I have truly been falling behind in my Japanese studies. “I’ve been exhausted lately.” “I’ve been sick.” “I’ve been busy.” I can sit here and fabricate any half-as*ed excuse that assuages my pride, but the fact remains…my Japanese skills are becoming stagnant.
After work, I go home type a bit, surf the Internet, type some more, eat, and (as of late) end up crashing on my apartment floor. I sometimes get that urge to crack open my Japanese textbooks and get back to it. My brain then goes through this detailed feedback loop as to the reasons studying isn’t a good idea: “You need to work on your blog tonight, “ or “You’ve listened to Japanese all day, do you really want to do more?,” “With you being tired and all, how much Japanese are you really going pick up tonight,?” or “Why don’t you wait until the weekend?”
How is this possible, Donald? I am at a job where native speakers speak Japanese everyday. Why would I feel like my Nihongo is at a complete standstill?
The reason…I’ve been fooling myself. I’ve fallen victim to that whole “learn Japanese by osmosis” trap that one too many people fall into. What do I mean learning Japanese by osmosis? Do you remember back in science class? Osmosis referred to the movement of a solvent from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Learning by osmosis is somewhat related to this definition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
“: a process of absorption or diffusion suggestive of the flow of osmotic action; especially : a usually effortless often unconscious assimilation”
In this case, we mean the unconscious assimilation of the Japanese language…just by being around it.
Does the osmosis method really work? I can’t say with absolute certainty that it doesn’t work for everybody. I’m sure there are adults who just have a gift for acquiring languages, but I am willing to bet that these people are quite rare indeed. I think that just being around the language alone simply isn’t enough for most people to become fluent.
But don’t children learn by osmosis? Hmm…you have do a point, but I don’t think that’s entirely true.
Donald, let’s rewind time a bit. You’re in high school, laughing with your friends…umm, let’s rewind a bit more. Okay, you’re in elementary school, listening to that history teacher that’s boring you to tears…I’ll help you…let’s rewind a bit more. Now, I’m in a candlelit room, with the some Marvin Gaye playing in the background…hey this is pleasant. Hey check it out, it’s my Dad! He looks so young! He looks so cool with that afro ! He’s walking towards a bed, where your Mom is waiting for him in a red linger…AHHHHHHHHH!! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY, STOP!! STOP!! STOP!! You went back too far (oh man! that was a close call). Fast forward…you’re laying in your crib, sound asleep. Okay that’s good.
As a baby, your brain is so preciously pliable, if osmosis really works the way people often think it does, I would imagine is where it’s most effective. Your brain is still taking shape…literally. Every single day, your little mind is forming the habits and traits that begin to make you who you are, one important being the language you speak.
By the time you are actually old enough to attend a school in a classroom setting, i.e.-kindergarten (in the U.S. anyway), you already know how to speak, without having cracked open a single textbook to do so. Your parents may have read to you, but the vast majority of kindergarterners can’t read yet, right? Primarily, you’ve acquired the language from being around Mom and Dad, through your day-to-day interactions and the like.
This just doesn’t apply to English speakers either, it’s all languages. Say for example we went into an American hospital and did a baby switching experiment. If we switched the babies of a French couple, an American couple, and a Japanese couple, and had those babies sent to those respective cultures for the next ten years, what would happen?
My guess is the all three babies would be fluent in the language of the respective country their living in. They may not look like the people around them, but they will be fluent in language that that’s “diffused” from their environment.
So does osmosis work? Yes, if you’re a baby or a very young child, I think.
For adults, I think it’s a completely different story entirely.
Fast-forward back to the present. You’re an adult, you’ve gone through puberty, been to high-school, maybe even to college, and you’re fluent in, let’s say, English. Your brain has matured and the language that it’s used to functioning in is English.
Can you now take this American adult, drop them into Japan for a few years and expect them to be fluent? No. I don’t think osmosis works if you’re an adult.
This is the exact reason why foreigners may live in Japan, but never quite acquire the language. Will you acquire some of the language by being around it? Absolutely! It’s only natural. However, to really improve, or get to that goal of Japanese fluency (I’m not even close yet), it’s necessary to have a grasp of the core concepts of Japanese: how sentences are constructed, pronunciation, vocabulary that allows you to say what you want to say, and understand what’s being said.
Because our adult brains have become accustomed to speaking our native tongue, pronouncing sounds that are linked to our 26-letter alphabet (this is why some adults can live in a country and be fluent, but always have an accent), because we have the option to choose (Will I study today? Nah!), among other things. Becoming fluent in Japanese or any language, as an adult, takes more work.
I think studying your Japanese textbooks, listening CDs, and reading in Japanese are an important part of grasping the grammatical concepts and vocabulary that are necessary to have a strong foundation. As an adult, studying is the crux of acquiring a language.
Being around Japanese people who are speaking at natural speed and intonation and using the colloquial forms of the dialect is extremely important because it gives you an example of how the language is “actually” used. It gives you a chance to speak, respond, and make mistakes with Japanese in a native
This is “osmosis” part is the other piece of the puzzle but it’s not the simple, passive process that people claim it is.
I think I need to go and blow the dust off of my Genki books.
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