Unscheduling Language Acquisition
This post is part of a series. Here’s a link to Part 2.
This is what ended up being the turning point for me with Japanese about a year and a half ago. I still have a long way to go, but for me this change is what has allowed me to work on the language each day in an enjoyable way.
When I first started learning Japanese I was enthralled with the idea of fully immersing myself in Japanese from the beginning. The method put forth on AJATT was just so darn logical (especially after my 4 excruciating years of high school Spanish) and I loved the idea of using fun things like books and movies to learn a language. Unfortunately things just didn’t work out the way I was hoping. Not because of the method, but because of how the mentality that I had to do all Japanese all the time ended up making me resent the language instead of enjoying it.
Here is a quote from the AJATT article:
For most of us, the root cause comes down to unworkably high standards gradually inculcated during childhood, often by well-meaning parents who themselves suck at self-management. Anyone who’s experienced or observed many self-consciously “high-achieving” families knows what I’m talking about: the parents who, when their kid gets ten A’s and one A-minus, rather than congratulating the kid, instead ask: “Why did you get an A-? This is unacceptable. What the flock, kid?!”. This can turn the kid into a failure-phobic perfectionist. The kid then (unconsciously) uses procrastination as a defense mechanism — starting work late because then at least “lack of time” can excuse what would otherwise have to have been a perfect project by her internalized standards.
Ironically enough, it has been Khatzumoto sitting on my shoulder for the past five years, commenting on my dedication (or lack thereof) to Japanese. Anytime I would have the desire to do something in English he’d be like, “Seriously, Jeff? Seriously? English? You’re better than that, man. I mean, I’m not saying it’ll be the end of the world if you do something in English. Just that I’ll be very disappointed in you. And there’s a good chance I’ll stop loving you. But hey, it’s up to you.”
I’m sure shoulder-Khatzumoto has been doing this with the best of intentions. He really just wants me to succeed. But as with the example of the well-meaning parents above, unfortunately his efforts often just resulted in me using passive immersion and slogging my way through hour after painful hour of incomprehensible TV as a way to procrastinate and avoid doing the things that felt like they were helping me most (because SRSing or reading were tiring and often led to me wanting to take a break in English). While at the same time building up resentment toward the immersion environment and language I was imposing on myself.
It’s hard to say what makes a standard unworkably high, but no matter how you look at it, a year and a half to native fluency in Japanese is a high one. Not impossible. Not one that can’t be achieved in an enjoyable way. But a high one. Separating yourself from your native language completely to pursue a goal with that level of focus is a high standard. And for me, starting with AJATT lead to me measuring my success off of this ideal. That in 18 months I would need to be perfect. That any English I came into contact with before reaching my goal was a sign of my lack of discipline or dedication. That any time spent on something not moving me closer to that goal was unacceptable.
I don’t mean to infer here that Khatzumoto “sucks at self-management” because clearly a lot of people have had great success with this system and he seems to be getting along just fine. But what I do think is that the system comes with an implicit assumption that would be found in high-achieving families: that we are too lazy to get things done without a restrictive system keeping us in check. That if Full Immersion isn’t sitting there ready to slap us if we think about doing something in English, we won’t be willing to do enough in our target languages.
Depending on one’s goals and time restrictions (like Khatzumoto’s 18 month limit before the job fair where he would be interviewed in Japanese), I can see the benefit of implementing a restriction like this. And clearly we are all going into this with different goals and expectations (plus I think that everything changes after reaching a level where all native materials are at i+1). But, for me at least, the only deadline I have is how soon I want to be fluent.
Besides, I have worked hard on this stuff, damn it. I’m tired of feeling guilty for the time I don’t spend on it instead of proud of the time I do spend on it.
For me, what has been the game changer is having the mindset that spending 10 minutes a day on Japanese is awesome. This is a huge project and we all deserve a pat on the back for spending any time on it. Therefore, thirty minutes is extra awesome. An hour is super extra awesome and several hours is super duper extra awesome. Then we know without question that working on it all day is super duper extra awesome fantastic.
This is in contrast to what I felt with full immersion: that all day of Japanese and one minute of English was a failure. All day of Japanese and 2 minutes was more of a failure. And all day of Japanese and several hours of English meant the sky would fall.
Working with the assumption that I wouldn’t spend every waking hour on Japanese immediately forced me to take a close look at the time I was spending on Japanese and figure out what was contributing the most to my progress. For me this was/is pretty clearly time spent on the SRS or reading and listening that is closer to i+1.
At this point I start each day with the general goal of spending some quality time on these things and the rest of the day is to be spent however I want (whether that be with additional exposure to the language, passive immersion, or something in English/completely unrelated). This focus on quality time isn’t because I have felt that passive immersion isn’t worth the time, just that I would rather start with a focus on the things I think have the greatest impact, and fill in the rest of the time how I please.
The nice thing with this mentality is that I feel I end up spending more quality time with the language because I get to choose to do it instead of feeling like I have to. This is something I love working on so sometimes I spend most of the day on it. Sometimes I don’t though, and on those days I just try to get a little bit done to feel like I’m still moving forward, while keeping in mind that this project is huge and it is the work spent over the long term that will end up accumulating into noticeable progress.
To help facilitate this different approach I have been using a notebook to record the time I spend. It has been really helpful because it is fun filling it up with time spent, and it gives me a clear look at what I did each day. I will show a specific example of how I format it in my next post.
I would love to hear about your experiences with juggling the daily time necessary to continue working on the huge goal of learning a language. Have you had success with full immersion? Any tips for people who want to try it out? Anyone with experiences similar to mine? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
- Related Posts (From very similar, d(^_^o), to not similar, (O_o).)
- Habit + Necessity and Proximity (^_^)
- Unscheduling Language Acquisition, Part 2: Using a Notebook (^_^;)
- What To Do When You're Stuck, Part 3: Relax (^_^;)
- Plant More Words (^_^;)
- Part-time Paradox (O_o)