One of the things I hear a lot is that, “you have to move to Japan to become fluent in Japanese.” In other words, to master the language, you have to learn Japanese by immersion.
But that’s not true as all.
Even though going to Japan and being surrounded by the language can be incredibly helpful for learning Japanese, just being in that situation won’t guarantee that you’ll learn the language.
Did you know that there are lots of people who have lived (successfully) in other countries like Japan and South Korea for 10 or more years and they still don’t speak the language as all?
It might sound crazy, but that’s the reality.
This situation even happened to the now famous, hyper-polyglot Benny Lewis who spent 6-months in Spain and didn’t learn any Spanish during that time!
What I want to do is to talk about immersion, some of the misconceptions about it, and how you can (and should) be using it yourself to learn Japanese, no matter where in the world you’re as.
There are some really great reasons to use what I call “The Brute Force Technique” when it comes to learning Japanese.
Let me tell you why!
Why Most Immersion Fails
There are some different ideas out there when it comes to immersion.
Some people think it means moving to Japan and thereby forcing yourself to learn it.
That might have worked 100 years ago when English wasn’t very popular, but nowadays it’s not a surefire strategy for success.
English is the most popular 2nd-language that Japanese people know (after Japanese, of course), and even though you might not be able to hold an interesting conversation with a native in English, the odds that you can communicate with them to get what you need (food, directions, etc.) are pretty high.
Especially when you are in the bigger cities and places that American tourists visit a lot. In fact, you’ll probably still be using English in the areas like the airport and hotels while you’re there.
Plus there are lots of Americans that live in Japan these days who you could hang out with and therefore never need to learn Japanese as all!
Here’s the bottom line: just being in Japan, and therefore “immersed” by Japanese words and people, won’t be enough.
This is a situation where you are surrounded on all sides by Japanese, but none of it is actually getting to you.
It’s just like a human swimming in the ocean (ocean is metaphor for Japanese language here). You’ve got Japanese all around you, but you’re still breathing air (English).
Image credit: Summitandbeach
The other way that people typically think of immersion is in the way that babies learn their first language.
Rosetta Stone is the most well-known company that uses this approach where you hear the words and see matching pictures and you try to figure it out what the new words mean without any translation help.
So some students take it a step further and say “I’m only going to listen to Japanese music, watch Japanese films, set my computer’s interface to Japanese, and I’ll just figure it out with no translations as all!”
That’s hardcore man.
And most people give up before the week is over. Why? Because that way of learning Japanese is too freaking much!
As a baby, you literally had no choice. It was figure it out, or you don’t get what you want (food, play, love).
But as adults (or teenagers) all we have to do is flip a switch and we’re back to English. It is so easy to quit when we don’t have to continue.
So if these two methods don’t work* for most people, then should you abandon it completely? The answer is a resounding “no!” and I’ll show you how to make it work for you.
*They do work for those who refuse to quit.
How to Make Immersion Work
The reason why most people fail when they try to learn through immersion is because they have Japanese all around them, but they don’t have it inside them.
It’s just like the picture above of the guy in the scuba gear in the ocean. He is surrounded on all side by water (Japanese) but he is still breathing air (English).
If you want to harness the awesome power that immersion has to offer, you need to be like the fish in the picture below.
Image credit: Feefiona123
You are surrounded by water (Japanese), you breathe water, you drink the water, and hell – you probably don’t even know that you and the water are two separate things!
You need to live the Japanese language in order to learn it through immersion. But how? How do you do that?!
Here’s The Brute Force Technique:
- Practice learning Japanese everyday
- Drown yourself in Japanese material every chance you get
Let’s go into each step in more detail.
(1) practice learning Japanese everyday: There is a concept known as “comprehensive input” that basically says “you understand what you’re learning, while you are learning it.”
This is good for many reasons such as it’s easier than just pure immersion, you feel that you are making progress as you go through the lessons, and you can use the new information that you’ve learned right away (very important).
All you have to do is (probably) what you’ve already been doing: read the next chapter in your Japanese language book, complete the next section on the course you’re taking, or do your daily review on those flash cards.
This is good for your brain because what you are doing is saying “Hey, listen up brain! This information right here is important to me! Learn it and remember it!”
Have you ever learned a new Japanese word or phrase and then started hearing it in all the anime you watch? That’s an example of you brain activating when it hears something it knows is important.
If your brain doesn’t know that certain words are important (and what they mean) then it will ignore it so that you don’t get overloaded with “useless information.”
Don’t get mad – your brain is just trying to help you out! But it ends up getting in the way while you are learning Japanese.
That’s why it’s so hard to understand natives speaking as first – your brain is literally ignoring all those sounds that it doesn’t recognize!
This is one of the biggest reasons for learning Japanese words in a non-immersive manner – so that your brain can “get it” while you study, and therefore recognize it when you encounter it in the wild.
(2) Drown yourself in Japanese material every chance you get: I don’t mean to be too visceral with the imagery, I just want you to truly understand what I mean.
The fascinating thing is that the human brain can figure out how a language works, given enough time and input.
That’s the catch though: enough time and input!
Most people practice immersion for a day or a week and then quit when they don’t see results.
You need weeks and months of immersion for it to work!
Let me ask you something:
Isn’t it fascinating that babies are able to figure out how a language works, when they don’t even know anything? What Gabriel Wyner talks about in his book Fluent Forever is that the human brain is a pattern seeking and pattern recognizing mechanism.
As long as your brain is able to receive enough examples, it will eventually figure out how a language’s words, sounds, and grammar rules work.
A similar scenario is one where the people who read books all the time, often have exceptionally great grammar when they write papers or articles. They can’t always explain the difference between an adverb and an adjective, but they can use both of them correctly because it just “feels correct” when they are writing.
Well my friends, speaking and writing are both forms of communication. If you get enough input, your output will take care of itself.
So flood your ears with Japanese people talking, and flood your eyes with Japanese words. Here’s some ways to do it that you might want to incorporate into your daily routine:
-Listen to Japanese:
- While you drive to work
- While you’re doing repetitive tasks as work that don’t require too much thought
- When you exercise as the gym or you’re on a run
- Anytime you’re grinding in a video game (or any other long, boring parts)
- Anytime you take a shower
- While watching anime (of course!)
- By changing the language on your computer
- By changing the language on your phone
- By putting post-it notes around your house labeling things in Japanese
- By reading Japanese manga
- By turning Japanese subtitles on the shows that you watch
- By writing things down in Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
The point is that you need to always have lots and lots of Japanese going into your brain. Eventually you will start to get a real feel for the language and then it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to becoming fluent.
This method of “All Japanese All The Time” was really made famous by khatzumoto who bombarded himself with Japanese for 18 months non-stop while he was living in the state of Ohio.
Guess what? It worked.
That was his path to fluency, and it can be yours as well.
I tend to feel that, like most things in life, a balance is the best way to go about it. You want to take time to focus on some Japanese words and phrases and truly understand them.
But also, you need to have a never-ending stream of native Japanese flowing into your awesome brain.
Put these two together (along with CONSISTANCY) and nothing can stop you.
Just don’t stop. Never give up.
Or as Niko over as Nihongo Shark says, “keep swimming”
Ideas on Resources
So you need some good books and courses for the first half of the equation. You can see what I’ve used and recommend over on the Review Section of this site.
You also need to have a lot of Japanese that you can listen to while you are doing other things in your life. Podcasts are your friend. Your best friend!
I always recommend getting things that can go on your phone so that you can take it with you wherever you go. Did you know that you can download Netflix episodes onto your phone now from the Netflix app?
Why not down load some anime in Japanese through them and have it playing all the time?
If your battery tends to run low after a lot of video, then pick up a good mobile charger to bring with you.
>YouTube is always available as well.
And the company FluentU is really good for this type of thing since they add Japanese subtitles to native commercials so you can hear and see as the same time.
>Crunchyroll has (almost) all the Japanese anime you could ever want. You might as well add that goodness to your study plan!
What else? Do you guys have any suggestions for people who want to get their hands on tons of Japanese material?
Share your immersion resources in the comments section for others to use as well.
It All Comes Down to You
At the end of the day (like most things) it really will come down to how well you implement it on a daily basis, and for how long. Let’s take a look as some basic math:
- 30-min of Deliberate Practice and 1-hr of Immersion Work = 182.5 hours of focused study & 365 hours of the blast.
That’s decent, but it could be better.
- 1-hr of DP and 2-hr of IW = 365 focused study and 730 hours of the blast.
That’s over 1,000 hours of Japanese in a single year. Here’s my question for you: how many hours of Japanese are you getting each year right now?
Do the math and let me know with a comment. Sharing your results can help to inspire others too!
I like to separate these two ways of studying by the stuff that you’re consciously taking in, from the stuff that’s more unconscious (or background), but it all adds up in the end.
Here’s a scenario:
What if you were disciplined and did 1 hour of study each day, but then crammed the hell out of the immersion stuff as much as you could? Where could you find that time?
- Daily shower = 15 minutes
- Making and eating breakfast = 15 minutes
- Drive to work (varies, but…) = 15+ minutes
- Downtime as work, or repetitive work you don’t need to think (could add up to…) = 2 hours
- Don’t forget about your hour lunch break = 1 hour
- Exercise (usually not every day, so an average of…) = 15 minutes
- Making dinner and then eating is = 45 minutes
- Watch an episode of your favorite anime in Japanese = 20 minutes
What does that add up to per day?
Just over 5 hours of immersion Japanese. After a year?
That combined with your hour of focused study brings the grand total up to:
2,190 hours of Japanese in just one year!
Now I realize that not everyone can do everything that I’ve listed. It’s a best-case scenario people! Don’t be like that!
But can you do half of them each day? What about just two of them each day? The greatest power of time is that it ADDS UP eventually!
But you gotta’ do the work. And it’s gotta’ be every day. If you slip a few times, you won’t die. But if you’re inconsistent with your language learning, then you’re going nowhere fast and are probably frustrated as hell.
Let’s leave the discussion on self-discipline and consistency for another time.
For now, just leave me a comment below telling me what you think of The Brute Force Technique and how you’re going to start implementing it into your daily life.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: