Immersion Strategy: Your Ears Are Sacred

Yeah, I said it. Sacred. For once, I am deliberately courting a dogmatic approach and intepretation of AJATT “canon”.

TL;DR: if ever in immersion doubt, prioritize your ears. Anchor your ears in your L2. Where your ears go, your eyes will follow.

Japanese Ear, English Eye

Japanese Ear, English Eye

So, I’ve often played a game called “Sensory Split“. Basically the idea is this: you can’t always do the “all” in “All Japanese All The Time”. And that’s fine. But you can almost always run a “Some Japanese All The Time” game. SJATT. Wow, that…sounds better…like “Stir Fridays” in “Archer”.

Hold on though, first of all, I want to sincerely thank Idahosa Ness, a guest contributor over at Benny the Irish Polyglot’s “Fluent in 3 Months” blog. His post on “Sound Rehab“, which I didn’t even have to read in full to be totally electrified by (every paragraph contains enough insight to get you off your duff and implementing for days and weeks at a time), is what inspired me to act and reflect and go back to basics on this idea. I could literally quote the entire article and that would be giving it too little credit. So definitely go over there and take a look.

Anyway, so…dang that article’s good. Too darn good. I don’t even feel like writing any more, because Idahosa tells you everything you need to know. You know how, when you’re a kid, you’re growing really fast, and changing shoes sizes every 3~6 months, so, like, even though your parents are well-off, they like to act like they’re not, as if they hadn’t gotten the memo that they’re doing well, so instead of buying you “Reebok” shoes, they buy you “Roebuck” shoes and hope/pretend you won’t notice because you’re just some dumb kid that came out of their nutsack?

Well, this article is the Roebuck to Idahosa’s Reebok. His is the real deal, mine is a pale imitation. But I’ma do my best anyway. Um…talking points…where was I…so…OK, yeah, so there’s this AJATT idea of sensory split. Basically, you can have one sense in your L2 and the other (linguistic) sense in your L1. So, listening to L1 audio books while reading L2 text. Or, listening to L2 audio while reading L1 text. These two processes are affectionately known as:

  • “Japanese Eye, English Ear”
  • “Japanese Ear, English Eye”.

They both have the same initials so you can’t tell them apart. But which of these is better?

Wait, hold on, did I mention how awesome Idahosa’s article is? No, the man goes deep, he goes into how our entire education system values vision above all the other senses, quite in contrast to all of preceding human history and prehistory (including the “Classical” — Graeco-Roman — education that is purportedly the foundation of our system), which has always been very aural/oral. And it’s not just about whether or not a civilization had or valued writing, this visual bias has infected and affected everything, down to how we now read in silence instead of aloud — apparently that didn’t used to be a “thing”.

As biases go, it (the visual bias) is a relatively benign one, but it still deserves correction. Good news: I’ve heard it argued by no less than, if I recall correctly, the guy who organizes the TED conferences that YouTube and things like TED are sorta bringing back oral/aural learning, and I couldn’t agree more. I believe it was Earl Nightingale who called audio learning tapes the greatest learning innovation of his time, or something to that effect. And, yeah, for real, the ability to cheaply and effectively “can” actual sound and carry it around may well come to rival text and literacy in sheer impact; Nightingale was probably seeing something that we haven’t even quite begun to fully experience. Of course, the irony of it all, as Mihai Nadin points out in The Civilization of Illiteracy, is that this putative resurgence of oral culture came about thanks to text — in other words, what you’ve got going on is this sort of “neo-oral culture” that Walter Ong describes in Orality and Literacy. I said putative, I meant incipient. No…impending.

Ha. I got to say “putative”, though. Looks a bit like “punani”, so I like saying and writing it 😀 .

“This punani resurgence of oral culture”.

Oh, you were thinking it, too!

OK, so Japanese Ear/English Eye and Japanese Eye/English Ear. Which of these is better? Well, by far, the Japanese Ear/English Eye process is the more powerful one. If ever in doubt, let your eyes run free range linguistically, but fix — immerse — root your ears deeply in Japanese or whatever language it is you’re trying to get used to. There are several reasons for this, many of which are in my head but only a few of which I can really articulate clearly.

We are a very visual generation/culture of a very visual species and I am certainly no exception to that. As people go, I consider myself a very visual person. I’m a bibliophile; I buy and read books like…like dominoes, just one after another. I’ve had a TV (computer and projector now) in my bedroom since I was 11. I literally go through Tyrone Biggums withdrawal symptoms if I don’t see kanji for a while. My idea of visiting a city or country is visiting its bookstores. Our work and our play are mediated through literacy; we’ve all become writers as well as readers, Twittering and Facebooking and texting and generally freaking ignoring me when I’m speaking: I’m talking to you, every woman in the world 😛 . Even my mother’s addicted to texting.

And as languages go, I consider Japanese a very visual language, if such a thing can be said. That right there is probably the least controversial AJATT assertion in the history of AJATT assertions. And there’s no reason, no excuse to remain illiterate in Japanese if getting used to Japanese is something you want to extract out of life, out of your time here on Earth. Nevertheless, like Idahosa, I don’t buy into the “learning styles” / “learning modalities” spiel; it’s always struck me as just another cop-out, another way for people to claim that they’re stupid and handicapped and “can’t” do something. Almost like a dyslexia lite or an ADD junior. Just yet another sub-clinical “pathology”, another “disability”, another way to disempower ourselves, to make ourselves weak and broken and…yeah, lame.

And at the same time, Idahosa’s helped me understand how/why it is I got addicted to audiobooks these past, I dunno, 18 months or so. Learning by ear is powerful, just as powerful (and in some ways more so) than learning by eye. Here’s the thing about making your ears a sacred L2/Japanese space:

You can listen (well, hear) far more than you read. So there’s a volume issue. Even with the amount we read nowadays, there are plenty of times when we’re staring into space or when we simply can’t read for logistical reasons — our hands are literally too full for literacy (you like it when I do that, don’t you?). Some people drive, others walk (I read while walking quite a bit, but traffic safety concerns curtail the amount I can get away with this), some people get just too plain tired, either in the eyes or in the whole body. Sometimes we can’t focus. Again, back to talking about me (my favorite person and topic), I have great vision, but yeah, my eyes tire. Not to mention the biggest visual shutdown of them all: sleep. We even call it “shut-eye”. And let me hit you with some knowledge, sister: sleep is a major hole in your reading time.

Ears on the other hand, never get tired. Not in the same way. They can always be kept busy. No matter what you’re doing. Even when you’re tired. Even when you’re walking. Even when you’re daydreaming. Even when you’re sleeping. Will you always be focussed? No, but that’s fine. The same can’t be said for books, you can’t passively read in the same way you can passively hear (there is something to be said for “visual cues” and “ambient text”; they are good and they are valuable; what I’m talking about here is not about the presence/absence of power and value but about an overwhelming differential in power and value). Aural cues and ambient sound are just that much more impactful.

Here’s another interesting thing I find about always hearing your L2. OK, so it’s easier to keep Japanese or Cantonese or L2ese in your ears at all times than it is to keep it in your eyes, right? No argument there; I’ve told you nothing new. But here’s what I find that’s exciting: always hearing your L2 acts as a reminder that “hey, we’re playing the L2 game”. No, reminder’s the wrong word. “Reminder” is an English word for “annoying thing telling you what to do but that you ignore”. Reminders are Google calendars and bossy little sisters 😛 . No, it’s more subtle and powerful than that: it’s a nudge. A nudger. Mothernudger.

Because, here’s where it gets weirder, when I hear, say, Japanese, it makes me want to read Japanese more. It doesn’t inspire guilt, it inspires desire: that’s why it’s a nudge, not a reminder. It inspires behavior. Like, it feels…right? It feels comfortable? Sort of like how certain foods go better together, or certain foods make you want other foods? Due to my low mental age, I’ve never drunk or smoked, so I can’t speak from personal experience there, but I hear, for example, a lot of drinkers who don’t otherwise smoke say that when they drink, they start to want a smoke.

So, yeah, like that. Like milk and cookies or milk and cereal. Or strawberries and cream.

Big dairy fan talking.

Speaking of which, did you know that Tom Cruise’s real/government surname is “Mapother”? I did not know that. Saw it the other day on WikiPedia Japan.

That totally came up out of the blue. Apropros of nothing. I have no way of connecting it to anything else we’re talking about here today.

So, yeah, reading even very relaxed, skimmy, AJATT-style reading, is relatively effortful whereas hearing is extremely effortless. You have to be in the same room as text and looking at it. Obviously the same is not true of audio, which is not constrained to line of sight, so it’s not just a sensory issue, it’s even a spatial one. Which is weird because photons are kind of…I dunno, cooler…sexier…than air vibrations but air vibrations are actually…pretty awesome as a carrier medium for information.

Anyway, I could go into how…

I could go into all of that up there ↑ …

…But I’m not gonna because my eyes and fingers are tired right now and I can’t be bothered and I’m not so hot at convincing people to do things and I’ve covered some of that ground before and other people are or are going to be doing a better job of talking to you about it all anyhow.

My eyes are tired now and need a rest. But my ears? Still goin’ strong. Still listening to (hearing — I’m not always focussed and that’s fine) “Powerpuff Girls” in Chinese, which has been on this whole time. How do you like them apples? Your ears are your friend: use them.

One more thing: you probably have a life going on in your L1. A life that needs to be attended to. But guess what? Precisely because our modern culture is so visual, even more than it was a generation ago, you can, in most situations, safely and easily dedicate your ears almost completely to your L2 while having your eyes float in and out of your L2 as necessary to handle your…yeah, your life. There remains a good deal — not too too much, because Japan has a great translation culture, but a good chunk — of information that I can only access in English. “Locking” my ears in L2 mode allows me to read this information guilt-free (yeah, even I have AJATT guilt — can’t be a hypocrite, right?) while also naturally, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly pulling me right back to L2 stuff as soon as I have “done the needful”.

Listening and hearing stuff makes you want to look it up and google it and wiki it and just generally get more deetz; you keep hearing it, so you keep wondering what it’s about. You keep hearing it, so you eventually start saying it. Anyone who has a baby or a baby sibling knows this is true: yeah, the babies imitate us, but we also imitate them. Many family nicknames are baby-invented mispronunciations. And they tend to stick for life: my middle sister’s teenhood friends are still calling her what I called her when I couldn’t talk properly.

Hearing and listening to Japanese — and I use this word cautiously but deliberately — religiously, was definitely a (the?) cornerstone of the original 18-month AJATT success story and all its side stories (the news success…like, I pounded the news. And what I did was, watch the news once, record it to MiniDisc (this was a long time ago) and then listen to it all day). If you look through the success stories of other AJATTeers, both in Japanese and other languages, you’re going to notice a strong aural trend. James (news), Jamie (peeing, German). Errybody. Of course they were visually engaged, too, as was I, but the aural engagement is the real magic. And it is the aural engagement that, I would argue from experiment and experience, drives visual engagement.

Aural engagement drives visual engagement. Not the other way around. There is a tendency among AJATTeers — indeed, among schooled people period — to turn this into an SRS game. All reppy, no heary. “Just do my reps and I’m cool, right? Screw all this listening.” 2 Wrong. SRS is the glue of the metaphorical Book of AJATT but media exposure is the paper. Think of it as though your ears just got tattooed with Japanese flag colors, and you’d be on the right track 🙂 .

Anchor your ears in your L2. Where your ears go, your eyes will follow.

Aural engagement drives all engagement. Again, I am not downplaying literacy in any way. I am literacy’s bulldog. You’re not going to learn to read a language you don’t get to see that often. And I think ignoring the writing system of a language with any considerable literary output is comically stupid and unnecessary and will also, ultimately, suppress the quality of one’s speech and even comprehension. You know how native speakers who don’t read a lot habitually missay (and no doubt misunderstand) certain things? Yeah, like that. You don’t need that. There is no need to be illiterate. Writing systems are meant to be understood; they exist to be understood 3. That is their entire purpose.

A big, big thank you to Idahosa, the Reebok to Roebuck writers, for teaching me about myself again, and no doubt teaching all of us about ourselves.


  1. instead of complaining about how learning is hard and kids have it easier, wouldn’t it make sense to avail yourself of every advantage that kids have, no matter how trivial? All it takes is using the headphones and speakers you already own anyway! Why wouldn’t you do that? Why wouldn’t you do something that doesn’t require effort? Why do you have to be so theoretically convinced that it works when experience alone is screaming in your face?!

    Because, no, I don’t know the theoretical reasons why hearing/listening works (and linking to articles based on too-brief-to-be-conclusive research would just be me pretending to know), but sometimes common sense alone is good enough. And common sense raises questions like: how could I expect to be able to reach native levels with no reference whatsoever to native method and experience?

    Not that everything we do must be a reconstruction of childhood but for crying out loud, it’s a great starting point! Think about it: every able-bodied person learns their native language to fluency; that’s a 100% success rate; it is literally the most successful language learning program in human (and perhaps pre-human) history. There’s bound to be something there worth copying! ! ! With or without understanding it, what works…(get this)…WORKS!

    I’m just sayin’…give it a chance because I have no theory for you — but the empirical evidence — in your own personal life, no less — is over-freaking-whelming; it is over 9000. I’m not saying the Earth is flat here, man. I’m saying…give the idea a chance!

    Why would you happily try drugs and alcohol, which we know are bad for you (but keep trying to prove otherwise), yet turn a schooled, skeptical eye to “passive” hearing because you are not 1000% convinced that “this listening voodoo is gonna do anything”. I mean, I know “why”: people are weird like that; I do plenty of weird things…but still. It’s like saying “them Jews got all the money” but then literally burning a stack of $86,400 in small, unmarked bills that get delivered to you every day because…because, Phuket, you don’t like how they look.

  2. I actually had a kid contact me who had “no time” to listen but wanted to only do reps so he could understand judo material — text and videos — in Japanese, because doing reps was something he could “see” himself doing whereas listening seemed just silly
  3. Yes, even Chinese-based ones (especially Chinese-based ones — they’re trying so hard to help you that they even went and drew you a freaking picture: what more do you freaking want 😀 ?! ) Most kanji/hanzi are actual logical combos of pictures (logograms?), but…yeah…the basis is pictographic. It’s like saying “molecules aren’t atoms; they’re combinations of atoms”. Yeah, still made of atoms, bro. But, yeah, look at the literacy rate in a Hong Kong or a Taiwan or a Japan today, and the illiteracy rate in the modern US or medieval Europe. What does that tell you? It tells you that literacy is a function of the environment, not the writing system.

  14 comments for “Immersion Strategy: Your Ears Are Sacred

  1. Agent J
    September 26, 2013 at 17:48

    The cute AJATT graphics are back.

  2. September 27, 2013 at 04:23

    I read Idahosa’s post, very interesting. Listening is definitely important, I find that listening while doing repetitious s##t like reading kanji helps me stay motivated and focused.. even though it might be a bit of a focus tug of war at times.

  3. Livonor
    September 29, 2013 at 13:05

    That’s was my salvation, I started learning back in 2011, december, discovered AJATT, went right through heisig, but quit several times, but when in 2012 december when I put all that L1/L2 sh## that was in my PC in the trash and went full 日本語環境, started listening all the time, I found myself much more motivated to learn the kanji and never loked back since then

  4. Pingfa
    September 29, 2013 at 23:25

    I don’t know, some days I can’t distinguish sounds very well. Seeing does feel more concrete, but I suppose that’s because it is persistent (a written sentence doesn’t disappear once you’ve read it). Sound is definitely easier to immerse oneself in, though, as you’ll always be passively hearing something wether you want to or not, whereas seeing something is a much more active process (I can choose to skim a written sentence, I can’t skim a sound).

    “I have great vision, but yeah, my eyes tire”
    I have this problem too. I’m curious, does anyone here find their eyes tire more when reading kanji or hanzi? I do.

  5. kyub
    April 29, 2014 at 14:19

    I have a little theory on this…When it comes to new sounds, especially in a new language, our brain has an initial threshold based on sounds we are used to. But ONLY through constant exposure both active and passive (probably more the ladder) can the threshold for sound expand.

    Its like you asking someone how to say hello in Spanish. The simple “Hola” is short, 2 syllables, and if English is your native language or something close to the romance languages, its not hard to comprehend. But now if you asked how to say “Hello how are you” (Hola, como esta usted?), that’s where it becomes a little difficult. The threshold for new sounds are low so when hearing a sentence in L2 that’s longer than what you’re used to hearing, a lot of times you’ll hear the response “they speak too fast”. No, that’s normal for them. YOU just haven’t increased your threshold for sounds in that language.

    I believe this because that’s what I experienced. Im learning Spanish without textbooks and classes. Just immersion. And of course in the beginning I couldn’t understand anything because I thought they spoke too fast. But Through constant immersion and REPETITION mixed with exposure to new audio, I can comprehend about 70-80% of a news broadcast or telenovela (Spanish soap opera). And even in Spanish, you might have a few dialects in which the seem to speak REALLY fast (example, Caribbean Spanish compared to Spanish in mexico. Very fast and broken.) but the thing is those people are used to it.

    Just like Khatzu said, you have to get used to it and in doing that you increase the threshold for the new language sounds.

    • Nathan
      May 1, 2014 at 16:28

      Hi Kyub, did you do anything else apart from your constant immersion and repetition? Also, which do you find yourself doing more – listening to L2 audio or watching L2 videos?

    • Kenny
      May 8, 2014 at 13:31

      @kyub I’d like to know what a “typical” day was like for you. I’m trying to increase my listening in my L2. I’m trying to learn Spanish.

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