Immersion is awesome. You can’t get enough of it. The more immersion you have with Japanese in the day, the higher your skill will rise. Again, awesome. But before you go and watch yet another episode of that show you are dying to watch, consider the Immersion Hierarchy.
Immersion comes in a variety of forms. Some are simply better than others. The best way to show this is to explain each immersion technique individually. Here they are from “worst” to “best.” The exact ordering can be debated, but hopefully you’ll get my point.
8. Active Listening with English Subtitles
You watch something with subtitles in English (or another fluent/native language that’s not Japanese). You will get little out of this method. After all, the subtitles are there so that you DON’T have to learn Japanese.
7. Japanese Music
Music: I love you. But you aren’t that great for immersion. Much like with subtitles, you don’t have to know Japanese to enjoy it. Songs are quite memorable and you can use this to learn words. But when you listen to a song, even in English, it is easy to mishear the words or have no idea what they are. When I look up lyrics it’s surprising how wrong I was or how many of the words I know but didn’t notice.
6. Background Passive Listening
You’re listening (to a show, podcast, etc.) while doing something else. Although your focus is mostly on something else, a portion of your brain is still trying to process the Japanese. This is the easiest immersion to get since you can wear headphones throughout the day. It works better than music because your immersion will have actual conversations in it. Music focuses on sounding good while a show focuses on telling a story.
5. Active Listening with Japanese subtitles
While English subtitles are bad, Japanese subtitles are excellent! Now you can’t ignore the Japanese. The language is right there for you. Your full attention is on understanding Japanese.
4. Foreground Passive Listening
Related to background passive listening, you’re listening to something on the go, but mostly focusing on listening. For example: listening to Japanese while standing around waiting. This is better than background listening because more of your attention is on Japanese and not something else.
3. Active Listening Raw
You’re watching something and there are no subtitles involved. Without subtitles you can focus on the visuals, which will help you understand what you are watching.
What’s wrong with Japanese subtitles? They can be helpful in picking out words and improving your percentage of understanding. However, when you are reading subtitles, you don’t have to listen. You’re reading along with the audio and don’t have to think as much about what you’re listening to.
2. Reading Manga
Who doesn’t love a good manga? Unlike all this listening, reading requires your participation to move along. More effort means more learning.
1. Reading Books
The ultimate form of immersion. Books require words. A lot of words. With few visuals and no one feeding you the language, it’s just you and Japanese. Look over a sentence until you understand it, look up a word in a dictionary, and do whatever you need to do. It’s your pace. Your decisions.
Using the Hierarchy
You can see how immersion techniques compare to each other. With this in mind, try and up your immersion game. Get rid of those subtitles, listen to more podcasts and less music, find situations for more foreground passive listening, or switch from manga to books.
Don’t freak out though. It’s not the end of the world if you listen to a lot of music or use Japanese subtitles.
Limits of the Hierarchy
This not an exhaustive list, and there are more factors at play than just immersion type. Your level of attention and the difficulty of the material are important as well. For example, a beginner would be able to get more out of watching with English subtitles than reading a book way beyond their level.
And while reading books is at the top of the list, it would be silly to do that exclusively. A good amount of variety is key to immersion. You can’t get much listening practice from a book.
Form your own Hierarchy
Your immersion will vary. As you test out different things, you should get a sense for what is working for you and what isn’t. Maybe you don’t like manga, or you can’t listen to things passively. If method A is improving your Japanese faster than method B then do more of A. For example, right now nothing improves my Japanese faster than reading the grammar book 日本語文型辞典.
How do your immersion methods compare to each other? Does your ranking look different?