After all, anyone who says you can learn Japanese without trying is either dreaming or selling something, right?
Of course you can’t just absorb the language by playing audio in your sleep or something. Of course you need to learn basic grammar and many other things. You can’t learn the whole of Japanese without trying.
But there are some things that you not only can learn without trying, but you must learn them subconsciously, without effort.
There is an old saying: “War is too important to be left to the generals”. Well language is too important, too complex and too organic to be left to the conscious mind and to conscious learning processes.
In fact I would go so far as to say that you don’t learn language through study at all. You only prepare to learn language through study. Study can do no more than lay the groundwork for the true learning process.
As one piece of evidence, take the following sentence:
Arinocdcg to rencet rseaerch, the hmuan brian is plrectfey albe to raed colmpex pasasges of txet caiinontng wdors in whcih the lrettes hvae been jmblued, pvioedrd the frsit and lsat leetrts rmeian in teihr crcerot piiotsons.
Can you read that? If your native language is English I am sure you can. But you don’t read it with your conscious mind. If you had to think “that t goes there and that e goes two places back…” etc. It would be hard if not impossible to read.
“Solving” the sentence as a conscious-study-mind puzzle would take ages. But just allowing the natural unconscious reflexes to do their work you can see what each word is with very little conscious attempt to “rearrange” it.
And that is how language works. To really understand it fully and quickly enough to be natural, it has to pass from the conscious study-mind to the unconscious “just see/hear it” mind.
When I touch-type, the easiest way to stop me in my tracks is to ask “where is the ‘v’ key on that keyboard? I don’t know. At least my conscious mind doesn’t know. My fingers (that is, my unconscious mind) can find it instantly but if I bring my conscious mind into play, suddenly I can’t find it easily without looking. In other words, the exercise of conscious thought actually inhibits second-nature instinctive use.
What does this mean for learning Japanese? One thing it means is that the internet is filled with frustrated people who wonder why they can’t listen to a simple anime and understand it even though they have done x-amount of conscious study.
All language skills, but especially listening, depend on one’s knowledge passing to the unconscious “just hear it” level. The conscious mind is just too slow to hear speech at natural speed. By the time one has consciously thought “what does that word mean?” the sentence has gone by. Very likely two or three sentences have gone by.
So what can we do? How can we get Japanese from our conscious to our unconscious mind?
The answer in principle is simple. Immerse in Japanese. Use it, use it, use it. Make it your language (at least for designated zones of your life) rather than “a foreign language that you learn”.
Massive input is the essential secret here. Read widely and watch anything you want to watch in Japanese.
For me watching Japanese shows and listening to Japanese audio drama and narrated stories on my iPod have been vital.
Subconscious Japanese: the art of fuzzy listening
There is also something some of us (myself very much included) find difficult, but which is of fundamental importance. And that is “fuzzy-matching”. Once we have learned Japanese grammar in a very precise way many of us (this varies according to one’s outlook) want to go on being very precise and learning conscious and exact Japanese.
This is good. We need this. But we also need fuzzy Japanese. Without it we will never gain the subconscious automaticity of language that we need to have if Japanese is ever to become instinctive.
People say that they have learned languages (including Japanese) by watching shows that they don’t understand at all. I have never recommended this. I also notice that most people who reliably make this claim (and I have no doubt that it has worked for some people) were living long-term in the country where the target language was spoken. Their breakthrough may have come through television shows, but those shows were only a part of near-total 24/7 immersion.
I recommend watching shows that you have built up to by the Japanese-subtitled anime method. But once you are ready to watch without subtitles the important thing is to watch at full speed like a small child. You will catch some parts and you won’t catch others. It is important not to worry over individual words. In fact it is important not to worry about the language at all.
Your whole focus should be on the show itself. You should try to follow it and enjoy it as best you can like a small child. It doesn’t matter how much you are getting from the visual cues and how much from the words. The less you even think about that the better.
Why? Because you are letting your mind do what it does best. You are letting it do what it was essentially built to do over the first few years of life: absorb and acquire language at a deep level.
People who say that language learning ability deteriorates as we age are wrong. You can absolutely repeat the infancy process. As someone once said. “Small children are not better at learning language. It is just that they have no escape routes”.
Only by total 24-7 immersion can you block off most (even then not all) of your own mental escape routes and regain something close to the absorption ability of a small child. And this is why we recommend some short-cutting by learning grammar and the Japanese subtitled anime method.
But, you also need “fuzzy watching” in order to get the ability to process sentences at speed, develop the fundamental instinct for Japanese, and recognize, as small children do, the countless blocks of language that belong together.
People sometimes complain about the many homophones in Japanese and I have explained how you can use these to your advantage. But also, the reason Japanese people recognize them easily and instantly in real speech is because they hear blocks of speech rather than individual words. Just as you do in your native language.
You will also gain experience of those blocks of speech by massive reading input. As you read a lot of Japanese you will often find that when you read two words and are turning the page, you know what the next word or two will be, because you are becoming used to the constantly-occuring word-groups that every language is full of.
This is not just an interesting little trick. It is vital to the real-time, instinctive and subconscious processing of language.
But remember that reading alone will not teach you to hear Japanese. The only thing that will teach you listening is listening.
Output is also vital. Especially spoken output. If you can, you should speak Japanese for at least an hour every day (I can help with this if you want). It doesn’t matter whether it is with a native speaker or a fellow-learner. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes (as all small children do). Your massive input will iron out those mistakes over time. What matters is that you are learning to put together words instinctively at spoken speed.
You do need explicit conscious study. But you only need it because you don’t have 100% 24/7 immersion. It is a shortcut to help the real learning process go faster. But never forget that it is only a shortcut, only an artificial aid to the real thing.
The real learning process — the one that will pass Japanese to the subconscious level where language really operates — is massive usage, both input and output. That is how you learned your native language, and that is how you will learn Japanese.
I am sorry to say that most Japanese learners never make it. The internet is littered with people who got part of the way there. Lower-intermediate level seems to be a barrier that only a small percentage of Western learners cross.
And that is because, up to that level you can get by with study.
After that level (but it is better to start earlier) self-immersion is necessary. Because study alone will never pass language from the conscious “academic subject” part of the brain to the real engine-room of language: the subconscious mind.