Testing Total Immersion: 30 Days of 100% Japanese

Written by Adam Golder

Topics: Experiments, Japan

Total Immersion is a fairly simple idea.  Remove all forms of English from your life, and use Japanese for everything.  Japanese books, Japanese music, Japanese conversations, and as much as you can Japanese thoughts.  I’ve decided to test it out for the next 30 days or so, but before I explain the rules of this little experiment, there are a few things I want to get on record.

Ehem…

One way or another, I am going to walk away from Japan fluent in Japanese. Not just regular fluent. Talk-circles-around-Japanese-people-dream-think-breathe in Japanese fluent.

Tim Ferriss, a blogger/author who makes sport of breaking the preconceived rules of reality (and is loved and/or reviled for it) once wrote that you could learn enough of any language in 3 months to be at about 95% comprehension and 100% expression, i.e. become functionally fluent in the language. (For evidence that supports this, see Benny over at Fluent in 3 Months, who has done this about 7 times) Tim further argued that the other 5% might well take you 10-15 years and be more effort than it was worth for most people.

Well…

I want my 5% Tim.  I want it more than I want air.

Any other language I will ever choose to study, I am perfectly happy with “basically fluent”.  If I learn French, it will mostly just be to chat up French girls anyway.  I don’t need to be able to discuss nuclear physics.  But by the mighty hand of zombie Christ, I am going to master Japanese.

One way or another, my life appears to have become inexplicably tangled with this goofy little string of islands half-way across the world from the place I was born.  I love Japan and Kikai as much as any place I have ever lived, and it’s not just because people think I’m Leonardo DiCaprio.  Even after I have moved back to America, odds are good that my job will in some way involve Japan, and Japanese.

My current level of Japanese is pretty good.  I can talk my way around any problems or gaps I might have.  I can tell jokes, and be both funny and charming in Japanese.  I have read books in Japanese.  I occasionally dream in Japanese.  I have my 95% comprehension 100% expression taken care of. I am functionally fluent.

From here on out, is the part where I go from functional, to eloquent.  The sticking point is how exactly to do that, and here’s where things get a little bit complicated.

Since this post ended up being just about as long as the Old Testament, I’m breaking it into 2 parts.  This part, part 1 if you will, covers the twisted Japanese road I walked up until I came across the idea of Total Immersion.  Part 2 will cover Total Immersion, and the rules of the experiment.

Adam in Japanese-Land: A Semi-Historical Account

Even though I majored in Japanese in college, my love affair with Japanese didn’t actually begin until I got to Japan.

My college Japanese studies were punctuated with what can only be called “glaring adequacy”. As long as my grades were good, my goal was to do as little work as humanly possible, freeing up valuable time for watching bad TV, and going to parties.  I was quite good at this, managing to get through a solid 2 and a half years of Japanese without ever actually trying.  I wasn’t the top of the class, but I was doing alright, and was (as far as I know) the only person in the class who could say “I have to go make Milton kill Mr. Cactus now” from memory.  Oh college.

At the ripe old age of 21, I came to Japan for the first time on a semester abroad program.  Full of pluck, and cactus related witticisms I set out to conquer Japan in a manner fitting one such as myself.  Straight-A report card 2 and a half years running! I’m unstoppable baby!

Realization: I absolutely sucked at Japanese.  Turns out that casually dicking around for 2 and a half years does not produce any significant gains in speaking ability.  Who knew?  Before my landmark study, probably no one.  You may inform the Nobel Prize committee at your leisure.

So I signed myself up for the most intensive Japanese course I could find, and decided I was going to start taking this seriously and study my ass off until by god I could talk to my host brother about something other than the weather.  Turns out that there was one fatal flaw with this plan.

2nd Realization:  If the main reason you’re not studying is “because it’s boring”, trying to do 4X more of it will not only not work, it will make you want to jump in front of a train.  Especially if you have to get up at 5:30 am in order to get to class in time, and stand near just an awful lot of trains during your hour and a half commute.

After dropping pretty much all my other courses to keep up with the work/stress load from the Japanese, I eventually decided to white flag it out, and return to my usual holding pattern of doing the absolute minimum possible to avoid failing.  And then The First Great Miracle of Adam’s Japanese Adventure occurred.

With my new found free time, I spent a significantly larger part of my day talking to my host mom, and hanging out with my host brother.  A truly criminal amount of Wii-sports was played, and the epic “無限ボーリング” (Infinite Bowling) variant was invented, in which my host brother would reset the game every time he missed a pin.  He really, really wanted a perfect game. (Never got it.)  I started going to his hip-hop dance classes, hanging out with a lot more Japanese people, and generally using Japanese in a way which was a hell of a lot more fun than anything I’d done up to that point.  For the first time since I started learning Japanese, I was actually doing something with it, instead of studying for the fabled day when I might do something with it.

When I pen my first novel in Japanese, Ryunosuke and Atsuko Furukawa are getting a shout out for getting this ball rolling.

By the time I left Japan, I wasn’t conversationally fluent, but I had made some significant progress in that direction.  For the first time, I realized that I actually could learn a foreign language, despite the 3 years of Latin, 2 of Spanish, and 2 and a half of Japanese telling me it was more or less impossible unless you were one of those naturally gifted types.

But then wouldn’t you know it, I get back to America and go right back into doing absolutely nothing.  In my defense, my Econ major was coming on fast and furious at that point, and I was grateful for a class I could sleepwalk through.  But it wasn’t exactly like I did anything out of class either.

I think my mistake was that I looked back on my time in Japan, and concluded that rather than the the hundreds of hours spent speaking Japanese, instead my Japanese ability was the result of me actually being one of those “naturally gifted types”, and it just didn’t manifest itself until I was in Japan.  I was the kung-fu film hero, who can’t use his ultimate technique right up until the moment where he has to fight the final boss, and then suddenly something in his enemy’s sneering face drags it out of him.  Like that…only with a hundred million sneering Japanese people.  I’LL SHOW YOU JAPAN! LANGUAGE ABILITY MULTIPLICATION TECHNIIIIIIIQUE!!!! Explosions the size of Earth as I perfectly conjugate the past-passive-causative.

So I knew that as soon as I was back in Japan, I would be right back to winning linguistic hearts and minds.  I didn’t need to study.  I was just naturally awesome, and this non-Japan environment was throwing off my chi.  And I was half-right.  Once I graduated, and moved to Kikai, my language ability did start improving again. Or at least stopped getting worse.  But now I was out there on my own.  I didn’t have a class pushing new material into my brain, so I had to go find my own way of getting new material to test out.  I used the JET Program’s series of textbooks for about 30 minutes, before deeming them utterly worthless tripe, unfit to grace the halls of my palatial island shack.

I tried a bunch of other really random, really stupid ways of teaching myself Japanese after that, ranging from online textbooks, to literally printing out every word required for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test and trying to learn them.  Alphabetically.  My daily interactions with Japanese friends and coworkers was enough to smooth out my conversation abilities, but I could feel the wall in front of me.  I was progressing incredibly slowly, and it was starting to bother me.

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Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll tell you all about the crazy solution I came across, and the experiment I’ll be running with for the next month or so.

1 Comment Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Cody says:

    This is fun. Can’t wait to read about your crazy solution. Have been following your blog for a while, now, thanks to your Mom. (We know each other through the bookmaking guild in Cincinnati. She is such a talent and a delight – but you already know that)

    My youngest – still in undergrad – is taking Japanese. When she was little, she woke up one morning & informed me she would be moving to Japan and marrying a Japanese kite maker when she grew up. She may still, yet. I’ve told her about your blog. So, if you meet any kite makers, tell them hi for us.

    I find your writing style entertaining and look forward to your postings so I can follow your adventures. (I’m not sure I would have lasted through 30 days of Natto, though.) Best of luck mastering the language.

    And, although I am not Japanese, I do see a resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio!

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