“Use it or lose it.”
~ Originator Unknown To Me
“If I do not practice for a day, I know it. If I do not practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I do not practice for three days, my audience knows it.”
~ Vladimir Horowitz
I have a hunch. I don’t have proof yet. That’s why I’m going to try it out first. Here it is:
The frequency of contact with your L2 matters more than the quantity.
Corollary: if you just focus on the frequency you can relax on quantity.
Caution: which is not to say that the quantity doesn’t matter at all…it just matters less
Example: back in late 2007, I spent an entire week here in Japan (Thanksgiving Break, essentially) hanging out only with Americans. We ate, walked, talked and slept together the whole time. No, not in that way.
These were eikaiwa types who seemed to make it their solemn duty to avoid Japanese as if it were an infectious disease. They wouldn’t try to speak it, read it, or even watch TV in it. They went out of their way to watch English-language TV, eat American food, and watch Hollywood movies in English with no Japanese subs or dubs. I know. One of them (a chick) totally freaked out when I switched the bilingual news to Japanese (even though no one but me was watching)!
Having said that, they were nice people and it was fun to be with them. Also, despite their English bubble, they did experience varying degrees of decay in their English skills (they constantly found themselves forgetting words…you know…more than usual), perhaps because of the truncated, “ESL English” lexicon they used so much of the time at work.
So Thanksgiving Break ends and I get back to my Japanese life. At the train station on the platform, I call my friend Emstar, who happens to be Japanese and monolingual. He says: “dude…you sound weird”. And I know I do. A week of galavanting about with the American crew was enough to harm my Japanese severely. It didn’t matter that we were in Japan. It didn’t matter how much — what quantity of — Japanese I had been exposed to before. The frequency had gone down to 0. And that was enough to cause damage.
The Japanese students I knew in college in the US also reported significant drops in their Japanese ability, particularly when it came to reading and writing.
Ishinosuke UWANO had the same thing happen to him, but on steroids. His Japanese contact frequency dropped to 0 and stayed there for 60 odd years. Result? Despite 20 years of pure, unadulterated AJATT (21 years if you count his time in the womb), 21 years of uninterrupted Japanese exposure, folks…184,086 hours (that’s 11 million minutes or 663 million seconds…half a billion seconds, people)…he basically lost it all. If you think about it, he’s not even Japanese any more — he’s a Ukrainian guy who knows a couple of Japanese words.
I’ve still only had 5 figures’ worth of Japanese exposure — about one tenth of the exposure volume that Uwano has had. But obviously, I’m all over him when it comes to Japanese. Methinks that can be said quite safely. Nevertheless, I have seen the damage that neglect can do. I saw it over Thanksgiving 2007. I saw it when I decided to make myself a little China in Japan — great for my Chinese…disastrous for my Japanese. And I’ve met my fair share of Chinese (college) kids struggling with their Japanese here.
I want to be a polyglot…kinda. No, I don’t want to be a polyglot. I want Chinese and Japanese and maybe a bit of English on the side. Maybe I want to mack on chicks in Spanish as well. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not prepared to sacrifice the old for the new. I’m especially not prepared to sacrifice Japanese.
Most of the great Internet polyglots I’ve talked to accept decay and just practice back from it. I don’t want to accept decay. I hate having to make a “comeback”; that just feels like unnecessary repetition to me. I hate that “I used to know this” feeling; it’s not wistful, it’s just painful. As long as I’m alive, I want to be moving onward and upward, not regaining lost ground and glory. His name is Sisyphus and I have no interest in emulating him.
OK, so now what? Now that you’ve seen the shallow contents of my soul. Now what?
Here’s what it comes down to.
I used to subscribe to what you might call an absolute volume (critical mass) model of language acquistion. Basically, it goes like this:
Contact Volume → Critical Mass → Ownage.
And I still think that’s more or less true. But simply trying to log as many Japanese hours as possible is painful. And it’s not something I actually did. I was ultimately trying to log the J-hours. But the way I did it was to take any and every opportunity to touch Japanese. I never let dead time pass un-Japanized; I never let myself be apart from Japanese for any significant length of time. In other words, I maintained a very high (occasionally infinite) Japanese frequency.
You’ll recall that I once said that AJATT has two principal aims. (1) To tell you what I did, so you can do it as well, and (2) to give you stuff I wish I had had, so you can do better. To that, we might do well to add a silent third aim: (0) To figure out what the heck it actually was that I did (and, as far as practicality and curiosity allow, why it worked) — in other words, to figure out some underlying principles.
“All Japanese All the Time” is a misnomer. I rarely hit 100% Japanese quantity (infinite frequency) for the day. Having said that, I did have the occasional 100% day, and I am watching a Chinese variety show as I type this, so…I like to think that I don’t mess around 😀 . Once, during the legendary “hardcore” AJATT phase, I went with a Japanese friend to watch an English movie; she talked to me in Japanese the whole time, and when she wasn’t talking I was doing my reps. I like to think that I don’ t mess around.
“Always trying to to get some Japanese in there”. “Some Japanese all the Time”. “Always working to reduce the time between the last time I touched Japanese and the next time I touch Japanese”. These names are perhaps more accurate.
Absolute volume of contact with a language does matter, but not in the way I thought. In fact, I think we can basically ignore it. Iff, we can guarantee frequency. Uwano-san’s case shows us that even 180k hours of absolute exposure can amount to naught if the frequency drops to 0. Conversely, hourly or half-hourly exposure to Japanese…even just 2 minutes at a time…something tells me…could not only (of course) maintain ownage, but also produce it. For at least two reasons. (1) Frequency itself, and (2) run-on — people turn on the Japanese and accidentally leave it on.
So here is the new model I have in mind:
Critical Frequency → Ownage ↔ Maintenance.
Sorry if the arrows don’t make much sense. I’ll need to draw a real diagram. One of these days. Hehe.
Executive summary: if you just come in contact with Japanese often enough, you will not only get good at it, but you will stay that way. And you don’t have to worry much what you do “in-between”…as long as “in-between” is very, very short. I’m thinking on the order of 30~60 minutes. Example: 2 minutes of Japanese within every 1 hour block of the day…I think this may just be enough. I think this may just do it. But I’m not sure. I may be wrong.
It almost seems too easy, doesn’t it? But if life has taught me anything it’s that…people try too hard to do hard things. Indeed, it is people’s puritanical desire to do hard things that leads to failure and procrastination. The winners are those that choose “strategic laziness“. It’s sort of like the difference between religious fundamentalists who proclaim abstinence…right before they get pregnant and catch an STD all on the same day…versus people who plan out that part of their lives more…strategically: they may lack moral purity, but they also lack teenage pregnancy. Sorry for the racy example.
A language is like a cross between food, air and a pet. You can’t just binge on it once and call it a day. You need it there constantly, no, not constantly — very frequently — and when it does go, it needs to come back soon. Otherwise the skill dies.
Here are my serving suggestions for frequencies. These are all just guesstimates. My favorite one, the one I am using, is #2, the highlighted one:
- 1~2 minutes per half hour
- 2 minutes per hour
- 4~5 minutes per 90 minutes
- 10~15 minutes per 2 hours
- 15~30 minutes per 3 hours
- 30~60 minutes per 4 hours
- 60~90 minutes per 6 hours
- 90~180 minutes per 12 hours
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been using what I call a “contact calendar” (AJATT+ users get a free sample) to help me keep track of my exposure frequency in this way. I only track Cantonese and Mandarin. I opted for the highest manageable (to me) frequency: 2 minutes per hour (or, more accurately, 2 minutes within each 1-hour block or “frame”, of which there are 24 in every day).
Keeping to this frequency is a lot easier than it sounds. Usually, I handle the exposure every hour on the hour. Often, even though I only mean to do 2 minutes, I get so sucked in that I stay well over 2 minutes (run-on); simple inertia also plays a role — I’ll just forget to turn it off. Nevertheless, I keep to the same frequency — 2 minutes/hour or 2 minutes within each 1 hour block — because quantity is not the goal here: frequency is.
If I want or need a large block of time to do something else, I might listen to Cantonese at the top of one frame (say, from 21:00 to 21:02), then do the something else, and then catch more Cantonese at the bottom of the next frame (say from 22:55 to 22:57). So there’s a lot of flexibility here. In case you’re wondering, at night, when I’m asleep, I just leave a talk podcast playing, through all 8 frames or so.
The weird thing is…it works. I can’t quite explain it, and I know my explanations suck anyway, but somehow it works. I think what may be happening is that Cantonese and Mandarin are never allowed to “go cold” in my mind; they’re never allowed to fade; they always stay in working memory(?); there’s always a Chinese echo in my head. It’s sort of like the Song Stuck In My Head Phenomenon (SSIMHP), but in a more general way.
So even though I could be exposed to only 48 minutes of Cantonese per day, in theory, the effect is the same as listening to it all day because of the frequency, just like how a movie looks like it’s always moving because the frames, which are nothing but still images, move frequently enough. If it helps at all, remember that atoms, even of solids, are more than 99% empty space. But, apparently, the distances between and within atoms are close enough to where they can interact with light and each other, electrically and otherwise, in such a way that we experience opacity and solidity. Or so I’m told…someone hit me if this is wrong.
The secret to losing at Japanese: giving up. Why? Because frequency drops to 0.
The secret to winning at Japanese: reduce the gap between the last time you touched Japanese and the next time you touch it. Tip: for best results, make “next” = now. But if “next” can’t always be “now”, then make it darn soon. Like, less than an hour or so. Never let that water go cold. Never let the echo fade into silence. Never let the din in the head die.
I don’t know what I’m doing; I never do . But I’m excited about this new game. And I’m excited at the possibility of growing new skills while keeping old ones. In a way, not much has changed. But at the same time, I feel like everything has. There’s no more guilt about not being at 100% volume. Because the meaning and value of 100% has changed.
Infinite frequency is unnecessary provided the frequency is high enough. That is the hunchpothesis. It’s like math versus engineering. Old AJATT immersion was math — infinity, perfection, analog, continuous, smooth, unbroken. New AJATT immersion is engineering — discrete, digital, pixel-based, good enough for all practical intents and purposes.
Use it or lose it. And it’s not how much you use it, but how often.
Maybe…Maybe…again, I don’t know for sure…but maybe. Maybe if the Japanese input frequency is high enough…if enough frames go by each day — one per hour — then the image might as well be moving. If the red dots are close enough together, they make a red line — as far as we humans are concerned. I am basically certain that the underlying idea is sound. The only question, then, is: how close is close enough? What is the critical frequency? We’ll just have to try and see what the results tell us…
Update: A Japanese website covers this post: 【コラム】必要以上!?のビジネス英語マスター術 (48) 英語学習で重要なのは時間ではなく頻度!? 信じてみたくなる”2分間学習” | 経営 | マイコミジャーナル