Category Archives: Japanese immersion

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

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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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Meet Your Japanese Immersion Senpai!

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Senpai is a doll?

A lot of people tell me that they really like the immersion approach to Japanese on this site but that they really wish they could have some personal help in such things as:

  • Getting started
  • Transitioning from the conventional “study-first” approach to Immersion
  • Communicating/interacting in Japanese-only

In some cases I have given them some help and have found myself in the position of an Immersion senpai (or sometimes oneechan).

Because I wish I had had someone to help me when I was starting, I am trying an experiment in helping other people to use our immersion methods.

I am not a teacher and I am not a native Japanese speaker. What I am offering is two very specific services. These are:

1. Strategy Sessions

We have always said that there is no one “system” for Japanese Immersion. Everyone learns differently. Everyone works differently. Unless you are an absolute beginner, everyone is starting from a different base.

What I am offering here is simply to talk it over with you. There is nothing fancy about this. I am not offering any magic. It is simply that I have been through the assault-course of early immersion and I have helped several people with differing skills and priorities from myself to get through it.

I am not setting myself up as an expert. I am just a doll who lives in the territory you are trying to move into, and can show you some of the ropes.

I am simply offering to be the senpai I wish I had had when I was doing it all from scratch!

2. Japanese Immersion Relationship

To learn Japanese you have to use Japanese. Not just input but real two-way communication. Ideally you should have someone with whom your relationship is exclusively Japanese. I have talked about the psychological reasons for this elsewhere.

What is ideal is an relationship/environment where Japanese is Language itself. There is nothing else to fall back on. When you think of communicating with that person you have to think in Japanese.

In the early stages (and way up to intermediate in some cases) this can be very difficult. Your Japanese isn’t good enough yet to form relationships.

I have helped people through this stage. I have gone from patiently asking questions like:

まど の そと は、何が 見えますか?

to discussing things like the history of language in Japanese, with the same person, in about a year.

Obviously that person was also working hard on immersion! But what I was doing was bringing out her ability to communicate. Getting over the psychological barriers and creating an environment where Japanese is not “a language” but the means of communication.

I wish to make it clear I am not a native speaker. My Japanese isn’t perfect. I will be your senpai, not your sensei. The point here is not to learn Japanese from me (you will probably learn some, but that is incidental). The point is to learn to use Japanese as the means of communication. That is both psychologically and practically a whole new skill-set and outlook. And short of going to Japan there aren’t many ways of acquiring them.

If you don’t mind having a doll for a senpai and you want to meet me, please use this form. I’ll explain the practical details below.

Practical details

Cost is currently US $10 per session. You can pay by Paypal regardless of your currency. This is an experiment on my part. If it goes well and I like it I will probably end up charging rather more. If it doesn’t or I don’t, I will stop doing it altogether. So it might be a good idea to try it now!

Pay now if you are ready. It is all right if you want to ask questions and arrange the session time first via the form above.


Sessions will be via Skype. I don’t use a camera.

Once you have submitted the form I will contact you and we will arrange a session. If you have preferred time(s) please include them in the comments section of the form, but don’t worry. We can work it out later.

Please be aware that if you choose the Japanese Immersion Relationship option we will not speak any English, so if you have something you need to convey to me in English please do so in writing beforehand.

Japanese: How to Stop Studying and Start Learning

stop-studying-japanese1One of the greatest enemies of learning Japanese can be – studying Japanese.

You can’t learn a language by studying it. You can only learn about a language by studying it.

Am I saying you should never study? No, of course not. What I am saying is that study should not be at the center of your effort to learn Japanese. Study is a support to learning.

How much of it you do will vary depending on your approach. It can (and I think should) be a lot less than most people think. But one thing is certain. If all you do is study, you won’t learn Japanese.

When I say that learning Japanese should be like a game, here is what I mean. Imagine a big, complicated game. A really big game. There is a ton to learn in this game.

Now imagine someone who sets out to learn everything (or at least a very large proportion of the information) about the game before she ever touches the controller.

Six months in and she is still trying to memorize the names, characteristics, and elemental types of 1,893 monsters. Nine months in and she is working on the finer points of battle strategy. By a year she is tackling the intricacies of breeding monsters. She still hasn’t touched the game except for practice sessions in the game’s tutorial levels. It all feels terribly abstract and difficult.

Now there may be people who learn well that way. But I think the best approach is to start the game as soon as you know enough to begin. You will encounter monsters, battles and everything else as you go along. You can learn them as you need them. I am not saying this is easy. Learning Japanese is always going to take work. But it is going to make sense and feel like language rather than a set of words and rules.

We suggest that you learn the basics of grammar in a simple way, and then plunge in to using Japanese by watching anime with Japanese subtitles and other real Japanese (non-textbook) activities.

Let’s take some simple examples of how study can become an obstacle to learning.

I have heard people say that as they advance grammar becomes an increasingly complex set of rules that they forget as fast as they learn.

I am not surprised. Grammar should not primarily be learned as abstract rules. You should be using the language and making friends with the way it is used. The rules are not just abstractions to be learned. You need to get comfortable with them, hear them often, get the real-life feel of them. Trying to learn a hundred rules before having the real-life feel of even one is learning upside down.

You can simplify these “masses of rules” hugely by learning how Japanese really works as opposed to the complicated back-to-front approach the textbooks teach. But even that doesn’t substitute for really using the language.

People complain that one word may have ten definitions. How can they learn them all?

We shouldn’t be learning a list of definitions. We should be making friends with the words. We don’t need to learn a whole list of the ways a word can be used. All we need is to understand the way it is being used right now (in the anime we are watching or the book we are reading). We can enter that word into an application like Anki to help us learn it (especially its kanji). But we need to get familiar with that use.

Later on we will see the word used in other ways. We will see the relationship between the different uses. For example, how 切る kiru, to cut, has many extended meanings (Denshi Jisho lists 24) but all of them are based around the metaphor of cutting. Trying to learn them as a list is completely the wrong way to approach them. Just learn them as they come, and the feeling of how the word works will get clearer and clearer over time, just as it does for children.

This last part may take quite a while. It takes children a long time too. The subtleties of the language start falling together in our minds as we use it and use it. It doesn’t need to be rushed. It doesn’t help anything to try to rush it. We just end up with lists of abstractions in our minds that don’t make real sense. Because only making friends with words, grammar and the language as a whole makes real sense of them.

Now having said all this, I have to say that it does depend on what you have entered the world of Japanese for, and how long you plan to stay.

Our immersion approach is based on the assumption that you plan to stay for life. If you are cramming for an exam, you may be better off with lists of rules and lists of vocabulary and all the apparatus of “study”. You won’t learn Japanese, but you will learn a lot about Japanese, and that is what exams are for.

But if you are entering a life-long relationship with Japanese and planning to make her your Second Mother Tongue, the “primacy of study” can become your biggest obstacle. The idea that you spend many months or even years “preparing” before you use the language, for you, is flawed from the beginning.

In our article on how to build a Japanese core vocabulary organically, we gave the example of the person who asks:

How many “core vocabulary” words do I need to learn before I can read manga?

We explained how this approach often leads to disappointment and burnout. But more than that, for Second-Mother Tongue learners it is psychologically the wrong approach. It is developing the wrong relation to the language, as a “subject of study”.

The right question here is:

How much core vocabulary will I learn from reading this manga?

Actually, of course, we do not even ask this question. Our primary objective is reading the manga itself. We are using Japanese, not studying it. The fact that we are “learning core vocabulary” is just a magnificent by-product. Magnificent because it will make it that much easier to read the next manga, and the next, and to watch the next Japanese-subtitled anime, and to do whatever else we do.

Everything we do in Japanese feeds into everything else we do in Japanese. This is how we learn rather than “study”.

The whole “cult of study” can lead to what are, for the Second-Mother Tongue learner, bad practices. For example, if we are doing massive input we do not need to and should not put all our new vocabulary in Anki.

Why not? for two reasons:

  1. We should not be thinking in terms of “study” as the primary way forward. We will pick up words if we are immersing and using massive input. By the time we reach a middling intermediate stage, Anki is for learning words that we feel need a special boost and words that contain unfamiliar kanji (because kanji are a special case).
  2. We need to get over the “fear of forgetting”. We will temporarily forget some words we learn. But this is not our “only chance” to learn them. We will be encountering them again and again. We are in Japanese for the long haul, not cramming for an exam. We need to give the majority of our Japanese time to massive input (and output). Study is useful up to a point but it can easily suck time away from the real thing. (Of course this only works if your input is truly massive.)

So, after basic grammar, should we never study? This is a matter of personal learning style. But I think a Second-Mother Tongue learner, when she does study, takes a rather different approach.

For example, I read A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar for fun. I didn’t try to “learn” it. It may seem odd, reading it for fun, but remember our game analogy. When you love a game, you don’t put off playing it until you have learned a huge amount about it. But you may well read everything about the game you can get your hands on when you aren’t actually playing it. If  you love playing the game, everything that helps you understand the game more deeply is a good read!

One caution here. While deepening our understanding of Japanese is a good thing, reading about Japanese in English can quickly become a bad habit. Do deepen your understanding with a few really good books (the dictionaries of Japanese grammar mentioned above are highly recommended if you are a bit of a grammar nerd like this doll). Do, of course, look up grammar on the Web or elsewhere when you don’t understand it.

For general browsing once you reach the intermediate level, it is a good idea to move it into Japanese as far as possible. I strongly recommend Nihongo no Mori N3 and N2 lessons on YouTube. These videos teach Japanese grammar in a conversational, entertaining manner and all in Japanese, you are in fact learning some Japanese at the same time as learning about Japanese.

But, a final caution. Don’t ever mistake reading English about Japanese for learning Japanese. Don’t think that by reading this site, or any other English-language site, you are learning Japanese. You aren’t. If you are reading to learn something you specifically need to know it can be useful. But more than that is just a distraction from actually learning Japanese.

Again it depends if you are a Second-Mother Tongue learner. If your heart-base is in English and Japanese is a hobby on the side, by all means have fun with your hobby in English.

But if Japanese is where you are going, don’t for a moment think that “playing Japanese” in English is getting you there. If Japanese is like exercise, then every minute you are not doing something in Japanese is like getting off the treadmill, and reading about Japanese in English (except for the occasional necessary and brief clarification) is like getting off the treadmill and eating cake.

But Japanese only feels like a treadmill because we are still basing ourselves in English. The aim of the Second-Mother Tongue learner is to move that emotional base into Japanese.

And that takes effort. From struggling through your first anime to struggling to put your inner monologue into Japanese, acquiring Japanese takes ganbari, just as struggling to understand and express yourself in your first language took ganbari (that is one reason very small children often seem so cross-grained and frustrated). Study takes ganbari too, but it is a different kind of ganbari.

So is this site a distraction from acquiring Japanese too? Too much of it would be. Our aim is to provide the information and encouragement needed for true immersion and share some of the methods that have helped us on the way.

But the main Cures behind this site communicate among themselves almost exclusively in Japanese. We also started the Kawaii Japanese Forums so that other people could communicate in Japanese rather than use English-language “Japanese forums”. This is all part of the philosophy of using Japanese rather than studying Japanese.

We hope this site will help you to plunge into the big, deep, scary-but-wonderful world of real Japanese outside the textbooks. And we hope to meet you there some time!

How to Learn Kanji Organically (as part of Japanese self-immersion)

Learn Kanji OrganicallyThere are a lot of kanji-learning systems around these days.

But what if the best system is no system?

Our method of learning Japanese is based on a minimum of abstract study and a maximum of immersing yourself in the language and really using and enjoying it.

But what about kanji?

Why they say you can’t learn kanji organically

On the face of it, there is a strong case against the possibility of learning kanji organically.

Children don’t learn to speak their own language out of textbooks. Their grasp of grammar and vocabulary comes from hearing it and using it. Before they learn to read, they already have a grasp of vocabulary and grammar that takes a foreign student years to acquire.

But writing is different. No one acquires the alphabet naturally. They actually have to sit down and learn it. Kanji is the same, only several hundred times bigger. Japanese children study kanji in school for years before they become fully literate. So what is this talk about learning kanji organically? Surely they have to be learned by an abstract system. Even Japanese people learn them that way.

The  answer to this is “yes, and no”. Japanese children do learn kanji as kanji. But they already know the words that they signify. They are not learning them in the abstract. The minute they learn a kanji, it attaches to a body of knowledge they already possess and becomes a living part of their language understanding.

This is why we say, “learn words, not kanji”. Which is to say, learn words with their kanji. And learn vocabulary not from vocabulary lists, but from organic encounters. We have already discussed how to build vocabulary organically. This article is tackling the question of how to learn kanji as a part of this process.

It is largely because of kanji that we recommend using Anki. You can learn vocabulary purely organically, but you do need to drill kanji, and, if you don’t need to write kanji, then Anki is in our opinion the best way to learn vocabulary and kanji at once. This gives you the basic minimum of drilling that you absolutely need, and makes it do double duty for kanji and vocabulary.

However, we aren’t going to talk about Anki here, but about the actual strategy for breaking down and remembering the kanji.

Remembering the Kanji (without the system)

James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji has been hugely influential in showing people how to see kanji as picture stories rather than abstract patterns of strokes. Some people seem to think Heisig-sensei invented this technique, but as he makes clear in his introduction, he didn’t. What he did was to systematize and popularize it.

Since then other people have made systems with the same general principles. What we do is to de-systematize it.

Why?

Well, it depends on how you learn and what you want to do. Some people want to spend a long time systematically learning kanji. We wanted to spend that time acquiring Japanese by immersing ourselves in it, with kanji as one of the things we pick up as we go along.

How to Learn Kanji Naturally and Organically

So without more ado. This is how to actually tackle kanji.

From early on you will be aware of the pictographic nature of some of the simpler radicals and kanji, and how they combine to form concepts. For example:

早 quick/early (a kanji in itself)
⺾ plant (not a kanji but a common kanji element)
草 grass (⺾ plus 早), which is the earliest, most basic, (and quickest growing) of plants

When you look at the most common kanji elements in Wikipedia, you learn that 30 of them make up 70% of the common use kanji (this figure seems a little exaggerated to me, but the principle is true).

So what you are going to do with kanji is work out what they are made up of, and see how the elements fit together. Sometimes you will see a very logical and obvious meaning. Sometimes you will be making up a far-fetched  mnemonic story to tie the elements to their meaning.

So how do you know what elements a kanji is made up of?

There are various methods you can use. You may indeed want to browse books such as Heisig-sensei’s or other kanji memory books. There are lots of resources online such as Kanjialive’s list of the 217 traditional radicals (traditional names and meanings) and Toufugu’s kanji radicals cheat sheet (somewhat fanciful). The quickest, simplest, on-the-fly tool is the search box on Rikaisama‘s toolbar (you can embed the search box on your browser without having the whole toolbar). This gives results like this (click to enlarge):

learn kanji naturally

As you see, this gives a breakdown of the elements in each kanji (ringed) when you look up a word. Another interesting feature is that the Heisig reference (ringed) is a link that will take you to the Reviewing the Kanji site, a user resource where people share their Heisig-based mnemonic stories for the kanji.

This latter can be useful, but I recommend using it with caution. Let me explain why, because it will make clearer how organic kanji learning works.

The Heisig system gives a unique English keyword to every kanji and kanji element. It has to do that because in this system you need to know from the keyword exactly how to write each kanji. This is done without knowing the meaning or pronunciation of any Japanese word. As a result there are some pretty strange and sometimes dubiously relevant English keywords.

Now we aren’t doing this. We aren’t associating kanji with English keywords, but with actual Japanese words.

Let’s take a complex example. When I see 蕩 I think torokeru (which is the main word in which it is used. I know it means “melt” both in the sense of a solid melting into a liquid and a heart melting (becoming charmed or enchanted). A Heisig student is simply trying to associate this kanji with the Heisig keyword “Prodigal”(!).

Now if we look at the elements of this kanji we get a clearer idea of how our organic approach works. The elements are⺡the water side-element ⺾ grass/flower 日 sun and 勿 piglets.

Now in our eclectic way I do owe something to Heisig-sensei here 勿 is in fact a diminutive of 豕 the pig element and since small pigs can be piglets, well that’s kind of cute so we borrowed it.

But here is where we diverge. When you put 日 on top of 勿 you get 易 to which Heisig-sensei gives the keyword “Piggy Bank”. (Piglets you put money in every day – 日 sun can also be day).

All right you can make stories out of this and Heisig-sensei is forced to do this sort of thing because his system demands exclusive keywords.

But 易 is actually a fundamental element which refers to the light warmth of the sun. If you need a mnemonic just think of the bright sun warming the dear little piglets basking below.

Let’s see how 易 the sunshine-component works in some more complex kanji:

A very frequently used word for the sun is 太陽 taiyou (kanji elements: 太=great, 易=warmth/light, coming over the ⻖=hill).

陽 alone is the word for yang (which refers etymologically to sunshine as opposed to yin, shade).

湯 is hot water (⺡=water plus our 易 sun-warmth).

場 is a place – originally and still usually an outdoor place: thus a piece of earth 土 out in the sunshine 易.

We really don’t need to bring Piggy Banks into any of this. It may be necessary for producing a unique English keyword, but it disrupts the natural conceptual symbolism of the kanji element.

To return to 蕩, we can now see how hot water  (湯) may melt many solids, but it leaves everything with the loving, enchanted scent of flowers (⺾). We don’t need keywords, but we do need the right concepts.

So if we don’t verbally associate kanji and their elements with keywords, what do we associate them with? Usually with the first word we learned them in, or the word we most commonly associate them with. I think of 正 as “the kanji of tadashii” (right, proper, correct) although it is used in many other places with related meanings but other pronunciations (for help with those pronunciations, meet the Sound Sisters and discover that 正 is a sei/shou sister).

We also tend to remember elements by the word we first or most often encounter them in. So, for example the left side of 優 (the kanji of yasashii, gentle) is actually 愛 (the kanji of ai, love) with the ⺤ replaced by ⾴ (head, page. Bottom element merged). So we have a person with head as well as a loving heart. This kanji as well as meaning gentle, can also mean actor/actress or superior/best. You see how a single keyword is not entirely adequate!

As we develop our knowledge of the kanji by meeting it in other words, we develop also our mnemonic associations. The person with loving heart as well as a good head on her shoulders is not only gentle, she is the best. And having both intelligence and warmth makes her a great actress.

Sometimes actual mnemonic stories are helpful. For example, do you know why human bodies float? When the first child fell in the water she sank like a stone, but was pulled up by Tsume-chan, the kind crane-game-type claw. Ever since then, the invisible claw has always made human bodies float. 浮くuku, to float, is made up of water, claw and child.

You will be making your own meanings out of the kanji elements. Incidentally, after hand-holding through the first few hundred kanji, Heisig-sensei also leaves students to make their own stories out of his keywords, and rightly so, as the mnemonics we make for ourselves stick best.

The difference is, that instead of using artificial, and often eccentric, keywords, you will be learning kanji not as abstractions but as part of the living language as you make friends with words and their symbols and build your vocabulary organically.

Why You Need to Write Japanese

write-japaneseWriting Japanese is important. Vitally important.

I am not talking about pens and paper here. Whether you need to learn to write kanji by hand is something we have already discussed, and a brief summary of the answer is “not necessarily”.

But you do need to write Japanese.

That is to say, you need to express things in written form. There are four fundamental skills in any language: listening, speaking, reading and writing, and you do need them all even if you don’t intend to do a lot of all of them.

Input-only Japanese will only take you so far. Your mind needs to use Japanese regularly as a means of communication – yes, real two-way communication – if it is ever going to treat Japanese as real Language and not just something it plays at.

Spoken communication is very important. But written communication is too. In speech you will begin by expressing yourself very simply and will make mistakes.

With reading you have a chance to take in complex sentences that you could not follow at spoken speed (and without seeing the kanji)

With writing you get a chance to compose some of those more complex sentences. Your Japanese is still limited, but your written Japanese can be a lot less limited than your spoken Japanese. It can, and should lead your spoken Japanese into deeper and more complex levels.

When writing you have a chance to work out the correct way to express what you want. In speech you have to manage the best you can in real time. Communicating somewhere like the Kawaii Japanese Forums gives you the opportunity to learn how to express yourself.

It is good to use the method outlined in How to Write Correct Natural Japanese. Look for precedents for what you want to say. Instead of constructing an English sentence and dropping in Japanese words, you can find out how a natural Japanese sentence expresses the same idea.

You will never get this from speaking. You will get it over time from listening and reading, but it takes a long, long time because you are not really aware of the problems. Once you have struggled with expressing a certain kind of structure, you will be much more receptive when you read or hear it again.

Children learn natural expressions by hearing and using them. They have a huge advantage though because they don’t already have a different template for structuring that  thought. To them the structure they learn in their native language becomes the natural and only way to express it.

You will find it much harder to pick up passively because your mind will continually try to revert to its older and more familiar template. In certain not-very-useful ways, the mind is surprisingly language-neutral. Unless it was very impressed with a turn of phrase it will tend to remember what was said but not exactly how it was structured. And it will tend to re-build it for recollection in the manner it is most familiar and comfortable with. Which leads to “eihongo” (English-structured Japanese – the counterpart of wapanese).

You can hear and read a great deal of Japanese without this changing much, simply because even a great deal of Japanese does not add up to all your years of English exposure, or the fact that you first learned to structure language in English.

Writing intelligently, using precedents to make sure you are constructing a sentence in a Japanese manner, rather than using Japanese bricks to build an English house, helps you to internalize the correct manner of structuring Japanese and recognize it clearly the next time you see it.

In this way, even if you had no particular desire to write Japanese in the long term, writing Japanese is an invaluable aid to hearing and reading Japanese and really taking in its structures rather than gliding over them as the mind prefers to do.

Writing little stories (I started off that way), or a diary is a fine. But I cannot stress too much that your mind won’t take Japanese seriously as a language unless you are using it, not just practising it. When you are communicating something you want to say with other people the mind is suddenly forced to see Japanese as Language, rather than a game or an exercise. The mind works very differently around Language – its means of communication – than it does around other self-consistent structures like games or branches of  mathematics.

Part of the reason people find “languages” so difficult is that they never become Language. They never move from being games or exercises to being the primary means of communication. The mind cannot and will not prioritize other systems in the same automatic and intuitive way that it prioritizes Language.

So, 1: you should write Japanese and 2: you should write it communicatively.

One way to get started on this is to go to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. At the time of writing I am in Japan and popping some of my posts on the Forums. If you wanted you could reply, talk about your time in Japan, or whether you want to go to Japan, or comment on another thread, start a thread of your own about your favorite anime or… well whatever you might do in English.

Only in, you know, Japanese.

Sorry to sound oversimplistic,  but this seems to be a point  that most English speakers just don’t get. They spend time studying Japanese and even watching anime or reading Japanese, but then they want to talk about it. There are endless sites and forums discussing Japanese from every angle.

In English.

Well, of course in English. English is Language, isn’t it? Japanese is just – Japanese.

Japanese is fine for practising, studying and playing with, but when you actually want to communicate you naturally go back to Language.

These people also wonder why they never really internalize Japanese. After all, they work on it such a lot…

Problems with writing Japanese and their answers

1. I can’t express everything I want to in Japanese.

Answer: That’s right. You are a growing child in Japanese. Like any child you can express what your current level allows you to express. Children can’t “cheat” into some other language. If you want to grow in Japanese you shouldn’t either, at least for your Japanese life.

2. I might make mistakes and look stupid.

Answer: Not might. You will make mistakes. You won’t look stupid because you are learning and trying your best. Anyone who calls you stupid is stupid. I don’t know if there is some harsh culture of mistake criticism in Western Human circles these days. Anyway the solution I would suggest is to use a kawaii Japanese persona for your Japanese writing. No one needs to know it is you. That persona will be the Japanese child you are raising. Enjoy the freedom to grow a new you!

3. I don’t now how to express things properly.

Answer: Use our precedent method. It isn’t foolproof and you will still make mistakes, but it will get you a lot nearer to writing correctly and teach you an enormous amount of Japanese that you can’t learn easily any other way. Using the precedent method allows you to punch considerably above your weight in Japanese and advances you as you do it.

4. I don’t want to write messy text full of simple slip-ups.

Answer: This is a danger. As learners, we can’t proofread Japanese as efficiently as we can English. However there is a Secret Weapon.

Use Rikaichan or (better) Rikaisama. In this case I would suggest using it in English mode. Rikai, among its other great merits, is a formidable proofreading machine. Run it over your text and it will tell you

• Whether the word you used meant what you thought it meant.

• Whether you misspelled it.

• Whether you conjugated it correctly.

• Whether you made a 変換ミス henkanmisu. That is, selecting the wrong kanji when converting kana. Japanese people do this fairly often too.

And various other useful information. A quick proofread with Rikai will help you clean up your writing considerably. It’s kind of like having a Japanese-competent co-editor.

All right. If you’re ready to join the tiny elite of learners who actually use Japanese, you know how to get started.

Name your Japanese child and start raising her!

Dolly’s Japanese Total Immersion Challenge

Cure Dolly Returns to Japan
Cure Dolly Returns to Japan

So much is happening to your Dolly right now. The book covering my first month or so in Japan has come out just as I am in the final stages of preparing to go back to Japan.

Last time I went to Japan, my self-challenge was to speak and communicate only in Japanese. I was one year old at the time, in Japanese terms. That is to say I had only been learning the language for one year, but very intensively,  the loose “system” outlined on this site.

I succeeded in this challenge, even though my Japanese was far from wonderful. Even when the police questioned me about my suspicious wanderings (I got lost and apparently had wandered where I shouldn’t be) and asked if I spoke English, I said えぇーと、ちょっーとand generally looked as if English wasn’t exactly my long suit – because really, I had disabled my English circuit board – and they decided to manage with my Japanese.

This time’s challenge is bigger. I am three now, after all. My challenge this time is to think in Japanese. Of course it is much easier to control one’s outward actions than one’s thoughts and I cannot expect to have the 100% success rate I had with only using Japanese outwardly.

But, as we discussed in How to Think in Japanese, outward usage is the key to inner thoughts. Last time I was in Japan I wrote extensively about it, in English. Some of those writings formed the basis for the new book.

However, when you are going to write about an experience in English, especially if you are a writer at heart, you can’t help thinking about the experience in English. And thus experiencing the experience in English.

You are always thinking. “Oh, this is lovely! How will I describe this?” or “These feelings are so deep and so subtle, how can I convey them?” And of course you aren’t even thinking that precisely. What you are doing is internally verbalizing the experience itself in the way that you hope to convey it.

So this time I will be writing about my Japanese experience only in Japanese, and I will be isolating myself as far as possible from written as well as spoken English. Cure Yasashiku has kindly volunteered to translate my Japan Diaries into English for a few non-Japanese-speaking friends, so that they can stay informed. Everyone  who knows no or little Japanese is being very understanding about the fact that I will not be in direct contact with them during this time. The translations will not be made public, neither will I see them.

We have started a new blog, which will publicast my Japanese diaries proper, called 人形の日記 .This is the first website we have made entirely in Japanese, and I am really excited for it. Please follow it, and please feel free to comment (but only in Japanese, of course).

I will also be putting my diary entries on the Kawaii Japanese Forums. There I will likely engage in a little more dolly oshaberi at times that may not be suitable for the official Diary. Feel free to join the conversation (again, of course, in Japanese). Don’t worry if you need Rikai to help you read and don’t worry if your Japanese is a little basic. If you just say こんにちは I will be delighted!

Remember that the way to really make Japanese your language is to use it. Get your hands dirty, make mistakes. Use a fun Japanese-only identity if you are worried about silly people sneering at you, and know that you will end up way ahead of them with their sanitized “best china” Japanese that they never dare use in case they get a chip in it.

I have written a few articles in advance that will be posted when I am away, so you won’t be entirely without English Dolly blather (sorry if I raised your hopes there), and in case you don’t read Japanese, or you just want to get the backstory of what happened the first time I was in Japan, my book An Alien Doll in Japan has been released just today.

I am kind of hoping my two-year-old adventures will be a little bit less disaster-fraught. However, since the language wasn’t the main problem last time, that may be over-hopeful.

It will also be interesting to see how my Japanese reflections differ from my English ones.

So, mata aki ne, dear, dear readers. I want to thank you for supporting our humble little site over the last few years and for growing more numerous with every passing week. I always really enjoy talking to you and sharing my thoughts and findings on my Japanese journey.

That sounds a bit “farewell-y”, doesn’t it? It isn’t. I will be back during the Fall and continuing to share with you all, and I hope you will be here too (yes, you. Did you think I hadn’t noticed you? I am always happy to see your face).

And if you can manage a little Japanese, I will be very happy if you would give me a little ouen (support, cheering on) on my My Diary or on the Forums. If I’m honest, going alone to Japan is just a little scary. I am very shy and outside Japan I rarely cross a street alone. So if you just pop me the odd comment it will help me a lot! It will be good for your Japanese too!

I know there are a few hundred regular readers for every one who comments even once, but remember, even if you can’t manage a comment, Dolly loves you all!

<Wave ; style= tiny Dolly-sized handkerchief>

さようなら。

</wave>

Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary

Japanese Immersion: Massive InputMy last piece on Japanese immersion, was entitled Massive Input vs Anki. A slightly provocative title perhaps.

I didn’t use it because I was trying to start a war. It was because I was and am interested in the interplay between an artificial learning method and the organic aquisition that comes from pure immersion.

I am not suggesting that we all give up Anki. It is a powerful system that helps us acquire and retain Japanese. However I do find that as one uses increasingly massive input one’s relation to Anki changes. I promised to report on my personal experience of intensifying my input.

I spent a month doing an unusually large quantity of input, mainly watching anime with subtitles and reading books. How did it affect my relation to Anki? Let me summarize:

I have two Anki decks. One for vocabulary and a sound-based sentences deck. I found I was actually entering more into the vocabulary deck because I was picking up vocabulary very fast from my extensive reading (strictly with pure extensive reading you don’t look words up, but I was).

Often with a new word I will enter sentences because definitions alone don’t tell you the nuance of a word or how it is used. I did this a lot less. The reason was that with a higher level of Japanese immersion input I found new words recurring much more frequently than I would have expected.

Not only do the same authors/themes tend to use the same words but I was finding words repeating across different books and anime. I felt more confidence in being able to rely on seeing the word in the wild rather than needing example sentences for it. I was popping words (but by no means all my new acquisitions) into Anki to “pin” them. But I felt more confidence in natural encounters with a steeply increased rate of input.

I was also more lenient with myself in Anki. Usually I am pretty strict with myself. “Half-right is wrong”. What I found was that again, with a higher level of Japanese immersion, I had more confidence in my input. So I would think “all right I know pretty much what that word means. I’ll recognize it in context next time I meet it”.

This, of course is how children naturally learn language. They start off knowing roughly what a word means and sometimes use it incorrectly. But with continued exposure their knowledge of the word refines down to exactitude. With confidence in our rate of input we can be less afraid of getting words half-right because we know it is a step along the road and not our “only chance”.

Another thing I noticed is how wonderful the memory really is. Reading and watch/reading quite fast through a lot of material and resisting the temptation to look up things I did really know even if a little ambiguously (tolerance of ambiguity is important here I think) I noticed that I was recognizing words I had learned two years or more ago and hadn’t drilled since. I think we tend to over-drill words for fear of forgetting them when the real drilling they need is actual Japanese immersion: input, input, input.

I might not have recognized those words on an abstract word-list or in Anki. But in context, as living parts of real sentences that were in themselves living parts of a real story, I did remember them. And there was a sense of “Gosh, so that’s what that old glassy-eyed dead word in the attic of my memory looks like when it comes to life!”

Of course, nearly all my vocabulary came from real exposure in the first place, via the Anime Method and its close relations. But some of them had ossified into “Anki words”.

Real Japanese speakers know a huge number of Japanese words. How? By having total Japanese immersion all the time. But even with the degree of input possible to you or me, if it is truly massive it is surprising how quickly words start reinforcing.

Japanese Immersion: The “feel” of the language

Japanese, in both grammar and vocabulary, is a surprisingly “modular” language. As you get used to it you start to realize how beautifully it all fits together.

If you are reading (text or subtitles) more and more you encounter words that you don’t need to look up. You know what the individual kanji mean, and, with the context, it is clear what the two (or three) of them in combination must mean. Japanese has a lot of words, but the good news is that a lot of them come from understandable-in-context combinations of other word-elements one already knows.

One also gets the feel for Japanese sound-symbolism. This is a very unquantifiable subject, so I won’t say much about it. But I do find myself saying “Ah I can tell what that word means by the sound of it”. In some cases I may be subconsciously remembering a word I learned before. In other cases it may just be similar to a word I learned before because similar meanings often have similar sounds. It may also be based on lots of tiny frequently-occurring cues, such as the fact that sharp “s” sounds can tend to imply “doing” while gentle “r” sounds can tend to imply “being”.

I probably won’t ever write anything more detailed on this because there are no exact “rules” and countless exceptions. This isn’t a “method” one can “use” in a conscious way, but as you get used to Japanese you will find it working for you more and more.

Relatedly, as you read more and read faster, especially in books, you will find yourself anticipating. You notice that you read three words at the end of a page and while you are turning the page over you already know what the next one or two words will be. Just as in English, when you read “He had shifty” you know the next word will be “eyes” or “she combed her” will be followed by “hair”. If we know that she is attending to her own appearance (or just that she is alone) we only need “she combed” to know that “her hair” will probably follow.

Anticipation is a huge part of understanding. So is the recognition of words. Many people, reading in their native language, will pronounce a word wrongly when they have never seen it before (or only seen it occasionally) even when the spelling is not ambiguous. Why? Because we have long ago stopped spelling out words we read in our minds. We recognize general shapes and anticipate words. We don’t expect to really have to read an individual word. At most if it is a little unusual we might check if the middle letter is an e or an i. Actually reading a word – looking at each letter – and constructing the sound from that, the way a small child or a foreign learner does, has become an atrophied skill.

That is a good thing. It means that we can concentrate on the meaning of the text as a whole rather than expending mental energy on fully reading words we already know.

Japanese immersion through massive input helps us to develop toward the same level in Japanese. We start to realize that we are anticipating things and sometimes taking a word or phrase super-fast because we only need to glance over it to confirm that it is what we thought it would be.

This isn’t only a reading skill. As we learn what words tend to go together it becomes easier to hear bunches of words in speech.

Returning to the “Anki question” I reiterate that I am not really talking about replacing Anki. I don’t think that is a question one needs to worry about. What is important is to become aware of the importance of truly massive input and its function in organic learning. Considering that one only has so much time, this may impact the balance between Anki and actual input. But it is a delicate and shifting balance and one that each of us can work out for herself over time.

Fortunately Anki is not the all-devouring monster it can occasionally appear to be. Feed it less and it will diminish fairly quickly. My daily Sentences Anki is currently noticeably smaller. I may have occasion to step it up again later and I am still adding to it but not nearly as much as I was.

After an experimental month of much more massive input, my personal finding is that it works if anything better than I expected. I will be continuing with it and I am somewhat shifting the balance from Anki to Japanese immersion through massive input. It is a matter of degree. I always did a lot of input anyway, and I never regarded Anki as my primary learning tool (that was and is native Japanese material).

So really I am only moving a degree or two further in the direction I was always going. One can sometimes, I think, use Anki as a bit of a security blanket. We think it will stop us forgetting words (as you know from some of your old words that pop up looking like strangers, it won’t always do that). We distrust input experience as being too random.

I am beginning to feel that Japanese immersion input lets words and grammar drop only a little more than Anki does, provided it is sufficiently massive. And it keeps them in our mind in a live, organic way, rather than an abstract one, which makes them a lot more useful to us.

NOTE: Naturally this article is relevant primarily to intermediate learners who are advanced enough to be able to step up their rate of input.

Bonus Japanese Immersion tip: SMILE!

One final tip, which you may write off as a bit of doll-craziness. I don’t mind if you do. My royalties on it are very low anyway. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t even get any royalties.

When, in the course of your massive input you “ping” (as I call it) a word or phrase you recently learned, or one you are happy to remember, smile. Smiling makes you feel happy (try it). Or make a little “ding” sound in your mind. Or jump up and down and ワイワイ all over the room. Probably not the latter as you are trying to read quickly.

The point is to tell the pleasure centers in your brain that this is a Good Thing. Even a little fleeting smile will do that. Don’t try to re-memorize it (unless you have a special reason to). Let your Japanese immersion input work on that. Just very quickly “flag” it for your mind.

If it disrupts your reading you don’t have to do it. Just a little trick you may like to try occasionally.

Now read: Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki
Japanese Immersion: massive input vs Anki

This site’s method is fundamentally Japanese immersion. While we do recommend learning basic grammar as a kind of “cheat” for getting started, the heart of the system is watching anime. It is also vital, after the initial stages, to have a lot of actual communication as well as input.

Which sounds kind of lazy, but if you know anything about the system, you know that watching anime in Japanese with Japanese subtitles is pretty intense, especially at first when you don’t know much.

The idea isn’t that it is easier than other methods (there is no such thing as a “get fluent quick” technique”). It is that you are learning Japanese “in the wild” from early on. Anime becomes your university, exposing you to real Japanese, building a core vocabulary organically and making the language a part of your life. And learning the written and spoken language in tandem.

The strategy of the anime method is to build your capacity for input. At first it takes you hours to get through a 20-minute episode. You have to look up half the words, investigate grammar etc. As you build vocabulary, learn how the language works and generally get used to Japanese, you become faster and faster.

You are approaching the point where true Japanese immersion through massive input becomes possible.

Now from the beginning we have recommended Anki as the means of learning vocabulary and at least some grammar. Anki essentially makes the old method of flash cards efficient and scientific, exposing you to each card at exactly the rate you need to learn it.

In a sense one could say that this is not true Japanese immersion. Some people, notably Tae Kim, whose excellent grammar site we strongly recommend, believe that massive input is the way to learn vocabulary and that Anki is too artificial. So in one sense one can say that massive input and Anki are opposed — in that one could conceivably (at least in some people’s view) replace the other.

Or rather massive input could replace Anki. If you can learn all the vocabulary and grammar you need through massive input then you clearly don’t need Anki. If you can learn them all with Anki you still need massive input, or all you end up with is a massive word list and a lot of abstract grammar.

So theoretically massive input can replace Anki and give a truer Japanese immersion environment. And practically too. One of my most respected (and advanced) senpai has never touched Anki or other artificial learning tools.

I have also made it very clear (well maybe not to everyone as I mostly wrote about it in Japanese) that I do not intend to use Anki forever. In my approach to Japanese immersion, I regard Japanese as my language. In my heart Japanese is much more my mother tongue than English, even though I currently don’t know it nearly so well. One does not use artificial learning tools for one’s own language. Like learning abstract grammar, it is a little cheat: a trick to get you over the (very tough) initial hurdles.

Japanese Immersion: replace Anki with Massive Input?

So, do we need Anki? Can we replace it with massive input? My answer to this breaks into two parts:

1. Yes, we can and should, eventually. Anki is like water wings. Unless we want to regard Japanese as a “foreign language” for our whole lives (and some people, of course, do) we do not want to be using artificial tools forever.

2. It is possible to learn without Anki (or anything similar) from the start. Some people do. But this raises certain questions:

Firstly, how do you learn? Some people can just hear a word and recognize it again, at least after a couple of times. I tend to need in many cases a mnemonic to tie the sound to the meaning. Otherwise it doesn’t stick. Mnemonics are temporary, but they are like the rough stitching that holds the fabric in place while it is being properly sewn. Some people don’t need them. I do, (though increasingly I make my mnemonics in Japanese) and I find Anki the perfect place to use them.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, how do you deal with kanji?

This is not a rhetorical question. There are several ways of dealing with kanji. A lot of people (and probably the majority of Japanese Immersion methods recommend this) begin by working through Heisig-sensei’s Remembering the Kanji which involves learning all the kanji in the abstract without knowing the pronunciations or any words associated with them. At a later stage many people learn abstract lists of the kanji’s various pronunciations.

Other people learn by the traditional method of writing each kanji out hundreds of times.

We don’t recommend either of these methods. They aren’t wrong. They do work for some people. It just isn’t how we do things. We believe in learning kanji along with everything else, organically. Our motto is “learn words, not kanji”.

The problem here is that kanji learning, unlike language acquisition, is not inherently “organic”. Children do not “just pick them up” the way they do vocabulary, grammar, speech and listening comprehension, through natural Japanese immersion

They learn them in class. And it takes them years.

But, they do not learn kanji in the abstract. From their first class they already know the words in which the kanji are used, and how they are pronounced. They never learn lists of on and kun readings or abstract Heisig-style “keywords”. They never (except possibly with some rare ones in high school) learn a kanji of which they don’t already know many real-word uses and (therefore) the main pronunciations.

So learning kanji organically “as you go along” is actually closer to the way they are really learned by Japanese children. Since we don’t have from-birth Japanese immersion we can’t replicate it exactly, but we feel our method comes closest to the real thing and to the way one can naturally learn them with a minimum of abstract study.

But kanji need to be drilled. Grammar and vocabulary may be “drilled” by pure Japanese immersion and massive input (and output), but kanji really do need to be drilled by some essentially artificial method or other. There is the endlessly-writing-them-out method, which I believe is overkill in a digital age. There is Anki (and similar systems). There may be other methods that work for you (do comment below). But one way or another, you are going to have to drill kanji.

For me, the simplest, most painless and most organic way of doing this is to use a simple vocabulary Anki deck with the kanji on the front, and the readings, definitions and any necessary mnemonics (for kanji structure and meaning and reading) on the back.

I won’t go into more detail here as this article isn’t about learning kanji, but by this method one is learning kanji and vocabulary at the same time and learning readings in the most natural way: one at a time, as one encounters them in real words.

But because learning kanji (like learning the alphabet, except that there are a lot more of them) is not natural like learning to speak, there does need to be a somewhat artificial way of drilling them. Pure Japanese immersion alone will not teach one the kanji, any more than it teaches Japanese children the kanji.

But, assuming one does use Anki for this, once one has built a solid organic core vocabulary and made friends with a large number of the more common kanji, is there a sliding scale between Anki and massive input?

Does pure Japanese immersion start to take over? At what point do the water-wings come off? Is it immediate or a gradual process?

As with most things, this will differ with different people, but I have been having some very interesting experiences with sharply increasing my Japanese immersion and massive input and its effects on my relationship to Anki. Read all about them in Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary.