The chronicles of Burrito's bizarre adventure into Japanese.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Devil’s Tongue

with 2 comments

Let me be clear from the start: this isn’t intended to be criticism toward the AJATT philosophy, methodologies associated with it or the practice of immersion. I’m a big believer that massive exposure to a language is vital to truly learning it, and certainly, the more the better.

But I’ve also come to realize a few key things:

  • There are simply some things I can’t do in Japanese that only exist in English, and
  • A little English not only isn’t an impediment to my studies, but actually beneficial.

Those may or may not apply to other learners, of course. I like to keep up on the wacky world of Western politics and news, for instance, which is covered to the most (often nauseatingly) minute detail in the western kingdoms by a huge variety of sources, independent and otherwise. Short of a handful of bilingual bloggers, I just can’t get this stuff in Japanese. The issue of independent journalism and news is a whole other can of worms I’d rather not get started on, but to my knowledge, just doesn’t exist in Japanese as it does in English (though at the very least, Democracy Now! has a Japanese version, with a select picking of stories translated and subtitled). Certainly, I’ve cut back on my news addiction significantly in the past year, these days usually only skimming my Twitter feed for the most interesting and outrageous headlines, but to date, this isn’t something I’ve been able to replace.

Fortunately, that’s one of the few exceptions I can think of that I haven’t been able to replace completely. The majority of my RSS feeds are still English sites, but since I’m God-Emperor of Skimming, I don’t find myself spending much time in Google Reader these days.

As for the second point? Well, a few things. I very much intend on getting into translation in the near future, for a huge number of reasons I’ll outline in a later post, but a translator needs to have some degree of writing skill, creative or technical or otherwise. Keeping a steady trickle of English in my daily diet (both reading and writing) ensures that I keep my native language honed and sharp. As an example, I’ve been reading roughly a chapter a night of A Clash of Kings, and occasionally poke through works of non-fiction such as the excellent Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein (and if anything like that exists in Japanese, do let me know!) – I constantly take mental notes of interesting prose, grammar, expressions and words with the intent of possibly using said things at a future time, no differently than in my Japanese studies. I know I’m stating the obvious here. Nonetheless, I feel that it’s critical to keep my English as sharp as possible, through a trickle of reading and writing.

Another example: Recently, I began reading some political articles translated into Japanese from my favorite journalists and writers, such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Robert Fisk. This being my first time seriously trying to read some heavy political stuff, I expected to be overwhelmed, but was shocked to find that each article I read was surprisingly lucid and easy to follow. I quickly realized that it was thanks to my existing knowledge in English of all of this relatively difficult political terminology (and their fairly logical Japanese counterparts) that allowed such clarity. Not exactly a divine epiphany, surely, but I can thank my past and ongoing English reading for such a smooth ride. The bridge between two languages can be a thing of great convenience if one allows it to be, rather than burning it completely, I believe.

I also believe that a positive side effect of my Japanese studies is the strengthening of my native English tongue. Why this is, I couldn’t really say – perhaps I can thank the many new words in my Japanese vocabulary for giving me new insight on my existing English vocabulary? Maybe the language part of my grey matter is just getting so manly-badass that my English is rippling with muscles as a result. I’m sure this isn’t a unique phenomenon, and I’d be curious to hear what others might have to say about it.

There’s also the question of practicality (and er, being an asshole). Should one truly feel guilty for (say) watching a movie once in a while along with friends or family in English?

Finally, I feel like there’s a bit of a limit, or perhaps more accurately a diminishing return on massive immersion. For myself, anyway, I just get exhausted after some time and feel refreshed returning to the world of English – for just a little while.

We have a powerful arsenal in our native tongue, and I think it’s a waste not to realize its power in learning a foreign language, even as that foreign tongue approaches advanced levels and higher.


Written by ritobito

June 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Posted in opinion

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  1. interesting point of view Rito. I don’t think I completely agree with you, because everytime I significantly break immersion to engage with English media (even splurging on reading English blogs ABOUT learning languages, like, now… something I do WHILE listening to Japanese), I can almost feel the damage its doing. When I first go back to Japanese stuff afterwards, there’s a mental haze that has to clear for a few minutes before I can really comprehend anything. Maybe this improves over time and it becomes easier and easier to switch back and forth, I dunno. I know zhongruige once said that living in Taiwan, when he finally quit coming home and watching a couple hours a day of English tv on hulu or whatever, his Chinese leveled up very very quickly.
    That being said, I don’t think it’s something you should feel guilty about. It’s simply a cost/benefit analysis. Is whatever I’m getting out of this English content WORTH the delay (insignificant or otherwise) that it’s causing my Japanese fluency. When I think about it this way, it makes me much more selective about any English I may choose to expose myself to, but it also allows me to use/enjoy the English content guilt free.

    I also think there is something to what Khatz has said about it being easier to do 100% Japanese than 50% Japanese. That English stuff, in my experience anyways, has such a powerful pull that limiting it to as very, very little as possible is actually an easier psychological feat than forcing myself to go do some Japanese stuff. Almost like walking downhill away from English, as opposed to making myself walk uphill towards Japanese.

    But, as you said , this may or may not apply to others. I’ve certainly found it applies to me, however.


    June 3, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  2. […] on a previous post briefly, it’s been my experience that complete and total Japanese immersion isn’t […]

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