Does Learning Japanese Via Osmosis Really Work?

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.

Donald Ash

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  • So explain why the sun looks like you, sir! Hmmmm! lol!

  • Donald Ash

    Ahh, man…I guess my drawing is bad. It was supposed to be my head in a beaker, and the osmosis is sending the Japanese from an area of high concentration (the Nihongo Solution) to my brain (the area of low concentration). You’re the artist, dude, not me :)

    Love ya, bro!!

  • HEre is a question. U wanna learn Japanese to LIVE in japan or to pass a test?

    If you wanna pass a test, then break open the books.

    If you just wanna live a more fulfilling life in Japan……..then textbooks are SO NOT THE WAY TO GO.

    I learned the most via dramas, friends, and more friends………

    So, first figure our your goal…and then work from there.

    I realized 2 years into “learning” japanese that i was totally studying the wrong way for me.

    :( took long enough to realize this.

    ….u like watching tv shows?

    do u understand enough to understand at least 50% w/out subs? or u need the subs?

    anyway get bk to me on this and i may have the perfect solution for u.

    (but cannot post it here…)


    • Donald Ash

      Thanks for the post, Vivian. I’d like to do both actually. I want to learn the language to communicate and I’d like to do the JLPT stuff. So I’m trying to study from both sides of it: the textbooks and CDs, watching TV shows, listening to music and trying my hand at actually engaging people in conversation. There are times when I catch 50% (on a rare occasion…even more) when I’m watching TV, but truth be told, it’s generally less, but with some time and tenacity, I’ll get there.

  • Anthony

    I sometimes wish it was easier to learn by osmosis as an adult. I know I’ve been procrastinating on my studies >.<' I bombed on the katanana test I used to take everyday. I'm still okay with some phrases but ask me to write them by hand and I get stuck in the mud. What is your usual studying routine? Other than books, do you write sentences down in kana/kanji to get a better grasp on it?

    • Donald Ash

      Anthony! Sorry for the late reply, bro. My study routine? Lately it’s been closing my eyes, laying my head back, and snoring. But…when I’m in my grove, that’s exactly it. I use my Genki textbook to work on basic grammar and vocab. Then I spend 15-20 minutes doing listening practice, and then it’s on to the workbook. Before I start a session or just after I end, I try to do a little kanji practice as well. I haven’t been doing what I’m supposed to do lately. But I decided to get back on the old “Donald wants to really learn the language” horse.

  • Ceci

    Maaaan! I was hoping the all anime all the time program would work for me. ;) Actually, I’ve been lazy with my studying lately too. But I also have a reason…yeah…really I do. I don’t want to learn Japanese by translating things into English. If little tykes learn a language without referring to another language, why can’t I? I don’t believe that the adult brain isn’t a flexible as a child’s. We adults don’t get the 5 year period of grace that we give them. Baby talk, allowing one word sentences, lots of repetition, no need to work for a living, no mixing it up in the world of complicated and abstract concepts.

    Anyway, maybe I’m naive, but I *really* don’t want to suffer the “overhead” of converting Japanese words to English in my mind *then* figuring out what they said after that. I want the direct wiring that I learned how to do for English. I’m desperate to find the Japanese equivalent of Sesame Street and Electric Company. Can’t you recommend something like that for us folks stuck in the US?

    Oh…one thing I do love to do is listen to Japanese music along with watching anime. I hope it’s helping me learn how to pronounce words correctly. One of my favorite performers is Susumu Hirasawa. I swear he must walk on water in his spare time. He’s not only an incredible singer/composer/performance artist, but he also enunciates very well. So watching his DVDs is like having an epiphany about how things are pronounced.

    • Ceci

      Ooops, it should read “Can you recommend….” Eeek! I guess that’s a pretty good typo example of how to go from polite to rude with one letter difference.

    • Donald Ash

      Ceci!! I’ve missed you!! Thanks for stopping by to post.
      Tell me about it. If only you could just pick up Japanese by watching anime…that’d be like my idea of heaven. Sadly, I haven’t found a way to do that yet. Oh…there is a show called Pythagoras Switch that is good for kids. When I make it home in time, I watch it. Check out my post on the Algorithm March…it show’s clips from the show.

      I’d like to think listening to music and anime do help in some ways, though.
      If I think of any other programs, I’ll be sure to post in the comments section.

      Thanks as always, Ceci!

  • Just me

    I think that if you are working professionally as a language teacher than you should take some time to get educated and certified to do so. There is so much conjecture and nonsense in this article. Given how much time and energy you spend broadcasting information here I would hope that you take some time to actually acquire and gather some information yourself. Take some linguistics courses or get some linguistics texts. Consider getting TESL certification, since you are an English teacher, why not study about langauge education instead of coming up with random theories. DOn’t encourage the Japanese to further muck up the minds of their children. Get real or get out.

    • Donald Ash


      You know what? You’re really insulting. I thought about just deleting this post, but it’s not my style.

      Who died and made you god of the Japanese school system?

      You’ve never seen me teach. You don’t know what books I’ve read nor do you know what certifications I have.

      Conjecture and nonsense my a**. I use the same materials that many of the top US universities use to teach Japanese to their students. Maybe taking linguistics courses and all is the way you learn. But I know plenty of teachers who have become fluent in Japanese without what you’re suggesting.

      You’re TESL certfied? Congratulations (Donald does three slow, sarcastic claps). As far as TESL goes, if a person has it that’s great, but it’s not necessary to land a teaching job in Japan. Many companies train you on the methods and systems they want you to teach. I have seen PHENOMENAL teachers that haven’t had TESL certifications nor did they major in linguistics in college.

      Don’t put yourself on some pedestal just because you’ve gotten TESL certified or taken linguistics course. There are people who had TESL certifications that didn’t get the very job I’m doing now, there are people who majored in linguistics that didn’t get my previous job. At the end of the day to person makes the teacher, not the certificate they have.

      Mucking up the system?…Get real or Get out? Sorry for the expression, but you can get bent. I teach my heart out to my kids everyday. I hold myself accountable to them everyday, not some person hiding behind an anonymous name hurling insults.

      If you think what I write on this site is nonsense, by all means don’t read it. I didn’t ask you to come here and I for DAMN sure didn’t ask you to insult me.

      Have a nice day :)

  • Daniel


  • Very well written, I very much enjoyed, thank you

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