The Best ADVICE on Immersion Learning

The following response is for Japanese learners but applies to all language learners.

TL;DR: The people who preach “immersion” without any active studying/learning – i.e. just bombarding yourself with incomprehensible Japanese until one day it all magically makes sense – are selling you snake oil.

Full post below.


Thank you for posting this! This information is dense and well explained and can help beginners avoid major pitfalls in their language learning journey.


Has anyone claimed you can, “use incomprehensible input until one day it just magically makes sense”? I keep hearing this claim but I’ve yet to really find anyone who’s said it. The people saying this use it as a stick to beat proponents of ‘comprehensible’ input, but I’m not sure anyone has actually made the claim that it can be done without at least some comprehension of what you’re listening to.

Are there people claiming that you can just listen without looking up words and eventually understand it? I’m pretty sure even the most hardcore ‘“no” grammar’ exponents briefly look up grammar and vocab from time to time, particularly during the very early stages.

Comprehensible input, on the other hand, is another matter. That said, it’s close to impossible to use that method exclusively without any grammar/vocab look ups, purely due to the difficulty in always finding perfect material for your current level.

I’ve always understood ‘comprehensible input’ as something you have to make comprehensible yourself, or something with enough visual aids to make it understandable. If some people are saying you can use completely incomprehensible input and eventually understand it then yeah, they’re lying. There definitely has to be some level of comprehension for learning to take place.


Has anyone claimed you can, “use incomprehensible input until one day it just magically makes sense”? I keep hearing this claim but I’ve yet to really find anyone who’s said it.

I’ve noticed this is the advice a lot of beginners receive on forums, Reddit, and various YouTube videos. I’m a lurker on /r/Japanese and see this type of advice get thrown around quite often, disguised as ‘You can learn Japanese by just watching anime’. I fell into this trap early on and after getting nowhere, gave up. Once I started actively studying using comprehensible input, I began to make progress.

I agree that you need to look things up and get a grip of basic grammar (whether through a small textbook or sentence mining). When it comes to languages like Japanese, the beginning stages also require you to learn some of the characters.


At least the refold website has a really good write up and road map to point people to now, and the discord is pretty friendly to beginners. I think people read what they want (“just watch anime”) and don’t do further research. I failed at learning Japanese years ago when doing the “Genki textbook way” but have been very very pleased with the results with the Mass Comprehensible Input approach for Chinese.

AJATT / MattvsJapan have always stressed the incredible amount of work & hours that they put in - it isn’t just as simple as watching raw anime… TV is part of it yes, but anyone that skips mining thousands and thousands of anki cards, constantly looking up grammar and vocab, learning the alphabet (including kanji/hanzi) and reading portion aren’t going to get anywhere as fast.


Refold has some good advice, some not so good advice and some downright tragically terrible advice. The guide suggests waiting until stage 5 (where you can “understand close to everything”) before outputting - regardless of the language being studied. For Chinese, that advice is frankly terrible. I don’t know of a single success story of anybody who followed it and the internet is full of Mandarin refolders who regret not outputting earlier in the ridiculous hope they would one day magically wake up and be able to speak fluent Mandarin.


I guess it really comes down to different priorities - when I first started, the consensus was it would take at least four years before you could attempt to read a native fiction book or understand difficult historical dramas / wuxia - and that was a very few success stories I could find, a lot of which were heritage learners.

I’ve spent the my focus on comprehension first, with some recent focus on chorusing just to help my listening skills, and I’ve been having an absolute blast just doing input, and if I attempt Japanese again in the future, I’ll follow the same blueprint (probably maybe not, there are so many chinese books to read).

But for those that want to speak, I agree, you should practice speaking…


I do not know if it’s terrible advice in general, but my experience in learning to converse in both Danish and Dutch after having a very high understanding of it spoken/written is very strange. Understanding literally everything said to you, but being unable to respond in the way you want, was “interesting” to me. As in, wow that was way harder than I thought it would be, and isn’t it weird to be unable to find the words I want to use “correctly” – next time it’ll be easier. But I can only imagine for many it’d be downright frustrating or disheartening.

There are so many things you need to learn to learn to speak. Some of them mechanical and cannot be learned simply by observation. How do I move my mouth that way? My muscles don’t understand how to make the sound I am hearing. Comprehension of people say to you is a necessary requirement in most situations, but not at all sufficient.

So my take is the advice must be paired with the caveat of your experience will be this, and that may frustrate you. If you “speak early”, or at least far earlier, you will also have visible short term successes when people understand you, and those successes may be motivating.

I don’t like how it’s presented, because you will not magically wake up speaking another language even if you understand it perfectly. What you will do, is know you what you said was wrong, but not be able to fluently recall how to say what you want.


The problem is that some languages have lopsided difficulty when talking about understanding versus outputting. Russian is one of these. It appears that Mandarin is too. The issue seems to be that the brain can gloss over details and make a best guess when trying to understand correct input. The reverse is not true. In the case of Russian your brain can take a guess what the “case” is and mostly get it right.
Likely in Mandarin your brain can gloss over the details and go eeny, meeny miny moe and you will know it’s one of four and you’ll get the gist of the meaning. If, however, you use a WRONG case or a WRONG tone, a native speaker who is expecting the correct case or correct tone will inevitably be confused unless they’re a teacher of russian or mandarin as a second language.

It takes focused effort to learn to output lopsided languages. It can’t be done with pure input.

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I don’t know many people who are claiming that immersion with incomprehensible material works. I’ve only met one person who took 5 years of French in school and was majoring in Francophone studies who claimed this, and I was like yeah right–you made the plunge into podcasts and audio novels that you couldn’t understand at all. Sure, and this was someone who was a perfectionist. No way the material was incomprehensible. It was more false modesty. If the material didn’t sound as clear as L1 it was immediately deemed incomprehensible and when the whole story was more or less understood it was deemed “less incomprehensible than before” not understandable, which it was. Most people would call her level of understanding as good or great, not incomprehensible.

If anything, I’ve heard claims in the other direction, that 98% comprehension is recommended. This is mostly in a high school setting where you don’t want to scare off students with difficult immersion while at the same time giving them the euphoria of learning and hopefully they go off on their own to continue the trend.

Both of which aren’t effective (98% comprehensible and largely incomprehensible).

In the Refold thread I mentioned my theory of Katamari or Snowballs of knowledge we have for rolling up/ picking up a language.

Immersing in 98% comprehensible material is ineffective because you are only rolling up new little twigs or bits of snowball while the rest of your knowledge snowball is melting away (forgetting). So, you have to put in a lot of time just to stay current and advance even a little using this method.

On the other side, think of the last time you rolled a snowball. What if you tried to roll up a snowball the same size as yours or bigger (50% comprehension or less)–it doesn’t work.

The optimal rollup is about 4:1

You are spending your time rolling up 20% incomprehensible snowballs with your 80% knowledge snowball. You’re picking up lots of stuff that way without straining plus staying way ahead of the rate of forgetfulness. You’re progressing optimally.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.

BTW, I thought the Reddit post was crap.

They talk about not jumping the gun and ignoring foundational material like the Genki volumes. Which is good advice if you like Genki.

But then they say to ignore Du0ling0 because “everyone knows it won’t get you to an advanced level”.

I mean no Sherlock. But I found that comment to be hypocritical. Du0ling0 can also build a foundational knowledge base.

You gotta love the Strawman’s when somebody doesn’t like a methodology. They just point to an assumed extremism (that’s all this guy is using for language learning) and poop on your product or methodology that way.


I wouldn’t necessarily call this “The Best ADVICE on Immersion Learning” because what determines the “Best ADVICE” really depends on the person, the situation, their environment, the context, etc. In other words, the “best” advice is highly individualistic. For me, for instance, this advice doesn’t particularly mean particularly much, but there are definitely some people out there, who would benefit greatly from this advice. I don’t think too many people who use LingQ would find this the “best” advice to improve their language learning (that’s a guess, but there are probably some), but in the dark corners of the Internet/their mum’s basements gorging on anime, yes, this may be very useful advice. :stuck_out_tongue:

A comment from this Reddit thread which I found funny and maybe others also enjoyed was: (paraphrasing here as it went over multiple comments) The people who say that all their grammar study (presumably in school) was useless because they learnt the language from immersion are delusional or at least ignorant. It just like saying all their driving lessons were useless because they ‘really’ learnt to drive by driving around the city/on the highway or all their guitar lessons were useless because they ‘really’ learnt to play epic solos from practising songs they loved.

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If anyone thinks they can just bombard themselves with a foreign language without putting in any work to learn it, they are out of their mind. Definitely works well in combination, but you have to put in the study time too.


I’ve spent some time in language learning communities and haven’t met a single person suggesting one should “bombard themselves with incomprehensible input”. Everyone’s recommending exactly the opposite, in fact.


I agree, Gigusek.

And the reason is very simple: “Incomprehensible content” is just a bunch of visual / sound patterns below the language level.

Or to put it differently: there’s a reason why linguistics and other sciences see language as form - “meaning” (!) pairs.

In short:
Meaningless content is no content at all :slight_smile:


One thing about “incomprensible” input. It’s not entirely useless.
You get the rhythm, tonality and cadence from it.
But other than that I wouldn’t spend much time on it.