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No Humans Necessary: Why You Don’t Need People to Learn a Language

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Secrets of Speaking

Loners, “introverts” and card-carrying Libertarians, get out a change of panties, because the words that follow are going to make you wet yourselves with pleasure.

Live, direct human contact is not essential to getting used to a language. 1 It’s useful and definitely desirable, even preferable. But far from essential.

People are wonderful. I love people. I live in a massive metropolis. My parents are people. My sisters are people. I grew up with people. I even speak Humanese. One time, I got a massage from a massage chair. That ###t sucked. It was terrible. It was torture. Worst. Massage. Ever. A true First World Problem.

But people get busy and impatient. People have exams to take and jerbs to use Facebook at and alcohol to drink. Conversely (SAT word!), recorded people — recordings of people — are powerful and tireless human surrogates. The machines of today are not the machines of our — well, my — childhood. They work it harder, better, faster and stronger. They are far sturdier and more reliable than the consumer electronics of even 20 years ago.

In terms of behavior, our machines undergo fundamental improvements while people remain fundamentally the same. In fact, we no longer replace our machines because they break; we replace them because our friends make fun of us for having an old machine.

Live human beings will flake on you like Kellogg’s. They will dump you like a high-fiber deuce. Your TV (well, laptop 😛 ) won’t. Your iPod won’t. Recordings of humans will be there for you. All day. All night. Every day. 24/7/365. When’s the last time your friends were willing to infinitely loop the same cool line or joke to you? When’s the last time your friends’ conversations came with subtitles? When’s the last time your friends were willing to tell you a bedtime story all night every night? 2

Make friends with your digital media devices. Thank them. They will teach you a language.

Like The Most Interesting Man in the World, despite living in Japan, I don’t always speak to live Japanese people. But when I do, I get mistaken for someone who grew up here.

Such is the power of media.

If you have access to people who speak the language but you’re avoiding them out of shyness, don’t. Go. Hang out. Be social. It’s fun and it’s good for you. But if you don’t have access to people, don’t let that be a mental block for you. You’ll be fine.

In terms of Japanese fluency, media got me here 3. My friends did not, not directly (they did indirectly; they were my biggest media suppliers 4; they complimented me constantly when we were hanging out and raised my self-confidence). They loved me. Their parents loved me. I know they did. I know they do. But too often they were too busy to be Khatz’s surrogate mommy/big brother. Having been raised in Japan, they were already predisposed to…using time-inefficient study methods ( 😉 zing!). Plus they were going to college in a second language, so they spent a lot of time hittin’ them books.

When I got over the incipient feelings of abandonment and realized that it was my responsibility to get good at Japanese, that the power lay in my hands — despite any apparent obstacles, (and that since (when we hung out) I did a lot of listening anyway, TV would be just as good as live people), then my linguistic life changed.

In getting used to a language, the presence of human beings is an asset, but their absence is not a liability. Not a dealbreaker. 5

Media will get you there. Recordings will get you there. No humans necessary.

Series Navigation<< If Anime Is Bad For Your Japanese, Then Nursery Rhymes Are Bad For Your English


  1. A least as an adult; I don’t think a baby would exactly thrive without human contact. In fact, I think such a baby would…un-thrive 🙂  . TV doesn’t seem to be very good for babies and toddlers.
  2. There are probably parents who would be unwilling: they’ll die for you, but they won’t live for you 😛 .
  3. In fact, if I were to rename “AJATT”, I would call it the “Media Exposure Method” or something to that effect.
  4. volumewise, I was given far more than I purchased
  5. ネイティブと話すチャンスは全くなくてよい

  11 comments for “No Humans Necessary: Why You Don’t Need People to Learn a Language

  1. April 15, 2013 at 09:33

    I think the label “introvert” is often leveled at people who care just as much about social contact and appearances, but who have stricter standards than the other people in their immediate environment. The “fun” media that we like to consume somehow captures something deeply human that we like, and it is often more efficient at delivering it than RL friends. So introverts and loners and hermits just have higher standards…and for the first time in history they can act on them!

  2. April 19, 2013 at 06:58

    …and if you get really lonely, you can always talk to Siri. She’s Japanese now.

  3. April 19, 2013 at 14:27

    Heh, I realised a few days ago that if one’s Google Account/GMail language is set to Japanese, and one’s got two-factor authentication enabled, the “Call number ending in xx” option will result in receiving a phone call from a robot with a reasonably-well-synthesised Japanese lady’s voice.

    Since “she” only provides the security code twice, it’s good practice for transcribing numbers from spoken text, I guess.

    Oh, and Skype’s microphone testing service (user “echo123”) will also respond in Japanese; assuming the appropriate locale/language setting. 🙂

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