“Learn a language in 3 months!”
“Learn any language in record time!”
How many times have you heard claims like these? Do these methods even work? What does it actually mean to “learn” a language?
This is what I want to explore in this post. You see, recently, my whole outlook on language learning has changed and I would like to share my experiences with all of you.
Discovering a New Method
I started learning Chinese some years ago when I moved to Beijing to become an English teacher. I didn’t know any Chinese when I arrived, but I started learning from beginner textbooks and within a year I could hold a basic conversation.
When I left China, I began to focus my time on other aspects of my life, and learning Chinese fell by the wayside, until a year ago when I decided it was time to start learning Chinese again because I wanted to enjoy authentic content in the language.
But where to start? With textbooks? Classes? Chatting with natives online?
I really wasn’t sure. And then I came across a YouTube channel called “Matt vs Japan”.
You see, after watching Matt’s videos I found out that he learned Japanese to a near-native level, almost entirely in the US, solely through watching TV shows, anime, reading manga, reading novels, and consuming other content in Japanese.
I was blown away.
I then found out that other people had used the same method to reach advanced proficiency in Japanese. Recently, Matt interviewed a German guy on his channel, called Stevi, who used Matt’s method for Japanese and passed the JLPT N1 exam after only 18 months!
That kind of rapid progress is completely unheard of in “mainstream” language learning circles.
Yet, stories like this are common among this unique community of language learners.
After realizing that this method worked, I followed Matt’s guidance and began to revive my Chinese. I started off slowly, gradually increasing the amount of time I spent consuming content in Chinese each day.
It’s been almost exactly a year since I began immersing in Chinese and the results have been incredible. So incredible, in fact, that my entire thought process surrounding language learning has changed.
Mass Immersion: Simple, Fun, Life-Changing
Matt’s method for language learning is based on the following ethos:
You need to learn to understand the language before you start speaking the language. And to understand the language, you need to consume a lot of content in the language.
This stands in stark contrast to other, “fashionable” language learning methodologies that claim to get you fluent within a few months and often advocate for speaking from day one.
But we’ll come back to that later.
You see, Matt’s method is based on something called AJATT, which stands for “All Japanese All the Time”. AJATT was started by a guy called Khatsumoto who immersed himself in Japanese and achieved a high level of fluency within 18 months.
Matt was inspired by this and followed a similar path with his own Japanese learning. He then decided to expand and refine the method. He originally called it “MIA” (Mass Immersion Approach), but has now rebranded it to “Refold”.
I have always been interested in language learning and have studied several other languages (Afrikaans, Russian, Spanish). Back in the day, I came across AJATT but at the time I brushed it aside. I thought the very idea sounded too simplistic. I thought I needed textbooks and teachers and classes!
But now I realize that I wasn’t ready for mass immersion. I wasn’t mature enough to understand the beauty of the method.
After immersing in Chinese for the last year or so, I have been able to integrate the language into my daily life. I enjoy watching Taiwanese variety shows, listening to podcasts, and reading Manga in Chinese.
All the while, I am learning new words and expanding my knowledge of the language. I know that I still have a long way to go, but the progress I’ve made keeps me motivated and on track.
So, You Just Watch TV Shows and Read Comics?
Yes. But it’s more than that.
Part of Matt’s method is to “mine” for new words by recognizing “1T” sentences during your immersion. A 1T sentence is a sentence in your target language that contains a word that you don’t know.
When you discover a sentence like this, you create a flashcard in Anki (a spaced repetition software), with the unknown sentence on the front and the translation of the word on the back. Each day, you review your Anki cards and this helps to anchor new vocabulary into your long-term memory.
At some point, when you feel ready, you begin the “monolingual transition” and starting looking up new words in the monolingual dictionary instead. In this way, you eliminate your native language from the learning process and begin learning your target language in your target language.
When you think about it, this “sentence mining” approach to language acquisition makes perfect sense. After all, the very foundation of language is vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how high-tech your methodology is, if you don’t know enough words, you won’t be able to understand meaningful content or have meaningful conversations.
And to reach fluency (true fluency), you need to know a lot of words. That’s why you need immersion.
Moreover, by immersing in your target language, you begin to see the same words pop up in different contexts. This helps you to understand the different ways that words can be used.
Immersing in your target language for hours each day causes you to develop a perception of the language that allows you to effortlessly absorb grammar patterns and word order without having to memorize them or struggle over complicated textbook explanations.
Since beginning my Chinese immersion journey, I have accumulated over 4,000 new sentences. That’s 4,000 more words than I knew before. How many would I have learned taking classes? 100? 200? 500?
As I continue to learn new words, my understanding of Chinese deepens and I feel a stronger connection to the language. Engaging with native content is a meaningful activity. With immersion you don’t “study” the language, you live it.
Letting Go of Your Ego
Mass immersion isn’t for the faint of heart. Although watching shows and reading books sounds easy, it’s not.
There’s one thing that will try to dissuade you from immersing, try to make you give up. That thing is called your ego.
The ego is a construct born out of the need to survive, it is our sense of “I”. When it comes to language learning, the ego struggles to see the forest from the trees and insists that no progress is being made.
After all, listening to the language when you don’t understand anything can be tough. It can feel demoralizing and make you feel like you’re a “bad” language learner.
But again, this is the ego talking. The ego does not like to take responsibility for facts and situations that impinge on its social image.
Part of immersion is learning to let go of the ego. When those thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, you put them aside, knowing that each hour you spend with your target language is a step closer to fluency.
But I Want to be Fluent in Three Months!
If you think it’s possible to achieve fluency in three months, you have either fallen prey to clever marketing, or you have a very different definition of fluency than I do.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these types of methods. If your goal is to learn how to hold a very simple conversation in the language or be functional when you go to the country, then this type of method may work well for you!
However, part of me feels that these methods are disingenuous – after all, what does “learning” a language mean? Does it mean being able to say a few phrases? Or does it mean being able to read literature?
If your goal is to achieve advanced proficiency in the language, be able to understand TV shows, read novels and discuss important topics – then immersion is the only way.
And if you’re learning a language like Japanese or Chinese, then immersion is even more important. Why? Because it is only after thousands of hours of listening and reading that your brain can absorb and decode the intricacies of Chinese grammar or Japanese pitch accent.
Language immersion means that you surround yourself with the language. You integrate the language into your day, into your life, and you completely and utterly surrender yourself to the language.
Check Out Matt and Refold!
Finishing off, I would like to urge you to check out Matt’s content and read more about his Refold method for learning a language.
Recently, I had the privilege to chat with Matt over Zoom. I was able to pick his brain and ask him all sorts of questions about Chinese characters, immersion content, and more. He was very helpful and offered a lot of great suggestions.
Chatting with him reinforced my original perception that he deeply understands the language learning process and is more than qualified to help other people achieve the advanced fluency that he has achieved in Japanese.
Even if you feel that immersion isn’t right for you, Matt’s content may still be valuable to you, so check it out! I would urge you to read the starter guides on the Refold website, join his Discord community if you have any questions, and consider supporting them on Patreon.
Matt’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpf4BknRWAjb_oYIHoMDGVg
Refold Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/refold
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