Immersive learning is basically learning from Japanese materials made for native Japanese speakers. Some people will suggest you spend you daily life immersed in the language, which you can do, but there are techniques for learning from immersion without spending every waking day surrounded by Japanese.
Here are some tips and tricks for effective Japanese immersion.
Before You Immerse, Get a Strong Foundation
If you’re a beginner and you try and jump straight into immersion, you’re going to have a hard time.
For one thing, language isn’t acquired by osmosis (see below), you can’t just listen to NHK news as a beginner every day for a month and expect to magically know Japanese.
This is because you can’t build anything solid without a solid foundation. Which means you need to learn the basics of Japanese before you attempt immersion.
For the basics of Japanese you want to be able to read hiragana and katakana comfortably, know roughly 1,500 words, and all the beginner’s grammar for JLPT N5 and N4 levels (which is the same as all the grammar from Genki I and II or Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide).
See also The Minimum Japanese You Need to Know for a breakdown of the basics, and How to Learn Japanese: The Ultimate Beginners Guide on how to learn it all.
If you don’t have a strong foundation then you’ll probably find yourself confused, stuck, and frustrated. You’ll be spending more time looking up every tiny thing rather than naturally gaining knowledge. That’s because immersion is great for reinforcing what you already know and building new knowledge on it.
Immersion Doesn’t Work by Osmosis
As I already stated, you can’t just passively watch anime, read a manga or novel, or listen to the news and expect it all to be absorbed into your brain automatically. (Some people can, but they’re also witches.)
I’ve met many foreigners in Japan who have lived here for 5 plus years and still struggle to hold conversations because they don’t actively study it.
Which is why step one is to study and gain that strong foundation.
However, you might find yourself struggling even with a strong understanding of the basics.
If you find yourself repeating something over and over again but still not understanding it, it’s probably because it’s too difficult for you right now.
This is why it’s important to pick something that’s just at your level of language ability. So you can reinforce what you’ve already learned, and start picking up new things in context.
Immerse at Your Level
Once you have a strong foundation you should pick something to immerse yourself with. Which means starting with something at or below your level.
It’s very tempting to jump right into something you’ve wanted to read for ages (believe me, I know), but selecting something too difficult with often be counterproductive.
Let’s say you try to read something like To Your Eternity in Japanese, which is 不滅のあなたへ. This is a manga that is about death and the meaning of life. Even though the manga uses furigana (shows the reading for kanji) words like 力尽きる (“completely run out of strength”) and 複製 (“reproduce”) are unlikely to appear in your everyday Japanese conversation. Which means the likelihood of you learning them in a textbook or using them on a regular basis, is slim.
If you’ve just finished Genki II or passed the JLPT N4 then a great place to start is with graded readers, which are designed for Japanese learners.
Or books or textbooks for young Japanese kids, such as this science book series.
If you love manga then よつばと！ (Yotsuba to!) is a favorite and often used by beginner Japanese learners as a first step into immersion.
Regular Japanese YouTube can be great if you find a topic you’re interested. But be warned, a lot of native YouTubers talk very fast which might be difficult for beginners to grasp.
Nihongo With Ako is a fantastic podcast with interviews on various topics aimed at N4/N3 level learners. Or check out Recommended Podcasts for Japanese Learners for a long list of podcasts for all levels.
Slowly Build Up
Once you have something at your level to immerse yourself with it’s time to start to slowly build up your knowledge.
Reading (or listening) right away might seem a little intimidating but the best way to get comfortable with it is to just do it. Start by just reading a section or a page without looking anything up. This way you start to rely more on your own knowledge more than a dictionary.
Once you’ve read a part once or twice, then you should look up everything you don’t know. Make a note of new words, phrases, and grammar. Add new vocabulary and kanji to a flashcard program or hand-written flashcards (or whatever else you use to study.)
It’s important to learn these new things so you can start building up your knowledge. You don’t have to memorize everything perfectly before moving onto the next section, but study as much as you feel comfortable. Balancing studying new information with immersive reading is key to gradually building your knowledge up.
Re-reading the sections or pages you’ve already gone over will also help you become more familiar with the language and reinforce what you’ve already studied!
However, if you feel yourself burning out or losing motivation, then take a step back from studying! (See below.)
As I mentioned before, if the material is too difficult, you’ll spend more time looking up new things and less time reading. Which is counterproductive and will slow the whole process down.
Ideally you want material where you’re learning or reviewing 5-10ish things with each session. If you need to look up 50-100 new things, then it’s probably too difficult.
Shifting to Daily Immersion (If You Want)
Once you’re comfortable with your feet in the pool of immersion you could (if you want to) take it one step further by shifting your everyday activities into Japanese.
I know I said in the introduction that these were tips on how to immerse without spending your entire day doing Japanese. But here are some ideas for slowly changing daily activities to Japanese to expanse your immersive learning.
By this I mean, your entertainment is entirely Japanese (music, anime, movies – you can even start with English subtitles), your shopping and to-do lists are written in Japanese, your social media shifts to Japanese. And whatever other daily activities you feel comfortable switching to Japanese.
You don’t have to immediately change your whole life to be in Japanese, just what you feel comfortable with. Even just small changes like shopping lists written out in Japanese can really help to boost your Japanese.
Learn Through Context
One other great thing about studying through immersion is you learn new things in context.
Language isn’t one-for-one. We might say “take medicine” in English, but in Japanese you くすりをのむ “drink medicine”. You might not learn this if you study the words くすり “medicine” and のむ “to drink” from a vocabulary deck, but you are more likely to learn it from immersion.
As you read the text you’re using to immerse yourself with, don’t just try to understand based on the individual words, but from the overall context.
If you’re reading a manga, look at what the characters just did and what they are doing. If you’re reading a story then try and imagine the scene. Re-read a few lines or paragraph if you can’t clearly picture the scene in your head.
This is also important because it, again, makes you less reliant on dictionaries, but it also begins to shift your understanding of the language based on how Japanese people think and not based on how English works.
Keep an Eye on Grammar
Everyone becomes so obsessed with kanji when really, it’s the grammar which can make or break your understanding of Japanese.
Grammar determines the tense, how actions relate to one another, who does what in any given situation. Grammar dictates the context of a scene.
So when you’re reading native Japanese materials, take a moment to look at what grammar is being used. If you don’t know the grammar, then look it up.
Lots of people recommend the Grammar Dictionaries series, but I always found the answer is easily available on the internet! Googling “Grammar” and the Japanese will often give you the result you need. Or you can ask people on HiNative.
If You’re Struggling / Losing Motivation
A balance of study and immersion really is the key to moving from beginner to intermediate quickly and efficiently. Yes, studying is important, however, constantly studying intensively can lead to burn out.
You don’t have to study everything, or know everything perfectly, before you move onto the next chapter, section, episode, or book.
If you’re feeling burned out then ask yourself, do I want to study for fun or for study?
When you’re struggling to immerse yourself in something check if it’s too difficult for you. If you lose motivation because you’re not enjoying yourself then drop it and find something you do enjoy! When something becomes a drain swap it for something that will re-energize your motivation.
And have fun!
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