Category Archives: Japanese immersion

The Dolly Dialogues: Do Japanese learning methods stand the test of time?

sound-sisters-timeRecently Cure Dolly has been very much immersed in finishing and preparing for the official launch of her new book Unlocking Japanese, but she found time to give an interview to Cure Tadashiku.

Looking back on some of the Japanese-learning innovations introduced by this site, Cure Tadashiku asks “Have they stood the test of time?”

Cure Tadashiku: So are you really a nine-inch plastic doll?

Cure Dolly: You can see for yourself, can’t you?

Cure Tadashiku: Yes, but the readers can’t.

Cure Dolly: Let’s leave some things to their imaginations.

Cure Tadashiku: Ryoukai. Let’s look at a couple of the innovations you have brought to Japanese learning and see how they have stood the test of time. First, your Dolly Sentences Method.

Cure Dolly: I wouldn’t really call that an innovation. It is a little thing I did for myself and I don’t know how many other people ever picked it up. As much as anything, I hope it gave people their own ideas on the creative ways you can use sound in learning.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still use the method yourself?

Cure Dolly: No.

Cure Tadashiku: Are you glad you did use it for a while?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely. It was invaluable to me at the time. Some things you graduate from once you no longer need them. Hearing all those sentences really helped me to understand how words are actually used. I rely even more heavily on massive input now, but I still use a variant of the Sentences method.

Cure Tadashiku: What kind of variant?

Cure Dolly: I only have one Anki deck now, which is basically vocabulary. When I enter a word that needs it, I also pop in an audio sentence, sometimes even two, to clarify how the word is used. I always include the word’s own audio too of course. My Anki is very audio-oriented. Occasionally I even pull the audio sentences out of my old Dolly Sentences deck. There are better TTS services now, but Kyoko still holds up pretty well.

I intend to write something soon about integrating sound sentences with Japanese-Japanese definitions and creating an audio-based immersion-support deck.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still recommend the method to learners?

Cure Dolly: It is maybe a slightly odd method. Cure Yasashiku and you have never actually used it, I know. I would say to our readers that if it feels like a good fit for the way you learn, please give it a try. It was absolutely invaluable to me. I don’t use it any more, but I am extremely glad I did use it for about a year.

Maybe when one gets to the stage of doing Japanese-to-Japanese definitions, if one chooses to use audio-based immersion-support Anki methods, that is the point when the DSM becomes redundant. In any case, audio-based J-J will probably be used by a wider range of learners.

Cure Tadashiku: Out of interest, when did you drop it and why?

Cure Dolly: Last time I was in Japan, I was doing all kinds of things and found it hard to keep up with Anki. (I did do some every day to keep them down, but in the last few weeks that got more difficult.)  When I got back I had a backlog on both decks and I decided that one deck was enough. The sentences method had served its purpose and the time would now be better spent on real immersion.

I hope to be saying the same about the vocabulary deck eventually! Study aids aren’t supposed to be life partners. They are there to get you to the point where you don’t need them any more.

The Sound Sisters

Cure Tadashiku: How about the Sound Sisters? You introduced them nearly two years ago and recently created a free deck to help people learn them. But do you still use them yourself, or have you graduated from them too?

Cure Dolly: The Sound Sisters never grow old! Well, maybe they will one day, but actually I would say I use them more now than ever. Rather than growing out of them, one grows into them.

Cure Tadashiku: Would you care to explain that?

Cure Dolly: Yes. They are useful right from the start for all the reasons I have explained elsewhere. They do take a while to get to know really intimately, so your knowledge of them keeps on deepening and becoming more useful.

But more than that, they help to unlock the sound-aspect not only of kanji but of the Japanese language as a whole in one’s mind. I am continually discovering new “half-sisters” – sound elements that aren’t regular enough or widespread enough to include in the Complete Sound Sisters Deck. They are incalculably  useful, but even they aren’t the whole story. By using the Sound Sisters (and thereby becoming more aware of half-sisters), you become increasingly alive to the way sound works in Japanese. It is incredibly subtle and wonderful. I can often guess what a word means from the way it sounds now.

I’d love to write something about this some time, but right now it seems too subtle to formulate. Maybe it is something you “just have to get a feel for”. But then people have said that sort of thing about more apparently rarefied aspects of Japanese grammar and we have managed to pin them down to easily understandable concepts. So maybe we will end up with some similar breakthroughs in Japanese sound-association.

In any case, you do develop a sense of the “sound and feel” of Japanese, and I am certainly not saying that this won’t happen without using the Sound Sisters. Immerse in Japanese for long enough and it will.

But the Sound Sisters can give you a turbo-charged head-start in the process. And yes, I certainly still use them every day.

Cure Tadashiku: ありがとうございました。

Cure Dolly: どういたしまして。ところで、9インチなんかじゃなくて、12インチなのよ。

Cure Tadashiku: ごめんね。

Anki for Self-Immersionists: the Master-Class

anki-japanese-immersionAnki, the free intelligent flashcard system, is the primary tool for those learning Japanese by self-immersion.

For many of us, once we get past the stage of learning basic grammar, Anki is about the only actual “study” we do on a regular basis. We are learning Japanese essentially by massive input .

And for many of us, Anki is the glue that holds the method together. With Anki we make sure that what we are learning naturally, by exposure, sticks in our minds between exposures to a given word or form of expression. The two work seamlessly hand-in-hand.

However, the use of Anki in real self-immersion is a little different from the way many learners use Anki. Here are some of the key aspects of our method:

Learn from real, passionate encounters. Then use Anki to hold the experience until the knowledge becomes permanent. This means using Anki as a secondary adjunct to immersion. We don’t use pre-made decks because our first encounter with words should be real, “live” ones not abstract lists.

Making your own decks too much work? Fortunately the process can now be pretty much fully automated. I am going to show you how to unlock the (very) hidden secrets of one-click Rikaisama-to Anki direct import, including instant audio-import and automatic sample sentences.

Unlock the Magic of Sound. Learn with your ears. Sound can revolutionize the way you learn. Use Anki’s sound capacities to the full. And learn the secrets of brevity and efficiency that allow a word and its (Japanese) definition to “ring together” in your mind’s ear. This is how children learn. You can use it too.

The gentle way to J-to-J. Scared of Japanese-to Japanese definitions? Don’t worry. A pragmatic approach can ease you in without getting caught in endless dictionary dives. It will make your Japanese immersion work seamlessly and make your learning far more effective. But we will show you how to ease it in at your own pace so that struggling with J-J never monopolizes time that should belong to happy, natural immersion.

Anki on steroids, but not for geeks. If you want a lot of technical stuff about Anki or how to understand the statistics, I can’t help you. I never even look at the stats myself. Anki-for-Anki’s-sake doesn’t interest me. But if you want to know how to turn Anki into a far more powerful assistant to your Japanese self-immersion, that works with a minimum of time and effort (because we want to give our time and effort to immersion itself), we have some power-techniques that will blow your socks off!

The basics – your personal immersion Anki deck

Live encounters are the best way to learn words. With Immersion-driven learning, one picks up one’s vocabulary from Japanese-subtitled anime, books, manga and other sources and enters it into Anki. In many cases, I remember the context in which I first learned a word whenever I encounter it in Anki (until it becomes a true part of my vocabulary).

This is a very good sign. It means that the word is not a “list word” but an “experience word”. It will stick better if it is tied to a real experience, and you will also have the first step toward knowing how it is actually used (including what kind of people say it under what circumstances) rather than just how a dictionary defines it.

Of course you need many more real encounters before you truly know the word. No amount of Anki will make you know a word. Because knowing a word means getting used to it as a real living part of actual communication. Anki’s job is not to “teach us words”. It is to hold the words we learn in place so that they don’t slip through the gaps between real experiences.

If you don’t ever encounter a word outside Anki, don’t expect to “learn” it from Anki. Eventually it will be pushed back two or three years and when you finally see it again you very likely won’t remember it.

But guess what? If you haven’t actually used the word, passively or actively, in two or three years, you didn’t need it, did you? For the very rare times you encounter it there is always a dictionary!

To a real immersionist, Anki isn’t some game of acquiring words. It is the tacking-stitch that holds the experience in place while real life (immersion-life) grafts them into our actual living vocabulary. It is like a crutch that helps us walk until we get stronger. It isn’t a substitute for our legs!

So, how do we build our deck without spending excessive time on it? Rikaisama makes the job very easy. If you don’t know it or haven’t installed it you should do that now!

You also need to activate Rikaisama’s Real Time Import function. And use the Real Time Import addon in Anki. I won’t go over the basic process as it is explained here. However in our next article I will be telling you how to unlock the more obscure features, which can make your experience much richer and your learning much more effective with little to no extra effort after the initial set-up.

Once you have the basic set-up, all you need to do to is look up a new word on your computer. Usually I type it into a dictionary, but having done so, I don’t necessarily even hit “Enter”. I just run Rikaisama over it. If I am happy with the definition I hit the R key while the Rikaisama definition-box is active, and that’s it. A new card has appeared in Anki (note that you must have Anki open and the the deck that you want to add the word to active).

Of course if you are reading something online, the process is even easier, since you just have to hover over the word as you read and hit the R button to create a card.

So making your own deck really isn’t any kind of a drain on your time. We can also set things up so that that same single keypress enters audio of  a native Japanese speaker saying the word into your Anki. Typically I have it set up to put the audio on the back of the card along with the reading and definition. Only the kanji is on the front.

It isn’t immediately obvious how to get automatic audio, but I will be explaining this in the next article in this series along with a lot more information about the Magic of Audio and how it can greatly enhance your Japanese learning. There are a few steps in setting it up, but once they are done the process is automatic and you never have to think about it again. Don’t worry the doll will take you through it.

If the word is one that is usually written in kana alone (for example ありがとう is rarely written 有難う). You can hit the T key instead of the R key to put the kana on the front of the card (R and T stand for Real Time).

Fortunately Rikaisama marks words that are usually written in kana alone with (uk), so you know which ones they are. You may want to make your own decision based on your experience, but the (uk) marking is a useful extra guide.

If you want Japanese-to-Japanese definitions just have Anki in Sanseido (J-definition) mode when you hit R. Whatever is in the definition box at that time will be imported into the new card. You can flip between E-J and J-J definitions by pressing the O-key.

This is all you need for making basic cards. You really don’t need to rely on pre-made decks. In the following articles I am going to discuss some extra things you can do such as automatically adding sample sentences and adding extra audio – having the definition and/or the sample sentence spoken aloud.

These techniques make the card-making process take a little longer (though it is still simple once the basic setup is complete) but they can do a lot to help your understanding and memory of the word and its natural usage. I dedicate a full article to the Magic of Sound in Anki.

However even if you decide to adopt these techniques you can always make a single-keypress card (including audio of the defined word or expression) any time you want to.

If your “study” method is fundamentally immersion, then this is the way to go. You learn words not from Anki but from your immersion material. Your deck is your deck, based on your living day-to-day Japanese experience. Like a child learning language, you learn from life – in this case your immersion-Japanese life – not from lists (including pre-made decks).


One final tip that belongs in this first overview article: you can sync Anki on your different devices. In my case while I look up words and ping them into the deck on the computer (you need to do this) nearly all of my reviewing is on a mobile device.

With this method you can review at odd moments throughout the day, which can help to overcome the potential time-consuming aspect of Anki. You don’t need to be sitting at a desk concentrating in order to review your deck. You can do it on a bus or while brushing your teeth or walking – especially if your interaction is 80% audio-based as mine is. In fact getting used to recognizing words while your mind is subject to other stimuli isn’t a bad idea.

If you have problems or questions or want to share your own experience, please feel free to pop a comment below.

Next in this Master Class: Unlock Anki’s hidden Automatic Audio function to turbo-charge your Japanese learning.

What native mistakes teach us about language

native-japanese-mistakesNative speakers are often the worst guide to their own language. But understanding why can help us enormously.

In a recent comment, one of our readers told us what a native Japanese speaker said about the word いぬ, meaning “dog”:

as I was told by a Japanese person, 犬 is usually used for a wild dog, イヌ to refer to a dog in a more biological context and いぬ for a pet dog.

While one feels hesitant to disagree with a native speaker, I am 95% sure this is not correct. I have seen pet dogs called 犬 so many more times than I have seen it written any other way. But not relying on my own memory and limited experience I tried an experiment:

I tried searching “うちのいぬ” and “うちの犬” (“our dog”, therefore definitely a pet) on Google (using quotes to specify the exact form) and got around 70,000 entries for うちのいぬ and over half a million for うちの犬.

How surprising is this kind of misinformation coming from native speakers? Actually not very surprising at all. One of the reasons I shy away from sites like Lang8 (where native speakers correct one’s writing) is that I saw a large amount of pure misinformation coming from native English speakers about English usage.

It is a commonplace in linguistics research that if you want to know how someone pronounces a word, you must never ask them how they pronounce it. You must steer the conversation so that they say it naturally.

Why? Because how people think they pronounce a word and how they actually pronounce it are often two different things. If you ask them they will think about it and tell you what they think they say. If you maneuver them into saying it they will simply pronounce it as they always do.

Similarly with rules and usages. An ordinary untrained speaker gets natural usage of her native language right most of the time. But when she stops to think about what that usage actually is, and what the “rules” are, she gets it wrong as often as not. Just as when you start thinking too hard about the spelling of a word you often become unsure of it, even though you know it well.

Using my old analogy of touch-typing, it is just the same as the fact that when I am typing I hit all the keys accurately and at speed, but if you ask me where the V-key is, suddenly I can’t even find it.

The part of the brain that processes immediate, automatic actions is different from the part that processes conscious, thought-out actions: and it seems that those parts often can’t even communicate with each other very well, and even obstruct each other.

I am not saying that native input and correction is not useful, though it is more useful when the native speaker is actually present and says “Oh, that isn’t how we say it”, because her first reaction is usually correct, and the more she thinks about it and refines it the more likely it is that misinformation will creep in.

However, my point isn’t really about native correction at all. It is about the automaticity of language and how it works both for us and against us. It works for us when we speak a language natively or pick it up by immersion.

Language is an automatic process. The more we reduce it to rules and conscious processes, the further we get from natural language. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn basic grammar. And I do spend time explaining how Japanese actually does work in a way that most textbooks never do.

So am I contradicting myself? Not really. As I have always said, learning rules and grammar is a shortcut. Native speakers usually can’t articulate these things very well themselves, but they use them mostly unerringly.

If we want to speak and understand Japanese naturally we have to get to the point where these academic abstractions are mostly forgotten. If I want to know a conjugation or whether a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, I almost always have to reverse-engineer it by first remembering how I would say a particular thing and then seeing what that tells me about the verb or conjugation.

I am not working from the rule to the language, I am working from the language to the rule, which is how we work in our native language. This is not to say that my Japanese is anywhere near perfect. But what I do know tends to work the natural way around.

How did that happen? By immersion and massive input.

I have done some study, but I would say that for every hour of actual “study” I have done, I have done at least 20 hours of reading novels, watching anime and other shows, listening to stories, playing text-heavy games and daily conversation.

I would say that a 10 : 1 immersion-to-study ratio is the very minimum one should have (except in the very early stages). Learning Japanese primarily by study keeps it in the area of the brain dedicated to conscious, deliberate knowledge, and that is not the area in which real, natural language lives.

In language, conscious study is a good servant, but a very bad master.

Subconscious Learning. Learn Japanese without trying

subconscious-japaneseSubconscious Japanese learning gets a bad press. And why wouldn’t it?

After all, anyone who says you can learn Japanese without trying is either dreaming or selling something, right?

Well, half-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. 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.

More on full-speed anime watching as a path to instinctive Japanese→

Organic Immersion Japanese vs Hunt-and-Peck

Learning Japanese organically is like touch-typing as opposed to hunt-and-peck
Learning Japanese organically is like touch-typing as opposed to hunt-and-peck

Disclaimer. This article is not about typing Japanese, although I have discussed that earlier.

It is about the organic way of learning Japanese and what we can discover about it by noticing how we touch-type.

I actually started out by replying to a comment on my typing article. But I found there was so much to say, and I think it is so important, that I made an article about it.

Cure Yasashiku said:

As an interesting aside, with just one finger disabled, I was not able to touch type at all…even with the OTHER hand…it was really strange.

Now I do not find this strange at all. In fact I would have been very surprised if it hadn’t happened.

Why?

Because touch-typing, like language but on a much smaller scale, is an organic skill. That is why it can teach us so much about language.

The reason Cure Yasashiku could not touch-type with one finger disabled is that touch-typing is a complete, organic whole. You can’t half-touch-type. You are either touch-typing or you aren’t. And for that you need all your fingers (if one finger was permanently disabled you might find a workaround, but that just means adopting a different style of touch-typing).

When you are touch-typing the process is automatic, like speaking your native language or a language you have really learned. You aren’t thinking “what key is where?” In learning language, we are aiming for the same automaticity, rather than merely theoretical knowledge of grammar, kanji and vocabulary.

Using Japanese immersively is like touch-typing. Treating Japanese as a “subject of study”, with the occasional “practice” conversation or reading, is hunt-and-peck.

With hunt-and-peck we never get away from using our eyes to fully trusting finger-memory. With “study-Japanese” we never get away from using English as our base-language and continually relating Japanese to it.

Once we are fully touch-typing we forget what key is where. Our fingers go straight to it automatically, but if you ask “where is the ‘m’ key?” I don’t even know.

Once we are fully immersed in Japanese we are no longer “peeking” by thinking “what is this word in English?” We are treating the Japanese word as its own reality: an organic part of the entire Japanese “keyboard”. Sometimes we will not even remember how to put a Japanese word into English (some are very hard to express in English anyway).

Many Japanese learners never get away from hunt-and-peck Japanese. They may pass exams, just as hunt-and-peck typists can become pretty fast. But they never really internalize Japanese to the point where it lives in their hearts as a whole system unrelated to English.

These people populate “Japanese learning” forums, avidly discussing Japanese day after day – in English. And the interesting thing is that a very significant minority of these people are not native English speakers.

What does this mean? I have talked about English speakers regarding English as “Real Language” and Japanese as just “a language”. But in fact non-English speakers often do the same.

Why?

Because they need English. If they want to participate in large Internet forums, if they want to immerse themselves in the dominant popular culture of this world (can’t think why anyone would, but people do), If they want to discuss Japanese (or many other things) with any significant number of enthusiasts, they have to use English.

Thus English is not just a “subject of study” to them. English becomes real language in which an actual part of their life and real communication takes place.

To use our typing analogy, with English they have switched from hunt-and-peck to touch-typing. But, unless they are living in Japan (and not always then) Japanese does not apply the same pressure. They don’t need it. It can remain a “subject of study”. It can continue to be hunt-and-peck Japanese.

When I was in Japan, I spent a very short time (less than a week before I fled back to the Mie-prefecture countryside) in a shared house for foreigners in Tokyo.

One of the first people I met there was a French student, who was studying at a Japanese university. Before he even saw me (I was on the other side of a half-open door) he greeted me in English.

I do not speak English in Japan, so I replied with a hesitant “Sumimasen…”

The door was open by now and the Frenchman stared at me.

Nihonjin desu ka? Iie…” (Are you Japanese? No, you’re not…)

He was clearly shocked and surprised. He seemed to look over my shoulder in case four horsemen were about. Here was a European-ish looking foreigner in Japan speaking Japanese. Why on earth would that happen? Even if I was a Finn or a Russian, surely I could summon up some English.

However, when it became clear that I didn’t speak English, we continued quite happily in Japanese. We spoke on several occasions afterward and always in Japanese. But under “normal circumstances” every word we said to each other would have been English, even though we were in Japan and both perfectly capable of communicating in Japanese.

We communicated in Japanese because we had to. There wasn’t another language that both of us were able/willing to talk.

All my discretionary activities are in Japanese. If I can’t read a novel in Japanese, I can’t read it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. Some people have said “that’s real dedication”. Now if by dedication they mean “exceptional self-sacrifice” or something like that, I wouldn’t agree at all.

But if they mean that part of my mind is a “dedicated device” that only uses Japanese then yes. That is exactly the point. I do not regard English as the language of default. I regard Japanese as the language of default.

I am not living in English and peeking at the Japanese keys through English-language eyes. I am living in Japanese and touch-typing.

When we first learn to touch-type it is slow and laborious. We do it in class and go back to hunt-and-peck the minute we have to type a real essay or email. But at some point we have to make the switch and use touch-typing as our real input method. Otherwise there is no point learning at all.

It is the same with Japanese, at least if we are serious enough about it to want to make it our own language. At some point we have to stop hunting-and-pecking through the eyes of English and start touch-typing in pure Japanese.

And the earlier we start doing that, the better. It doesn’t matter if it is slow at first. What matters is that we are really living Japanese if only in a tiny way.

A lot of Japanese learners – even quite advanced ones – never make this transition. But it is possible to start doing it as soon as you have learned basic grammar.

I hope you will.

Japanese Typing: How your keyboard can help you learn

When learning Japanese, typing itself can help you.
When learning Japanese, typing itself can help you.

Can the simple act of Japanese typing can help your Japanese pronunciation and understanding?

I believe it can. Typing in kana can really help re-program the mind to thinking of Japanese the way Japanese people do.

I talked recently about the importance of thinking in hiragana and not romaji for both Japanese pronunciation and understanding.

I suggested that one of the things that keeps our minds tied to romaji is the fact that when we do Japanese typing we do it in romaji even though it is converted to kana and kanji. This maintains the deceptive mental link between Japanese sounds and structure and the roman alphabet.

So I have recently tried the experiment of typing in kana rather than in Romaji. It is a fascinating experience because one has to learn a new keyboard layout that bears no relation to the regular QWERTY one. If you touch-type (I do), in a way it is like starting all over again. But fortunately not as much like as you might expect.

So let me talk a little about the experience, its pros and cons, to help you decide whether it might be right for you.

First of all some basic questions I asked and you will too:

But don’t most Japanese people use romaji for Japanese typing?

Yes they do. But they are thinking in hiragana from the start. They do not have any built-in associations of English sound and structure with the Roman alphabet. If anything typing Japanese in romaji has the opposite effect for them. It is likely to make them perceive romaji in terms of kana rather than in terms of English/European sounds and structures.

Our reason for typing in kana is not that it is more efficient (in some ways it is, in some not. There probably isn’t much in it) but in order to help re-program our minds into thinking in kana structures. This is explained more fully here.

Will I need a new keyboard for Japanese typing?

No. You can get a set of vinyl keyboard stickers from Ebay for a few dollars. You can see a keyboard using them in the picture at the top of this page. This is all you need to get you started. If you touch type you won’t need the stickers forever anyway.

Will I be re-learning touch-typing from scratch?

This is an interesting question. I assumed that I would be. After all it is a completely different keyboard layout. I remember spending weeks of touch-type drill with the redoubtable Mavis Beacon-sensei. My friend Cure Yasashiku looked for online Japanese touch type drills, only to find they are no use because a real Japanese keyboard differs to some extent from a stickered Western one.

However….

What I found was that none of this was necessary. Somehow in learning to touch type in the first place it seems that one has mastered a number of skills that make the second time around a lot easier. I am not even entirely certain what they are.

Part of it is confidence and familiarity, I suspect. When you are coming fresh from hunt-and-peck you really don’t feel comfortable with hitting keys without looking. But when you have been touch-typing for some time you expect to. So as soon as you have an idea where the new keys are, you naturally want to hit them blind. The whole process is quicker and easier than it was the first time around.

Learning to touch type in the first place there comes a point where you make the decision to use touch-typing for your real-life typing (knowing that it will be slower for some time). With kana Japanese typing, I was using it for everyday work almost from the beginning. Instead of hunt-and-peck I was doing touch-and-peek, with the peeking diminishing quite rapidly.

Having said that it does slow one down for quite a while. However, do you actually buzz along as fast in Japanese anyway? I am thinking there may be a good case for starting kana typing very early, when Japanese typing is very slow whatever method you use. By the time your Japanese has warmed up, you also know the keyboard intimately.

The whole exercise also raises some interesting considerations about the whole learning process. Touch-typing has this in common with language-learning: that you are aiming at automaticity – the point where you don’t need to think what key is where in one case, and what word means what in the other.

I found from very early on that automaticity in the sense of “finger-memory” was developing quickly. Often I would not know where a key was but my fingers would go to the right one. This is closely analogous to what you want to do (on a much larger scale) in the language itself. It is also an indication of why too much conscious and explicit study is not necessarily as helpful as we tend to think. Massive exposure is what gets our mental “fingers” hitting the right words and expressions without quite knowing why, and understanding sentences even when we didn’t consciously remember all the words as individuals.

One thing I find is that even though I am by no means a full-speed kana typist yet, the kana keyboard exists in my mind as something separate from the roman keyboard. If I accidentally try to type kana with the keyboard in romaji, I am usually surprised by the letter that appears. While my finger-mind knows where the “c” key is in romaji, it doesn’t associate that with the “そ” key in kana, even though they are the same key.

This is interestingly analogous to how language works and again an indication of how conscious memorization only takes us so far. To speak Japanese you have to be able to throw the “Japanese switch” in your mind. You really don’t want to be translating everything from Japanese to English and back in your head. And this is how the mind wants to work. We can see that from the microcosm of the keyboard. It naturally throws the “kana switch” and deactivates the other paradigm that it has for the same keyboard.

Is kana keyboard necessary for your Japanese typing?

Returning to the practicalities of the question, should you be switching your Japanese typing to kana input?

There are several questions to ask yourself. Do you touch-type? Because if you hunt-and-peck anyway you might as well do it in kana. It won’t take long to get familiar with the keyboard on a hunt-and-peck level.

If you touch-type, how much will this slow you down? My finding (somewhat to my surprise) is that you really don’t need to do keyboard drills (and they aren’t available anyway). You will be typing slowly from very early on – the first day – if you are anything like me.

But it is slower and it will take at least some weeks to get up to full speed. So practical questions are: How much do you type Japanese? How fast do you type Japanese now? Are you doing Japanese typing enough for the slow-down to matter?

Also, do you actually hand-write Japanese a lot (perhaps for school)? If so, the keyboard problem is probably less important for you.

How important is it? I think it is definitely helping me make the final break from romaji-based thinking and this is important not only for pronunciation but for thinking about the way Japanese fits together in the way Japanese people do.

If you’re thinking of making the change, read this article to get an idea of how important it all feels to you.

And don’t worry if you don’t want to do it. It isn’t a life-or-death thing. Just something you may want to try.

If you have questions about kana Japanese typing, please ask me in the comments section below.

Romaji to Hiragana: Why this mind-switch is so vital (even for more advanced learners)

Romaji to hiragana
Japanese romaji vs Western-style. No system can exactly represent actual Japanese.

Making the mental switch from romaji to hiragana is vitally important.

This may seem like advice directed at beginners, and it is important for them. However, what I have to say is important for serious immersion Japanese learners at all levels, so I would ask even more advanced learners to stay with me and read this article.

Some people have suggested that it would be all right to learn Japanese, at least at first, using only romaji. Most serious Japanese learners disparage the use of romaji but often without explaining exactly why. I am going to start by explaining why it is so important to make the mind-switch from romaji to hiragana and actually think in kana.

When thinking about the meanings of words we should, and as we advance inevitably will, start thinking in kanji. However, when we think of the sounds of words we need to think in kana, because kana are precisely adapted to expressing the Japanese sounds in the way Japanese people perceive them.

Many more advanced learners, even after they have become fluent readers of Japanese, do not fully break the mental link between Japanese sounds and romaji. They have not fully switched from romaji to hiragana in their minds. We are going to talk about why this happens and what can be done about it. But first of all, let’s look at why it matters.

Why we need to mind-switch from romaji to hiragana

What is wrong with romaji in the first place?

Very simply the fact that it does not accurately represent the sounds of Japanese. If we continue to think that あ=a, し=shi, ふ=fu (or hu, depending which system of romaji you use), we will have a fundamental misconception about Japanese sounds.

Thinking in kana will not automatically teach good Japanese pronunciation, but thinking in romaji will make it much harder.

There are different systems of romaji transliteration and all of them have faults. The reason there are several is that it is a trade-off between one set of faults or another. The Hepburn system (which is currently the most usual in the West) is not the one commonly used in Japan. In some ways it is a good system and in others it perpetuates some very wrong ideas about the kana structure.

When you think about it, it is actually not possible for romaji to represent Japanese sounds accurately because romaji itself does not have fixed sound-values.

If a North American speaker pronounces the word ほとんど as if it were a word spelled “hotondo”, what comes out is something more like はたあんど. In traditional standard British English, the Japanese あ sound is closer to the short “u” than to most of the various sounds that “a” makes in English. And so on.

So this is the first reason for switching from romaji to hiragana. We need as early as possible to start associating Japanese sounds with Japanese characters and cutting out the intermediary of Roman characters, which necessarily misrepresent the sounds as ones we are familiar with in English.

The second reason is that romaji, and especially the usually-used Hepburn system, misrepresents how Japanese people think about kana and even gives a false idea of certain points of grammar.

For example, on the Wikipedia article on Japanese verb conjugation we are told that:

The eba provisional conditional form is characterized by the final -u becoming -eba for all verbs (with the semi-exception of -tsu verbs becoming -teba).

But つ-verbs becoming てば is not any kind of exception. It is 100% regular, and the apparent “semi-exception” only exists in Hepburn Romaji.

In a variety of ways, thinking in romaji causes us to see Japanese in ways that are a) different from how Japanese people see it, and b) an impediment to understanding how the language actually works.

In the Wikipedia example above, instead of thinking in terms of “the final u becoming -eba” (a purely romaji-based concept) we should be saying that the final う-row kana becomes the equivalent え-row kana plus ば. And then there are no exceptions, semi or otherwise, and we are seeing the language the way it actually is, instead of through romaji glasses.

Romaji to hiragana: still a problem for more advanced learners?

“But I know hiragana inside out. I read Japanese books all the time,” the more advanced learner may say.

Yes, I do too. But I have caught myself, and other more advanced learners, making little errors that indicate that we are still thinking somewhat in romaji. I have puzzled over why this may be. After all, we left romaji behind a long time ago.

Didn’t we?

Well, in a way we might not have. First we learned the sounds of Japanese as romaji equivalents. But perhaps more importantly, we type Japanese in romaji every day.

Now this may be less important if you hand-write Japanese a lot (perhaps in school). But many of us hardly hand-write at all in this electronic age, and we have argued that it may not be necessary.

However, if we mostly type Japanese on a keyboard via romaji, without even being aware of it, we are continually maintaining and strengthening the romaji to hiragana link.

Especially if we touch-type, this is largely subconscious. But we may actually have a much stronger mental connection to how the kana are made up from romaji than how they are made up in themselves.

When you try inputting kana directly (say putting your name in a DS game) you can find yourself wondering momentarily where the “cha” character is before remembering that you want ち plus ゃ. Of course you know ちゃ instantly when you see it written, but it isn’t the way you are used to inputting it.

This does have an effect on how you think about Japanese. I suspect the author of the Wikipedia article cited above was advanced in Japanese, but she was still thinking in romaji-linked patterns.

As full-immersion learners, we want to complete the romaji to hiragana mind-switch and break the mental romaji link.

Because of the strong subliminal influence of the keyboard in this process, I have been experimenting with typing directly in kana on my computer. This is possible with a Western keyboard (I will show you how to make it easy), and I have found it much easier than I imagined to re-learn touch-typing with a completely different keyboard layout.

Whether you want to do it or not is another matter. Most Japanese people type kana via romaji, but they are thinking in kana to begin with, so it doesn’t pose a problem for their Japanese! (It might adversely affect their relation to kana for English, but then they primarily use romaji as a minor part of Japanese).

In my next article I share my experience of typing on a kana keyboard and how it meshes with the Japanese learning process. Plus tips on how to go about it if you want to try→

The Best Way to Learn Japanese

best way to learn japanesePeople often ask what is the best way to learn Japanese. It is an important question, because learning Japanese is not a quick process whatever method one uses.

One is sinking many, many hours into it, so it is natural to want to be sure that one is using those hours effectively.

This leads some people to spend more time reading up on methods than actually learning the language, or in some cases it leads people to keep changing methods in case the current one isn’t the best way to learn Japanese.

I really understand this. I went through the same kind of doubts and worries early in my Japanese journey, but I discovered something that can eliminate the whole anxiety of not knowing which is the best method.

I am going to explain why the method I chose works so well, but also, and perhaps more importantly, why, whether it is the best or not, it can remove the whole anxiety surrounding the question of the best way to learn Japanese.

In a nutshell, the best way to learn Japanese is to use and enjoy it. Studying only takes you so far, which is why people can study the language for years and pass exams without becoming proficient in practical terms.

How the brain learns language

There are reasons for this. At one time scientists thought that there was a particular part of the brain that handles language. More recently, though, it appears that the language function is distributed over many parts of the brain. This is because language (not a particular language, but the language-function) is hard wired into the brain.

What this means in turn is that words and experience are intimately bound together. To the brain, saying “It’s been a rough day” and touching sandpaper are somewhat similar sensations.

In other words, language and experience are intimately bound together. Which is why learning words from abstract “vocabulary lists” is one of the least efficient ways we can learn. The brain is not forming sensory or emotional connections with the words.

The best way to learn Japanese is to be in Japan, interacting and using the language for everything all the time. That way the brain builds up all the natural associations of words and grammar with things and experiences that make up true knowledge of any language.

Of course, many of us don’t have the option of being in Japan (and if we are there in an English-teaching environment we still may not have the option of true immersion).

In that case the second-best way is the best way to go.

What is the second-best way?

The answer to that should be obvious.

Getting as near to the best way as possible!

Even if you can’t have every experience in Japanese, you can create a “Japanese zone” in your life where you experience in Japanese.

As you know, when you become involved in a book or an anime, it is an experience. You are seeing and doing things, even though at second hand. You are experiencing emotions, hopes, fears from fantasy adventures to everyday life. Japanese acquired this way works in the brain very similarly to the way “real” language-experience does.

If you communicate and interact in Japanese: not just “practising” but actually discussing things that really interest you in themselves and forming relationships in Japanese, then language is working in your mind like real language and not just “play-language” or “study-language”.

The brain treats real language very differently from the way it treats “game-systems” like algebra or chess or language-study. Real language operates all over the brain, becoming part of its way of processing everything else.

How to go about creating real immersion for your brain is essentially the theme of this site and we have a lot of information on it. You can start from here if you decide to.

Eliminating the “best way to learn Japanese” worry

I think what we have said above is convincing.

And I think it is convincing because it is true.

But…

There are a lot of other ways of learning Japanese online and many of them claim to be the best. Most of them can work (there are a few notable exceptions). You may be drawn to some of them at some time and wonder if they aren’t the best way to learn Japanese.

Of course, I believe immersion is the best way to learn Japanese. At least for some people. But whether it is or isn’t, it is the way to stop worrying about what is the best way of learning Japanese.

Why? What do I mean by that?

I mean that the whole worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” comes from the fact that you are sinking hours into studying the language, and naturally you want to be sure that you aren’t wasting time by using a less effective method.

But true immersion does away with all that.

It does away with the whole “studying Japanese” concept. It does away with the idea that you spend countless study-hours with 10,000 sentences or drill-books or Remembering the Kanji or  Memrise or anything else in the hope that one magical day you will know enough to really use and enjoy Japanese.

You can see why people worry about whether their current method is the best way to learn Japanese.

It is an act of faith.

If I do enough of this grueling study I will reap the Great Reward.

But what if I don’t? What if I am on the wrong path?

You can’t know.

You can be told that someone else became native-level fluent in X-months using Y-supermethod. But you don’t know if that person is being 100% honest with you (or himself). Nor do you know if he isn’t some kind of prodigy who just happens to be very good at languages (and whatever anyone says, such people do exist). Nor do you know if the method that worked for this person is the one that will work for you. People learn differently.

So how can you find out what really is the best way of learning Japanese?

I don’t know if you can. But what you can do is do away with this whole act-of-faith approach.

When you do that, the whole “best way of learning Japanese” approach suddenly becomes irrelevant.

When you were picking up your native language as a small child you weren’t worrying about the best method of learning it. You weren’t even particularly concerned with learning the language at all. You were concerned with getting on with life. You were concerned with expressing your thoughts, enjoying movies, understanding what people were saying.

That wasn’t called “language study”. That was called “living”.

Our approach is to do the same thing with Japanese.

You do need to learn some basic grammar. We show you how to do this. It doesn’t have to be a lot. The rest you will pick up as you go along.

At this stage you don’t need to worry about the best way of learning Japanese. Learning basic grammar is very straightforward and there is no mystery about the fact that you are learning it.

Once you have learned the basics you start using Japanese. Watching Japanese-subtitled anime, reading for-Japanese-children’s books, playing video games in Japanese, communicating in Japanese.

This isn’t an easy, no-work method. It is hard, especially at first. All methods are hard. But as you ease into it, it is fun. You enjoy the anime. You enjoy the games. You enjoy reading. You start to interact with people in Japanese. You start to carve out an area of your life where Japanese is Language. The only language.

I believe this is the best and most natural way of learning Japanese. But whether it is or whether it isn’t, can you see how it has made the whole worry over “the best way to learn Japanese” irrelevant?

This is not an act-of-faith method. You aren’t slogging away at flashcards, classes, Kanji books, SRS sites etc in the hope that one day you will be able to use Japanese.

You are using Japanese right now.

Slowly at first. Strenuously at first. But you are using it. And every day you use it, it gets easier and more fun.

There is no mystery here. There is no waiting for the “destination” and hoping you didn’t board the wrong train. The destination is here, now.  What you are doing is learning to get around that destination. First of all crawling like a small baby. Then standing up, holding onto the legs of chairs. Then being able to toddle.

It’s a long job. Any method is a long job. Get-fluent-quick schemes don’t work, or only work for a certain kind of person (and a certain very limited definition of “fluent”). Really learning a language takes time. It takes children time to learn their native language. Many, many, many “study hours”.

Except that they don’t call them “study hours”.

And neither will you.

They call it “living”.

And so will you.

Is this the best way to learn Japanese? I think so, but I can’t prove it and I could be wrong.

I don’t really care.

And neither will you.

The real point is: suppose doing 10,000 sentences and learning 2,000 kanji in the abstract were “the best way”.

Suppose spending every night working through drill-books were the best way.

Would I do it?

No.

First of all, no one really knows whether or not they are the best way for any given individual.

But more importantly, I don’t want to put off using and living Japanese into some future that may or may not arrive.

If I was doing that I probably would be feeling desperate about whether all this slog was the best way to learn Japanese. It is like walking blindfold and just praying you are headed in the right direction.

Right from the first few months I was starting to use Japanese. It wasn’t a thing that would happen one day if I was diligent enough. It was something that was happening right now if I was diligent enough.

(That’s right, I’m afraid we can’t skip the diligence part)

Other approaches make using and enjoying Japanese a future-thing. True immersion makes it a now-thing.

And you know that the more you do it, the better it gets. You learn more words. You learn more of the ways that words are put together (“grammar”). Every single thing that you watch or read or play puts you one step further forward than the last one.

But you don’t need to worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” any more than a growing child needs to worry about the best way to learn her language.

To get started with real immersion, take a look at these articles:

How to Learn Japanese Online – a basic introduction

Japanese Immersion: How to Get Started

Learning Japanese: Immersion vs Study, Romantic vs Classical

classical-romantic
Classical or Romantic? Two paths to Japanese

There are two ways of going about learning Japanese: immersion and study.

They are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but I am coming to the conclusion that they constitute two very different “cultures” and relationships with the language.

This feeling was recently confirmed by an article on a well-known Japanese-learning site entitled “What Would Happen if Your Japanese Got Too Good”.

The question was essentially: would you be bored if you “finished learning” Japanese? The very fact that the question was asked is interesting, and so were some of the replies. “There is always more to learn: old Japanese, obscure kanji etc.”; “There are plenty of other languages to learn” etc.

The site in question is one that encourages an “RPG” approach to learning Japanese and likens levels of Japanese skill to levels in a game. In one way this is making Japanese learning fun, which I am all for. On the other hand, it is what I would call “meta-Japanese” fun. The fun of this approach is in “learning Japanese”, not in Japanese itself. This seems to go hand in hand with the fact that the site is over 90% in English and essentially devoted to “meta-Japanese” English discussion.

Now I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing this approach. It works for a lot of people. The site is a very good one and I have great respect for its founder. However, it is an example of the “two cultures” that I am speaking about.

The article in question underlined what I have been thinking for a long time. That “learning Japanese” can easily become an end in itself. Again, I am not criticizing. If studying Japanese is your hobby, please enjoy it. It is undoubtedly a good hobby to have.

It just isn’t my hobby. I have never found much commonalty with the “language-learning community” because I am not interested in language learning. I am in love with Japanese. I want to dive into Japanese and live Japanese. I regard Japanese as my language, not “a language” I am “learning”.

What would happen if I “finished learning” Japanese? Well, what happened to you when you “finished learning” your native language?

Think about that for a moment. When did you “finish learning” your native language? Were you ever consciously learning it at all? Did “learning” it matter to you? Or were you just interested in getting on with life: watching movies, playing games, reading books, talking with friends?

Because that is my interest in Japanese. I am simply interested in getting on with my Japanese life. The fact that I have to “learn” it is just something that gets in the way.

It isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Like the small child who struggles to express her thought in her own language, or the older child who wants to read a book that has a lot of words and expressions she doesn’t understand. We “learn” by getting over the problems life throws in our path.

But “learning Japanese” isn’t the game to me. The game is the game. The book is the book. The movie is the movie.

A famous Internet personality founded what is broadly called “Immersion learning” in Internet circles today. He would write at length about how you don’t need to study you just need to dive into Japanese and “get used” to it. You just need to have fun and learn naturally. He would become very voluble (and at times a bit vulgar) about this.

And I have to say that (minus the vulgarity) I agree with every word he said along these lines. The problem is, he didn’t believe it himself. And neither do the many people who currently follow some version of his approach.

While he preached immersion, sometimes quite ferociously, his recommended practice was something else altogether.

What he actually said one should do is learn kanji via the Heisig Method, which essentially involves learning many hundreds of kanji “blind”, without knowing a single actual word of Japanese. Heisig-sensei himself likened it to putting oneself in the position of a Chinese student who begins knowing no Japanese but a lot of kanji.

The other arm of this method was learning 10,000 sentences using electronic flashcards (Anki). Oh and while you’re at it, do a lot of passive listening to Japanese audio.

Is this unfair? A little, but it is essentially the case. What starts off (and I have no doubt this person was sincere) as an “immersion” approach becomes in practice a massive program of abstract study.

Now I agree that pure immersion from day one is inadvisable. We do recommend learning the basics of grammar and continuing to learn grammar as you go along.

Like the site mentioned at the beginning, we do bring the RPG analogy to Japanese, but in a very different way. Rather than the RPG being a meta-Japanese game of “learning Japanese”. We liken Japanese itself to a huge, complex RPG, and we liken abstract learning to the game’s huge manual.

We recommend reading the introductory tutorial chapter of the manual, just to get enough information to get started, and then diving into the game itself, learning by playing and referring to the rest of the manual as and when necessary.

We do not recommend a long preparatory phase with the goal of using Japanese somewhere at the end of it. We do not recommend hundreds of hours of kanji study, thousands of sentence flashcards or extensive textbook study. We recommend spending most of that time on actually using Japanese. You will need some grammar help, and you will need Anki flashcards for learning kanji, though you will be doing it organically, learning kanji as you encounter them in real words.

Essentially, at every point after the first few months of getting  kana and basic grammar under your belt, you are using Japanese first and only “studying” as and when you need it as a support to your real-life use.

In this actual immersion approach, using Japanese is primary. Meta-Japanese elements (study, flashcards, English grammar explanations and the rest) are exactly what the word meta implies. Something on the side of your real Japanese life.

Now to be clear, I am not for a moment attempting to disparage all other ways of learning. There are fundamentally two approaches, and both of them work.

Ours isn’t new. We didn’t invent it. We did pioneer some of the ways to do it via the Internet, but the world is in fact full of people who went to places where other languages were spoken and learned them (at least the spoken versions) just by being there and using them. The true “immersion method” is as old as language itself.

The “study-first” approach isn’t quite so old but it has a long, long pedigree.

We are not claiming that true immersion is faster than study-first (no genuine method is all that fast) or easier than study-first (no method is easy). Which is fastest and most efficient depends on who you are, how you learn, and what your priorities are.

The real point is that these are two very different approaches. Two very different relationships with the process of acquiring Japanese.

Many people thrive on study. Many others burn out and give up before they get anywhere near the “goal” (whatever that actually is).

Many people love raising their levels by study (the idea of treating them as RPG levels was inspired).

True immersion learners probably have no idea what their level is (I know I don’t). On the other hand, they don’t much care. They are more concerned with whether they can enjoy this anime, read that book and express the idea that is in their mind.

I tend to think of study-first and immersion as the “Classical” and “Romantic” approaches respectively. If you want to pass exams the Classical approach is probably better. If you have a methodical mind you may well find it better (though I know some very methodical people who use true immersion).

But:

If your love of Japanese is such that you want to dive into its warm waters and swim toward the golden sunlight…

If Japanese feels like your true language, not just “a language” to “learn”…

If you see mechanics of learning as just a necessary evil and what you want is to embrace Japanese herself…

If you are determined enough to climb the sheer cliff-face of real use, rather than use the long stone steps of study…

Then the Romantic method will call to you. And here is how to get started.


(If you need help with starting on the Romantic path to Japanese, you might want to go here)

Japanese Immersion: How to Get Started

Surrounding yourself with Japanese: First steps
Surrounding yourself with Japanese: First steps

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

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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.

A few months in (I don’t recall exactly), having done most of Genki 1 and a few other things, started watching Japanese-subtitled anime. I began with Karigurashi no Arietty and Tonari no Totoro.

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.

Gentler slopes

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.

If you need personal help in getting started with Japanese immersion, go here.

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