Good day to you, Mr. Khatz
It’s morning here in cloudy Amsterdam, and I just thought I’d kill some time sharing my little story with you while eating yesterday’s leftover sushi. There is nothing quite like raw fish in the morning.
I really just want to thank you for your website. There, I’ve said it. That’s the whole point of my mail: thanking you. If you’re too busy or don’t care enough to read, just stop right here. But if you bear with me, I’d like to share my little story with you. It’s unlikely that I’ll teach you something you don’t already know, but after months of reading AJATT, I just realised that I’m a perfect living and breathing proof that the immersion process is the best way to learn a language. Any language.
And I can say that with absolute confidence because I’ve done it. Not with Japanese just yet, I’m still early in the process (1200 kanji and going strong !), but with other languages. And yet, when I decided that I wanted to learn Japanese, my first reflex was to seek out a Japanese class at the university. Even though I’ve always despised language classes. Funny, huh ?
I’m just a little Frenchman living in the Netherlands, so finding an English/French-speaking Japanese class proved to harder than I thought, so I went for self-study. At first, I was a bit bummed; I feared that I would never be able to achieve fluency without going through the usual socially acceptable routes.
But then I discovered AJATT.
And I realized “Hey, this method makes sense, it’s how I learned English in the first place”. It never really occurred to me before, because all my friends and family would just tell me that I was gifted at languages. And I really believed it; I went to a trilingual school as a kid for three years, from ages 3 and 6; there, classes would be held entirely either in French, English or German. About 1 or 2 hours of each every day. So I largely attributed my success in English to that; “it’s because I picked it up early”, I thought.
But then during a trip to Germany, it occurred to me: “hey, I don’t remember jack sh*t about German, how do you say ‘hello’ in German again?”. For some reason, English had stuck with me, but not German. No siree, not a single freaking word, despite learning words in German before I even knew them in French (which is my native tongue; this school was in France).
So your website got me wondering, why is that ? And then another part of my childhood came to mind; namely my love for star wars; I remember spending hours on end watching Star Wars as a kid. Why is that relevant ? Well, I only owned the VHS in English. Actually, most of the movies I had in my room as a kid were in English. Get it ? In English. Not in German.
The only reason I remember any English to this day is that I never stopped watching / hearing / reading English medias for extended periods of time. Had I watched Star Wars in German, I would probably be fluent in German by now.
Those English VHS tapes kept my English alive, even though I left this trilingual school very early, and never had another English class for another 6 years.
And then at age 10, my parents got me a DreamCast with Shenmue. A brilliant game for sure, one of my all-time favorites. And, as it happens, it was only available in English dub with English subtitles. My English back then wasn’t perfect; heck, it wasn’t even that good, but I wanted to play this game so much that I just plunged head-first into it, and I enjoyed every second of it, picking up English phrases and vocabulary by the ton along the way.
Then came Phantasy Stars Online on the DreamCast. An online multiplayer RPG. Again, there were no French dedicated servers; the playerbase was international. So everyone spoke English, and so did I. And it was tremendous fun; most of the people I played with were in the same situation as me; they spoke little English and had to make do to be understood. So there was nothing to be shy about, pretty much everyone was in the same boat, including Japanese players.
Even though the English I spoke and read back then was loaded with grammatical mistakes and very flawed, it didn’t hamper my English learning the slightest. Quite the contrary, in fact, it gave me a huge boost in confidence and a solid understanding of how the language worked.
So when English classes started in high school, I could just talk circles around everyone, despite not having learned a single grammatical rule. Ever. I just understood the “concept” of the language, the musicality, if you will. I could tell by ears only if a sentence sounded right or wrong. I couldn’t explain why, but I could correct it. I couldn’t provide any grammatical or syntactical insights to save my life, but I could make a wrong sentence right again.
As for German, I remembered so little of it (read: “jack s##t”) that I didn’t even bother taking German classes. I went for Spanish instead. Despite having learned tons of German for three years on a daily basis early on in my life, learning words in German that I didn’t know in French or in English. I didn’t follow up with German; I didn’t watch German-dubbed movies; I didn’t play German video games; I didn’t watch German cartoons. And as a result, I forgot all of it, while English stuck with me through and through because I had fun playing English video games, speaking English online with complete strangers from all around the world, and watching English media.
I am not a “language genius”. There is no such thing. I just exposed myself to lots of English, hours upon hours of it, and the language came flowing naturally. Not once had I the impression of “learning” English. I was just playing with it, reading in it, writing in it. I just… had fun in it. At no point did it ever feel like working, I just did it because I was enjoying it. The point wasn’t even to LEARN English, it was to play those video games I loved and couldn’t play in French because there was no French version. It was to watch those movies that I only owned in French. English fluency came almost as a fortunate side effect. I didn’t have to work on it, it just… happened, for lack of better words.
And so when I looked up your website, it all came crashing down on me; this is how you “learn” languages. This is how I “learned” English. But it took your writings for me to realize it. And if only for that, I am grateful. So I cancelled the orders I had placed for (expensive) Japanese textbooks and audiotapes, and ordered RTK1 and tons of manga with the money I saved. I’m about halfway through RTK1, and I’m loving it.
Entering the kanji [into the SRS] and making up stories for them can feel a bit tedious at times, but whenever I feel down about it, I just take a glance at the other side of my desk and see “デスノート”, “ドラゴンボール”, and even non-furigana stuff like “新世界より” (the book), “Black Lagoon” and “ヘルシング”, and it gives me that little extra bit of motivation to get going.
When I take a break, I fire up Kill Bill (Japanese dub, seriously, it’s even better than the original), Star Wars (J-dub), or one of the numerous anime series I’ve got lying around.
When I walk around the house, it’s with the Japanese Harry Potter or LOTR audiobook, or with NHK News or Fuji TV on in the background.
When I go to run some errands, it’s with a JUNK podcast. When I work, I put some 椎名 林檎 (awesome) or Shing02 (aww yeah 歪曲 is a freaking masterpiece) and just do what I have to do.
It’s tremendous fun, and it feels guilty. When I go to bed, it’s with my PS VITA and ペルソナ4 ザ・ゴールデン, which I already played I English, so I know the plot. I’m immersing myself, and it feels so natural that something feels wrong when I’m in a situation where I can’t have Japanese going on 24/7, like when I’m visiting my family. It feels good, I’m having fun, and even though I haven’t finished RTK yet, I surprise myself being able to read and understand some sentences I find here and there in my manga or in some anime / movies I watch.
And I could go on and on about the satisfaction I feel when I can recognize a kanji I learned when I’m outside my little Japanese wonderland. It could be on the bus on a kid’s T-shirt, at the second-hand Japanese bookstore, or on the menu of a fake Japanese restaurant or written on a wall in the background of a movie; no matter the place, no matter the overall meaning of the sentence : just being able to make sense of a writing system that so many people dismiss as impossibruuuuu if a great reward in itself. I’m not afraid of coming out now : I love kanji. I love the Japanese writing system. It’s beautiful, rich and it just makes sense.
So thank you, Mr. Khatz, for your website. It helped me realize what I knew all along, but didn’t know I knew (phew). It helped me get past those little monolingual forum know-it-alls who took 4 years in Japanese classes and came out frustrated and bitter about anyone trying to learn the language another way (i.e. not the “academic” way). It helped me realize that I’m not a language genius (that’s a relief; being a called a genius is extremely derogatory IMO: it dismisses any effort / time one might have dedicated to achieving something). I’m just a staggeringly handsome guy who happens to love languages and Japanese (pop) culture.
Everyone can do it, once they go past the mental blockade. Screw social conventions, screw academia. Your method works, I applied it unknowingly to English, despite having never been to an English-speaking country in my life for more than 2 weeks at a time (and even then, not that often), and despite never learning a single grammatical rule or cracking open a single English textbook (except in English class in high school, but I pretty much slept the entire time during those).
There is no miracle, no secret recipe; just do it, and stick to it. Living in the country is not a requirement, never was (or perhaps when the Internet wasn’t around, but that’s a big “perhaps”) and never will be. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking country and I speak English. I live in a Dutch-speaking country and I don’t speak a single word of Dutch (because I’ve got no interest in learning it and I’m living here only very temporarily). Your location doesn’t matter, [insert country here] is where your make it out to be.
So thank you, Dear Leader, for allowing me to go past the social conventions and the mental blockade. I’m on a fast track to Japanese fluency, and no one can stop me. See you at the top of the mountain.
… have you ever thought of creating a cult ?
Do you have a success story you’d like to share? Hit me up!
Also, your Mom is not a virgin.
These are facts.