Dividing Your Focus – Good & Bad Immersion

When it comes to acquiring amazing Japanese, immersion is a given. Whether you go all out like this site recommends, or just enjoy some form of Japanese media on a frequent basis, you will be immersing yourself to some extent in Japanese.  But while the basic concept behind immersion is simple at its core (filling up your day with as much background Japanese as possible), it is deeper than you may imagine.

Dividing Your Focus - Good & Bad Immersion

Immersion is an act of focus points distribution

You start with 100 focus points. At any moment, focus points are distributed on what you are doing, your environment, your health, your stress levels, etc.

Example: Reading a book (85 points) while tired (5 points) and hungry (5 points) and worried about your job (5 points).

Different tasks require different focus points to be effective

If your required focus points aren’t met, you run into problems.

Example: walking (40 points) and talking (55 points) with a friend while paying attention to traffic (5 points). However paying attention to traffic actually required 10 points. Oops, you got hit by a car.

Complaints about Japanese immersion

Whenever you are passively immersing while doing something else, you are distributing your focus points. And since Japanese is the passive part, it usually gets a minimal distribution. However, what happens with most people starting immersion is that they feel:

– They aren’t learning anything,
– Nothing actually sticks (it just gets tuned out).
– They can’t focus with the Japanese on.

This usually results in an abrupt stop and banishment of the method.

Japanese immersion must be learned

The most successful passive listening immersion takes around 10-30  focus points. Go less than that and you are too focused on another activity. Go more than that and it distracts the main activity you are doing.

People who are new to immersion require more focus points for the Japanese passive side. It may be double or triple what a veteran immersion expert requires. This means that a beginner immersioner is much more likely to feel the above complaints.

Example: Doing Anki reviews take 80 focus points. Because you are a novice your passive immersion listening to a J-drama takes 40 focus points. One of two results awaits.

Result 1: You will not meet your immersion point requirement, and you will not gain that much out of your passive listening.

You feel: “I’m too focused on Anki, and the Japanese immersion just gets tuned out.”

Result 2: You will not meet your main activity point requirement, and you will not gain that much out of your Anki.

You feel: “I’m distracted by the Japanese in the background. I can’t focus on Anki.”

Immersion is a trained skill, not a given

It may take several months, but you will eventually be able to bring down the required focus points for immersion. You are training your brain to require less focus points.

When you start off in an RPG, it may cost you 20 spell/magic/mana points to cast a spell. But as your training increases and skill improves, that same spell will require less to cast. This is immersion.

The final piece

While your focus point consumption will significantly decrease over months and years, there are some activities that require too many focus points, both on the immersion side and the active Japanese side. Combine these and you end up in one of the two bad results above.

To avoid this, we must cover the major immersion pitfalls. What types of immersion falls into the bad category?

Dividing Your Focus - Good & Bad Immersion 2

1. Putting items on your immersion Ipod without ever having actively watched them first

People tend to throw a lot onto their device without ever having touched it before. Everything from dramas to movies to anime to comedy sketches. There are a number of reasons why you want to first actively watch something before converting it.

– It will require less focus to listen to later on.
– You don’t have to worry about  missing out on parts.
– You don’t have to worry about not understanding everything.
– You can fade in and out of listening since you already know the story and can pick up on it at any moment.
– All the visual imagery (including the actors’/actresses’ voices) stays in your mind allowing you to enjoy massive repeat listens.

2. Listening to music or the news with even minor focus required activities

Music (sound) is easy to listen to. You don’t need me to tell that to you. But it isn’t easy listening to the lyrics. Hearing and processing the lyrics, and not just the sound, requires an incredibly high level of concentration.

News contains mostly complex Japanese that you aren’t used to hearing and requires higher concentration.

Best Use: use while exercising or doing mindless routine chores.

3. Listening to things with low replay value

Certain items just don’t do well when repeatedly played over and over again. The less replay value an item has, the more likely you are to tune it out and no longer give it any focus.

Items I’ve found with the lowest replay values:

– News (its very essence is only meant to be interesting once)
– Audio lessons (unless they are incredibly entertaining)

4. Reading anything with immersion

Reading in Japanese (novels, manga, magazines) takes high concentration regardless of your level. Even material you’ve listened to over and over may get in the way. Reading is normally a non-immersion moment for most people. However, there are the exception of people who have gotten used to this. I’m not one of them and need to turn off my Ipod for regular reading.

5. High volume when required focus is high

Raising the volume increases your concentration on the immersion item at the expense of the active focus item.

Best Use:

Immersion while exercising or doing mindless routine chores: medium to high volume.
Immersion while doing other active focus required activities (ex. Anki reviews): low to medium volume.

Other good and bad immersion?

I know I’ve left out some things, and this is an area that a lot of people want to know in depth to make sure they are doing it right. What have you found to be a bad combination when it comes to immersion and focus? What has worked for you? What is your best immersion combo for success? Leave it in the comments!

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Dividing Your Focus – Good & Bad Immersion — 29 Comments

  1. Great article,

    I defiantly fine that whenever I am doing Japanese study or Immersion I tend to do things one at a time.

    For example, I will get all of my anki reviews done as soon as I get home. Bang, done out of the way, so that leaves me with the rest of the night to sit down and watch a J-Drama when I can focus my 100 points it.

    I would find it really distracting to try and do anki reviews whilst listening to a movie, or music. Even when I was at high school doing homework etc, I was never one of those people that could study with the radio going. I need a nice quiet place for my brain to absorb new information.

    Perhaps this will improve with time as you say?

    Interesting read, I am looking forward to the next article.

    • I’m the same as you. If the main task I’m doing requires exercises of the brain, then I have to be in a single-focus environment. Like your example with the homework and music. I couldn’t even listen to classical music and it’s not like I didn’t try. Seeing people wearing headphones while doing homework still boggles my mind.

      I can however, listen to music while say, cooking, or cleaning. So, I listen to Japanese music while doing those things. But if both tasks require Japanese, then I’d rather just focus on one task and not worry about trying to divide my focus.

  2. Interesting start to what looks like a useful series of posts, though I have one complain:
    -what is the term “multitasking” suppose to mean in this post? And more importantly, how is it, in your mind, actually different from the “multifocusing” you are describing? It’s a bit pointless to say that immersion is “a little different” from a concept that is vague to start with…

    Edit: and since I’m assuming you want typos to be corrected, there is one at “the concept behinds multi-tasking is flawed. “, where “behinds” should be “behind”.

    • Thanks for the edit. As for the multitasking part, I decided to drop it. It really doesn’t serve any purpose to the message I’m trying to get across, and as you revealed, it isn’t exactly helpful to compare a vague concept with another.

      • “As for the multitasking part, I decided to drop it. It really doesn’t serve any purpose to the message I’m trying to get across.”

        Yeah, I agree. It was a completely secondary point, but at the same time it sort of framed the whole post.

        And in case it wasn’t clear, my basic objection was that, were I to try to define “multitasking”, what you describe in this post would definitely qualify.
        Hence it felt like a contradiction to say “multitasking doesn’t work” only to then come and effectively say “multitasking works as long as you don’t “overtask” yourself”.

        • What I was originally trying to say is that multitasking focuses on trying to achieve multiple simultaneous results that are not attainable. Immersion is more about accepting and adjusting the proper balance of major and minor results. But this just sounds really confusing!

          • But even in that description immersion sounds like a particular case of multitasking, unless you take the word “simultaneous” to be literal.
            And if anything, the fundamental difference you are trying to aim at seems to me more one of perspective than a difference concerning the underlying activity.

            I don’t really think the concepts can be meaningfully separated without attributing them very precise and exact definitions, but in this context there’s really nothing to be gained from doing that.

            I’m happy to stop my pedantic ways here :P.

  3. Apologies that this is random and off-topic, but the small site layout adjustments look really good. The comments are a bit cleaner and the top menu is much easier to read now.

  4. “Focus points” are an interesting concept. In the year or so that I’ve been doing 85~90% immersion I’ve noticed that if I don’t get enough sleep the night before, the next day my available focus points are at 85 instead of 100. Also, if I drink the night before it’s even worse, heh. Get your sleep, peepz!

  5. I agree that music is often bad immersion. Especially for lower levels, and especially for any level doing activities that really preoccupy one’s time. When you’re a beginner, you’re not getting much from the lyrics themselves and don’t have a context unless you’ve studied the song. It gives the false sense that you’re immersing.

    A drama or anime can give the same nice effect of music because of the background soundtrack and occasional songs, while at the same time giving familiar dialogue you’ve been exposed to and a context that you can tune in and out to. So I recommend dramas and anime for background immersion. Just as you said, music is great for mindless routine chores, and I often listen to music (especially in the car). But a drama can be just as great and get you involved in a story at the same time.

    I’ll often leave on music when I write stories. Playing a drama would be too distracting. But the lyrics of a song often inspire me when writing, while the tune sets me in an inspired mood.

    The only thing I would say about reading with immersion is isn’t reading itself the immersion? For instance, you’re on the bus to school, and you pull out that Japanese manga or light novel. That’s immersing yourself in Japanese when you could’ve just been texting your friend or looking out the window.

    • Yes, you are correct. Reading itself is immersion, but of the active variety. Reading with background Japanese playing is kind of a double-level immersion experience. Like if you were reading in a Starbucks in Japan with a lot of people talking around you.

      • Ah, I see what you mean. I think there can be a “passive immersion reading”. I have Japanese posters from movies and stores put up around my apartment, leave pamphlets around, have my internet browser in Japanese, those I imagine are passive immersion reading. But reading in general is very active, whether is extensive or intensive. All these terms!

        It’s very hard for me in general to read a book (manga/novel) if there’s a lot of distractions. I just can’t do it. However, I can read in the car (if I don’t get car sick) while my husband leaves on a Japanese track to a drama/anime for him to listen to while he drives. So, I don’t know, it might be possible. Might depend on how lively and loud the track/environment is. Double-level immersion is an interesting concept. Essentially, doing something actively while eavesdropping on another activity.

        I do remember quite a few times thinking to myself this year, “Oh, I have two things in Japanese going on, this is quite cool,” and being able to pay attention to both things, as much I’d be able to if they were in English anyhow. However, I can’t remember what kind of materials they were.

        • I often do Japanese homework while watching anime/tokusatsu, but I have to be careful since if I lost focus I often end up starting to write down what the characters are saying.

  6. While I would agree news has low replay value, I’ve found myself trying to read more of the news lately for comprehension. It is anything an educated Japanese adult should understand and as such, I know I need to wrap my head around it.

    • Of course learning the news is important and I fully agree. I just think you’ll be better off learning it actively (either listening or watching) rather than making it something repetitive and passive while you focus on something else.

      • Oh yes, I completely agree. When I have the news on, I only focus on the news and nothing else. It requires your full attention.

  7. I think listening to music is often bad immersion, regardless of what you are doing, unless you have actively read the lyrics first. There have been countless songs that I had heard dozens of times and could even sing the chorus too, but I didn’t really have a clue what the actual verses were about. Then inevitably someone would sing it in karaoke and suddenly the entire song would make sense.

    One trick that can help is to paste the lyrics of the songs into the lyrics field in iTunes. That will get synched to your iPod and you can use it to occasionally follow along with the song.

    • I agree. I listened to a song for more than 50 times and then I listened to it again one time and it just hit me. I can understand the chorus and most parts of the verses, but I didn’t realise it. So yeah, music is bad immersion, but enjoyable.

      I actually sometimes sing the song along with the lyrics too. It immerses me, and improves my reading speed. I can’t read along with rap verses, yet though. Obviously.

    • I totally agree about getting those lyrics up when you listen! I find I learn so much more from a song if I’m reading the lyrics while I listen. That’s why I love going on YouTube and finding songs with the lyrics in Japanese on them.

  8. I did pretty well using music for immersion (although now I have more other stuff), but I had a very small mp3 player and therefore ended up constantly repeating songs. I’m also one of those people who will repeat a song over and over again, so no matter how little I was paying attention it sank in eventually.

  9. Wow, that bit about the news is something I ran into a couple of weeks ago. I went for only news immersion on my iPod for a couple weeks (this is during a time where I’m actively studying/doing HW for grad classes at a local Univ). I noticed that If I focused to the podcasts I could understand them, but during other activities I completely tuned them out. In contrast, with Drama/Anime listening that I was doing before, I could actively tune in and out easily for the very reasons stated above.

    After two weeks of all news, I went to a 会話 at my Univ and found myself stumbling while I tried to speak (before the news I could speak about 日常 things easily). I think that because my brain completely tuned out the Japanese news and therefore speech patterns/etc., I took steps backwards in my speaking ability (I’ve recently returned to Dramas/Anime and my speaking ability has returned, but man…)

    I’ve also never really had an interest in the news (as it’s just information reporting). That probably also had an impact on how willing my brain was going to accept the input. I figure much of the same vocab used in the news while arise in scientific articles (huge interest!) minus people and place names.

  10. I’m only just now realizing how useless listening to songs can be unless I really take the time to translate the lyrics first. I’ve even managed to hear the words I think they’re saying once or twice, only to find out later that I’ve not only misheard a word, I’ve misunderstood what the song was trying to convey.

    What has worked really well has been listening to Music Hyper Market. This is a podcast which features a guy and girl who talk, play a song, talk, etc. It’s diverse enough that I don’t mind listening to them over again and over again (plus they sound like they’re having a lot of fun!). Even though I don’t really have any clue what they’re saying the first few times I play it, I find myself self-consciously tuning back in when something curious is about to happen. For instance, there’s one episode where the guy does this great Mickey mouse impression (yes, in Japanese) and I’ve managed to understand quite a lot of the conversation around that. And this is at work, around answering phone calls, email, and doing bits of data entry.

  11. Hi, and thanks for the article. While mulling it over a question occurred to me: what would you consider “active watching”? Because I’m beginning to suspect I may never have actually done it! I’ve certainly watched shows unsubbed, giving them my full attention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I was consciously allocating a lot of focus points to the dialog. More often than not I’m just letting the words wash over me precisely because I understand so little. Would you think that’s sufficient, or by “active” do you mean something more intensive?

    There’s obviously a sort of bootstrapping problem when it comes to comprehensible immersion. So far I’ve been resolving this by listening to the audio from shows I’ve previously watched subbed, but I understand this is controversial at best and of course the goal is to make it unnecessary.

    • That is sufficient. Active (when it comes to media) means you are specifically focusing on that activity. You don’t have to consciously try to analyze what you are watching, just as long as you are watching and listening (giving your full attention) without anything else in the way.

      I have an upcoming post about subtitles coming up soon, because I know this site is a bit negative towards them, and I want to clear up a few things.

      • Thanks for the response! And I’m glad to hear that just watching things can be useful without needing to put in a lot of conscious effort (which honestly sounded unsustainably exhausting.) Sounds like all I need to do is… more!

  12. I really prefer to read listening to music or something else.
    I’ve got used to read in the midst of noise of my classmates and kids in school break (I’m a teacher), and the public transport, so I’ve always had this habit of using music or (in case of Japanese) music mixed with audio from videos to insulate myself from my environment and ignore the pesky sounds they generally do at the same time I avoid old ladies and annoying people asking me why I’m reading in Japanese, not in Portuguese (that used to happen when I used to read in English, that’s where I picked up this habit).

  13. Adshap, would you recommend deciphering the material thoroughly, like watching a drama or something with subtitles while focusing completely on every word, before using it as passive material? Or perhaps if it’s an audiobook story with a transcript, should I read and translate everything before? Or is it enough to get the general gist of something for it to be good enough immersion material?

    • You definitely don’t need to decipher the material thoroughly before adding it to immersion. The general gist is more than enough. As long as you were able to somewhat enjoy it, and somehow connect to it the first time watching it, then it’s ready to be used.

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