Mass Immersion Approach

Stage 2 Guide

The following guide provides the basic instructions necessary to complete MIA Stage 2 for any major language. It’s mainly focused on what to do and less on why to do it. For more information about the theoretical framework of MIA, please check out the other articles on this website as well as the Matt vs. Japan YouTube channel.

This guide assumes a basic understanding of the concepts and terms presented in MIA Stage 1. Although a MIA Stage 1 Guide currently doesn’t exist, the MIA Japanese Quickstart Guide provides virtually all of the necessary information to complete Stage 1 for any major language. If you’re learning a language other than Japanese, simply ignore the Japanese-specific topics included in the Quickstart Guide.

Information about piracy and illegal streaming websites have been intentionally excluded from this guide.

Please submit typos and suggestions to “massimmersionapproach@gmail.com.”

Glossary of Important Terms

Throughout this guide, we will be making considerable use of the following terms:

  • TL subs – Target language subtitles.
    • Note—immersing with TL subbed media is technically a hybrid activity, being a form of both listening and reading. However, it is much closer to reading than listening; therefore, it is generally considered a form of reading for the purposes of MIA.
    • Throughout this guide, we will be focusing on immersion with TL subbed audio/visual content (e.g. television). Despite this, the same principles apply to any form of listening while following along with a transcript.
  • NL subs – Native language subtitles (not necessarily your true native language, but rather a language you already understand).
  • Raw text – Written content that contains little to no audio or visual component. TL subbed content is not considered raw text.

Introduction: Why Create a Stage 2 Guide Now?

At the current time of publication, an MIA Stage 1 guide doesn’t exist. So, why did we decide to make the Stage 2 guide first?

In September 2019, we released the “MIA Japanese Quickstart Guide.” As the name suggests, the idea behind the guide was to present the minimum amount of information that a beginner needs to start learning Japanese with MIA. Instead, it ended up becoming a comprehensive guide for progressing through MIA Stage 1 as a Japanese learner. The guide was positively received, so we thought to create similar guides for other major languages.

Once we started working on this, we realized that making separate full-length guides for each language would be a redundant way of creating key MIA content. Instead, we decided to disperse the information across the following three categories of content:

  • Stage-Specific Guides—explaining how to follow each Stage of MIA, without diving too deeply into language acquisition theory.
  • Language-Specific Guides—providing instruction and resources unique to specific languages.
  • Language Acquisition Theory Content—going further in-depth on various language acquisition theory and related topics that enhance your understanding of how to learn a language. At the present moment, the Matt vs. Japan YouTube channel is the best source for this type of information.

Deciding on this new direction naturally means that we will have to convert the current “MIA Japanese Quickstart Guide” into a new general “MIA Stage 1 Guide.” We have decided to postpone that for the following two reasons:

  1. The Japanese Quickstart Guide can already function as a working Stage 1 Guide. The bulk of the information contained in it is applicable to any language. So, even if you’re not learning Japanese, you can still benefit from it simply by ignoring the Japanese-specific details.
  2. Many MIA practitioners have completed Stage 1 and are hungry for Stage 2 guidance.

So, in order to best meet current demands, we’ve decided to delay converting the Japanese Quickstart Guide in favor of getting the Stage 2 Guide out as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconveniences that this may cause.

Stage 2 at a Glance

Stage 2 is largely a continuation of Stage 1. In Stage 1, you started off by learning the basic phonology, writing system, grammar, and vocabulary of your target language. You then transitioned to learning directly from native media in the form of sentence cards. Of course, this was all alongside immersing yourself in native content in order to integrate what you consciously learned and begin internalizing the language on an unconscious level.

This was all for the purpose of building a foundation in understanding your target language. In Stage 2, you’ll continue to increase your capacity to understand by doing, for the most part, more of the same: immersion and sentence mining. The nature of how you immerse and the strategies you employ to mine sentences will shift, but the underlying structure will stay the same. The more words you learn and the more quality time you spend with your target language, the more your comprehension will grow.

One major point of Stage 2 is further developing your reading skill, with the goal of moving into reading raw text. The Immersion and SRS sections will help you accomplish this.

There is also the monolingual transition, perhaps the most notable change that Stage 2 brings. The monolingual transition is the process of transitioning to learning your target language in your target language, without relying on your native language. This transition will radically accelerate the growth rate of your comprehension. The Monolingual Transition section will explain everything you need to know to make the transition.

By the end of Stage 2, you should be able to understand enough of your target language to comfortably survive in a country where the language is spoken. There should be some basic content, such as slice-of-life TV shows or internet blogs, that you’re close to being able to fully understand. This opens up the possibility of learning to speak and write the language in a natural way, which will be explored in Stage 3.

How Do I Know I’m Ready for Stage 2?

Here are some basic criteria:

  • You have a firm grasp of your target language’s phonology and writing system.
  • You know at least ~3,000 words.
  • No matter what you are listening to, you can usually understand at least one word in every sentence spoken.
  • When listening to basic spoken content (such as talking-head YouTube videos or slice-of-life TV shows) you can usually understand at least 50% of the words in most sentences, and fully understand a longer sentence around once every few minutes.
  • When consuming basic written content (such as blogs or simple TV shows w/ TL subs) you’re often able to follow the basic ideas being expressed (although you may miss many details).

That said, ultimately, it’s not important to make a razor sharp distinction between Stage 1 and Stage 2. Regardless of the criteria listed above, feel free to begin gradually transitioning to Stage 2 whenever you feel it might be a good idea to do so. If you find yourself struggling with a Stage 2 technique, simply return to the Stage 1 equivalent and try again in a month or two. There’s no harm in trying.

Immersion

Although immersion is constant throughout every Stage of MIA, the specifics of how you immerse will vary as you move from stage to stage. During Stage 2, you will begin introducing raw text into your immersion. At this point, understanding the relationship between listening ability and reading ability becomes important. 

Listening Ability vs. Reading Ability; and Why Reading is Prioritized

When it comes to understanding a foreign language, listening comprehension is generally much harder than reading comprehension. This is because:

  • You need to be able to process language at the rate of speech.
  • Native pronunciation tends to be inconsistent and mumbly.

On the other hand, when reading, you can take as long as you like, and written words appear in consistent and predictable forms.

For a more in-depth look into the unique difficulties of listening, check out this video:

Additionally, not only is act of reading inherently easier than listening, but it’s also easier to learn from. It allows for swift word look-ups with pop-up dictionaries and easy Anki card creation through copy/pasting. In contrast, learning from listening usually requires you to correctly hear words and manually look them up.

Because of these advantages, focusing on reading is a highly effective strategy for rapid improvement. What happens with this strategy is that your reading ability ends up developing past your listening ability, and then that reading ability is subsequently transferred into listening ability.

When your reading ability develops past your listening ability, catching your listening back up usually isn’t too difficult. The reason for this is that learning to hear a word/structure that you can already read is much easier than learning a new word/structure entirely through listening. What happens is that, as long as you continue to actively and passively listen to the language, any reading ability you have will eventually transfer over to listening ability.

Recall that in Stage 1 we recommended following a listening-to-reading ratio of 1:1 for active immersion (i.e., dividing your active immersion time equally between the two activities). This allowed the two abilities to work together harmoniously, with reading informing your listening, and vice versa. However, because reading ability is inherently easier to develop than listening ability, some amount of gap should have formed between the two by the end of Stage 1.

In order to utilize the strategy mentioned above, going forward, we recommend maintaining this gap between reading and listening ability. Do so by continuing to stick near the 1:1 listening-to-reading ratio, especially while you’re still near the beginning of Stage 2. 

Disadvantages of a Large Gap Between Reading and Listening Ability

Although letting your reading ability develop past your listening ability is a powerful strategy for rapid progress, allowing the gap between the two to grow too large can have negative consequences. 

The first potential negative consequence of letting the gap become too big is that active listening itself may become tedious and painful. For example, let’s say someone devoted most of their energy into reading while largely neglecting active listening. This person would naturally end up with highly developed ready ability and rather poor listening ability. Once this happened, they would likely become accustomed to understanding most of their immersion. In turn, this may lead them to experience tedium and frustration when faced with how little they understand when listening. We can imagine them going on to avoid active listening altogether, which would cause the gap to grow even larger.

The second potential negative consequence of letting the gap between listening and reading ability grow too big is that it may harm your pronunciation. This is because, even during silent reading, you pronounce everything you read with a voice inside your head (a.k.a. subvocalization).

The issue is that, before your listening abilities are fully developed, it’s impossible to grasp the way a language should sound. This means that, while reading raw text, your subvocalization will inevitably be filled with mispronunciations and unnatural intonation patterns. If you read excessively without listening ability to back it up (in other words, while you have a large listening/reading ability gap), these inaccuracies could lead to you internalize bad habits that will manifest when you eventually start speaking your target language.

When Should I Be Worried about My Listening/Reading Ability Gap?

Our stance is that your gap is likely within a safe margin when these two statements are true:

  • Listening always comprises a significant portion of your active immersion; and therefore, your listening ability is constantly improving.
  • Your listening/reading ability gap doesn’t cause you noticeable pain or frustration during active listening immersion. If even just this statement is true, it’s unlikely that your gap is too large.

The key logic here is that if your listening ability is constantly improving, then your internal model of how the language sounds is being regularly updated. Due to the constant updating, it’s unlikely that your subvocalized pronunciation would become stagnant enough for ingrained habits to form.

It is worth emphasizing that if listening doesn’t make up some significant portion of your active immersion, then the margin of safety will decrease in your case due to the logic stated above.

Conclusion: Listening Ability vs. Reading Ability

To summarize, letting your listening ability lag behind your reading ability is generally the most effective strategy for rapid improvement. That said, it’s important not to neglect listening throughout the process, as letting your listening ability get too far behind has negative consequences.

Over time, you will naturally develop an intuition for what the ideal gap size is between listening and reading ability. Once this begins to happen, you can start regularly shifting your listening-to reading ratio in order to maintain that ideal gap size. For example, if you feel your listening ability is starting to lag a little too far behind your reading ability, you can decide to decrease your reading time and increase your active listening time for the following few weeks. 

Subtitles

NL (Native Language) Subs

In Stage 1, we said that it’s fine to start immersing in your target language with NL subs (native language subtitles). Because jumping straight into immersion can initially feel jarring and intimidating, watching with NL subs can be a useful way to get accustomed to spending time with your target language.

With that said, immersing with NL subs is relatively low quality immersion, equivalent to passive listening at best. Put simply, if you’re reading subtitles, then you’re not fully paying attention to the audio. This is why it’s important to wean yourself off of NL subs once you have gotten into the habit of immersing yourself in your target language. If you haven’t already, we recommend fully weaning yourself off NL subs before starting Stage 2.

Some people take the strategy of generally watching without subtitles, and pausing to look at NL subs only when they don’t understand something or want to double check. This technique is clearly a large step up from immersing with NL subs on the entire time, as the amount of time you spend in unmediated contact with your target language is vastly increased. That being said, it still comes with some of its own problems.

The first of these is that looking at NL subs will bias the way you interpret your target language. No matter how skillful the translator, ultimately, every translation is imperfect. Every language contains unique nuances and subtleties that simply cannot be fully translated into another language. Additionally, translators often prioritize creating subtitles that are easy to follow for the intended audience, rather than 1:1 translations of meaning.

Because of this, reading NL subs may lead you to draw false equivalencies between words, structures, and phrases. For example, you might pick out a target language word in your immersion and equate it to a word you saw in the NL subtitles, when in reality the two have slightly different nuances. Once internalized, these sorts of false equivalencies can be hard to overcome, and can lead to using the language in unnatural ways later down the line.

The other, less obvious, pitfall of using NL subs to clear up confusion is that it can interfere with cultivating a tolerance for ambiguity. “Tolerating ambiguity” means being okay with not fully understanding the plot of a show or the meaning of a word or structure. It means being able to trust the process, knowing that blurry understandings will naturally become clear over time.

Growing your capacity to tolerate ambiguity is essential to making rapid progress. Unfortunately, tolerating ambiguity often doesn’t come naturally. Most of us have grown up in a culture that places a lot of value on “understanding things.” Because of this, for most people, being able to tolerate ambiguity is a skill that must be actively cultivated over time. And it’s not hard to see how looking at NL subs every time you don’t understand something slows down this cultivation.

Although watching with NL subs is something that you should have completely left behind before moving into Stage 2, in the initial phase of Stage 2, it’s okay to use the strategy of turning them on only when you don’t understand something. But, try to rely on NL subs as little as possible, and slowly wean yourself off using them in any form as you progress through Stage 2.

The same advice goes for bilingual texts and any other content that revolves around learning through translated material. One of the main goals of Stage 2 is to become able to learn your target language entirely in your target language, without using your native language as a crutch.

TL (Target Language) Subtitles

On the other hand, we also have TL subs (target language subtitles). In Stage 1, we recommended watching TL subbed content as an effective way to become acquainted with the written form of your target language. When you’re a beginner and don’t yet know a lot of words, audio-visual mediums are inherently more comprehensible than raw text mediums like books or articles. TL subbed content lets you take advantage of the comprehensibility of audio-visual mediums to help get your foot in the door of reading.

Though we often consider watching TL subbed content as a form of reading, ultimately, is a hybrid of both reading and listening. When watching with TL subs, your reading ability helps fill in gaps in your listening ability, and vice versa. Because of this, you’re likely to understand significantly more than when either watching with no subs, or when reading raw text. This is great in the beginning of the language acquisition process; when you first start out, understanding anything at all is extremely difficult, and you need all the help you can get. That said, once you start to become more advanced, watching with TL subs can become a crutch.

Something we explained in Stage 1 is that because watching with TL subs is closer to reading than listening, in order to fully develop your listening skills, it’s important to spend large amounts of time actively listening without any subtitles. The reason for this is that the hardest part of listening comprehension is determining what words are being spoken from sound alone. When watching with TL subs, what words are being spoken are presented to you right there on the screen. Thus, watching with TL subs doesn’t provide your brain with an opportunity to practice that crucial skill of determining what words are being said just from sound.

Ultimately, the same is true for reading as well. When listening to spoken language, intonation and stress make it relatively easy to parse the grammar of what is being said. On the other hand, when reading, you don’t have any intonation to rely on, and this can make parsing the grammar much more difficult.

For example, take the following sentence:

“The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.”

If this sentence was spoken out loud, the intonation would make it easy to understand. But in written form, figuring out how to parse the grammar is quite difficult.

If the only reading practice you got is watching TL subbed content, you would never get practice parsing syntax without the help of intonation. Because of this, as you progress through Stage 2, we recommend slowly replacing watching TL subbed content with reading raw text.

In real life, most everyday linguistic situations require us to be able to listen without relying on our eyes, and read without relying on our ears. Because of this, the most efficient way to meaningfully grow your language ability is to practice doing just that: listening without a transcript, and reading without audio.

Reading

Reading Raw Text Is Difficult

As explained above, once you transition into Stage 2, we recommend gradually moving away from watching TL subbed content, towards reading raw text (fully text-based mediums) instead. But, breaking into reading raw text can initially be quite intimidating and challenging.

First of all, there is the issue mentioned earlier of having to parse grammar without any help from intonation patterns. This is a skill that takes practice to develop, and will likely be challenging at first.

Second, when reading raw text, because you don’t have any visual or auditory clues to help you, you have nothing but your language ability to rely on. This means that what is required to reach a basic level of comprehension is significantly higher.

Third, when compared to watching with TL subs, reading raw text makes what you don’t know much more distracting and in-your-face. This is because the pacing of audio/visual media is quick and out of your control. In contrast, you can read raw text at any pace you’d like. This makes letting go and tolerating ambiguity much more difficult. As you have probably experienced, it is often very tempting to look up every unknown word or grammar structure in a difficult sentence.

And lastly, in most languages the range of vocabulary used in writing is usually significantly larger than that of spoken language. For example, take the English words “astonishing,” “astounding,” “spectacular,” “phenomenal,” “miraculous,” and “breathtaking.” These are all words that appear relatively frequently in formal written English. Although these words are occasionally used in spoken English as well, within the context of normal everyday conversation, it’s much more common to simply say “awesome” or “cool.”

When watching content with TL subs, you’re essentially exposing yourself to a written form of the spoken language. Because of this, when you initially make the jump from watching TL subbed content to reading raw text, you’re likely to find that the percentage of unknown words dramatically increases. This is perhaps the largest obstacle of learning to read raw text.

So, although we argue that ultimately reading is easier than listening, becoming proficient in reading raw text comes with its own set of unique challenges. Being aware of these challenges, and setting your expectations accordingly, is one of the keys to successfully breaking into raw text.

Avoid Feeling You Need to Be “Ready”

Here is a trap that many people fall into. Coming out of Stage 1, their immersion consists of solely audio and audio/visual content, with and without TL subs. They have reached a point where they’re relatively comfortable with certain TL subbed content, and decide it might be time to transition into raw text. So, they pick up a book they have always wanted to read and jump right in.

They are then immediately confronted with the brute reality of how much more difficult books are. This causes them to quickly give up and return to audio/visual content, concluding that “they aren’t ready for reading books yet.” After a few more months of immersing with audio/visual content, they eventually try the book again, only to find it just as inapproachable as before. They end up repeating this process indefinitely, perpetually postponing the jump into reading raw text.

The problem here is that, in a certain sense, you will never be “ready” for raw text until after you have spent a significant amount of time grappling with it. In other words, if you wait until you can already ride a bike before taking off the training wheels, you’ll never become able to ride a bike; the process of learning to ride a bike begins after the training wheels are removed.

The challenges of reading that were explored above are only found within raw text, so the only way to build the skills necessary to overcome them is through actually reading raw text. No matter how long you wait, the first book you ever read will always be extremely difficult. But, after finishing that first book, the next one won’t feel nearly as difficult.

Now, to a certain extent, it’s most definitely true that it’s important to have a solid foundation in the language before venturing into raw text. So, in many cases, concluding that you aren’t ready yet may indeed be the right decision. But, keep in mind that the foundation necessary to jump into raw text is likely much less than you initially expect, and be wary of falling into the trap mentioned above.

Getting Started with Raw Text

When getting started with raw text, there is no need to go from 0-to-100 . Many of the struggles stated above can be avoided by easing your way into raw text in a strategic way.

First of all, we recommend starting off with content that contains grammar and vocabulary similar to that of spoken language. Some good examples are: YouTube comments, blogs, comic books/graphic novels/manga, and movie/TV show transcripts.

Another good option is TL subs: if you have access to TL subtitle files, you can treat them as raw text and read them on their own. The Subtitle Tools website can come in handy here as it allows you to convert subtitle files into plain text. Consider reading the transcripts of shows that you have already seen before; because you already know the basic plot, it will be easier to follow the text.

When initially approaching raw text, it may be a good idea to start with something as simple as spending 5 minutes a day attempting to understand the comments on a target language YouTube video. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually increase the amount of time you spend reading raw text each day. 

As your skills develop, try to move from things like comic books and blogs towards more challenging content, such as news articles or text-heavy video games.

Eventually, by the end of Stage 2, your goal should be to tackle the holy grail of reading: books. Books, both nonfiction and fiction, comprise the highest possible quality of reading immersion.

The following video explains why novels in particular are so useful for language learning:

Tips for Getting into Books

As mentioned above, chances are that no matter how much you prepare, the first book you ever read in your target language will likely be quite challenging. That said, here is an assortment of tips to help you through it:

  • For your first book, consider choosing a novel that has been adapted into either a movie or TV show, and watch the adaptation before reading the novel. This way, you will already know the basic plot and characters, which will help keep you from becoming entirely lost while reading.
  • Consider reading eBooks rather than paper books. When using an eReader, you can easily look up words by simply pressing on them. Because you will likely be looking up many words while reading your first few books, using an eReader can make a big difference.
  • Try reading multiple books by the same author. Each author tends to have a unique writing style and set of vocabulary they regularly use. If you read multiple books by the same author, you will become accustomed to that author’s specific writing style, allowing you to gain a solid foothold in reading books in a shorter amount of time.

Choose Reading Material That Interests You

The last, and perhaps most important thing to mention when it comes to breaking into raw text, is to always choose the material that you are intrinsically interested in.

Reading raw text is going to feel tough for a while, so forcing yourself to read something boring is unlikely to be a sustainable strategy. On the other hand, if you genuinely find what you’re reading compelling, it probably won’t be hard to continue moving forward despite any difficulties you run into. Said another way, you’re likely to have more success working through something that’s above your level but genuinely compelling, than something that’s perfect for your level but boring.

Forcing yourself to slog through boring immersion material is a slippery slope, as it can lead “spending time with your target language” to become associated with boredom in your head. Once this happens, conjuring up the motivation to regularly immerse will require an iron will, and burnout will become extremely likely. So, when in doubt, simply follow your interests over everything else.

On a similar note, although books do tend to give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to reading ability gains, there’s no need to limit yourself to reading nothing but books. It’s also a good idea to regularly mix things up, consuming things like articles, comic books, and video games in between reading books. Not only will this keep things fresh, but it will also help you develop a sense of how your target language is used differently across various domains.

The Nitty-Gritty of Reading Raw Text

When initially approaching raw text, it’s especially crucial to be tolerant of ambiguity. Things are inevitably going to be blurry at first, but they will gradually become clear over time. If a sentence doesn’t click after 15 seconds of grappling with it, then it wasn’t meant to be; simply let it go and move on. The best thing you can do is simply keep on moving. Quantity is key when it comes to gaining footing in raw text.

One common question people often have is, “how often should I look things up while reading?” The following video summarizes our advice on the topic:

We should also note that, for the first few books you ever read in your target language, it’s okay to look words up significantly more often than recommended in the above video. For the reasons explained in the above video, once you get over the initial hump, it’s definitely a good idea to become more conservative when it comes to looking things up.

We don’t recommend reading the same material multiple times. It’s true that you will usually understand much more the second time you read a given piece of content. But, this is largely due to what you learned while reading it the first time. You won’t learn nearly as much that second time through, as you will have already picked most of the low-hanging fruit contained within on the first run. Instead, it’s more useful to move on to a new piece of content, where new low-hanging fruit awaits.

Additionally, the desire to read the same piece of content multiple times usually stems from perfectionism, i.e., a need to go back and understand what you missed the first time. This is directly opposed to tolerating ambiguity, and usually isn’t very helpful. Instead, it’s more useful to get repetition in the form of reading multiple pieces of content from the same genre or author.

If you ever get discouraged, here’s something that might be helpful to think about. When watching audio/visual content, it’s often possible to glean a significant amount of what’s going even without understanding a single word of the language. On the other hand, it’s practically impossible to understand anything at all of raw text without having at least some knowledge of the language. This means that, when reading raw text, every little bit that you understand is due to your own the language ability. When you think about it this way, you may realize that you really aren’t doing so bad.

Listening

Comprehensibility

For the bulk of Stage 1, the goal of listening was to adjust your ears to the sound system of your target language, and begin learning to pick out and understand the most common words and phrases.

Regardless of the specific domain, the sound system and core fundamental vocabulary is present in virtually every form of the spoken language. For example, no matter whether you’re watching a horror movie or listening to the news, all spoken language is made up of the same vowels and consonants, as well as the same basic words, such as “I,” “him,” “there,” and “go” in English. Because of this, when you first start out learning a language, you’re likely to understand a similar amount regardless of what type of content you’re listening to. Because of this, choosing the right immersion content wasn’t important at the time.

But, by the time you reach Stage 2, you will have built up enough of a foundation in your target language to where, depending on the content, it’s actually possible to understand a significant amount while listening. Because of this, it starts to make sense to prioritize comprehensibility when picking immersion material. Let’s go into why.

Why Comprehensibility is Prioritized

Once you hit a critical mass of understanding, learning from immersion becomes significantly easier. For example, let’s say that you’re able to understand around 80% of a given sentence. Assuming that you know the details of the context in which the sentence was spoken, it usually isn’t difficult to fill in the last 20%.

To demonstrate, let’s say you’re watching the following scene: someone walks into a room where another person is playing a guitar and says, “I thought I told you not to **** my ****!” It would be pretty clear that the first “****” must mean “play,” and the second “****” must mean “guitar.” It would be especially easy to draw this connection if you already knew the words “play” and “guitar” through reading, but simply weren’t able to hear them in native speech yet. In this case, after picking out these words from audio alone for the first time, you are likely to become able to pick them out more easily in the future; even in more ambiguous contexts.

We might call this type of sentence an “optimal growth sentence.” The more optimal growth sentences that a piece of content contains, the more consuming that content will grow your ability.

For most of Stage 1, for the reasons explained previously, you are likely to find a similar number of optimal growth sentences regardless of the specific type of content.

But, once you begin approaching Stage 2, you are likely to find certain types of content to contain significantly more optimal growth sentences. Once you reach this stage, focusing most of your active listening on this highly comprehensible content will yield very rapid progress.

It’s important to note that the term “comprehensibility” can be thought of ineffectively. Thinking about an entire piece of content as being either “comprehensible” or “incomprehensible” usually isn’t very helpful. Instead, using the framework of “how many of the sentences within this piece of content are optimal growth sentences?” is much more useful.

For example, even if a show is largely incomprehensible as a whole, if you end up hearing around one optimal growth sentence a minute, then watching that show will greatly grow your listening ability. When looked at this way, comprehensibility can be seen as a spectrum, rather than a black-or-white judgement.

How to Choose Immersion Content with Comprehensibility in Mind.

When talking about breaking into books, we mentioned the time-tested strategy of reading multiple books by the same author as a way to quickly gain a foundation. We can apply a similar strategy to understanding spoken language as well. Listening to content that is largely from the same medium/genre for an extended period of time will lead to you getting familiar with the specific vocabulary and structures commonly used in that domain.

Through this, the comprehensibility of that domain of content will drastically rise, providing you with a platform for accelerating your listening ability. Once you become thoroughly familiar with one domain of speech, branching out to other domains won’t be difficult either.

Additionally, certain mediums and genres are inherently more comprehensible than others. On the level of mediums, any content with a visual component usually has at least a basic level of comprehensibility. Also, fictional content with an ongoing narrative, such as TV dramas, tend to have high levels of comprehensibility. Since you’ll have familiarity with the characters and the world of the story, you’ll possess an immense amount of context which will help you interpret the plot and dialogue.

Lastly, when it comes to genres, realistic fiction tends to be significantly more comprehensible than fantasy or sci fi, due to the narrower range of vocabulary used.

The Nitty-Gritty of Listening

When it comes to listening, admittedly not much changes between Stage 1 and Stage 2. All of the recommendations related to how to immerse and what to immerse with still hold.

Same as with Stage 1, when it comes to active listening we still recommend against consuming the same piece of content multiple times. The reason for this is the same as explained in the section on reading.

Instead, we recommend continually using new content for active listening; and then getting repetition by passively listening to the content that you’ve already actively consumed once. With that said, it’s fine to actively immerse with content that you consumed multiple months or years ago. We are specifically recommending to not actively consume the same content multiple times within a short timespan.

Although using content that you have actively listened to once as passive immersion material is extremely beneficial, it’s fine to passively immerse with new content as well. In particular, as you continue to improve, content such as podcasts and audiobooks start to become perfect passive immersion content.

An Assortment of Tips

Many people find that once they start to reach around Stage 2, they understand enough of their target language for background listening to become extremely distracting. Remember that background listening refers to keeping a form of your target language on in the background and mostly ignoring it, while focusing on other mentally intensive tasks. If you begin to experience this problem, you may try using inherently less distracting content, such as audiobooks.

Otherwise, it’s also perfectly fine to drop background immersion altogether if it’s distracting for you. However, we do encourage you to continue taking advantage of passive immersion, as it can drastically increase the amount of time you spend with your target language. It is still a high enough quality of immersion to, when combined with active immersion, significantly contribute to your speed of progress.

On another note, once a gap forms between your listening and reading ability, listening largely becomes a matter of catching up to your reading ability. In a way, this makes active listening extremely straightforward, as you’re simply trying to auditorily pick out as much of what you can already read as possible.

Also: when listening, at times when your overall comprehension is low, try to focus on picking out as many words as possible. When your comprehension is higher, try to focus on understanding the main gist of as many sentences as you can.

Don’t get frustrated when you fail to hear words or phrases that you can easily read. This is simply par for the course. As you continue to actively and passively listen, the amount that you’re able to understand will continue to grow. It really all boils down to the number of hours you spend trying to understand the spoken language.

Monolingual Transition

When moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2, the most significant change that will take place in your learning process will be the monolingual transition.

For the duration of Stage 1 and the initial portion of Stage 2, when you wanted to learn a word in your target language, you looked up the word in a bilingual dictionary (a type of dictionary that translates words between two languages). In this case, it was between your native language and your target language. In contrast, a monolingual dictionary defines the words of a language with the words from that language; for example, an English-to-English dictionary.

The monolingual transition is the process of transitioning to using monolingual dictionaries, which enables you to begin learning your target language entirely in your target language. Making the monolingual transition is also referred to as “going monolingual.”

This breaking away from relying on your native language as a crutch to learn your target language comes with many powerful benefits. And it represents a significant landmark on the path to fluency.

Reasons to go Monolingual

Broadly speaking, there are four main benefits to making the monolingual transition.

Reason #1

Firstly, you will be able to avoid creating false associations between words in your native language and words in your target language. This idea was briefly touched on earlier in this guide (in the section on dropping native language subs).

Basically, it’s very rare for a word in one language to have an exact, one-to-one correlate in another language. For example, take the Japanese word “warui” (悪い、わるい). The most common English translation of the word “warui” is “bad.” But in reality, “warui” is used quite differently than “bad” in ways that often aren’t interchangeable with each other.

For example, in English, if someone has a low level of ability in a skill, we say that they’re “bad” at it; e.g., “I’m bad at playing the piano.” Thus, if you equated “warui” with “bad,” you might assume that the Japanese sentence “料理をしたのが悪かった” means “I was bad at cooking.”

In reality, it means something along the lines of, “Me having cooked was a mistake.” This is because “warui” is never used to describe a low level of ability. Rather, when being used in reference to an action, it usually expresses something being “bad” in the sense of leading to a bad end result for the parties involved.

In this specific scenario, in order to stop misconstruing sentences that contain “warui,” somewhere along the line you need to unlearn that it can mean “low level of ability”; it’s a false assumption you made as a consequence of equating it with the word “bad.” Now, as long as you continued to immerse, sooner or later this misunderstanding would become apparent to you and get cleared up. But, until that happens, it will cause confusion and interruption to your learning process.

If you had instead learned “warui” using a Japanese monolingual dictionary, then the false connection would have never been made in your head in the first place. You would have bypassed the entire process of mislearning and unlearning. It’s not hard to understand how this would raise the overall efficiency of your learning process.

But because there are close to no true one-to-one correlates between languages, these sorts of false associations happen all the time on more subtle levels as well. Even if you aren’t outright misunderstanding the meaning of a target language word, due to associating it with a word from another language, you may subtly misunderstand the nuances or connotations it has in certain situations.

This is why completely decoupling your knowledge of your target language from other languages is so useful. It allows you to begin building a web of understanding that exists and grows within its own closed system, without being constrained by outside influences. At any rate, we will return to this idea later when we look at the third reason that going monolingual is beneficial.

Reason #2

The second benefit of using a monolingual dictionary is that it reduces the amount of time it takes to fully comprehend words. Understanding a word deeply enough to use it in the same way as native speakers usually requires more than simply understanding the technical meaning.

For example, consider the difference between the word “hard” and the word “difficult.” In a technical sense, the sentences “calculus is hard” and “calculus is difficult” mean exactly the same thing. But, if you’re fluent in English, you know each of these two sentences feel slightly different. “Difficult” feels slightly more formal and proper, while “hard” feels more casual and laid-back.

However, it is practically impossible to accurately explain the exact differences to someone who has never heard these words before. The only way to truly grasp the full nuance is to hear each of them countless times within many different contexts and phrases. In this way, even monolingual definitions have their limits when it comes to fully acquiring words; because many words are to some degree undefinable (i.e., difficult to pin down with a brief description). At the end of the day, immersion is always going to be necessary in order to fully master a given word.

With that said, in general, monolingual definitions are able to take you much closer to the true nuance of a word than a bilingual definition can. The reason for this is that, while bilingual definitions tend to simply provide a list of similar words from another language, monolingual definitions actually attempt to articulate the essence of the word.

For example, take the Japanese word “tanjun” (単純, たんじゅん). The online English-Japanese dictionary Jisho defines the word “tanjun” as:

“simple; plain; uncomplicated; straightforward.”

In the Japanese monolingual dictionary Daijirin (大辞林), “tanjun” is defined as:

    1. こみいった点がなく簡単な・こと(さま)。⇔複雑「―な構造」「―なミス」
    2. 考え方などが一面的で行き届かない・こと(さま)。「―な発想」「―な頭の働き」
  1. 他種のものがまざっていない・こと(さま)。純一。「―泉」

  2. 制限や条件のない・こと(さま)。「―承認」

Here is our translation of the definition:

    1. To be simple and have no points of complication. Opposite of “complicated.” “A ‘tanjun’ structure.” “A ‘tanjun’ mistake.”
    2. For a way of thinking to be shortsighted and lacking thoroughness. “A ‘tanjun’ idea.” “A ‘tanjun’ psychological process.”
  1. To not have other types of things mixed in. Pure. “A ‘tanjun’ hot spring.”

  2. To have no limitations or conditions. “‘Tanjun’ acceptance”

We can see that the monolingual definitions give a much more in-depth idea of the exact meaning and usage of the word “tanjun.” Simply by reading the bilingual definition, most people probably wouldn’t assume that “tanjun” could be used as a way to insult someone for lacking critical thinking ability. Yet, this comes across very clearly in the monolingual definition.

So, in general, monolingual definitions bring you much closer to a complete understanding of words than bilingual definitions do. This means that there will be significantly less gap for you to bridge in order to fully understand words; which in turn makes your overall learning process that much more efficient.

Reason #3

The third benefit of using a monolingual dictionary is that it helps to accelerate the process of learning to think in your target language.

Normally, when trying to infer or recall the meaning of a word in your target language, you do so by conjuring up equivalents from your native language. But, once you’re able to function monolingually, you’ll be able to contemplate words entirely within the domain of your target language.

Take for example the scenario of reviewing Anki cards before having gone monolingual. You’ll likely test your memory of a target word’s meaning by recalling equivalents from your native language. In contrast, after going monolingual, you’ll be able to test yourself by recalling an approximation of the monolingual definition.

If language is a puzzle, then the monolingual transition leads to a huge increase of intimacy with the puzzle pieces. As such, it marks a big step towards learning to think in your target language.

On a side note, editors put a lot of thought into how dictionary definitions should be written. Through this as well, you will gain further insight into how native speakers think.

As we touched on previously, the potential to describe a language in terms of another is limited. On the other hand, describing words within its own language is limitless. It allows you to make direct references to other words and concepts from that language. As a result, your accuracy and precision with the meaning of words will increase; for example, your ability to notice the subtle differences between synonyms will increase massively.

One side benefit of learning to think in your target language occurs whenever you are speaking with native speakers. That is, whenever you don’t know or remember a word, you will be able to describe the concept in terms of other words (and in a way that the native speaker is very likely to understand). As a language learner, this is extremely valuable.

Reason #4

And the last, rather simple benefit of going monolingual, is that it will increase the time you spend with your target language. As a language learner, you’re destined to frequently look up words and phrases (and the occasional grammar structure). Before going monolingual, all of this is done in your native language. But once you go monolingual, all of that time will be spent with target language definitions and explanations. Even if it’s not much, this still means spending more time overall with your target language. This additional time can add up in the long term, thus increasing the speed at which you improve.

The Challenges of Going Monolingual

There are two hurdles that must be overcome to become able to understand monolingual definitions.

The first of these is overcoming what we call “dictionary vocabulary.” These are words that show up rather infrequently within most types of content, yet appear frequently inside monolingual definitions. Their essential function is to allow definitions of abstract concepts to be expressed precisely. As such, they tend to not lend themselves very well to the purposes of everyday conversation.

For example, here is Merriam-Webster’s first definition for “cut”:

“to penetrate with or as if with an edged instrument.”

Now, since you’re reading this guide, chances are you don’t have any trouble understanding this definition. However, it’s not hard to imagine that if someone was near Stage 2 of using MIA to acquire English, they likely wouldn’t yet know the word “penetrate,” or the fact that “instrument” can refer to tools. These are words that an English learner may not learn through general immersion until Stage 3 or 4. Although they show up infrequently in contexts like TV or daily conversation, these words come up quite frequently within the dictionary.

If you postponed going monolingual until you had learned all of this “dictionary vocabulary” from general immersion, you would likely end up waiting until Stage 4 to make the transition.

But, in truth, the amount of “dictionary vocabulary” is actually quite small. We estimate that, depending on the language and specific dictionary, there are around 300 to 500 of them. In other words, by learning these specific 300 to 500 words going monolingual in Stage 2 becomes completely accessible. We will talk about how to go about learning this “dictionary vocabulary” in the next section.

The other hurdle that must be overcome in order to go monolingual is getting used to the abstract and self-referential writing style of definitions. Furthermore, due to the abstract yet technical nature of defining words, definitions frequently contain grammar that is difficult to understand.

For example, clauses may be nested within clauses that are also nested within other clauses; or one abstract concept will be described by a combination of two other abstract concepts. All of this can make monolingual definitions fairly difficult to wrap your head around.

To give a concrete illustration, here is Merriam-Webster’s second definition for “experience”:

“the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.”

Even if you’re a native English speaker, this might still be a little hard to parse on the first go. The three uses of “or” force you to hold a large number of qualifiers in your head while processing it. This, combined with the inherently abstract nature of what the definition is trying to describe, results in something a bit difficult to digest.

Overcoming the Challenges

Here are some simple techniques you can use to smoothly overcome the challenges explained above and successfully make the transition. In this section we’ll give an overview of some techniques, and in a later section we’ll go into the nitty-gritty details of how exactly to apply them.

First, let’s talk about learning the “dictionary vocabulary.” Your first thought might be to acquire a list of all the dictionary vocabulary used in your specific target language. Now, if you’re able to find such a list, it may indeed be useful.

But, there’s really no need to do that because we can simply use the monolingual dictionary itself as a list. All you have to do is start looking up words in the monolingual dictionary, and if the definition contains any words that you don’t know, then use the bilingual dictionary to learn those words. In this way, we can use the bilingual dictionary as a springboard to help us reach the point of being able to function fully monolingually.

Once you reach Stage 2, it starts becoming important to choose wisely which words you add to the SRS (we’ll talk about this in the SRS section as well). Memorizing rare words that won’t come up in your immersion is not only a waste of time, but also the loss of an opportunity to learn something actually useful. Despite that, in the context of making the monolingual transition, we recommend assuming that nearly every word you see used in a definition is worth learning.

By definition, “dictionary vocabulary” is comprised of words that aren’t very useful outside the context of the dictionary. However, because being able to function monolingually brings so many benefits, anything that improves your ability to understand definitions is valuable and worth learning. So, in general, once you begin transitioning, start to prioritize learning words that you come across inside of monolingual definitions, even if they seem uncommon.

When it comes to learning to understand the dense grammar and unique writing style of monolingual definitions, patience and effort are required. At first, you’re not going to understand very much. Even so, if you are ready to make the transition, there will be definitions here and there that you’ll be able to understand.

Over time, as you read more and more definitions, your brain will gradually figure out how to parse more and more complicated definitions. Ultimately, like everything else in language acquisition, things boil down to practice. It’s only through struggling through it that you’ll come out on the other end with meaningful ability.

That said, there is a simple technique that you can use to expedite this process; reading the monolingual definitions of words you already know. If you look up in the monolingual dictionary a target language word that you already know, then you will know from beforehand the general meaning that the definition will try to express (we’ll talk more about this in Phase 1 of the monolingual transition). This will make the definition much more comprehensible, and can help illuminate how the grammar is functioning.

When to Go Monolingual and How Long It Takes

There is a lot of room for customization and personal experimentation when it comes to making the monolingual transition. The first thing to think about is when to start the transition.

The longer you postpone going monolingual, the more ability you will have at the time of transition, and the easier transitioning will be. Conversely, the earlier you make the transition, the more difficult it will be; but all the sooner you’ll begin receiving the benefits. Some people are excited by the idea of the going monolingual, feeling called to start as early as Stage 1. Others are more wary of the work required, and are tempted to perpetually put it off.

Our recommendation is to attempt transitioning as soon as you feel motivated to. There’s really no harm in starting “too early.” If you find yourself feeling unready and overwhelmed when you start working with the monolingual dictionary, consider trying again in a month or two. There’s nothing wrong with that. Because the monolingual dictionary is comprised of raw text, you’re likely to have a smoother transition once you’ve gained a basic foundation in reading raw text (how to do that is discussed in the Raw Text section).

Although, if you find yourself nearing the end of Stage 2 without having made the transition, we recommend making it a priority. Being able to function monolingually is one of the criteria for completing Stage 2.

How Quickly to Complete the Transition

The next thing to think about is how quickly you intend to complete the transition.

One option is to set aside your usual immersion in order to spend nearly all of your active study time working on the transition. In this scenario, you might spend all of your active immersion reading the monolingual dictionary, in addition to learning only “dictionary vocabulary” inside of Anki. If you took this approach, assuming that you already have a foundation in reading raw text and at least a few hours available daily to dedicate to transitioning, you may be able to finish most of the transition within a few weeks.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to make the transition gradually over the course of six months (approx.), continuing general immersion and studies alongside making the transition.

Either of these options is completely fine, as well as everything in between. For example, you could make the first half of the transition gradually, and then spend a week of concentrated study to complete the transition. What you choose largely boils down to personal preference.

The Phases of the Monolingual Transition

Here we are, at the nitty gritty of the monolingual transition. There are four phases to the monolingual transition, which are largely distinguished by the exercises you do. As you progress through the transition, you will use the monolingual dictionary increasingly often. With that out of the way, let’s get started with Phase 1.

Phase 1

In order to perform the following exercise, start by setting aside some time specifically for working with the monolingual dictionary.

First, take a target language word you already know and look it up in the monolingual dictionary. Then, read the definition and see if you can understand it.

If there are no unknown words and you’re able to understand it, then great! If there are no unknown words, but you’re not quite able to understand it, that’s fine too. It’s bound to happen and it should be expected.

Once you’re done working with a word in this way, simply choose a new word to look up and repeat the process. That is, unless there are unknown words in the definition.

Now, in the case that there are unknown words in the definition, look to see if any of the sentences inside the definition are 1T (one-target; containing exactly one unknown word). If a 1T sentence exists, look its unknown word up in the bilingual dictionary. Then, check to see if doing so allows you to understand the sentence.

  • If it does, then make a text-based sentence card with: the 1T sentence from the definition on the front, and the bilingual definition of its unknown word on the back.
  • If you still don’t understand the sentence after looking up the unknown word, then either: do nothing, or add the word to a list of words to learn later.

If the definition contains only sentences that are MT (multi-target; contains multiple unknown words), then either: do nothing, or add those words to a list of words that you want to learn later.

Later, for each word on the list that you’ve been making, use a search engine or example sentence website to find a 1T sentence that contains that word, and make a text-based sentence card with: that new 1T sentence on the front (that you just searched for), and the bilingual definition of the word on the back.

Outside of doing this specific exercise, you’ll want to return to using the bilingual dictionary to look words up while immersing and making cards.

This Phase 1 exercise will help you simultaneously learn dictionary vocabulary and adjust to the grammar of monolingual definitions. If you’re making a more gradual transition, you could spend your first month doing the exercise for five minutes a day. If you’re making a more condensed transition, you could make this exercise the core of the first week or so of your transition.

Once you’ve made around 100 sentence cards with this exercise, move on to the next phase.

Phase 2

For this exercise, prepare by gathering 1T sentences while doing your general immersion. Don’t make Anki cards for these 1T sentences on the spot. Instead, add them to a list of sentences that you want to make cards for later.

Set aside some time specifically for working with the monolingual dictionary. Take one of the 1T sentences you found while immersing and look up the target word (the unknown word) in the monolingual dictionary. Read the definition and see if you can understand the sentence:

  • If there are no unknown words and you’re able to understand the sentence, then make a (monolingual) text-based sentence card with: the 1T sentence on the front, and the monolingual definition of the word on the back.
  • If there are unknown words in the monolingual definition, then make (bilingual) sentence cards to learn the unknown words. In the case that the monolingual definition doesn’t contain an adequate 1T sentence for an unknown word, find replacement 1T sentences for the unknown words using a search engine or example sentence website.
  • In both of the above scenarios, make sure to also make mental notes of what each of the unknown words mean.

After making the bilingual cards for the unknown words and taking mental notes of what they mean, see if the original monolingual definitions become comprehensible. Then:

  • If the monolingual definition still doesn’t make sense, then simply don’t make a monolingual sentence card for the word. If you still want to learn the word, you can make a bilingual sentence card out of it.
  • If the monolingual definition now makes sense, then make a monolingual sentence card with: the original 1T sentence for the word on the front, and the monolingual definition of the word on the back. In some cases, you may also want to add the bilingual definitions to the back of the card.

Now, don’t study the above monolingual sentence card immediately. Suspend it in Anki. Wait until a couple days have passed after having learned the bilingual cards for the unknown words. Then un-suspend it and continue learning it normally from there.

Outside of doing this specific exercise, continue using the bilingual dictionary to look words up while immersing and making cards.

This exercise gets you actually learning new words through monolingual definitions, while helping you to continue learning dictionary vocabulary.

Once you’re able to understand around 75% of monolingual definitions without looking anything up, move on to the next stage. By “understand,” we mean understanding enough of the definition to get a solid grasp on what the word being defined means. As long as this is the case, it’s fine if there are portions of the definition that you don’t understand.

Phase 3

Continue the processes laid out in Phase 2, except now when you come across an unknown word inside of a monolingual definition you’ll be doing something different.

Instead of looking up the unknown word in the bilingual dictionary, look that unknown word up in the monolingual dictionary. This is what’s known as a “recursive look-up.” Multi-layered recursive look-ups can get messy and frustrating very quickly; so, if you’re still at a loss for understanding a word after going two layers deep, simply revert to the bilingual dictionary.

In this phase, instead of setting aside time specifically for practicing with the monolingual dictionary, simply start making all of your cards this way. This means that most of the cards you make shouldn’t contain any English.

Outside of making cards, you can continue to use the bilingual dictionary for quickly looking things up while immersing.

Move onto Phase 4 once you feel comfortable enough with the monolingual dictionary to begin using it for on-the-fly look-ups as well, in addition to card creation.

Phase 4

Continue the process laid out in Phase 3, except start transitioning to using the monolingual dictionary outside of making cards as well. Start moving toward reaching the point where, even when doing quick look-ups while immersing, you virtually always use a monolingual dictionary.

When you first start this phase, it’s fine to use the monolingual dictionary for quick look-ups when you have energy; but, reverting back to the bilingual dictionary when tired. Similarly, if you look something up in the monolingual dictionary and it doesn’t immediately click, it’s fine to instantly revert back to the bilingual dictionary rather than grappling with the monolingual definition and doing recursive look-ups (this applies to look-ups while immersing only). Over time, as your comfort with the monolingual dictionary continues to increase, gradually reduce how often you revert to the bilingual dictionary.

Once you rely solely on the monolingual dictionary for over 95% of all your look-ups, when making cards as well as looking things up on the fly, you’ll be functioning fully monolingually. Now, your monolingual transition is considered complete.

Weaknesses of the Monolingual Dictionary

Certain categories of words have disproportionately complex and convoluted monolingual definitions. While in the process of making the transition, it’s a good idea to simply revert to the bilingual dictionary for these kinds of words. For some specific categories of words, you will want to continue relying on the bilingual dictionary even after fully completing the monolingual transition.

First, we have words with excessively simple meanings. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but when a word refers to something extremely simple, sometimes it actually becomes quite complicated to define.

For example, take the following Merriam-Webster definition:

“an object or entity not precisely designated or capable of being designated.”

This is the first definition listed for the word “thing.”

Another example is:

“used as a function word to indicate that a following noun or noun equivalent is definite or has been previously specified by context or by circumstance.”

That’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “the.”

To make things worse, these sorts of words often have a multitude of slightly different meanings. Specifically, Merriam-Webster lists over 20 different meanings of “the.” These technical explanations of simple words can be interesting to read once you’ve mastered the monolingual dictionary, but they aren’t good training material. Before you finish the transition, it’s best to simply consult the bilingual dictionary for these kind of words.

Next, we have nouns. Many nouns simply don’t lend themselves to being described with words very well. For example, the Merriam-Webster definition of “piano” is:

“a musical instrument having steel wire strings that sound when struck by felt-covered hammers operated from a keyboard.”

If you had never seen a piano before, that description is unlikely to give you a good sense of what a piano actually looks like and how it works.

Another similar issue is that, in order to be accurate, sometimes a monolingual dictionary will describe everyday items in technical terms; which has the potential to be confusing even to native speakers. For example, the Merriam-Webster definition of “camera” is:

“a device that consists of a lightproof chamber with an aperture fitted with a lens and a shutter through which the image of an object is projected onto a surface for recording (as on a photosensitive film or an electronic sensor) or for translation into electrical impulses (as for television broadcast).”

If you look up a noun in the monolingual dictionary and figure that the definition is going to be either too technical or abstract to be helpful, it’s probably best to just let it go.

But, before reverting to the bilingual dictionary, consider searching the word in Google Images. When it comes to nouns, often times a picture really is worth a thousand words. If you find a picture that clears up the meaning of a word, feel free to put it on the back of an Anki card instead of a monolingual definition. We consider images to be completely fair game as far as functioning monolingually goes. If the word in question is a place name, color, species of plant or animal, or really any kind of physical object, Google Images is likely to be more helpful than the monolingual dictionary.

It’s also important to note that the monolingual definitions of everyday nouns often contain words which fall outside of what we would call “dictionary vocabulary.”

We defined “dictionary vocabulary” as words that are generally uncommon, but show up frequently within monolingual definitions. Within the monolingual definitions of these everyday nouns, oftentimes words are used that are uncommon both inside and outside of the dictionary.

For example, take the definition of “camera” from before. It uses words such as “aperture” and “photosensitive,” which are highly domain specific and unlikely to show up in daily life and within other definitions. So, be sure to watch out for this, as you probably want to avoid spending time learning domain specific words initially.

Finally, there is one last subcategory of nouns that (even after mastering the monolingual dictionary) you will probably want to use the bilingual dictionary to learn: technical academic terminology.

These include words like the names of historic events, the names of planets, and scientific terms such as “atom” or “neuron.” Because these words have standardized technical meanings within their respective domains, they have exact one-to-one correlates in every language. The word “hydrogen” means the exact same thing as the Japanese and French equivalents for “hydrogen.” One way to think about it is that each of these words point to a specific concept, and the concept itself is language independent.

So, if you already know what “hydrogen” means in English, then there’s no need to learn your target language’s word for “hydrogen” through the monolingual dictionary. Simply associating the English word “hydrogen” with your target language’s equivalent is enough. In fact, even though the opposite is true for most words, making clear associations in your head between native language and target language technical terms is useful, as it will help you easily transfer technical knowledge you gain in one language into the other.

Wrapping up the Monolingual Transition

Language Distance and Going Monolingual

If your target language is closely related to your native language, going monolingual won’t be quite as important, and likely won’t be as beneficial.

Like we mentioned in the previous section, all languages share technical academic terms. When talking about completely unrelated languages like English and Japanese, those are just about the only true one-to-one correlates you’re going to find between the two languages. With these languages, a monolingual definition is usually going to trump a bilingual one in terms of accuracy.

But, if two languages are genealogically related, that means that at one point in history they were literally the same language. Because of this, related languages often still share many one-to-one cognates outside of technical terminology as well. When learning these words, the bilingual dictionary is most useful.

So, if you’re learning a language that’s closely related to your native language, we recommend putting less overall emphasis on the monolingual transition. This can take the form of waiting longer to begin the transition, and continuing to reference bilingual dictionaries alongside monolingual ones even after making the transition.

Misc. Tips about Dictionaries & Going Monolingual

Paper dictionaries can be fun to flip through, but for our purposes it’s crucial that you have access to electronic dictionaries. Being able to instantly look up words and copy/paste their definitions onto cards is a game changer in the world of language learning.

If you can, try to find as many different monolingual dictionaries as you can for your target language. Every dictionary will have its own flavor, pros, and cons. Some are more technical, some use more everyday language. Some are more comprehensive, some more bare bones.

Because every dictionary is different, the more dictionaries you have at your disposal, the higher the chance that you’ll be able to understand at least one of their definitions for a given word. Additionally, comparing and contrasting definitions from different dictionaries can help reveal the true meaning of the word in question. It’s also fine to put multiple definitions of the same word on a single Anki card if you think it will help you grasp the meaning.

We also recommend finding at least one monolingual dictionary app for your phone. This way, you will be able to look things up monolingually wherever you are. This will become particularly useful once you reach Phase 4 of the Monolingual Transition, where you will begin using the monolingual dictionary for on-the-fly look-ups as well.

Lastly, if a monolingual definition really isn’t clicking, another option you can try before resorting to the bilingual dictionary is googling the word or phrase in question, along with the word for “meaning” in your target language. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find a forum or blog post where someone has given the meaning of the word or phrase in simple language. Feel free to copy and paste these sorts of casual descriptions onto your cards as well.

Monolingual Transition Q&A

Even when I understand monolingual definitions, things are blurry. Wouldn’t I understand more with the bilingual dictionary?

Everyone feels like this at first. Just like with learning to read raw text, things start out blurry and gradually get clearer over time. This is simply the nature of the learning process. It may be true that, initially, using the monolingual dictionary will cause a drop in your level of understanding. But, persevering through the initial period will be well worth it in the long term. Once you master the monolingual dictionary, you’ll be able to understand words incomparably greater than you were ever able to with the bilingual dictionary.

I understood part of a monolingual definition, but not the whole thing. Can I still use this definition to learn the target word?

Yes. Even if you didn’t understand an entire monolingual definition, as long as you understood enough to get what the word you looked up means, then that is enough.

With that said, if the definition in question contained any unknown words, it may be a good idea to add them to a list to learn later. Remember, in general, words that show up within monolingual definitions are worth learning.

Sometimes I think I understood a monolingual definition, but I’m not completely sure. Is it okay to double check with the bilingual dictionary?

Yes, it’s perfectly fine to double check with the bilingual dictionary. However, don’t put the bilingual definition on your Anki card. Just confirm that your interpretation of the monolingual definition was correct, and then go with that. Some people worry that looking at a bilingual definition even once will “spoil” their understanding of the word. But, this isn’t something you need to worry about. If you can understand the monolingual definition, looking at an English translation won’t cause any harm.

If a word has multiple different meanings, should I put the entire definition on the back of my card, or only the portion necessary for understanding the target sentence?

It’s fine either way, but our recommendation is to put the entire definition, and perhaps bolding the portion relevant to the target sentence. This way, when reviewing the card, even if you only read the portion that’s bolded, you’ll still see the rest of the definition out of the corner of your eye; this will help you remember that the word has multiple meanings. Due to that, when you come across the word in the wild, you will be quicker to recognize when the word is being used with a meaning other than the one you memorized.

Can I make sentence cards out of the contents of monolingual definitions?

Totally. Any piece of language that was created by a native speaker for other native speakers is game when it comes to sentence mining, including monolingual definitions. If you want to learn a word that you found in a monolingual definition, but the definition lacks context or is too abstract, it’s also fine to search for a replacement sentence for that word.

After going monolingual, should I go back and remove the bilingual definitions from all my old Anki cards?

Definitely not. That would take far more time and effort than it would be worth. As you continue to review in Anki, you will see your old Anki cards progressively less and less often anyway.

When reviewing monolingual sentence cards, should I memorize monolingual definitions verbatim?

That would be far too difficult; don’t do that. Just like with bilingual sentence cards, simply try to remember the basic gist of the word’s definition.

SRS

Besides shifting away from bilingual sentence cards with the monolingual transition, not much changes between Stage 1 and Stage 2 on the front of sentence mining and the SRS.

At this point, you may find it useful to go back and reread the “Sentence Cards” and “Sentence Mining” portions of the Stage 1 guide (currently the “Japanese Quickstart Guide”). Now that you have more experience under your belt, some of the advice may take on new meanings for you.

If you maintain the recommended immersion to SRS time allocation ratio (covered in the “Sentence Mining Q&A” section of the Japanese Quickstart Guide), you should be ready to move on from Stage 2 to Stage 3 after making another ~3,000 sentence cards. Combined with the ~3,000 you made in Stage 1, this should take you to ~6,000 total sentence cards.

One element of how you mine sentences that you may want to change moving into Stage 2 is how you choose what sentences are worth mining.

Choosing What Sentences Are Worth Mining

In Stage 1, we recommended choosing what sentences to mine based primarily on what grabs your attention. If a word seems to stand out or feel familiar, that’s likely a sign that you have already come across that word many times before. And, if the same word is showing up multiple times in your immersion, that means that it’s at least relatively common and definitely worth your time to learn.

But, by the time you reach Stage 2, you will have already learned most extremely common words in the language. Once this happens, it might become rare that you come across unknown words that feel familiar or pull your attention in the same way that words did in Stage 1. Once this happens, it can become hard to judge how valuable a word will be before learning it. Once you reach this point, frequency lists can become a useful tool.

Making Use of Frequency Lists to Determine the Words You Learn

The traditional way to use a frequency list is to start at the top of the list, and learn every word listed in order. As mentioned in Stage 1, learning the most common 1,000 words in this way can be an effective way to jump-start learning a new language.

But, after that, choosing what words to learn based solely on a frequency list isn’t an efficient strategy. The reason for this is that after the first~1,000 words on the list, the frequency of specific words starts differing greatly depending on the specific sources the list was created from. So, even if a frequency list you found online says a word is common, in reality it might not come up often in your own personal immersion.

In Stage 2 and above, we recommend using frequency lists to help you roughly judge the value of words you come across in your immersion. For example, if you searched the target word of a 1T sentence up in a frequency list and it was positioned around 4,000 on the list, then you could assume it’s worth learning. Conversely, if it was positioned around 40,000 on the list, you could assume it’s extremely uncommon and not worth your time to learn. So, you’re not going to a frequency list to find new words to learn, but simply using it to gauge the usefulness of words that showed up in your immersion.

For the duration of Stage 2, we recommend focusing on learning words positioned below 15,000 on a frequency list. As you continue to rise up the stages, you will continue to expand the frequency range of words that you learn. Of course, the exception to this principle is dictionary vocabulary, which, for reasons explained in the Monolingual Transition section, you should generally value regardless of frequency list position.

Always keep in mind that the frequency list you use likely won’t be completely representative of your own personal immersion. If a frequency list says a word is uncommon but your intuition tells you to learn it, feel free to go ahead and learn it anyway.

If you’re not able to find a frequency list for your target language, or you simply prefer to not constantly reference a frequency list, it’s also fine to continue relying solely on your intuition when picking what words to learn from your immersion. Any words that are truly important will be learned sooner or later, and learning an uncommon word here and there won’t do any harm.