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A Polyglot World

30 Days of Japanese Immersion: What I learned and How I Stayed Sane

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Kevin lives in the UK and couldn’t speak a lick of any other language but English for 30+ years.

He then fell in love with and was completely fascinated by Japan after visiting the country.

So he attempted to learn Japanese on his own, on and off for a few years.

Like many frustrated first time language learners, he got no where and was about to give up on learning Japanese and the dream of living in Japan.

This was when the Add1Challenge came along and changed everything.

After completing the Add1Challenge #1 & #2, he now can’t stop speaking Japanese (he even spoke Japanese with his mother who can’t speak any Japanese and pissed her off lol true story) and he is now searching for English teaching opportunities in Japan so he could fulfill his dream of living in Japan. (Go Kevin!)

During Add1Challenge #2, he did an immersion experiment of only speaking Japanese for 30 days while living in the UK.

I wonder what he learned so I asked him a few questions.

Enter Kevin.

Before Immersion

Brian: How did the idea of immersion come about?

Kevin:  Last year, Benny Lewis inspired me to start speaking 100% Japanese on Skype.  More recently, listening to Olly Richard’s  top tip for speaking Japanese planted an idea in my mind which would become a month long immersion experiment.

As a skydiver, I know the value of spending time in the air.  All of the best body pilots clock up loads of “air time”.  Sitting on the ground reading books about aerodynamics doesn’t work.  If you want to fly; then you really need to be throwing yourself around in the air. Skype provides language learners the opportunity to rapidly clock up hours of language “air time”.

However, getting immersed is one thing, but staying immersed is quite another.  Khatzumoto (AJATT) says that, “Babies aren’t better language learners than you; they just have no escape routes.

I on the other hand, am a language learning escape artist!

In fact, I’m so good at escaping from things, that in the first month of the Add1Challenge, I managed to break free from the shackles of employment!  Redundancy represented an ideal opportunity to devote myself to language learning.  The reality turned out to be somewhat different.  After two weeks of unemployment, the sum total of my achievements was watching the entire five seasons of Breaking Bad!

The lesson here was very simple, “You can have all the time in the world AND still not manage to learn a language!

The solution I arrived at was to seal myself inside the Japanese language for a month.

During Immersion

Brian: What did you do?

Kevin:  I followed advice from the AJATT website  to setup my immersion environment. You have to hide your native language away from yourself.  I went round my home bagging up any English reading material and I changed the language settings on all electronic devices to Japanese.  Then it’s just a small matter of waking up each day and remembering you’re immersed!

Brian: What new things did you come up with?

ウィルソンKevin:  On the first day, I got lonely and wished I had a companion to share my adventures with.  I was really lucky because just after I made that wish, Wilson from the film Castaway turned up!

Wilson proved to be the perfect prop to have around during my italki sessions. For example, in one lesson I remember explaining, 「昨夜、彼はワインを飲み過ぎました。」 (last night, he drank too much wine) and the tutor asking  「二日酔いがありますか。」 (has he got a hangover?).

By switching the focus of the conversation onto the drunken antics of an orange ball I found myself so caught up in the moment that I began speaking Japanese without thinking.  That was a breakthrough moment for me because what has often hindered me in speaking Japanese is simply trying too hard to speak the language perfectly.

Another revelation came as a result of listening to the Add1Challenge podcast with Anthony Lauder.  The optimal route to fluency in a language is found by adjusting the balance between “studying” and “playing” with a language.

Playing with a language (watching videos, speaking
on Skype etc) is like driving on the scenic roads.  Studying is like driving on the expressway.  I associate expressways with falling asleep at the wheel.

Having cut off all communication in English, my daily italki session became the social highlight of each day (Play time!). This increased incentive to make meaningful conversation forced me to become a smarter navigator.  So I dusted off my Japanese textbooks and used their structure to plot myself a course (Study time!).  I began driving expressways in the mornings too.

The end result was a one month long immersion course that had 28 hours personal tuition on italki and took me from one end of a language textbook to the other!

After Immersion

Brian: What did you get out of it?

Kevin:  Immersion allowed me to escape ordinary life. I spent a month living like Willy Wonka in my very own language learning hermitage!  During that month I realized the secret of success is all about not being afraid to fail.

Brian: What were the 3 greatest realizations for you as a language learner?

Kevin:   That’s a tough question to answer because I was unearthing so many during this experience.  But I suppose the realizations that had the most impact on me as a language learner were:

  1. “You have to be looking for something in order to find something else.”

I went looking for a way to become fluent in Japanese, but I found something else far more valuable instead.  I found how I can succeed at acquiring any skill during the Add1Challenge.

  1. “Nobody cares about YOU learning a language quite as much as YOU do.”

People who aren’t learning a language are quite indifferent to what we’re doing.  That’s why having the support and encouragement of the Add1Challenge community is so appreciated!

  1. “Fluency is an inevitable consequence of language learning.”

I listened to Moses McCormick and his friend George speaking Japanese fluently.  The Pareto principle seemed to be in effect since I could comprehend much more than I would typically understand when I’m listening to native speakers.  This change in perspective reaffirmed that fluency is within the reach of us mere mortals.

Conclusion

Brian: Do you have recommendations for people how they can do a semi-immersion if they have to speak their native language?

Kevin:  It is all about maximizing the time you stay immersed.

For example, when I commuted to London, I’d pretend I was in Japan.  I even taught the owners of a café how to say a few words of Japanese so that I could get from my home to my office without having to break the illusion.  Even at the office, I would write my meeting notes in Japanese.  It’s about connecting opportunities to “be in your target language”.

Whether it’s a five minute dip during your lunch break or diving into a language abyss, I’d simply encourage anyone to get immersed in a language when and wherever they can because learning to speak the language you dream of speaking is totally worth it.

Brian:  Kevin is such an inspiration for me, he is a great example that it’s never too late to follow your dreams to learn to speak a foreign language and to explore a brand new world.  I am happy that the Add1Challenge was able to contribute to his journey :) If you would like to participate in the next Add1Challenge and see what you can get, sign up and get notify here!

About the author: Lets learn to speak a new language together in the +1 Challenge! Join the party, join the new language learning movement :)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shawn

    Cool, great job Kevin!

  • Yomna Ashraf

    wow you are crazy but I’m totally following your path

  • Amos Lim

    Well encouraged by this, quite an inspiration for me to continue fighting here! I’ve dived into the deep end of the pool of language immersion with the wall against my back now. After learning Hebrew for only a year and a half, I find myself doing a Masters degree in Comparative Literature entirely in Hebrew here in Israel. Still very odd of me, having come from a small country in Southeast Asia to study Greek Literature, Chinese Literature entirely in Hebrew when both would have been just as available and difficult in both English and Chinese (which are both my first and language respectively). I guess the good thing about being in such situation is that I’d definitely improve in my Hebrew language as long as I don’t give up, as long as I try, with speed the only factor in the game now. Not given language classes at all in the university, I’ve returned to my iTalki teacher who’s been more than kind and encouraging and has been more than happy to partner me on this journey to sharpen my language skills to an academic level. At the moment, we’re even taking a class on Hebrew Poetry together on Coursera! This allows me to not only improve my pronunciation through using the lectures for shadowing practice, it helps create discussions with my tutor to create vocabulary and phrase lists, and most importantly, to gear me towards class participation. And of course, the bit on immersion on the streets. While I’m on the deep end academic-wise, the close to 20 months of Hebrew learning both on my own and with tutors have prepared me adequately for the streets and always a matter of choice. For the streets, I take occasional walks to cities where it’s less-than-cosmopolitan where English ain’t the language of choice. Being of Chinese descent and having a Jewish name makes it really intriguing for the locals to start a conversation and a good icebreaker.

    So from the deep-end of the language immersion pool, I say בצלחה (betzlachah) wishing you success to you on this language-learning journey, fellow pilgrim!