When you’re learning a new language, many people will tell you that you need to go and live in the country where the language is spoken to make real progress.
The benefits of studying Japanese in Japan are obvious:
You’ll be surrounded by your target language all day, every day.
It’s the first thing you’ll hear when you leave the house or turn on the TV.
You’ll be seeing words in the target language everywhere – street signs, posters, products in your home. Even a simple shopping trip turns into a language learning experience.
Unfortunately, the cost of spending a prolonged period abroad – not to mention real-world commitments like family and jobs! – often make this an impossible dream.
What if there was a way to cheat the system and reap all the benefits of studying abroad without leaving the country?
Luckily, there is! You need to create an immersion environment.
Even if you can’t change the country you live in, you can still control the environment around you.
Your goal? To immerse yourself in Japanese as much as humanly possible. Switch out the English media you consume with Japanese, and work it into every hour of the day.
By the way, this is a Japanese language learning site so obviously I’m focused on Japanese here, but this immersion technique works with any language!
Create a bubble
Think of it this way:
There are plenty of English-speaking expats living aboard who never learn a sentence in the language of their host country.
Why? Because they live in an English-speaking bubble, which they create themselves!
They only socialise with English speakers, they only watch English language TV and movies, they only listen to English language music, they only eat in American-style chain restaurants with English menus. The list goes on.
Plenty of people never learn a word of the country they live in, because they effectively insulate themselves from the language around them.
You can flip this idea on its head, and use the same technique to learn a new language!
Create a Japanese language bubble for yourself wherever you live in the world, and turbo charge your language learning.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Change your phone and computer language
Most of us use our phones and/or computer almost constantly during our waking hours. Changing your language settings to Japanese is an easy way to make sure you’re constantly coming into contact with the language.
You’ll quickly learn the names of everyday functions and apps. You can fit some reading practice into any spare minutes, simply by scrolling through your menus!
Don’t forget to change your language settings on Facebook, Google and any other programs you use regularly. All these little moments in Japanese will really add up.
Only watch Japanese movies and TV
Think how many hours you spend watching TV a week.
Then think how many hours of language exposure you’re missing out on!
The trick is to replace the kind of media you already enjoy in English with Japanese equivalents. Don’t force yourself to watch Japanese anime if you only watch gritty mysteries in English. Find something similar in Japanese – or even the dubbed version of whatever English language show you love – and studying will never be a chore.
If you don’t think your Japanese is good enough to watch native content yet, try FluentU as a stepping stone. You can watch authentic Japanese YouTube videos with interactive subtitles to check and learn new words as you watch.
Find a Japanese band you love
Again, think about what kind of music you really love, then find a Japanese band or singer with a similar sound! Don’t force yourself to listen to AKB48 if you’re a rock fan, and vice versa. Japanese music has just as much variety as any other country.
Spend a few hours on YouTube until you find some Japanese music that speaks to you, then listen to it – all the time! No more English.
Music is one of the best ways to learn a language because the tunes make it easier to remember than just studying words on a page, so use this to your advantage.
Listen to the radio or podcasts in Japanese
If you’re reading this, you have the internet, right? That means there’s no excuse not to be listening to your target language – right now!
There is no shortage of completely free content in almost every language in the world. Apps such as TuneIn Radio let you access thousands of global radio stations for free, wherever you’re based. You can filter by language or country to easily find something to listen to. And here’s a list of 25+ Japanese podcasts at every level, from beginner to native.
Once you’ve found a source you like, listen away! Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything just yet. You’re tuning in your ears to the sounds of the language.
If you do a lot of listening, your pronunciation and intonation will improve, even if you don’t understand all the content.
Get a language exchange partner
Speaking is an essential part of learning any language. This is where it gets a bit tricky if you don’t live in the country where your language is spoken. You’re unlikely to get your speaking practice just going to the supermarket or buying a bus ticket if you haven’t left the country!
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get speaking practice – it just means you have to seek it out! The best way is to set up a language exchange.
This is where you meet up with a speaker of your target language who also wants to learn your language. You chat for an hour or so in each language and generally help each other out. If you just want to speak without teaching your language in return, consider paying for a conversation class.
If you live in a large city it should be easy to find a language buddy. A local university or cultural centre may be able to hook you up with an exchange partner.
But even if you live in the middle of nowhere, don’t despair! You have the internet, right? There are sites like Italki and HelloTalk that will hook you up with a language exchange partner online. You can chat away in Japanese with a native speaker over Skype without even leaving your bedroom.
Cover your walls in Japanese
One benefit of studying a language abroad is that you see it everywhere – store signs, advertisements, products, bus stops, grafitti…
While you might not be able to control the language of the streets outside, you can control your own home!
Find words and phrases in your target language and plaster them everywhere you can. Cut snippets out of magazines or print them off the internet. Write out new words you learn on sticky notes and put them everywhere.
The aim is to get used to seeing and reading your target language, and to fit more reading practice in wherever you can.
Follow Japanese accounts on social media
If you’re like most people, you probably spend a lot of time on social media, right? Your social media accounts are the perfect place to create mini-immersion environments and surround yourself with real-life examples of your target language.
Whether you hang out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or anywhere else, I guarantee you will be able to find dozens of accounts in your target language which will help expose you to your target language throughout your day.
When you’re just starting out, you might prefer ‘word of the day’ type accounts or bilingual accounts (I love this Studio Ghibli quote tweeter!).
If you’re more advanced, go monolingual where possible. Follow celebrities and newspapers from your target country, or ask to follow your language exchange partner and their friends to get an idea of how normal people communicate.
Bonus: you might learn some sweet Japanese internet slang too!
Read blogs and websites in Japanese
Social media is great because it will drip-feed snippets of language into your online experience. But if you’re serious about learning a foreign language, you need to learn to read longer posts.
As a starting point, think about what kind of sites you enjoy in English. Remember, immersion should be fun, or you won’t stick with it!
Many big magazines and web brands have an international version. For starters, Buzzfeed and Lifehacker have something for everyone. If you want to read the news, start with a children’s newspaper such as NHK News Web Easy. If you’re into fashion, try Nylon Japan. Whatever your interest, find a site that intrigues you.
If you’re a beginner, don’t panic: you don’t have to understand everything. Start by trying to translate some of the headlines or picture captions. Just reading a few words here and there is great practise. It’s also super motivational to learn from real life materials, rather than text books!
Pro tip: for browsing Japanese online, we love the extension rikaikun (Chrome) or rikaichan (Firefox). It’s a little dictionary that pops up when you hover over a new word or kanji.
Write a diary or blog in Japanese
Most of our other immersion tips will help your reading and listening skills, but don’t forget that writing is an essential part of learning a language too. If you already keep a diary or blog, start to write as much of it as possible in your target language.
Start with just one sentence a day if you’re a beginner, and slowly work up to writing in your foreign language only!
You can ask your language exchange buddy to check it over, or join HiNative, an awesome community that lets you post diary entries or other writing samples online to be corrected by native speakers.
Make every minute count
How much dead time do you have throughout the day? You might feel constantly busy, but we all have moments here and there where we’re not getting much done. Whether it’s commuting, queuing, waiting for an appointment or using the bathroom, you can find little pockets of time that you can snatch back for language study!
The trick to creating an immersion environment is that you need to be coming into contact with your target language dozens of times throughout the day, all day long. It’s not about sitting down and studying for hours at a time. It’s about all the tiny actions that help a language stick in your brain.
Make it as easy as possible to do something in your target language, and make every last minute count!
Load up your phone with apps, always have a book or magazine on hand and a playlist loaded up with tunes. Make sure your phone menu’s in your target language and you’re following lots of people who post in that language on Facebook and Twitter.
All this means, when you’re stuck in a queue or waiting for the bus, you can fit in an extra few minute of language exposure time. Even if you’re just scrolling through your Twitter feed on your phone – make every minute count!
It’s all about making things fun. Think about what you enjoy doing in your native language, and start to switch those things out with your target language. Don’t force yourself to read dry textbooks or boring newspapers if they don’t excite you. Learning a language is a long term project, so you need to enjoy it and make it part of your life wherever possible.
Any more tips for creating an immersion environment? I’d love to hear them!