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Mar 3, 2011

Immersion is Key

I have talked to many people online who have used methods similar to my own: Reviewing the Kanji, SRS vocabulary acquisition, good studying habits, etc. In fact, they not only used the same methods I usedthey used them better. They'd all worked through multiple kanji books and had thousands more sentences in their SRS decks. Ironically, all of these people I talked to were unable to read or enjoy Japanese media, despite having these better “stats.” The reason for their inability to read or watch Japanese media was simple – they hadn't tried.

I can understand their problem – they wanted to know it all instantly. They wanted to one day look at a page of Japanese and have it magically turn into English before their eyes because they “understood” it. I certainly thought that's what it would be like. I didn't really understand that Japanese would always be Japanese, instead thinking that once I understood Japanese it would be like having some mystical auto-translate that would make it all sound like English to me. I guess that may have something to do with how movies present language acquisition.

These people that are working towards this magical land of auto-translate are doomed to wait a long time – because it doesn't exist. So what is the lesson to take from this? Don't wait! The best teacher is pure, natural Japanese – and media is filled with it. Unlike the people who are born in Japan and are surrounded by it simply by existing, those of us gaining Japanese as a second language must seek out that same Japanese surrounding – we must immerse ourselves in Japanese. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't require being in Japan, it simply requires converting the area around us into our own “Japan” through media.

In talking to those people, I came to realize that it was not the SRS or Heisig's book that made me capable of understanding Japanese (though they certainly helped a lot) – it was the time I had spent watching TV and reading books. That's right. Slacking off and doing things for fun got me farther in my studies than sitting at my desk and cramming vocabulary. Allow yourself you slack off and relax with some Japanese media, because now you can rightfully call it studying.

It turns out you don't always have to eat your vegetables before you can have cake.


  1. One thing I feel like commenting on is that when immersing yourself, I feel that one should try their best to stay away from subbed anime, or if they use subs then don't rely too heavily on it. The truth is, if you're reading subs and not actually listening, it's literally going in through one ear and out the subs tend to distract you from your primary focus (the Japanese).

    Now, I don't mean throwing out subtitles all together. I still jump back and forth between subs and raws depending on how badly I want to understand 100% what's being said. Sometimes they are nice, but try to rely less and less on them. Is there a currently airing anime you like? Then try downloading the raws to watch before it's subbed. Even if you don't understand most of what's being said, don't give up. Sit back, watch, and absorb it all.

    I don't know if you have a different view when it comes to subtitled anime though. I don't think I'm wrong with my line of thinking. There are plenty of people that watch anime for years subbed, and haven't acquired much from it aside from a handful of words that are used a lot.

    Also, music immersion is nice as well. My MP3 consists of pretty much 98% Japanese music. I feel it helps, especially if it's a song with strong enunciation.

    But those are just my two cents on the subject, take them as you will. I find that, unsurprisingly, I learn a lot more from watching anime without subtitles than with them, and that music is always great to sit back and enjoy.

  2. >Slacking off and doing things for fun got me farther in my studies than sitting at my desk and cramming vocabulary
    That's brilliant
    I wish that worked for drawing...

  3. >Then try downloading the raws to watch before it's subbed.

    This is a very good idea, and one that I've actually used for a while. At first I'd find myself caving and turning on the subs after the first minute or so, but by downloading the raws you can remove that temptation.

    >I don't know if you have a different view when it comes to subtitled anime though. I don't think I'm wrong with my line of thinking.

    I agree with you completely. I actually mentioned a lot of those same things in my post about Enjoying Japanese Media.

    >Also, music immersion is nice as well. My MP3 consists of pretty much 98% Japanese music. I feel it helps, especially if it's a song with strong enunciation.

    Also agree here.

    >I wish that worked for drawing...

    Well, in a way it could. Just as with learning Japanese, you spend some time working and studying (SRS, kanji reviews, etc), but you can also invest a lot more time into doing things for fun. The real power of slacking off is that it doesn't wear you out as much, so drawing things purely for fun would be comparable. You're still technically working, but you're also doing what you want to do.

  4. As someone that is completely fluent in two languages as well as spoken, written and read in several others, I can confirm that there will never be an auto-translate moment.

    For immersion in a new language I think actual practice in an uncontrolled environment is best. What you pick up will be closer to how it is actually used and you will build more confidence.

    If you don't live in the country you can still get in contact with native speakers through the internet. I think my friend learned Japanese by playing Pangya on the jp servers.

  5. Auto-translate moments do exists. (I will start of with saying that I'm fairly bad with languages.)
    I'm not interested in learning Japanese, so I just watch my subbed anime. (Well, I was kinda interested a few years ago, but I dropped it because there is so many other things I want to do and/or learn.)
    Anyway, the first time I saw something and then a bit later suddenly noticed that there weren't any subs were surely a auto-translate moment to me.

    Another similar moment was when I was learning how to read Danish, my mother-tongue. I had major difficulties and ended up getting special education (as the only one in my school that year so I had a teacher all for myself : P).
    Then one day it suddenly became clear for me and after about 2 weeks time I could read. It didn't take long after that for me to become better than most of the others in the class.

    Both these cases probably originated from my belief that "I'm not able to do it". (I never even considered that I might be able to understand some Japanese, and each time there were a Danish word I couldn't read I stalled and wasn't able to continue.)
    When that belief was challenged, it certainly were "auto-translate moments" for me.

    But I fully agree, Don't wait, it is a waste of time. The best way of learning a language is by using it. That is what you are supposed to use it for anyway, isn't it?

    Anyway, while I'm not that interested in learning Japanese, your blog seems interesting anyway, so I will probably keep reading.
    And hell why not, I could try turning off the sub-titles sometimes. If airing anime turns out to be too difficult, I could do it when I'm re-watching old ones.

  6. But, should you use romaji to help you study at syllables and vocabulary then practice reading without them?

    Sadly, I have the romaji in my mind when I read the words and then I have to translate them into english. I'm not sure how to cut this habit. I really need help on this..:(

  7. Anon, yes, you should be using romaji to learn the kana. Flash cards in the format か/Ka is the easiest way to get them memorized. What I mean by avoiding romaji is to never read Japanese that is in romaji - everything you use should be in kana or kanji. You might need some reading aids that list the romaji for each kana in the beginning, but nothing more than that.