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Won’t Raw Immersion Make Me Mislearn Words?

Anonymous on February 12, 2014 at 03:54
The one thing that I’m self conscious about (and I speak from analogous experience) is that I’ll learn incorrectly. I’m not sure how to explain it too well, but essentially, I’d learn these words as functions rather than as words, if that makes any sense. Like, when I was playing Tear Ring Saga in the original Japanese (that was the analogous experience), I learned 攻撃 (or whatever it was) as 「this is the make dudes dead button」, completely skipping past learning it as a word. (Maybe it’s a bit strange that I’m using a word I remember as an example, but that’s how memory works.) I feel like something very similar would happen with the OS switch. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about with memorization, but I’m not entirely sure.

Jeremy on February 12, 2014 at 05:11
Learning 攻撃 as 「this is the make dudes dead button」 is perfectly fine. I mean, that’s what it does, no? But what happens when you’re watching a movie and you hear some soldiers planning a 」奇襲攻撃?」 Think about the words you know in English, they’re stored more as feelings, and every time you hear/see a word in a new context, you’ve just added another layer to that feeling. Dictionary lookups and SRS are all about helping you better establish that 「feeling.」 The more you see a word in more and more contexts, the stronger this feeling gets. Once you’ve gotten down the 「attack」 feeling for 攻撃, your brain’s not going to have much issue seeing it used similarly to 「criticize」 later on.

When’s the last time you sat down and learned a word 「as a word」 anyways? Words only exist because of their function.

Livonor Submitted on 2014/02/12 at 09:22 | In reply to Anonymous.
That’s no big deal. Learning word forms, even if you don’t have any insight about their meanings, counts, and by 「word forms」 I mean actually knowing that those words exist; once you know the form of the word you can spot it, and pay attention to it. And eventually figure it out, get a gradual understanding of it from a superficial guess, or look it up.

Or do you think that when you were learning English you instantly knew every meaning of every word the first time you came across it? 🙂

BTW, many words in your native language stay in this state forever, like 「exfoliate」; the only thing I know about that word is that it has something do to with cosmetics.

Exactly what Jeremy said. Function and layers. A word is more its function than it is its “meaning” (definition) — I’m sure there are more precise terms for all this in fields like semantics and semiotics, but I can’t be bothered to go learh them. What Anonymous Coward is talking about is exactly what you WANT to have happen — you are bypassing definitional meaning, which is inaccurate anyway, and going straight for the function and feeling of a word — like a native speaker would. You are hacking directly into emotion and behavior, into layering and contouring.

This is the same reason why Google Images is, overall, the best (L2) dictionary in the world. Think of the word “banana” (I think this may be a Chris Lonsdale/The Third Ear example, so I thank him for it in advance…no, wait…it’s Tony Buzan, I stole it from a Chinese edition of one of Buzan’s mind mapping books). When you think of the word “banana”, you don’t think of the words “yellow tropical fruit”, you see a picture of that curved sickle, you feel its firm squishiness in your hand, you smell the fragrance, you taste of all the ones you’ve eaten and haven’t eaten and want to eat; your mind goes to the produce aisle at Kroger and/or to your blender where you make protein shakes. I dunno what kinda kink you’re into. The point is…you’re not worried whether or not you “learned the word properly”.

Think of “metrosexual”. You don’t think…”metro…urban…urbane sexual person…”. You think of Hugh Grant, Ryan Gosling…you see well-groomed men in your minds eye and you think of pomade and stuff. The word didn’t even exist a few years ago and you didn’t know what it meant, and you can’t even fully define it; you’d stumble a bit, but you instantly know when when you see one. That’s what you’re doing with 攻撃, Anonymous Coward. You’re Charlie Sheening it. You’re winning. And when the time comes to learn how to read/pronounce it, you’ll totally be primed because you’ve been using and seeing it all this time. You’ll be just like a Japanese kid: “oh THAT’S how you pronounce that; THAT’S what that word is that I see and click on and use it all the time”. Think about it — who’s at the advantage here? Kid with all this prior exposure versus blank slate gaijin learning it “properly” from a dry-a$$ textbook?

This is why so many heritage language learners can seem to have an advantage. They really don’t, but many do tend to have priming in the form of words seen and heard in the L2; these vague feelings and senses. When the time comes to learn more consciously, if it ever needs to, they’re on the fast track. Well, you don’t need to be a heritage kid to get the priming advantage, you can give it to yourself now by exposure — by immersion. It’s just like how most African music teaching is said to work — there’s very little need for theory and explanation, because most (African) students have done years of preparatory work in the form of extensive prior exposure to the sounds, the rhythms, the beats, whatever: they now exactly how it *should* sound, so they’re already on the fast track to actually producing the sound. Or something like that, I dunno, I don’t really know anything about music.

Funny true story: In English, I misread the word “hurriedly” (“HURRY-ed-lee”) for what seems like at least three years, starting age seven, because I only ever encountered it in literary contexts and never needed to say it out loud. But I knew what it meant, and when someone finally did read it “right”, I was primed already.

In fact, learning words “properly”, especially across/between languages, is one of the worst things you can do. Easy example: 綺麗.
綺麗 doesn’t actually mean “beautiful”. It doesn’t mean “clean”. It means both these things. And neither.

大丈夫 doesn’t mean “all right”. Not in the sense of “All right! Go team! Go Cougars!”

You’d be better off looking at pictures of 綺麗 things and what have you…

Anyway, long story short — what you’re doing is perfect. Keep it up. You’re bypassing the terrible installation wizard that explicit learning can be and installing Japanese by hacking directly into your…mind or whatever and copying the files to exactly where they need to be; this metaphor is breaking down rapidly and organic knowledge isn’t static like a file, it’s more a behavior, more cybernetics than AI, and it’s more layered like Jeremy says, but you get the idea. You know what? I don’t even know what I’m talking about. Listen to Jeremy instead; he’s way better at this!

When people say: “I just memorized it”, what they mean is, “but I didn’t ‘fully’ [whatever that means] understand it or know how to apply it to other contexts”. But how many contexts are you supposed to handle at a time? Trying to actively memorize all the possible nuances of a word at once is the real folly. So you “only” know how to read Japanese clothing words in the context of clothing labels — well, where the FARK else are you supposed to read clothing words? Oh…in a context-free multiple-choice test. I forgot about how important those were in real life.


Knowing, understanding and using a word in one context is the first and only possible step in knowing it in more contexts. You have taken the first step, Anonymous Coward. You’re a baby who’s taken his first steps and you’re getting angry at yourself because you’re afraid that if you keep walking like a baby, it’ll ruin your running form? Do you see how counter-productively gun-jumping that is?

What you’re observing and understandably (though unnecessarily) panicking about, Anonymous Coward, is the process of real world knowledge being created. Excuse my while I channel Hayek and Taleb a second here. You see, Soviet-Harvard textbook knowledge is all neat and top-down. It’s orderly. It comes in a predictable sequence, backed by a grand theory or theories that are supposedly correct and infallible. It purports to be whole, complete and authoritative, even though it is none of those things.

Real-world knowledge, on the other hand, is fragmentary, disjointed, disconnected, messy, bottom-up, accurate and fun. You often don’t see the big picture until after the fact. You don’t make sense of it until after the fact. It’s based on experience. It’s “empirical” and experiential. There’s no grand theory, but there are patterns and hunches and observations. “攻撃” seems to make dudes go dead quite reliably…There is no right or wrong, there is no up or down, there is just what works.

The thing is, the textbook that’s big enough to explain everything to you “correctly” so that you learn things the “right” way 1, doesn’t exist, and even if it did, it would crush your back, your mind and your hard drive. Not to mention that as soon as it rolled off the presses, it would already be wrong and obsolete in parts because that’s how long it would take to put it together. And for what purpose? To lecture birds on how to fly. To turn something that you naturally, more or less effortlessly, imperceptibly and unconsciously do into something boring, effortful, explicit and conscious…for no reason. To turn your procedural knowledge into declarative knowledge just so you can turn it back into procedural knowledge again. It’s kind of like burning software bits onto plastic CDs just so you can turn it back into bits again, a process Larry Ellison happily lampooned back in the day.

Contact precedes comprehension. Exposure precedes understanding. If I were you, I’d be much more afraid of typos, anachronisms and hyper-correction in textbooks 2 than a partial knowledge gleaned from the (simulated) real world of immersion. Unlike with Soviet-Harvard textbook knowledge, there is no masquerade of authority with immersion-based experiential knowledge. You always know that your information is only partial; you’re always open to new information and correction. 3 To go all Taleb on you again, it’s the difference between reading the New York Post and the New York Times. In the case of the former, you know you’re having smoke blown up your butt. In the case of the later, it looks and sounds respectable, so you think you’re getting truth. The patronizing masquerade of top-down authority is much more dangerous, much more damaging and much more comforting and reassuring than an honest, dynamic, bottom-up fallibility.

Memorization and comprehension aren’t opposites; they’re two complementary processes that feed into each other. Comprehension helps memorization and memorization helps comprehension — where else is the language supposed to be but in your head? And how will it get and stay there if not by memorization? And how will it naturally get in there if not one piece at a time? You only ever eat food one mouthful at a time; eating nothing at all would kill you; eating too much too quickly would kill you. Knowledge is the same way. You can’t eat it all at once. Not every bite necessarily contains all the ingredients of the meal — even (unfortunately) when that meal is a sandwich. The lettuce dropped out. That’s fine. Pick it up. Keep eating. Same holes.

We don’t have pre-loaded outboard memory chips just yet. Technology may one day negate everything I’ve ever said, and I look forward to that day — making rice by hand is great and all, but I’d much rather use a rice cooker. But until then…

  • PS: Like Livonor, I still don’t know what “exfoliate” actually means.
  • PPS: I’m not saying never use a dictionary or never seek an explanation; dictionaries are great 4, I’m just saying…those are precise, deliberate, high-energy activities that can only occupy a vanishingly small amount of your time. Most of your time must needs be passive, relaxed, laid-back…inferential…guessy, messy.


  1. Would learning “proper” form have made Emil Zátopek or Michael Johnson better runners? I suspect it would have ruined them. The Fosbury Flop is the perfect high jump technique..for Dick Fosbury and anyone like him. But what else is out there?
  2. 全然 isn’t supposed to be used in affirmative contexts!”…Well, welcome to real life
  3. This puts you in a permanent state of epistemic humility: you know that you don’t know everything and that you’re never going to know everything, but you’re not paralyzed by that fact.
  4. Explanations aren’t so great, and a bunch of example sentences/phrases will serve you better than any explanation ever can or will.

  4 comments for “Won’t Raw Immersion Make Me Mislearn Words?

  1. Howard Blast
    February 17, 2014 at 03:11

    Anonymous Coward was clearly just desperate for attention.

  2. February 17, 2014 at 10:35

    Great article! You know, I was thinking about something like this when I watched a movie about people who write dictionaries (舟を編む) recently. In the movie, when recruiting they asked people to define “right” (右), just out of nowhere, and the definitions (having to do with things like one’s right hand, the political right, in the number 10 the 0 is on the right, etc) got me thinking. As much as I use dictionaries, I never really thought about where they came from, that there are people who write them.

    Then in the movie main character falls in love, and is asked to write the definition of the word “love” (恋) for the dictionary. He comes up with something like “The state when you begin to like someone, and can’t get the thought of them out of your head, day or night. You can’t focus on anything else, and if fulfilled, you feel on top of the world.” He came up with that based on his feelings of the word, as well as his experience being in it. And I realized that we all have knowledge of word definitions inside us in a way, even if they are more general feelings than anything else. I was left in awe at what an amazing thing language was for a moment.

    • Livonor
      February 20, 2014 at 15:47


  3. Sleepy
    February 19, 2014 at 06:11

    This reminds me of La Mulana. I used a wiki/guide ALOT and beat the game once in English to see how it played out.

    Then I beat it many times in Japanese very long ago before quitting for no reason at all. Each of those times I knew what I was doing and furthermore, when I watch someone else play it on Twitch, I know most of what they need to do need.

    Point is this(Silly me going on a tangent), playing and then mastering a game in one language WILL definitely help you you play/enjoy it in another language. Hopefully, those seeing this are nothing like me and have games from childhood/years ago that could be in Japanese as well(I know I don’t).

    Another thing, is to find something you really love. I am VERY stubborn, at least I think as far as love goes(Trust me, this is NOT a good thing) and tend to stop playing games I liked for zero reason at all(and for some strange reason I forget to play them, at all). Only found a few things I love right now :(.

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