Language immersion is for hobbyists

I will have to preface this post by saying that this a diary entry from the future to myself 3 years ago, if I could travel back in time. That is when I decided that I would live in Japan, provided no unforeseen and pertinent black swans of course. At the same time, this post is intended to nudge or hopefully help anyone that is looking for shortcuts to learn a language, or perhaps learn other things. In that sense, paraphrasing what Canada’s favourite investor Kevin O’Leary once said: I am the White Knight who is the only one willing to tell you the truth that will save you thousands of dollars and years of misery.

Additionally, I will also have to state that my goal is professional language fluency, for a number of reasons. Fluency being defined as the ability use proper grammar, language hierarchy among people, comprehension and speaking speed, and even writing the language, in random situations on the spot, in addition to JLPT N2 or N1 (described later). I believe that any other language goal is for practical usage in casual conversation or hobbyists, and therefore the resulting “fluency” needed is unclear and likely less motivating, and fewer doors being opened.

I define language immersion as adopting the innocence of a child in studying language by doing whatever interests you in your target language. If you like Japanese games, for example, play those games. If you like Japanese TV, watch countless hours of TV. While, this content consumption must be supported by a foundation of memorizing characters, basic vocabulary and grammar points all solely via Anki flashcards. So a listening and reading comprehension, packaged in a malleable seek-your-own-adventure form. And whatever you feel about it at this point, the primary drill or study activity for learning roughly from the intermediate to advanced levels is sentence mining – creating flashcards for new words to memorize in context through immersing in your favorite Netflix movie, or manga.

The overlooked point is that children may or may not be using flashcards, probably not, but tend to be either put into cram schools to learn a second language, or have parents that force another language upon them via exclusive speech in certain languages from each parent. In other words, it becomes a necessity for the child through the parents whether through school grades and/or daily life at home. Children are not learning languages exclusively by watching videos and using flashcards. No way.

So, how appealing does language immersion sound? Honestly? Of course I have thrown wrenches into it already… I was captivated by that pitch for awhile, especially in that sentence mining was not emphasized, at least initially. I should admit that I generally do not like Anki flashcards probably because I have done thousands and thousands of flashcards at this point with minimal fluency to show for it considering the time spent. Flashcards are a tool to help memorize and could be overly simplified as being like the rice cooker, when you have to cook a 3-course dinner. And immersion is literally listening to the radio while you are cooking the dinner.

I looked for shortcuts from the beginning. I had always thought that there was a better way than learning and drilling grammar points, writing out kanji numerous times, and practicing basic conversation using those specific grammar points and vocabulary of the day. But the immersion method is a pipe dream for language fluency. Memorizing flashcards and devouring copious amounts of content, even while sleeping and in the shower, is a long shot to fluency. It would be great to have some data on this, but based on personal interactions and online research, I am aware of 3 people who have learned Japanese through immersion (all online and I believe all currently outside of Japan), while all other people whom I have met over the last few years who speak the language have learned either in a language school or in University. The odds are against immersion. Maybe some few savant individuals can learn through immersion, but on average it will fail.

And to boot, the people who used immersion referenced above present very limited and likely highly edited and rehearsed ‘evidence’ that they are fluent in the language, instead of currently accepted measures like an impromptu interview on a random topic in the target language and the JLPT level acquired. The standard here in Japan is the aforementioned official Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), with levels N5 (bottom) to N1 (top). N1 is referred to as native Japanese fluency. The individuals referred to above tend to shy away from this test and as far as I know have not acquired N1 or they would likely be proudly displaying it on their websites to drive customers. N2 suffices as a goal as this is referred to as Business level Japanese.

Unfortunately, the JLPT test itself is not perfect, to our benefit, in that the test is completely multiple choice… therefore, you are tested on reading and listening only (ironically the same things exclusively performed for the majority of immersion), not writing nor speaking. But, it is generally assumed in Japan that if you have passed the N1 exam, your speaking and writing are at that level in tandem. The reverse is not true. If you can speak in-language in a video for a few minutes, it is not assumed that you could pass the JLPT N1. This exam is the official measuring stick that we have and is widely accepted, so that is what we should use in determining anybody’s Japanese level (who haven’t attended Japanese elementary through high school of course).

You can join a cram school full-time and learn Japanese in 2 years. Curiously, I had heard that immersion could allow you to become fluent in 2 years as well, of course depending on how many hours that you immerse per day while studying flashcards. The caveat is that immersion could cost you no money at all if you wanted to really do it the hard way, or you could spend thousands of dollars to learn it in school in the same amount of time.

Okay, you have to learn Japanese in 2 years or you will be sucked into the internet permanently like Clu in the movie Tron. Which method will you choose: immersion or language school?

How about you have to learn Japanese in 4 years, part-time. Immersion or language school?

How about boot camp for the army? Would I bet money on your success if someone gave you the lazy way out to study and exercise on your own for awhile, or go through the regimented training program on location? Which has a higher chance of success?

As you might have guessed, I have joined a language school. The discount code is LEARNNOW and note that this is an affiliate link and I will get money per click. Thanks in advance.

Just joking! Seriously though, if I had my time and money back, I would have joined school at least part-time from the moment that I decided to stay here. The problem was my attitude – looking for shortcuts.

Surely, nobody needs to write kanji anymore.

Me

There has to be a better way than memorizing verb conjugations!

Me

I don’t need to drill grammar points, I’ll remember them.

Me

My own quotes remind me of my friend who literally said: “I don’t need a driver’s license, I’ll just wait until self-driving cars.”

Language school is everything that I have avoided over these last few years of self-study and I believe that it is everything that I have needed. In school you are drilled, tested and forced to practice. You have to fidget and squirm your way through mistakes, humble yourself with your lack of fluency in front of others. Every weakness in your language ability will bubble to the service rapidly. It is not a picnic, but it is the clearest path with the highest chance of success available to us provided that we have the time and money to do it.

So if your goal is basic to conversational Japanese, immersion could potentially get you there, eventually. If your goal is to do the same but faster, or to achieve business to native level, go to school.

And maybe I will carefully entertain the idea that some partial concurrent immersion would help to motivate you along the way, like a beer after the real work has been done. But if you want to drink beer from the tap all day then you will earn yourself 3rd prize.

In retrospect, of course this is the path! Why didn’t anyone tell me this!? How could I have thought otherwise?

Hence, I have written this post. It feels silly to think that other methods would work well by comparison.

My goal is to help myself, and help anyone else in a similar situation. I don’t necessarily want to tear down ideas or lob incendiary kilobytes into the cloud, but rather guide ambitious individuals through experience and probability.


Here are some of my other popular posts:

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2 comments

  1. Hats off to you for learning Japanese! I tried that before by joining a class but I gave up at Hiragana.

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