A tale of two methods: Anki and Immersion. The two pillars of the learning method promoted by this website, yet almost complete opposites. While Anki excels at improving one’s reading, listening immersion is the essential method to improve one’s listening. Where Anki provides one with a precise amount of daily studying that must be done without fail, immersion is almost structureless: watch something, add the audio to your mp3 player, listen whenever you can.
Where progress in Anki is easy to assess (card count, correct answer stats, etc…), progress with listening immersion is extremely hard to gauge, if not actually impossible to do so at early levels. And while Japanese learning websites feature a wealth of extremely detailed advice on how to get the best out of Anki, with distinct phases (RTK => J-E => J-J) and almost step by step advice for each, advice on listening immersion tends to be restricted to general guidelines at best.
And while some have come to dread the demands made by Anki , others such as myself have come to appreciate it for the clear sense of purpose and reliable progress it provides, while at the same time scorning listening immersion for its seeming inefficiency. There’s no better description of this latter mindset than the following excerpt from a recent comment posted on the website by user Vi:
I have no problem with spending huge amounts of time studying Japanese, but I DO have a problem with doing it without direction, without a plan. Before I started using Anki, I spent years playfully toying with Japanese as a hobby. I learned a few words, the basic grammar, and delighted in making out the occasional word while watching anime, but given a Japanese book, I couldn’t tell you what it says. Thanks to Anki and sites like this, ~2300 kanji cards(including ~1300 J-J sentence) and 3000 more J-J sentence cards later, now I can read that book. Thanks to the order and purpose provided by Anki. Order and purpose that I’m now to chuck out the window in exchange for blind faith that if I spend enough months listening to Japanese from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, that I’ll be able to make it out.
These words resonate deeply within me, as I’d have expressed essentially the same opinion even a few months ago. Yet here I am trying to convince the unconvinced that listening immersion works after all. How did this happen?
I used to suck really, really badly at listening immersion.
I should probably start by pointing out that reading is my main goal in learning Japanese, and so when I started on my journey, I viewed listening as just a perk that I’d either pick up “on the side”, or possibly by putting a little extra effort after my reading got to a level I was happy with.
So when I first found this website it was immediately clear who my number one trusty sidekick would be: Anki. But the whole immersion business sounded pretty important too, and on top of that easy too: just have Japanese material playing in the background whenever you can.
It all started well enough. I tracked down a Youtube playthrough of my favorite JRPG, ゼノブレイド, downloaded it, erased everything but the cutscenes, and added the audio to my mp3 player. 11.3 hours of something I love, dense in speech, and with varied voice types. Looking back I don’t think I could have chosen a more perfect first material to add. So I made sure to listen to it frequently, and made some effort at finding online Japanese stations I liked to listen to for a little variety. Not the most amazing start at immersion ever, but certainly a solid first attempt.
>>Fast forward 12-13 months>>
One year later and my Anki progress was kicking ass. 2000+ J-J cards in, well past the hard transition into J-J, and when testing that knowledge against native media the milestones kept coming. For instance, I’d just finished reading my first novel (extensively), and had just for the first time fully understood a 15 page text heavy furiganaless manga while only having to look up a mere handful of words.
“What about immersion?” Well, my mp3 player had this 11.3 hour long walkthrough of this RPG I love and… nothing else. How did this happen? Now, I don’t usually talk to my mp3 player, but if I did, here’s what our typical monthly conversation during that year would have looked like:
Yeah! We should totally hang out more. And I should get you more content too.
What? How about tonight, you say? Oh, sorry. I’ve booked this week with Anki. We’re really close to a breakthrough, you see?
How about next month?
Again and again I neglected immersion because why waste precious Japanese time listening to nearly incomprehensible noise when I could be doing something I knew worked?
Excluding the sound in my Anki cards (mostly text-to-speech, with a few exceptions), my full listening experience consisted of nothing but sporadic usage of the immersion mp3 player (more because I felt “I really should use the thing once in a while” than because it seemed to work) and a serious attempt to watch One Piece (which I never watched in english) without subtitles.
The latter occurred around my 9th month, and while it did feel better than previous listening experiences, I could only take so much of “understand basic words here and there and maybe an important one every five minutes”, and so that too I dropped at the end of Season 1.
So how did this sad story take a turn?
I started sucking a lot less at listening immersion, and even came to like it.
Looking back, two main reasons made me feel I shouldn’t keep pushing listening immersion away much longer.
- At 2000 J-J cards, it becomes clear that the hardest stages of learning how to read have been cleared. While the remaining path is still long, it’s also a cakewalk compared to the fiendish nature of the first 1000 J-J cards.
Japanese is filled with words expressing emotions, and reading these is no replacement to knowing how they sound. A good example is 一体(いったい). Checking it’s definition on, say, dic.yahoo.com (強い疑問や、とがめる意を表す) can’t complete with hearing even a single “一体どういうこと？” in context.
Even so, I was weary of disrupting my efficient hard earned Anki routine, and felt I needed some jolt to move me on, so I went and bought a session of this site’s Personal Advisor essentially so I could ask “is it really worth it for me to sacrifice some of my limited Anki time for the sake of sneaking in some listening?”
The answer I got on that point was a resounding “yes”, so I implemented that advice. Nothing drastic. Definitely no “ listen every waking hour!” I merely:
Reduced my new daily Anki cards by around 20%, and waited a little for the reviews to subside, buying me the daily 25-30 min it takes to watch an anime episode, which was then added to my mp3 player.
Started being more aware of turning the mp3 player on whenever I had spare time, or was doing a menial task.
After around two months of this, a turning point happened. While biking to my university with ゼノブレイド on in the background, I suddenly noticed that I could make out the spoken syllables apart with perfect clarity. Not the meaning of the words themselves yet, but this was a big breakthrough.
Somehow this simple fact changed everything. Immediately my motivation to bother with passive listening skyrocketed, and thanks to the substantial vocabulary I’d already built via reading, I started consistently recognizing something new with every single listening session. The way this tends to work is that after you recognize a word it’s much easier to recognize other words in its vicinity that you already know.
Listening immersion does seem to eventually work if you at the very least do some (not zero) of it, even if you don’t really do it well. And if you are in a situation similar to the one I was in (having a strong vocabulary but not even able to make out the sounds), your problem is actually pretty specific. The moment you do become able to make the sounds out clearly, the proverbial floodgates are open.
But how to “open those floodgates” then? Certainly the normal immersion method is what did it for me, but given such a specific problem one might expect a specific targeted solution would be preferable. While thinking about this I realized something I have been using for the past few months seems ideal for the task.
A method for “making out” the sounds
Who is this for: anyone who reached a high enough level that they can make Anki cards (so being friendly with Anki is a requirement) of most sentences they find with some ease, but when listening, have trouble recognizing the sounds.
Main tool: The Subs2srs tool (Follow the link for an explanation of the tool. I really like the settings Cayenne uses, so I recommend those too).
Take some long series you like (anime, drama) and fully transform the first few episodes into anki cards (with sound from the original series). Keep these in a deck separate form your main deck.
Go through the cards in order, deleting the ones with no new words/grammar (there should still be a healthy quantity of these). Keep the other cards and add definitions to them. Move those to your main deck.
Rip the audio from those episodes you turned into Anki cards, adding them to your immersion ipod/mp3 player.
As you start reviewing those cards in Anki, make sure to also find time to listen to your newly added material.
- After doing this for enough episodes, try watching (and also continue adding to your mp3 player) the remaining episodes without turning them into Anki cards.
This Anki phase creates a listening environment where correctly identifying sounds is the main challenge, hence you train this skill much faster.
After giving the Subs2srs treatment to the first few episodes you should be very attuned to the specific speech patterns of the characters in that series, so when you then watch the remaining episodes, you can focus on recognizing those words you know.
You get a fast source of excellent Anki cards. I feel that cards obtained this way aren’t just better looking than my normal ones, they’re even a time saver (which is why 12 of 19 of my current daily cards come from this tool)! Talk about a great deal . . .
There is always a lot of talk about immersion on this site in posts and comments. I’m hoping that this post addition helps some people fit in the final piece of the immersion puzzle.
Anyone else struggle with the concept of immersion and make a breakthrough? How did you do it? What do you recommend to those still in the heat of battle?
Written by: Alexandre
Mathematician & Immersion Master. Analyzing the formula behind Japanese greatness.