master the gokan, and you’re less likely to trip on the gobi (語尾, end of the word).