Japanese Immersion – The Needy Girl Strategy

Yes, an aspect of this title was a bit click-baity, but you’ll see why.

A Need Girl or a Needy Guy is always around you, clinging to your every move, watching everything you do, hovering around you, shadowing you and basically constantly in your life. When you have this needy person around all the time, it can be annoying, but sometimes (especially if you live together) you can’t escape this needy person. You adjust to their demands and needs, get used to their idiosyncrasies and quirks, and ultimately forget that the person is always around you. This is how I look at aspects of immersion, looking at the language as a needy person who always needs to be around me even if I don’t want them there. 

In this case, the Japanese language becomes the “needy girlfriend” who is always there (or there most of the time) to create an immersive forcing function. A forcing function in psychology, is setting up a situation that forces you to be far more likely accomplish a task. For example, announcing to everyone at your office that you will be training for an upcoming marathon, or pre-purchasing a non-refundable ticket to that country you’ve always wanted to visit. Forcing functions don’t always have to be extreme, but in terms of immersion, as we all know, there is only one way to immerse, which is to have as much of the language around you as possible, for as long as possible.

The Strategy


I find 1-3 types of content that I can live in the majority of the time for my first 1000 hours of listening. This can be – a TV series, TV gameshow or thematic show or  a specific Youtube channel. The idea here is to have this material constantly around you in one way or another. Why the first 1,000 hours? Most research points that it takes about 1,000 hours of listening for you to start having a more advanced comprehension of your target language. In the beginning, when you don’t know any words, grammar or haven’t mastered understanding spoken speech of the phoenetics of your target language, everything (for a little while) will be “noise”. But this changes quickly. Those first 1,000 hours are basically like training hours, teaching your brain the ins and outs of pronunciation, intonation and expression across a wide variety of scenarios and contexts. As such, you don’t want to spend too much time listening to anything that is going to derail that as you will need to be quite disciplined to do the listening required to advance in those early stages when 99% of what you hear you don’t understand. With that said, your “Needy Girlfriend” (Japanese) content must be: (a) Interesting (b) rewatchable (c) extensive

A – Interesting content

In the beginning, many people suggest watching TV shows or series dubbed in Japanese you’ve watched already in English. This allows you more easily to learn buttloads of grammar, words and expressions via easily observable context, based on stuff you already know and have probably memorized in English. Plus things you’ve already watched and liked and you find interesting will keep your attention as you train your brain to learn the nuances of your new language. Assuming we need to do a minimum of 1000 hours to start having certain breakthroughs in our listening ability, at 5 hours per day, it would take us around 7 months to break 1,000 listening hours. At 2.5 hours per day it would take  1.4 years. Listening while learning has a massive cumulative effective, so the more you listen, the better your listening ability becomes, granted you are interested in what you are hearing and you are able to discern your increase in ability over time. Because listening has such a high demand on time (that you cannot avoid) you must focus as much as possible on something that is as interesting as possible to you in the beginning, so you can start to knock out those listening hours and be able to dive into more varied material further down the line. Some mutants can sit down all day and listening to NHK radio without knowing a lick of Japanese and god bless them, but for us regular humans, save yourself early gray hairs and focus on high interest and familiarity as you aim for your first 1,000 hours.

B – Highly Rewatchable or Overlapping Theme

Having your content be rewatchable helps you in the following way. For me, after watching 7 seasons of Star Trek TNG (in Japanese) I just started the entire series over. Why? Because by the time I got to season 7 I was light years ahead of where i was when I started season 1 and was just listening to train my ears. This time, whether the episodes are playing the background or i’m half watching them whlie doing other things, I see immediately how far I’ve come because now i’m able to follow the stories that before, I could only really follow visually, while picking up some words here and there. So Star Trek was one of my needy girlfriends. I stuck two episodoes a day (90 mins) for quite some time while mixing things up. (I also lived in Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek Deep Space Nine as well, since the type of language and environments tended to overlap and also keep things interesting) Also as a part of my early strategy, I dropped a bunch of dubbed Japanese movies on an iPad, some of my favorite movies EVER, (Ninja Turtles 2, Home Alone 2, Mortal Kombat, The Matrix, Batman Returns and a few others) and I would have one (or 2) of these movies playing every day in the background, usually in the evening a few hours before sleep. This “Rewatch” value, gave me tens of thousands of scenarios (via these movies) to build and build context awareness, get an incredible familiarity with certain types of expressions as well as massively train my phonetic ear. Rewatching these films over and over (just like rewatching movies as a kid) also eventually makes you memorize certain lines and start to “memorize” the film to an extent, as you’ve seen it so often. Again, there really is no way around this listening requirement, so if you are gonna go hardcore, you might as well try and make it fun as not getting your listening it bites you like a rabid dog down the line when you know 6,000 Japanese words but you can barely understand anything anyone says to you.What’s also cool is that each time you rewatch, as you get more advanced you pick up things you didnt’ hear before. You’ll hear Agent Smith say something in Matrix, or the smamry hotel manager in Home Alone 2. You get sharper and sharper and it adds to your sense of growth. For example, tons of Japanese Youtubers make “Crane game” videos, where they go to a game arcade, drop money in a slot and try to win prizes by making a crane arm grab a plush toy, or some other item. A lot of the language used in these scenarios repeat, which gives them a high rewatchable factor along a theme. It is the same with food videos and travel videos. They are “rewatchable” because the themes teach you more and more about context and the type of vocab used in these scenarios and after a while you’ll find yourself watching these videos, understanding pretty much everything that’s being said, which means you can move on to something else.

C – Extensive Library of Content in the same form or theme

Having what you watch all the time being extensive (meaning LOADS of episodes or videos) allows you to get “used” to the nuances of what you watch. For example, the differences between Captain piccard’s voice and Data’s voice, number 1, Troy the doct, Worf and Wesley. This “extensive” aspect allows you to get tons of benefits as you dive deeper and deeper. You get to hear the voices in different emotional situations as various speeds and using different kinds of language. This is amazing with Youtube channels as well, because as time passes you get used to how the host speaks (and how their friends speak) and you will find it less difficult to follow multi-person conversations as your skills become more advanced. Having an extensive library also means the content is quite varied (even if it is the same person). For example, Hikakin & Seikin, two brothers who are two of Japan’s biggest Youtubers, have thousands of videos between them talking about games, traveling, cooking, shopping and more. This “extensive” library, allows me to really “live” in their content and get super used to how they speak, how others speak and train context and (native Japanese) more and more. The easiest way to accomplish this nowadays is to have an ipad chock full of this content, or just pre-select a bunch of stuff to always watch on Netflix (anything with 5-7 seasons is great, like Gilmore girls).

PART TWO – You Need to be a Listening Pitbull!

I design my life around the goal (immersion), NOT the goal around my life. This obviously is a very subjective matter, especially if you have a certain kind of job, or kids or a real-life Needy girlfriend (lol), but take this info with a grain of salt. You wanna get through these first 1000 hours faster if possible. So here’s what I did.

Ipad Forcing Function – Having my content on my iPad, or a iphone with loads of space allows me to have stuff in the background playing all day. Usually after I wake up, I just press play on “something” while I make breakfast, brush my teeth etc. This could be a podcast, or some Hikakin Video. This is in the background of course. Then as I go through my day ( I work remotely) I’ll have these videos playing in the background while I work and then in the evening, I’ll probably watch something directly. Even with all this, I don’t usually cross more than 4 hours a day with a high of 7. I think even a crazy busy person can log 3-5 hours per day

Ritual Forcing function – Do the same type of things all the time. So if you commit to doing some listening as you wake up, do it every day and you get the benefit of an easy hour or two in the morning. If you drive, its pretty easy to knockout an hour of listening on that long morning commute. So let’s say you do

30 mins breakfast + bathing prep (Youtube in the background playing on an iPad)

60 minute daily commute (listening to a podcast, whatever kind even super easy baby stuff)

30-45 mins daily exercise (iPad beside you while you work, wirelessly etc)

2 hrs daily leisure time (your interesting & extensive content)

  • this break down here is about 4 hrs.

What happens is that your brain gets very used to Japanese and this eventually leads to your brain doing what it does to start processing what is being said. In the beginning this isn’t so easy. Your brain is going to try and reject all this Japanese and you’ll get stressed sometimes, you’ll have to turn off your iPad sometimes and jus tchill (which is fine), but the way I worked around this way to always watch those movies that I loved as a kid. Sinc eI can wtach those everyday, even on a “bad day” I could still get immersion going. My “needy girlfriend” (ie. Japanese) was still there, hovering in orbit. You have to be bullish because there is NO WAY AROUND THE LISTENING HURDLE.

You just have to believe that at some point it will improve. The more you watch the better you get, it takes several months to see the breakthroughs, but when they happen you will gain more motivation to keep moving and of course, you can do listening while studying and revising (duh!).

Okay! Hope that was helpful. (BTW I wrote this entire post while listening to a Japanese podcast 🙂



About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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