Learn through osmosis? What a bunch of baloney!

I see a lot of learning materials and lessons that, to anyone who has even seriously studied a language, are outright ridiculous. I’m not sure what the EFL material situation looks like in a lot of other countries, but here in Japan it seems like everyone has some sort of magic system that will turn you into a native speaker in six weeks. Most of them follow a basic format of: fill your ears with English, and somehow you’ll learn the language through osmosis. I see tons of people recommending AJATT for people wanting to learn Japanese, as though watching gobs of anime and listening to AKB48 will somehow improve a beginner’s Japanese.

These people really need to read some Stephen Krashen. He’s been working in language acquisition since the 80s, and his theory of Second Language Acquisition has been hugely influential. I know I personally started really questioning my own teaching style after being exposed to his five hypotheses. Although our methods of data collection have broadened considerably since the theory first came about, I think it still has a lot to tell us about what constitutes an effective form of instruction, and how people learn.

The top lesson that the osmosis crowd needs to get a hold on is the idea of comprehensible input. According to Krashen, only by understanding the content of an utterance in a foreign language can we ever hope to acquire that language. He refers to this as i+1; where i represents the learner’s current level, i+1 refers to material that is just slightly challenging, so that the student is acquiring new language. Hearing tons of language that you don’t understand will not somehow spur your brain to develop circuitry to understand the language. You have to start small and build your understanding bit by bit, until you can understand more and more complex language.

Everyone wants to hear that they can improve their language skills just by doing something they’re already doing, like playing video games and watching anime in AJATT. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s not likely to spur any improvement until you’re at a much higher level. I personally didn’t really get much out of playing games in Japanese until I’d been studying for a couple of years. Before that, my comprehension was so low that I had to spend 5 minutes with a dictionary for every 1 minute of game play. Not very efficient.

When learning a language, don’t focus on trying to do things native speakers do. You will never be a native speaker, and that’s okay. You’re building your own language, and you need to focus on the next step in that process, rather that some far-off endpoint.


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Learn Japanese, Study Habits, Teaching Tips
7 comments on “Learn through osmosis? What a bunch of baloney!
  1. malcolm says:

    I’m imagining Japanese infomercial-style advertisements, proclaiming the superiority of their “learn-English-quick” schemes. I can see how vocabulary tapes and their ilk have a proclivity towards hucksterism, yet how does one reconcile immersion courses at international Universities? One thing I have learned is that there is no substitute for a native speaker, and that native speakers make the best teachers.

    • gengojeff says:

      >yet how does one reconcile immersion courses at international Universities

      Oh, those are a totally different beast. A teacher who is physically present and responsive to the students can, with just a bit of practice, provide that i+1 content pretty consistently. The trick is to pay attention to the student’s cues–many of them nonverbal–and make sure they’re understanding the message the teacher is getting across. Not every word, mind you, but the general message.

      Surrounding yourself with foreign language media might be fun, but it’s got to be understandable, and that will vary hugely between different people. I could listen to lecture after lecture on phonetics, syntax, or other mildly arcane subjects in Japanese, but I was totally lost this morning listening to a debate on whether to amend the Japanese constitution. Talking to Japanese people I know personally, however, is almost never difficult, because they can naturally and fairly effortlessly adjust to match my comprehension. I think that’s the real, major benefit one gets by talking face-to-face with native speakers, and the main thrust of learning in a classroom.

  2. malcolm says:

    Homer Simpson vocabulary builder:

  3. Cure Dolly says:

    I am also very dubious about osmosis.

    I learned most of the Japanese I know by watching anime with Japanese subtitles. It is an exercise in pure ganbari at first and does indeed involve more dictionary work than watching. I would say it easily takes five hours to watch a half-hour anime in the early days (though I started out with tougher material than I would now recommend because I knew no better then).

    I did also learn basic grammar (particles, conjugations etc) semi-systematically and then continued to learn grammar by researching it as I went. I learned kanji as words, not raw kanji, again as I went along.

    What I currently recommend in terms of watching “raw” for people who want to do things in a roughly similar way is to use material that you know you can handle pretty easily and quickly with Japanese subtitles. That way you can be sure that it is listening comprehension, not vocabulary or grammar that is the main problem.

    • gengojeff says:

      Sounds like your anime study was pretty similar to how I went through Final Fantasy X. There are so many books and courses and websites out there promising “fun, easy, fast” language learning, but I think that type of marketing does a lot more harm than good. The truth is that learning a new language is difficult, and time consuming, and sometimes you’ll want to give up and do something fun instead. It takes a certain amount of bull-headedness and 負けず嫌い to get good at a second language. It can be fun, but fun in the way same sense as mountain climbing, or training for a triathlon, or painting a mural. It’s the long, satisfying kind of pleasure.

  4. Seth says:

    Do you happen to know of a CI/TPRS class or teacher of Japanese in the Tokyo area?

    Thank so much for any info!

    • gengojeff says:

      Sorry, I don’t know anything about Japanese courses other than what’s offered at the Toshin universities. Classes can be helpful, but expect to do 90% of your learning outside of class!

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