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Active immersion

March 17, 2023 — Tatsumoto Ren

Active immersion is a crucial part of language learning and requires full attention to the content you are consuming. In this article, we will look in more detail at what active immersion is and how to practice it. We will also discuss the different types of active immersion, and how to deal with the ambiguity that can arise when immersing.


active immersion

What is active immersion

Active immersion is the most crucial element in language learning. During active immersion, you are paying your full attention to the material you are consuming, be it audio, video, or text.

It is where language acquisition really takes place. Your attention alerts the brain, allowing it to start detecting patterns and make guesses. Even if the material is mostly incomprehensible, your mind is still working hard trying to find language patterns, become accustomed to the sounds, constructing a model of the language.

It can even be argued that doing active immersion alone is sufficient to become fluent. Of course, passive immersion helps, but it is not imperative. One can also stop using the SRS and still reach fluency, although it will take longer. But without active immersion everything falls apart. As we know very well from experiences of other people, just memorizing words and grammar is not going to lead anywhere.

Starting to immerse

It is vital to discover content that captures your interest. Explore the available content in your target language, experiment with different media, different genres. To be able to immerse for hours and hours every day, the content must be "compelling", as Steven Krashen often calls it. You have a long journey of learning ahead of you, so it's essential to have a strong passion and enthusiasm for something in the language. Only compelling content will be able to captivate you and hold your attention.

Most people before they start AJATT already have a passion for otaku content, such as anime, manga, ranobe, or other types of Japanese media. For them, learning Japanese provides an opportunity to further enjoy and appreciate the media they love.

It takes thousands of hours of watching, listening, and reading in the target language to become fluent. The more you immerse, the faster you progress. To maximize progress, exposure to the target language should be maximized while exposure to other languages should be minimized. In AJATT, we advise that you start immersing as much as possible from the beginning. Active and passive immersion combined should take up more than 12 hours a day in order to make rapid progress.

If a chosen immersion medium becomes boring, then let it go and move on to something more stimulating, something else that seems fun. A new anime, a new manga. To maintain motivation to learn your target language, keep engaging with interesting content.

We have compiled a list of places where one can find immersion content to make it easy for beginners to get started. Click here to explore it.

Dealing with ambiguity

When beginning to learn a new language, you're going to consume unfamiliar content that may seem impossible to understand at first. For a while, you're going to have to deal with not understanding or not understanding everything. However, it is important to acknowledge that this is a natural part of the language acquisition process and to remind yourself that it is only temporary.

Accept that for a while you won't be understanding much. While immersing, you're actually learning all the time. Your brain does most of the work subconsciously. It learns to parse the sounds, notice and recognize words, infer meaning from the context. Additionally, analyzing the material and doing dictionary lookups can further aid in the learning process.

To quickly expand your vocabulary and overcome the initial challenges, for the first few months we recommend learning from our pre-made Anki deck. This deck is thoroughly explained later, and will help you reach a comprehension rate of 75%, making immersion easier and more enjoyable down the road.

To help yourself during the early stages of language learning, you can watch TV shows and movies with subtitles in the target language, although not all the time, as developing your listening ability is also important.

There are several reasons why TV and movies with TL subtitles are an excellent choice. The visuals can provide additional context which aids comprehension. Additionally, you can hear the proper pronunciation of the words you are reading. As you hear the subtitles spoken aloud, through pauses and intonation, you can better interpret the sentence structure and parse the clauses. Finally, the language in TV and movies is generally simpler than books, blogs, or news articles.

The lack of understanding can lead to a feeling of despondency. You may want to turn on English subtitles or subtitles in your native language. Don't do it because watching with English subs doesn't work. Trust the process of immersion.

You can also immerse in content you have consumed before in another language. For example, if you have watched a lot of translated anime before starting to learn Japanese, now you can rewatch them in Japanese. Since you already know the plot, it will help you understand the shows in another language. For shows that you have not watched yet, reading synopsis before or after watching will help you understand the story better.

In order to remain engaged and maintain motivation, it is probably not a good idea to watch content twice. Doing so can increase one's comprehension due to prior knowledge of the plot, however, it can also be quite boring and tedious. Rather, consider re-listening to what you have already actively watched during passive immersion. This way you don't waste your active immersion hours on repetition.

When first getting started, things like science fiction or fantasy novels will be too difficult to read. Choosing content that has simpler language is another great technique for beginners. For example, slice of life shows or romantic comedies can be a good choice. However, avoid content made for children as it is often not enjoyable for adults. The language is too simple even for a beginner language learner. The plot is too silly and dumbed down. After learning your first 1,000 words from a pre-made Anki deck, you won't need to restrict yourself so much, as frontloading vocabulary in the beginning greatly improves comprehension.

Types of active immersion

Learners often wonder how often they should look up words while actively immersing. You can look up every word and strive to comprehend 100% of the material, look up nothing and just let your brain slowly absorb the language, or try to balance the two. In practice, trying to decide when to look up and when not to look up can be tiresome and lead to decision fatigue. Do you look up every Nth unknown word? Or do you look up every N minutes? Do you have to measure the time? There are many uncertainties. Rather than trying to find a center point between the two extremes, it is recommended that you carry them out as separate exercises, intensive and free-flow immersion.

Intensive immersion

When you look up everything trying to comprehend 100%, it is known as intensive immersion. During intensive immersion you're in a more conscious mode where you're thoroughly analyzing the language as you're going. As you immerse, you are carefully examining the language, utilizing dictionary lookups to decipher the meaning of each sentence, and creating SRS cards to ensure that you don't forget what you have learned.

Intensive immersion is the most effective way to notice, save, and memorize new words. It is, however, a mentally demanding activity. Our daily cognitive resources are finite, and staying focused requires lots of energy. To maximize the benefits of immersion, it is advisable to engage in intensive immersion when you are feeling more refreshed and alert, switching to free-flow immersion when your cognitive capacities are depleted.

A plethora of tools exist to facilitate intensive immersion, There are dictionary apps, browser extensions, mpv plugins, etc. They make it effortless to look up words and create SRS cards during immersion.

In the beginning, you won't always be able to fully understand every single sentence during intensive immersion. You may not be able to understand some sentences even with the aid of a dictionary. This is to be expected. If a sentence is too difficult to understand or there are too many unfamiliar words, it is best to save it for later in Anki and come back to it in a few weeks, or even months. It is better to focus on the simpler phrases first, the things your mind is ready to absorb. As your comprehension grows, the formerly challenging language will become easier and easier.

Free flow immersion

If you sit all day and mine sentences, you're going to lose your mind, or die from exhaustion. Free-flow immersion is when you allow yourself to relax without having to mine or look up words, while still paying attention to the content. You don't disrupt the flow with pausing and lookups. Instead, you're embracing ambiguity and letting your subconscious take the lead and interpret what is being said on its own. Free-flow immersion is a mid-ground between passive immersion and intensive immersion.

Free-flow immersion may seem relatively ineffective, but this is far from the truth. Your comprehension will continue to improve as you infer meanings from the context. Even minor details can improve your understanding. As your level of comprehension further grows, this form of immersion becomes increasingly important and helps you make faster progress.

The more things you can do in free-flow, the closer you are in a way to a native. So it's necessary to cultivate this skill. As you know, natives don't spend time analyzing every sentence, and they don't sit with a dictionary checking new words, they absorb the language gradually.

When I was learning Japanese, I did a lot of free-flow immersion, even during my early stages as a beginner and lower intermediate learner. One of my preferred methods was watching ongoing anime. As is common with such shows, they are often not readily available with Japanese subtitles, and so I opted to watch them in their raw, unsubbed form rather than waiting for the subtitles.

Remember, we all learned our native language entirely through free-flow immersion, so I believe that free-flow immersion is more important than intensive immersion in the grand scheme of things. Intensive immersion, on the other side, is great for expanding your vocabulary.

During free-flow immersion, it is a good idea to try to understand without relying on TL subtitles. Listening practice is imperative for achieving all around fluency.

Finding the ratio

Every day, you are supposed to be engaging in passive, free-flow, and intensive immersion. All three play a role in the process of language acquisition. It is easy to determine when to do each one; passive immersion is best when you are occupied with something, intensive immersion is the best option when you have the energy and motivation to look up words, and free-flow immersion is the best choice when you are too tired for intensive immersion.

As mentioned briefly above, we recommend selecting some content for free-flow immersion and other content for intensive immersion. For instance, if you're watching an anime series, you could watch one episode in free-flow, and then switch to intensive mode for the following episode. Alternately, you could watch one series in free-flow, and another in intensive mode. It is best if the genres are alike, so that the language in both shows is similar, and you gain more exposure to the same vocabulary.

One thing about free flow immersion is that a lot of times some words that don't show up extremely frequently will go unnoticed, and you won't pick them up. Thus, it is vital to practice intensive immersion to close the gap between our lexicon and that of a native speaker. As we don't have 20 years of time to acquire all the vocabulary naturally, through free-flow immersion alone. We have to use dictionaries and create SRS cards in order to really expand our vocabulary. The best way to do this is to read extensively.

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