Critical Frequency: A Brand New Way of Looking At Language Exposure

“Use it or lose it.”
~ Originator Unknown To Me

“If I do not practice for a day, I know it. If I do not practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I do not practice for three days, my audience knows it.”
~ Vladimir Horowitz

I have a hunch. I don’t have proof yet. That’s why I’m going to try it out first. Here it is:

The frequency of contact with your L2 matters more than the quantity.
Corollary: if you just focus on the frequency you can relax on quantity.
Caution: which is not to say that the quantity doesn’t matter at all…it just matters less

Example: back in late 2007, I spent an entire week here in Japan (Thanksgiving Break, essentially) hanging out only with Americans. We ate, walked, talked and slept together the whole time. No, not in that way.

These were eikaiwa types who seemed to make it their solemn duty to avoid Japanese as if it were an infectious disease. They wouldn’t try to speak it, read it, or even watch TV in it. They went out of their way to watch English-language TV, eat American food, and watch Hollywood movies in English with no Japanese subs or dubs. I know. One of them (a chick) totally freaked out when I switched the bilingual news to Japanese (even though no one but me was watching)!

Having said that, they were nice people and it was fun to be with them. Also, despite their English bubble, they did experience varying degrees of decay in their English skills (they constantly found themselves forgetting words…you know…more than usual), perhaps because of the truncated, “ESL English” lexicon they used so much of the time at work.

So Thanksgiving Break ends and I get back to my Japanese life. At the train station on the platform, I call my friend Emstar, who happens to be Japanese and monolingual. He says: “dude…you sound weird”. And I know I do. A week of galavanting about with the American crew was enough to harm my Japanese severely. It didn’t matter that we were in Japan. It didn’t matter how much — what quantity of — Japanese I had been exposed to before. The frequency had gone down to 0. And that was enough to cause damage.

The Japanese students I knew in college in the US also reported significant drops in their Japanese ability, particularly when it came to reading and writing.

Ishinosuke UWANO had the same thing happen to him, but on steroids. His Japanese contact frequency dropped to 0 and stayed there for 60 odd years. Result? Despite 20 years of pure, unadulterated AJATT (21 years if you count his time in the womb), 21 years of uninterrupted Japanese exposure, folks…184,086 hours (that’s 11 million minutes or 663 million seconds…half a billion seconds, people)…he basically lost it all. If you think about it, he’s not even Japanese any more — he’s a Ukrainian guy who knows a couple of Japanese words.

I’ve still only had 5 figures’ worth of Japanese exposure — about one tenth of the exposure volume that Uwano has had. But obviously, I’m all over him when it comes to Japanese. Methinks that can be said quite safely. Nevertheless, I have seen the damage that neglect can do. I saw it over Thanksgiving 2007. I saw it when I decided to make myself a little China in Japan — great for my Chinesedisastrous for my Japanese. And I’ve met my fair share of Chinese (college) kids struggling with their Japanese here.

I want to be a polyglot…kinda. No, I don’t want to be a polyglot. I want Chinese and Japanese and maybe a bit of English on the side. Maybe I want to mack on chicks in Spanish as well. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not prepared to sacrifice the old for the new. I’m especially not prepared to sacrifice Japanese.

Most of the great Internet polyglots I’ve talked to accept decay and just practice back from it. I don’t want to accept decay. I hate having to make a “comeback”; that just feels like unnecessary repetition to me. I hate that “I used to know this” feeling; it’s not wistful, it’s just painful. As long as I’m alive, I want to be moving onward and upward, not regaining lost ground and glory. His name is Sisyphus and I have no interest in emulating him.

OK, so now what? Now that you’ve seen the shallow contents of my soul. Now what?

Here’s what it comes down to.

I used to subscribe to what you might call an absolute volume (critical mass) model of language acquistion. Basically, it goes like this:

Contact Volume → Critical Mass → Ownage.

And I still think that’s more or less true. But simply trying to log as many Japanese hours as possible is painful. And it’s not something I actually did. I was ultimately trying to log the J-hours. But the way I did it was to take any and every opportunity to touch Japanese. I never let dead time pass un-Japanized; I never let myself be apart from Japanese for any significant length of time. In other words, I maintained a very high (occasionally infinite) Japanese frequency.

You’ll recall that I once said that AJATT has two principal aims. (1) To tell you what I did, so you can do it as well, and (2) to give you stuff I wish I had had, so you can do better.  To that, we might do well to add a silent third aim: (0) To figure out what the heck it actually was that I did (and, as far as practicality and curiosity allow, why it worked) — in other words, to figure out some underlying principles.

“All Japanese All the Time” is a misnomer. I rarely hit 100% Japanese quantity (infinite frequency) for the day. Having said that, I did have the occasional 100% day, and I am watching a Chinese variety show as I type this, so…I like to think that I don’t mess around :D . Once, during the legendary “hardcore” AJATT phase, I went with a Japanese friend to watch an English movie;  she talked to me in Japanese the whole time, and when she wasn’t talking I was doing my reps. I like to think that I don’ t mess around.

“Always trying to to get some Japanese in there”. “Some Japanese all the Time”. “Always working to reduce the time between the last time I touched Japanese and the next time I touch Japanese”. These names are perhaps more accurate.

Absolute volume of contact with a language does matter, but not in the way I thought. In fact, I think we can basically ignore it. Iff, we can guarantee frequency. Uwano-san’s case shows us that even 180k hours of absolute exposure can amount to naught if the frequency drops to 0. Conversely, hourly or half-hourly exposure to Japanese…even just 2 minutes at a time…something tells me…could not only (of course) maintain ownage, but also produce it. For at least two reasons. (1) Frequency itself, and (2) run-on — people turn on the Japanese and accidentally leave it on.

So here is the new model I have in mind:

Critical Frequency → Ownage ↔ Maintenance.

Sorry if the arrows don’t make much sense. I’ll need to draw a real diagram. One of these days. Hehe.

Executive summary: if you just come in contact with Japanese often enough, you will not only get good at it, but you will stay that way. And you don’t have to worry much what you do “in-between”…as long as “in-between” is very, very short. I’m thinking on the order of 30~60 minutes. Example: 2 minutes of Japanese within every 1 hour block of the day…I think this may just be enough. I think this may just do it. But I’m not sure. I may be wrong.

It almost seems too easy, doesn’t it? But if life has taught me anything it’s that…people try too hard to do hard things. Indeed, it is people’s puritanical desire to do hard things that leads to failure and procrastination. The winners are those that choose “strategic laziness“. It’s sort of like the difference between religious fundamentalists who proclaim abstinence…right before they get pregnant and catch an STD all on the same day…versus people who plan out that part of their lives more…strategically: they may lack moral purity, but they also lack teenage pregnancy. Sorry for the racy example.

A language is like a cross between food, air and a pet. You can’t just binge on it once and call it a day. You need it there constantly, no, not constantly — very frequently — and when it does go, it needs to come back soon. Otherwise the skill dies.

Here are my serving suggestions for frequencies. These are all just guesstimates. My favorite one, the one I am using, is #2, the highlighted one:

  1. 1~2 minutes per half hour
  2. 2 minutes per hour
  3. 4~5 minutes per 90 minutes
  4. 10~15 minutes per 2 hours
  5. 15~30 minutes per 3 hours
  6. 30~60 minutes per 4 hours
  7. 60~90 minutes per 6 hours
  8. 90~180 minutes per 12 hours

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been using what I call a “contact calendar” (AJATT+ users get a free sample) to help me keep track of my exposure frequency in this way. I only track Cantonese and Mandarin. I opted for the highest manageable (to me) frequency: 2 minutes per hour (or, more accurately, 2 minutes within each 1-hour block or “frame”, of which there are 24 in every day).

Keeping to this frequency is a lot easier than it sounds. Usually, I handle the exposure every hour on the hour. Often, even though I only mean to do 2 minutes, I get so sucked in that I stay well over 2 minutes (run-on); simple inertia also plays a role — I’ll just forget to turn it off. Nevertheless, I keep to the same frequency — 2 minutes/hour or 2 minutes within each 1 hour block — because quantity is not the goal here: frequency is.

If I want or need a large block of time to do something else, I might listen to Cantonese at the top of one frame (say, from 21:00 to 21:02), then do the something else, and then catch more Cantonese at the bottom of the next frame (say from 22:55 to 22:57). So there’s a lot of flexibility here. In case you’re wondering, at night, when I’m asleep, I just leave a talk podcast playing, through all 8 frames or so.

The weird thing is…it works. I can’t quite explain it, and I know my explanations suck anyway, but somehow it works. I think what may be happening is that Cantonese and Mandarin are never allowed to “go cold” in my mind; they’re never allowed to fade; they always stay in working memory(?); there’s always a Chinese echo in my head. It’s sort of like the Song Stuck In My Head Phenomenon (SSIMHP), but in a more general way.

So even though I could be exposed to only 48 minutes of Cantonese per day, in theory, the effect is the same as listening to it all day because of the frequency, just like how a movie looks like it’s always moving because the frames, which are nothing but still images, move frequently enough. If it helps at all, remember that atoms, even of solids, are more than 99% empty space. But, apparently, the distances between and within atoms are close enough to where they can interact with light and each other, electrically and otherwise, in such a way that we experience opacity and solidity. Or so I’m told…someone hit me if this is wrong.

The secret to losing at Japanese: giving up. Why? Because frequency drops to 0.

The secret to winning at Japanese: reduce the gap between the last time you touched Japanese and the next time you touch it.  Tip: for best results, make “next” = now. But if “next” can’t always be “now”, then make it darn soon. Like, less than an hour or so. Never let that water go cold. Never let the echo fade into silence. Never let the din in the head die.

I don’t know what I’m doing; I never do :) . But I’m excited about this new game. And I’m excited at the possibility of growing new skills while keeping old ones. In a way, not much has changed. But at the same time, I feel like everything has. There’s no more guilt about not being at 100% volume. Because the meaning and value of 100% has changed.

Infinite frequency is unnecessary provided the frequency is high enough. That is the hunchpothesis. It’s like math versus engineering. Old AJATT immersion was math — infinity, perfection, analog, continuous, smooth, unbroken. New AJATT immersion is engineeringdiscrete, digital, pixel-based, good enough for all practical intents and purposes.

Use it or lose it. And it’s not how much you use it, but how often.

Maybe…Maybe…again, I don’t know for sure…but maybe. Maybe if the Japanese input frequency is high enough…if enough frames go by each day — one per hour — then the image might as well be moving. If the red dots are close enough together, they make a red line — as far as we humans are concerned. I am basically certain that the underlying idea is sound. The only question, then, is: how close is close enough? What is the critical frequency? We’ll just have to try and see what the results tell us…

Update: A Japanese website covers this post: 【コラム】必要以上!?のビジネス英語マスター術 (48) 英語学習で重要なのは時間ではなく頻度!? 信じてみたくなる”2分間学習” | 経営 | マイコミジャーナル

  72 comments for “Critical Frequency: A Brand New Way of Looking At Language Exposure

  1. October 22, 2010 at 00:42

    I really, really like this. Putting it into practice today and discuss this idea on my blog.

  2. RaphaeI
    October 22, 2010 at 01:28

    My favourites quotes from this article would be these:

    “But I’m excited about this new game. And I’m excited at the possibility of growing new skills while keeping old ones.”

    “As long as I’m alive, I want to be moving onward and upward, not regaining lost ground and glory. His name is Sisyphus and I have no interest in emulating him.”

    I also think it’s better to learn L2 more slowly and keep your skills in L1 rather than learning L2 much quicker but forgetting L1.
    Actually I’m French and I have been studying English for something like 8 years (since middle high school), and even if I started to study Japanese 2 years ago I keep doing some things in English every day so that I keep my skills in your language, even if it prevents me from really doing Japanese all the time. I don’t care because I also do some Japanese every day, and so my level in Japanese is also improving anyway.

    Having said that, don’t you Khatz think you could write another article about learning several languages? I think the ideas you explained in this new article, and also in the 3 laws of language learning, could be useful to update and moderate what you said about how learning several languages is not advisable.

  3. Cush
    October 22, 2010 at 02:29

    You should rename the site some Japanese some of the time.

  4. Nick
    October 22, 2010 at 03:18


  5. nippyon
    October 22, 2010 at 05:20

    I’m trying to do this more with my Heisigs reps– 25 reps every hour sucks alot less than 300 at once(or 2 days worth of put off ones ;) ) The “hardcore” thing never works for me, I forget everything.
    I never read anything in english without Japanese music. I used to use AJATT as an excuse (oh, i’m reading ABOUT Japanese so technically it’s okay) but then I’d end up reading another english website, then listening to Metallica, then watching a Metallica concert, and pretty soon a Japanese-free week has gone by and i’ve forgotten the past twoo weeks kanji….
    This way, i listen to Japanese music, surf Gackt’s Japanese blog, then watch a GACKT concert. It flips my Japanese contact from none to all the time. I love that :)
    After a while w/ Japanese music you don’t get “sick” of Japanese, and you don’t want to take a break, so you end up witth maximum exposure..pretty cool. Now my gap between touching Japanese is pretty much the distance between one song and the next :)
    Thanks for the awesome post,

  6. Maya
    October 22, 2010 at 06:10

    “I think the ideas you explained in this new article, and also in the 3 laws of language learning, could be useful to update and moderate what you said about how learning several languages is not advisable.”

    Seconded. Towards the end of the article I found myself thinking: if ~48 minutes of listening is “enough” (per day), that leaves plently of room for a large number of languages. Khatz, you literally might have just found the key to (true, meaningful) polyglottery. Thoughts?

  7. Shea
    October 22, 2010 at 08:35

    I’ve managed to do this somewhat. On my way to/from work I always have a Japanese podcast playing over my little FM tuner in my car. My iPhone is set to 100% Japanese, my facebook is set to Japanese, etc. I still feel I don’t get enough in the day though. Work prevents me from doing it 100%, but once I go back to Japan (#2, but this time I hope to stay for more than 2 years) I want to be able to do my language a certain way. I study Japanese and recently started Mandarin Chinese. I hope that my day consists of this: 60% Japanese, 20% Mandarin, 20%English. My English may be more due to my job, but all of my English bubble friends have moved on to other cities mostly, so all that is left are my Japanese friends. What I have to convince them of is to trade off, they love to use English with me, but rarely do we converse in Japanese…this time I’ll have to ask them to return the favor :)

  8. October 22, 2010 at 12:43

    I like this. I’ve been trying (and failing) to write something about spaced experience repetition recently, and this meshes nicely.

    As for the “all the time” versus “some of the time” thing… did anyone actually take “all the time” as literal truth? I mean, I use my left hand to hold chopsticks pretty close to 100% of the time, but sometimes the 包子’s on my right and things have to be done. Same idea with language. Even when I’m having a very very Mandarin day, I still use English. I might hit 95%, but even if I’m being careful I’m bound to think in English, if nothing else.

  9. Caleb
    October 22, 2010 at 14:41

    Great article. Potential game changer.

  10. Ken
    October 22, 2010 at 16:08

    I think I’ve heard something like that before…

    “You may do all Japanese some of the time, you can even do some Japanese all of the time, but you cannot do all Japanese all the time.”


  11. Brutus
    October 22, 2010 at 19:02

    haha, wow Maya, you are so wrong. You can only learn two languages at once and even then one, will be in the expense of another, do you really think you can just spend your whole life chasing after dozens of languages, oh my God, to what purpose? Is there no end to the human limits Maya? Where is all the desperation coming from? Think of it, we are such a bunch of “lazy” people that we barely have enough time for Japanese (my case Swedish) let alone have the time to try to fill the room with other languages, I mean talk about losing focus, the butterfly effect, Jesus-trying-to-save-the-world-by-speaking-everyone’s-language-preferably-at-the-same-time mentality. Skärpning asså (Be real)
    Peace out

  12. Kevin
    October 22, 2010 at 22:27

    For the running set, this seems kinda like the walk break concept in Galloway’s Book on Running…

  13. October 23, 2010 at 00:22

    I have to say, this is my favorite post in some time. Very inspiring.

  14. October 23, 2010 at 03:39

    Khatz, nah, you don’t want to be a polyglot and you know it.

    Polyglots have all my respect and they have wonderful techniques to steal from, but there is a difference between carrying on a simple conversation and mastery of a language… which I believe is the real thrill of a language: being able to enjoy all aspects of its culture and media (One Piece, Final Fantasy, Evangelion), not just limited to talking about the weather and ‘Where is the party tonight? I was born in Bratislava!’

    Most polyglots that I know have certain goals and levels they wish to achieve in each language, and the majority of them are basic-’intermediate’ verbal communication, which is lovely, but it doesn’t cut the proverbial cheese when you want to enjoy the deeper aspects of the culture and language.

    To each their own, of course.

  15. Slucido
    October 23, 2010 at 05:19

    You can be a polyglot who aims native proficiency in one language (Japanese) and basic or intermediate in several others (Mandarin, Spanish, Russian …).

    It depends on your goals. For example, my goal is been able to read well in several languages, but I don’t need more than basic speaking or listening skills in them.

  16. gavin
    October 23, 2010 at 08:20

    I like this – for one thing I think its good to acknowledge the cost of learning Chinese to Japanese, but I also think there are two kinds of memory going on here.

    Example – I took 3 years of Spanish in high school and couldn’t tell you 20 Spanish words but I know (from past experience) that I can pick it up in a really short immersion and it all comes flooding back. The language patters are retained somewhere.

    I quit Japanese pretty much cold from 2006 – 2009 and after I found this site, two weeks of immersion and I was back to where I had been more or less, two more weeks and I was far advanced of where I’d ever been. (Just wish I still had time to do that).

    Another major cost that I think needs to be pointed out is the trade off between L1 and L0, native language. I’m in a top grad school program and am expected to be able to use English at an academic level, pretty far above the average native speaker level. When I spend a long time in Japanese I can really feel the hit in my English (mostly diction, and some advanced grammar). I could do better formal writing as a monolingual freshman in college than I can now (now of course my ideas are better to make up for it but its still annoying). Which is just to say consider the costs of being a polyglot.

    I think you can absolutely become fluent in five unrelated languages, but do not believe that you can costlessly switch between them.

  17. October 23, 2010 at 15:43

    I think the site name is perfect remaining the same.

    And Khatz, I agree with this phenomena of-the-which you speak of. It’s the same as when I did Lazy Kanji for 5 minutes every hour during the day. I felt like I gave my mind time to process the information while my focus was on other things, and then when I returned my mind welcomed it. It was like,”Hey, going over more Kanji”, as if I had never skipped a beat; it was as if there was no empty space, and my mind’s eye saccaded right back into the Kanji. If that makes sense.

    The beauty is that the site’s name is perfect.

    If your mind takes in all the Japanese at each frequency (every saccade), and connects one with the next, and so on… You’ve created a 2 minute game every hour that makes the day feel like a game in its self. You’ve inherently created a conscious day-to-day state of mind centered around games to be played. Achievement (action) x Frequency (little and often) = Achievement Paradigm.

  18. caribouuu
    October 24, 2010 at 00:06

    jaybot7 saied “Polyglots have all my respect and they have wonderful techniques to steal from, but there is a difference between carrying on a simple conversation and mastery of a language… which I believe is the real thrill of a language: being able to enjoy all aspects of its culture and media (One Piece, Final Fantasy, Evangelion), not just limited to talking about the weather and ‘Where is the party tonight? I was born in Bratislava!’ ”

    Come on, you can’t call “one piece, final fantasy and evangelion” all aspects of the japanese culture lol.

    Poliglots speak several language, knowing all aspects of a culture means to live in a country and there’s only one way, living in the target country, of course nowadays you can have a lot of culture through internet, but you never have a “true” knowledge of the culture until you’ve been living with people from the target country in the target country. It has nothing to do with being a polyglot or not, wanting to learn several languages is fine, it will just take the time needed.

  19. October 24, 2010 at 01:47


    He said “and media”. Not “all aspects of the japanese culture lol.”

  20. Jake Snills
    October 24, 2010 at 05:14

    Interesting post, Khatz.

    I think the ideas that you have presented are fairly on the money. The frequency in which we are exposed to the language we are learning definitely trumps the quantity of it we learn in one day. A good example of this would be a person who does 3 hours of study a day all in the morning or evening versus an individual who does their 3 hours throughout the day. My feeling is that the 12 or so waking hours the first person spends without Japanese in a row would be more detrimental in terms of his or her learning than the second individual who experiences those same 12 hours as short gaps between periods of learning – very similar to the ‘scatter shot’ concept of learning you have mentioned in the past (perhaps there is an element of rest and review cycles in this in regards to spaced repetition as well that needs to be considered).

    Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to hearing about how it all works out for you.

  21. Jake Snills
    October 24, 2010 at 05:28

    Just a note to those thinking on the lines of learning x number of languages at once, I agree on the most part, but I think that it would be more difficult (of course, depending on the person) to learn from beginner onwards in this manner (i.e. L2 and L3 are quite new to you). That said, if you were considering maintaining or putting the polishing touches on a language you know and were keen to pick up another (i.e., L1 and L2 are of a high enough standard to require only minimal maintenance) then I feel that it is quite possible that you could use this method to your advantage through a rigorous frequency schedule that maintain your L1 and L2 while giving you enough frequency to learn your L3 at a reasonable pace. It would be interesting to see this work in practice.

    Also, one last thing, I have to agree with what Gavin said above. It is often the case that we let it slide a bit when we leave university and, particularly our written L1, starts to degrade slightly (I know that is the case for me). Therefore, if you are bi/multilingual and your L1 is important to you and you live in a community where you aren’t always able to practice it (quite a few people live away from their birth countries and don’t have the options others do – referring to English and other languages) then you should try to find ways to practice it anyway you can (blogging, Skype friends, etc.).

  22. Jake Snills
    October 24, 2010 at 05:38

    P.s., LOL’d hard at the Convo school crack. I’ve meet my share of them. Then again, I know quite a few near native/native+ level in Japanese. I think it’s mostly to do with the 97% ‘see ya later’ clause in the secret Gaijin ‘gotta get outta dis country and go back to SCCCHHHHOOOOLLLL’ contract*.

    *Translation: If you click the eikaiwa/英会話 link above you’ll probably note that conversation school teachers usually flunk out/wisely leave, depending on your perspective, after 3 years.

  23. Patrick
    October 25, 2010 at 03:19

    A most wonderful post, love the idea of the contact calendar. I used to focus on quantity and not quality; with this method I’ve attempted those 2-minute intervals and reminded myself of any new content learned mentally with sporadic 10-20 second timeboxes throughout the day. Been working great!

  24. Maya
    October 27, 2010 at 06:03


    I think you misunderstood what I was trying to get at (my fault, actually, since I wrote something very vague).

    I didn’t mean that we should all start learning 10 languages at the same time and only do each one for 48 minutes. That would lead to confusion and stress, and wouldn’t work anyway. I agree that languages should be learned one at a time, because it’s important to get a certain amount of initial grounding – otherwise you’re begging for language loss/confusion.

    But, if we take Khatz for example – he already has (what I consider to be) a solid grounding in Japanese, and since he lives in Japan, he has tons of opportunities to continue using/practicing Japanese. His “challenge” now is to keep up Mandarin/Canto while living in Japan. And, it seems that ~48 minutes (sleeping time aside) is enough to keep up each language. So, hypothetically, if he started learning another language 2-3 years into the future, he would be able to immerse himself a lot in that language, while doing ~48 each of Japanese/Canto/Mandarin. He would have a strong foundation in those 3 languages, so 48 minutes, or 96 minutes, or whatever, spaced throughout the day might be enough to help him just maintain those languages while he acquires another one.

    i.e., the model that Khatz proposes here is more useful for language maintenance than hardcore immersion for beginners. One could use this model to balance a few (limited number of) languages that one has learned.

    Hope that was a bit more clear.

  25. Angeldust
    October 30, 2010 at 10:29

    I so need this. I’ve been binging and purging for like… 6 months and it SUCKS. But this… 2 minutes an hour… I can do this. It makes it waaay less overwhelming. Thank you!

  26. McSalty
    November 12, 2010 at 18:06

    The more experience I have with this whole “life” thing, the more and more I find completely unrelated subjects being bound by a common thread.

    In the fitness and strength training world, a while back an ex-soviet special-forces trainer named Pavel entered the scene and introduced a lot of concepts no one had heard of, and a lot of people experienced great results from putting them into practice.

    Why am I bringing this up? One of his books was called “The Naked Warrior,” and it was about strength training with no equipment. One of the primary themes in this book was a concept he called “greasing the groove.” Basically the notion is, if you want to get good at doing pullups, you shouldn’t train to make yourself stronger — you should just ‘practice’ doing pullups as often as possible, always stopping before fatigue.

    So, instead of the traditional “Do three sets of pullups until failure,” Pavels approach was “Do 5 pullups every time you walk past the pullup bar in your house.” (If you can’t easily do 5 pullups, make it 3 pullups, or 1 pullup). The point was, you were always stopping before fatigue set in, so 30 minutes to an hour later you could easily do 5 pullups again. The result was, over the course of the day, you may end up doing 50-100 pullups, whereas if you did them all in one sitting you might only be able to crank out 30, and you’d be exhausted. This way you never even feel tired, and you’re skeptical that you’re even getting a workout.

    The theory was, as opposed to breaking down and rebuilding muscle fibers, you’re actually conditioning your nervous system to GET USED TO doing pullups — essentially treating strength as a skill that needs practice, just like playing guitar. Guys who put this theory into practice, a month or two later were reporting amazing results like going from 10 to 20 pullups in a single set despite having never practiced doing more than 5 at any one time.

    Ok, that may seem way tangential, but my point is I think you might really be onto something here. I’m actually really excited about this. I’m going to apply this to everything I want to get better at. Want to be a writer? For two minutes every hour, write something — anything. Want to start your own business? For two minutes every hour brainstorm new business ideas and how to flesh them out. Want to improve your public speaking? For two minutes every hour command an audience, even if only one person, or if you’re alone, dictate to an imaginary audience. Want to improve your posture? For two minutes every hour sit up, stand up, or walk with perfect posture. After a while, you get used to thinking of it often enough that it’s always on your mind. Put another way, if you remind yourself of your goals often enough, it keeps you on track to attain them. If your frequency of thought is high enough, your goals become your fixation, and it’s impossible to fall off the wagon. You’re building a house by placing one brick every hour instead of trying to do as much work as possible at one time and doing so inefficiently because you’re wearing yourself out.

    But the two minutes thing is beautiful. Timeboxing in its most perfect incarnation. Timeboxing doesn’t work for me, because I know I’m just trying to con myself into working past the timebox. But this two minutes is a real two minutes. It completely alleviates any and all pressure to perform. As you said, it becomes a game. “Ooh, my next two minutes is coming up soon!” It embodies the “Just do something – do anything” mindset, and gives a workable formula to fit in into your life. This strategy is absolute brilliance.

    I have a book of Aesop’s fables — Korean on one page, and English opposite to it — which is perfect for this game. Each fable is usually under 10 sentences and completely self-contained, so I don’t have to interrupt myself and remember where I left off. It also leaves me feeling, “Oh… I’ll just read one more” — totally addictive. Another great resource I’ve found is signing up for a Twitter account, and ONLY following people who ‘tweet’ exclusively in your target language. Tweets are another example of something that’s self-contained, are entertaining since you’re peaking into the lives of people in your target culture, have that addictive “just one more” quality, and if you follow enough people you have a continuously updated stream of content in your target language.

    Rock on, Khatzumoto. Your content is some of the most enjoyable on the entirety of the Internet.


  27. Amelia
    December 3, 2010 at 05:01

    Given McSalty’s point, I’ve amended how I use Khaz’s method throughout the day. I’m trying to keep up a language I used to be fluent in but am now rusty at (and occasionally need to use), a language I use in my job, all while doing Japanese immersion to prepare for a move to Japan. I found that when I applied the frequencies above, I tended to let long periods of time slip by because I knew I could make up for them later in the day with a longer period in the language. So I might wait to do French until dinnertime and then listen to a podcast for an hour or more rather than hitting the French throughout the morning and afternoon.

    McSalty points out that it’s frequency, not how much you do. So I’m just giving myself a check in the time slot, as long as I touched the language for two minutes or more. And I can ONLY get a check every hour. I know the calendar for this Khaz set up is just dots, so this is pretty much the same thing, but psychologically throwing out the algorithm really helps me to stay on track. I also add an R, S, A, or L to the dot for reading, speaking, anki, or listening because I want to remind myself to try these out every day instead of just falling back on one all the time.

    Also, since I only respond to deadlines and rules apparently, I am writing down the number of checks on my sheet for each language and putting them in Daytum. I may also make up a BS goal to keep myself motivated.

    Anyway, thanks again for the method! And to McSalty for his help in thinking about it. I’ve trimmed out my glut of extra languages down to the 3 I really need (I was up to 8…), and this is a sane way to keep them up.

  28. December 3, 2010 at 12:44

    For me, I suspect I need the hours. Here’s how I figure it. Every second of every day, every single word of Japanese in my brain is slowly fading away. That is until it’s reset by hearing or reading each specific word one more time again. So the more hours I spend on the anime/dorama grindstone, the more words get refreshed. Refreshing a few words doesn’t help with all those other words that are slowly sinking into the sand.

    (Warning: I am basically non-fluent in Japanese.)

    Today I learned ごぶさた。 Then I forgot it. So I looked at my notes. I wrote this message, and at the end I forgot it again. Now I write it here, so as to pound this sucker into my brain for good.

  29. Daniel Straight
    December 3, 2010 at 22:31

    Just want to share a tip I’ve been using to increase my (German) frequency.

    1. Get the link for a random Wikipedia article in your target language.

    2. Bookmark it in some way that’s readily accessible (I would recommend either Site Launcher [a great Firefox add-on] or an icon on your bookmark toolbar; somewhere you’ll see it all the time and can get to it in one click)

    3. Click it often.

  30. irrationale
    December 6, 2010 at 20:52

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, but the question is; it is one thing keep a passive exposure to a language, but what about producing language with such a frequency? After 20 years of frequent passive exposure, what will happen to your active productive abilities?

    • Scarlet
      September 14, 2011 at 07:27

      Speaking from experience, your productive abilities will probably be close to zero. I stopped speaking my native language about 12 years ago, but have been exposed to the language on a daily basis during all those years. My productive skills are so low that I can’t repeat most words that’s spoken to me at first try. It usually takes me a few tries before I can sound it out correctly. On the other hand, my listening comprehension is quite good. A common scenario I experience is having a conversation where I speak completely in English while the other person speaks completely in my first language.

      • February 17, 2013 at 16:41

        This is why you need to practice production too. Fortunately, you don’t need to speak to others for practice. That’s the best practice, but two other options that are almost as good are speaking to yourself and reading books aloud.

  31. Preston
    June 25, 2011 at 11:08

    By the end of next month, it will be the 18th month of my Japanese immersion environment.

    I must be doing something wrong because I’ve had at least 4,000 hours of listening on my iPod the month ago I checked (not to mention the hundreds of hours I have racked watching movies, games, YouTube videos, etc.). I never have taken a break longer than an hour or two from my Japanese (Even now, I listen to TBS Radio as I write this). I even sleep every night for 9-10 hours listening to Japanese music on my iHome speakers. And, yes, I’m very frequent with my Japanese.

    BUT I still am no where near to fluency in listening and speaking (However, my reading and writing abilities have definitely improved thanks to SRS)

    So can someone tell me what I might be doing wrong? I’ve pretty much logged at least 7,000 frequent listening hours, but my Japanese is still lacking considerably listening comprehension skills… (???) マジレスお願いします。

    • June 25, 2011 at 13:04

      How many hours of reading have you done Preston? Just curious.

      • Preston
        June 26, 2011 at 04:17

        I didn’t record any reading hours, but I use a Japanese OS, J-to-J dictionary, Japanese websites (even my Facebook account is in Japanese), 文庫 novels, etc. Reading in Japanese is not my issue though.

    • June 25, 2011 at 13:46

      Also, can you tell us if you’ve ever studied Japanese grammar?

      • Preston
        June 26, 2011 at 04:23

        I skipped N5-N3′s example grammar sentences since I already knew them and sentence-mined all the grammar points from 完全マスター2級 日本語能力試験文法問題対策 (

    • June 25, 2011 at 14:58

      The SRS is a tool, not a must. If you were listening to every single bit of Japanese for those 7000 hours (and I mean, focusing on every word) then I would actually question why you’re not getting better. But just listening to Japanese in the background wont build comprehension. At best, it’ll help you get used to Japanese sounds.

      I’d say you’re used to the sounds, you just haven’t been connecting the sounds to the letter. Speaking improves with speaking, listening improves with focused comprehensive input (even better when you’re reading a book with it’s audiobook).

      • Preston
        June 26, 2011 at 04:43

        Thank you for your response, Tyler.

        SRS, indeed, is a tool, and I am grateful that I have it. But the issue is not SRS, it’s audio.

        You’re right though. Passive listening is only good for getting use to the sound of Japanese. And I’m definitely use to it by now. I’ve done a lot of comprehensive input too, but no where near to the amount of passive listening I’ve done.

        I think that you can create a learning barrier for yourself when you passively listen to Japanese. You can over time learn to tune out Japanese audio prohibiting your comprehensive input. But I guess if something is interesting to you, you’ll listen. It may be that you force yourself to listen to the same audio over and over again… It may be interesting, but you’ve heard it before already.

    • ダンちゃん
      June 25, 2011 at 17:23

      Listening provides the language learner with several important conditions

      1-the opportunity to notice new words (I don’t mean learn, just notice their existence)
      2-the opportunity to get used to words you have learned

      Here is the important part, between those two steps you must learn new words. This is what dictionaries and the SRS are for. Putting in large amounts of hours listening is a necessary condition for fluency, but in itself it is not sufficient. In order to receive the full benefits of immersion you need to be receptive, paying attention at least some of the time and actively building your vocabulary. Reading a lot more is a good start btw.

      • ダンちゃん
        June 25, 2011 at 17:25

        I should add that of course you can learn new words as well while listening (especially when you are an advanced learner). It’s just that you shouldn’t think learning will take care of itself that easily. The bulk of your vocabulary acquisition will take place when you are paying attention, checking your dictionary, SRSing, reading, etc.

        • Preston
          June 26, 2011 at 05:06

          Thank you for your response, ダンちゃん.

          You’re right. I don’t look up a lot of word when I listen since most of my listening is passive. In fact, I practically rarely do. But I do read a lot, and look up words often. I guess text-to-text referencing (like reading a unknown word online and then copy and pasting it to’s dictionary) is more convenient than audio-to-text referencing.

          At any rate, I will take your advise to heart and tweak my listening methods.

          Thanks again.

          • Preston
            June 26, 2011 at 05:29

            Also, I must admit I only have around 2,000 sentences in my SRS. So that may be the problem too.

  32. Jason
    July 9, 2011 at 01:35

    I do Japanese 98% of the time during the day.

    The only exceptions are comic books, which aren’t translated into Japanese or else it would 100%

    But I keep Japanese on in the background

  33. Jake
    September 25, 2011 at 07:54

    I’m curious to know though if you think it’s possible to become completely illiterate in a language by letting your frequency drop down to 0 for an extended period of time. Personally, I don’t think you can ever forget all of what you learned, but rather just become “rusty” or “stale.” I think that if it is possible to forget a language that you were fluent in, it would take a longer time than any human lives, but that’s just what I think. Anyways, it was a good read. I liked it.

  34. Kimura
    November 21, 2011 at 14:48

    So, since I can’t do listening practice at night (uncomfortable headphones + unable to sleep with background noise), my only option is “2-3 solid hours of Japanese twice a day”? Or can I do one of the “less duration/more often” methods, and have an extra burst before bed and after breakfast?

  35. December 10, 2011 at 14:26

    I think Critical Frequency is extremely important as well. Last week, I was less immersed in Japanese due to an abundance of tests, projects. When I went back to my hard-core Japanese immersion, I realized that my Japanese ability had deteriorated, it was harder for me to think of words. 

    Critical Frequenc= IMPORTANT!! 

  36. Anony Moose
    March 3, 2012 at 03:16

    This method assumes you’re able to do it during night hours as well (e.g. listening to Japanese on headphones while asleep). Could you explain how to modify the method for being unable to do it during night hours? (I can’t sleep with background noise…)

    • Ryan Sharif
      March 3, 2012 at 03:50

      What about setting up your audio to turn on after you know you’ll be sleeping? I can sleep with background noise, so I don’t know if that would wake you.

      • Anony Moose
        March 3, 2012 at 08:53

        I use a 3DS as an iPod (because I have a bad history with iTunes…), so there’s no timing features like that. Besides, the way I sleep makes headphone- or even earbud-wearing impossible. And yes, the noise would wake me. (I’ve nodded off with Mythbusters left on, but it was a very light sleep and I was really tired that day. Other than that, any background noise keeps me up, even a desk fan…)

  37. フレヂイー
    March 27, 2012 at 15:23

    On the weekends when I am with my son and wife. I always do my kanji review at night, but through out the day I point to things and tell my son what its name is in Japanese or I’ll have my iPhone handy with just to browse here and there. I do this mainly out of respect that my wife and maybe my son don’t want to be consumed with Japanese all day on the weekends, but I definitely make sure to do ‘some’ Japanese at ‘some’ point during the weekend.

    I am going to try the 2mins / hr. exercise… sounds interesting.

    I tried doing the ‘some’ Japanese every hour on the hour while I am work but sometimes I’ll get sidetracked by… pfffft, work!

    So maybe, by telling my head ’2mins only’ I might play a trick on my brain and it’ll actually let me go for more than 2mins, like Khatz stated also.

  38. July 7, 2013 at 04:59

    I know that this post is more than 3 years old, but. .ARIGATO! I now listen to alitle bit of Spanish every hour or two. For me the quantity might not even be important. .The frequency alone will do

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