So, you want to learn Japanese organically by immersion rather than by abstract study. It makes good sense, at least for many learners.
The problem is, how do you get started?
We have outlined the overall game-plan for immersion learning and talked about a lot of the specifics, like tackling kanji, vocabulary and grammar from an immersion perspective.
The problem still remains. How do you get started on what feels like the sheer rock-face of native Japanese material when you are a beginner or near-beginner?
As we have said before, it isn’t easy. It is like an assault-course that recruits look at and say “that isn’t possible”. But if you are sufficiently determined it is possible. And generations of recruits have gone through it before you.
So, as someone who has been through it, how would I recommend you actually start?
First of all, you really must pick up some grammar. You don’t have to be studying it for years. But get the basics, as explained in the linked article. You can do it pretty quickly by working smart rather than hard.
You can increase the smart-not-hard factor immensely by reading Unlocking Japanese, which shows you how to see Japanese grammar in its true simplicity and logical clarity. Traditional grammar books/sites are good, but they are stuck with 20th-century models of Japanese grammar which introduce many unnecessary confusions and complications into a language that is in fact much more simple and logical than European languages. Do yourself a favor by short-cutting your grammar from the startl
Even before that (or rather, at the same time), learn hiragana. This is not a big job, but it is easy to turn it into one. You can, and should, learn hiragana in a week. Any longer and it starts becoming increasingly inefficient. You are wasting time forgetting almost as fast as you are learning.
How soon after this you learn katakana depends on your approach. A lot of small children’s material uses only hiragana or uses furigana (small hiragana to tell you the pronunciation) over any katakana or kanji (and even romaji), so, just like a Japanese child, you can manage for a short time with only hiragana. It depends what material you want to begin with.
All right, with that preparation done, how do you begin?
Japanese Immersion: The first steps
What I did was this:
Learn hiragana and katakana. Learn the rudiments of grammar essentially by going through Genki 1 (though I didn’t use the exercises) and pecking around various online grammar resources.
I would not say this was the ideal way to go about it, but I was treading a new path and had no one to advise me. Arietty, especially, was punching considerably above my weight and that was my very first. But it did work. It was like climbing a sheer rock-face (and it always will be but I am going to suggest some slightly gentler starting-slopes). I had to skip a lot of the more complicated sentences. But I got through it, taking a very long time, enjoyed it, and learned an enormous amount.
If I were doing it now, with rather more experience of how to go about it, what would I do?
I might start with the White Rabbit graded readers. These are a bit of a cheat as they are actually aimed at Japanese learners, not natives. On the other hand, they are really part of the pre-immersion preparation period done in a pseudo-immersion way.
They are a good way to consolidate your hiragana, early grammar and very early kanji.
I might then move on to the real thing in graded readers. That is graded readers intended for actual Japanese children. This could be your first step into genuine Japanese immersion.
Remember that small Japanese children have a far bigger vocabulary than you and a much better grasp of simple grammar, so even these are a little deep-endy for a beginner. So you can take pride that you are making your first step into the ranks of the immersion elite!
What about anime?
I believe anime is crucial. Books are good, but you can’t hear them (the for-foreigners books have CDs, but this is rather artificial though it may help you with your early pre-steps).
I would make one particular recommendation of a show that I wish I had known about when I was starting. That is:
Arupusu no Shoujo Haiji
Heidi, Girl of the Alps
Why this anime?
• It has Japanese subtitles with furigana. This is pretty rare for Japanese subtitles, at least ones that are easy to get hold of. This will make your early days much easier. I had to copy kanji out of the subtitle file and paste them into Denshi Jisho to look them up.
• Most of the interaction is small-child to small-child or adult to small-child. This means that you will mostly be getting dialog at child-level. However, it is not baby-talk (like, say, Chi’s Sweet Home) which is both difficult and of limited value. It is good usable Japanese.
Please feel free to skip adult-to-adult conversations in the beginning. You are a child in Japanese. Note that the first episode has a lot more of this than most. You might want to begin with Episode 2.
• There are a lot of episodes. 52 in fact. It is good to have media with a lot of episodes/volumes because every work has its own subset of vocabulary, so you are building steadily on the base you are acquiring.
(Note: obviously exercise due diligence and make sure whatever version you get has the Japanese audio and Japanese subtitles).
Heidi isn’t the only option of course, but it is one you may well want to think about. I think it is what I would go for if I were doing it over again.
As it is, I discovered the Precure series which was quite a bit easier than Ghibli, even though at first I was largely lost in the explanatory sections.
It is important to remember at the early stages that some things will be above your head. When I was in Japan the first time I had host-sisters of four and eight years old. They were crazy about Precure. There was a great deal they (especially the four-year-old) didn’t understand. That didn’t stop them getting a lot out of it and adoring it (and of course learning a lot).
Won’t I be bored stiff immersing in works for children?
It somewhat depends who you are, of course. But Totoro, Arietty, Haiji and many others are classics, loved by adults and children alike. Precure has considerable depth that makes it far from being just a children’s show (just choose one of the “deeper” series like Smile or Doki Doki).
Immersion, especially early immersion, does entail working at something like your “Japanese age”. Learning grammar and your overall adult experience gives you a boost that allows you to work at the four-year-old level at three to six months in (if you are dedicated). If this is genuinely unsatisfactory to you, true immersion may not be for you.
Our concept has always been based on “walk-before-you-run Japanese”. University Japanese is “run-before-you-walk Japanese” in the sense that it tries to teach adult interactions to people who have no grounding in the language and couldn’t hold a two-minute conversation with a five-year-old.
True immersion involves working your way up, rather than cutting corners and trying to build the roof before you’ve laid the foundations.
In organic immersion you are, in some respects, starting again as a child and getting the chance to experience all kinds of wonderful, innocent (but often profound) things.
Instead of learning abstract rules and vocabulary lists, you are growing up in Japanese, absorbing both language and culture.
If you are open to that, it turns “learning Japanese” into a wonderful, magical journey.