Why Ajatt is Half Wrong

For those of you who don’t know, there is a wonderful glorious site that I found when I was searching for exactly how to study Japanese. This was way back in 2010 when I figured that I needed to somehow get the perfect path to fluency in Japanese.

It’s a great site with great articles. I suggest you go and read some of them. It really helped me stay motivated and push through RTK1. It also helped me think differently about learning a language.

However, there are a lot of misguided views. These views have good intentions and they will work fine for someone who doesn’t really need to learn Japanese seriously. But, let me just address a few views from Khatzumoto’s (the author) writings:

 1.   “Learn from Anime and whatever you like and you’ll be fine.”

This is all well and good, but how much are you understanding? Sure you will be more motivated to learn from things that you like, but more likely than not it will be frustrating and painful. Unless you are absolutely brainwashed and strong-willed, I don’t see this working much for you by starting with only native materials that you like.

In fact, I tried it myself. Especially with photography books and magazines. And admittedly It’s great! It’s wonderful! I was one of those strong-willed people who could push through the pain. But only up to a certain point. I realized that I was slowly slowly plowing through the vocabulary trying to understand meaning. It was like hiking in shoes that were much too big for me. Sure I could do it, but it took time to climb up the mountain. And it wasn’t the best way.

Learning from native materials really disregards the main point about comprehensible input. You can’t acquire much language without understanding. You can’t stand without a foundation.

An anime that I used to watch almost every day when I was first learning was very hard to understand at first. This is even after I watched it with English dubs. But after a few months of studying I could understand bits and pieces here and there. And I said, “Hey! It’s working! It’s working!” All of that studying had paid off. The textbooks, and the language exchanges, and the sentence-mining. It wasn’t watching just the anime over and over again that was working, though. Did it help? Yeah it did, but it didn’t help that much compared to the other things I was doing. Mostly because I had no foundation to stand on.

Because I was doing things I liked, it made the language that I was learning more important to me. But because it was mostly incomprehensible, I didn’t learn much from it. Only after I learned those bits of Japanese from other places did I begin to understand and acquire the language.

You need learner materials to get up to an intermediate-advanced level before you can really advance onto native materials. Sorry, Khatz. You have to crawl before you can run in a marathon.

2. “Textbooks and classes suck. The real world is your classroom/textbook.”

This goes along with number one. A few hours studying from a textbook will give you better results than a few hours watching a Japanese drama without subtitles (or even with subtitles.)

When I was working in Boston, I belonged to a Japanese-English language exchange club. This is a great place to meet people and truly learn things. When we talked to each other we used simple language. Learner language. The way your mother would talk to you when you were 3. This isn’t full native language from a newscaster. This is CI. Comprehensible input.

It’s hard to get CI as an adult because most people don’t have the time or patience for you. Who does have the time and patience? Teachers, tutors, and also some people at language exchanges. 🙂

On some weeks I wouldn’t go to the language exchange, because I knew that I could gain more by going home and studying so I would have something to say at the meetups.

Sometimes I would go to the meetup with questions and books that I was trying to translate. But you can only ask for help so many times. Not everyone wants to be a free tutor.  And you just have to respect that. That’s why, often times the langauge exchange turns into free talking. And unless you’re better at Japanese than they are at English, it’s going to turn into a free talking English meet-up.

Here’s the thing. Ajatt is half right about learning from the real world. The real world tells the brain it’s more important to know and retain. So when  you’re learning from people or the real world, it may be slower, but it will be stronger. That’s why I think classes are still great. It’s people that you learn from.

And again, most language classes are taught poorly with little to no regard for CI techniques. Mostly, you’ll see some form of grammar translation, or even worse, a communicative approach based “learn this dialog and practice with your partner.” What nonsense.

It’s also hard to find good textbooks to learn from on your own. Even with a good textbook it’s far better to have a tutor or teacher helping you. Otherwise you’ll likely morph things like pronunciation, or grammatical things to fit your own English grammar.

So classes and textbooks don’t suck. Bad classes and bad textbooks suck.

If you find a good class and good textbook, then it will help you understand and learn from the real world much better. A good class and good textbook helps you tear down that wall of the outside world.

How do I know all this?

Because that’s what’s been happening to me. I started out watching things without subs, and just reading things without understanding anything and doing whatever I wanted all Ajatt style. But you know what? It sucked. It was slow and painful. It was like running a marathon without training.

And now, I’ve been training with learner materials. Drilling vocabulary and soon drilling grammar.

I’ll also read easy graded things for myself too. I have a huge set of graded readers. And lots of manga and other books.

And also, I talk to people. In Japanese.

Even though I’m here in Korea, I’ve built up my ability to hold a conversation for a few hours in Japanese with very little help. I can’t say the same for my Korean, though. My Korean is barely functional at best.

Other Suggestions?

During my time here in Korea, I have learned some excellent methods for learning languages.

1. German Volume Method.

Do a Youtube search for it. It’s very intensive and takes a while, but it’s great for studying with a tutor or by yourself. It focuses on really building a strong foundation. It is very “left-brained” and based on over-learning, but there are ways to add “right-brained” learning.

2. TPRS. Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling

It’s great if you can find a class or a tutor who can do this with you. It really focuses on being fluent first. I had the pleasure of taking 12 Mandarin Chinese classes with an excellent tutor. You start out with simple grammar and words, and build a foundation piece by piece with compelling stories that the teacher/tutor creates with you.

3. WAYK/Langauge Hunting.

This was developed to help revitalize endangered languages. It’s not really taught as much as it is “played”. I want to say it’s almost how a mother plays with a baby and teaches it language.  It’s very good for learning functional language. And there is very little translation so it is very “right-brained.”

Final thoughts

Now just to be clear, occasionally I’ll watch YouTube videos that are semi-comprehensible and fun to watch. I’m not saying don’t watch anime, or if you watch funny YouTube videos in Japanese you’re doing it wrong. Not at all. Enjoy Japanese. But if you do serious study, you give yourself the opportunity to enjoy those funny videos even more. And I can tell you that’s the truth of it from my first hand experience.

You remember that anime that I mentioned? The one that I watched everyday for months over and over again? Well, after going through vocab books, tutoring, textbooks, and other learner materials, I can say that I understand a whole lot more. There are many little phrases in the anime here and there that I don’t understand.

But that’s okay. The thing is I didn’t realize I didn’t understand it. Before when I was first learning Japanese I just kind of blocked those things out. But now I know what I don’t understand. And I know those things will come to me with more studying from learner materials, tutoring and talking to people in Japanese.

Okay, time for some more studying.

8 thoughts on “Why Ajatt is Half Wrong

  1. I don’t think AJATT is discounting serious study. He studied *intensely*, and promotes intense, intentional study. He is not as keen on traditional classes, for reasons you understand, but he is a study advocate.

    But this study without immersion and the sense of fun together results in very little, as does immersion without study or comprehensible input to build on (you are definitely on the mark with the importance of CI for learners).

    It is true, immersion experiences won’t do you much good… by themselves. But to learn without them is to handicap one’s learning, and to almost certainly resign oneself to the limits of a stereotypical foreign speaker. And that’s why the AJATT thing is revalatory to so many.

    • Right. That’s the big question. How do we make things comprehensible and compelling? 🙂

      And yes, AJATT was a huge eyeopener. That’s why I highly recommend reading some articles to those who haven’t heard of it.

      Cheers!

  2. You can learn WAYK, you can learn TPRS but you really can’t learn the German Volume Method except from someone who has egregious and dubious sales tactics. It isn’t peer-reviewed or proven in any way. TPR is and WAYK and TPRS don’t really claim to be (but they’re both what you see is what you get, so at least there’s no mystery about them).

    Why put GVM in the same vein as the others? If it were legitimate we’d be able to find out about it from disinterested parties.

    • I forget to add, nice to see you blogging again! It was great to find someone in TEFL who has interests outside the mainstream.

    • It’s based on overlearning. You can find out about that anywhere you want.

      It works as advertised. He repeats over and over again that it is hard and it takes hard work and perseverance. And also, it works better with a tutor or instructor. And that’s exactly why I put it in there.

      If you watch all of the GVM videos on youtube he gives you just enough of a taste of what it is and who it’s for without spilling all the beans. I think that’s fair.

      Sorry, but I just don’t see your argument at all.

      Maybe you could write about your own experience with it on your own blog?

  3. I’d love to write about it, but I was put off from buying it by the snake-oily sales pitch in his videos and the fact I’d have to take a pure leap of faith with my $60. The problem is that GVM is not claimed to be just over-learning. It’s claimed to be some “elite”.

    So, in sum, if that’s all it is, (i.e. over-learning – apropos the free online FSI/DLI courses) then why the mystery about it and,furthermore, why is that old wine suddenly so much better in its new bottles? The old bottles were good enough, no?

    • That’s cool. Yeah, it’s not for everyone. It’s hard work. But again, it’s not snake oil. It works as advertised like I said.

      Also with the free materials, you don’t know the method they used, and you need an instructor to get the most out of it.

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