It Worked For Me, Why Not You? The Success Story of a Frenchman In The Netherlands Who Learned English (and Now Japanese) The AJATT Way

Good day to you, Mr. Khatz

It’s morning here in cloudy Amsterdam, and I just thought I’d kill some time sharing my little story with you while eating yesterday’s leftover sushi. There is nothing quite like raw fish in the morning.

I really just want to thank you for your website. There, I’ve said it. That’s the whole point of my mail: thanking you. If you’re too busy or don’t care enough to read, just stop right here. But if you bear with me, I’d like to share my little story with you. It’s unlikely that I’ll teach you something you don’t already know, but after months of reading AJATT, I just realised that I’m a perfect living and breathing proof that the immersion process is the best way to learn a language. Any language.

And I can say that with absolute confidence because I’ve done it. Not with Japanese just yet, I’m still early in the process (1200 kanji and going strong !), but with other languages. And yet, when I decided that I wanted to learn Japanese, my first reflex was to seek out a Japanese class at the university. Even though I’ve always despised language classes. Funny, huh ?

I’m just a little Frenchman living in the Netherlands, so finding an English/French-speaking Japanese class proved to harder than I thought, so I went for self-study. At first, I was a bit bummed; I feared that I would never be able to achieve fluency without going through the usual socially acceptable routes.

But then I discovered AJATT.

And I realized “Hey, this method makes sense, it’s how I learned English in the first place”. It never really occurred to me before, because all my friends and family would just tell me that I was gifted at languages. And I really believed it; I went to a trilingual school as a kid for three years, from ages 3 and 6; there, classes would be held entirely either in French, English or German. About 1 or 2 hours of each every day. So I largely attributed my success in English to that; “it’s because I picked it up early”, I thought.

But then during a trip to Germany, it occurred to me: “hey, I don’t remember jack sh*t about German, how do you say ‘hello’ in German again?”. For some reason, English had stuck with me, but not German. No siree, not a single freaking word, despite learning words in German before I even knew them in French (which is my native tongue; this school was in France).

So your website got me wondering, why is that ? And then another part of my childhood came to mind; namely my love for star wars; I remember spending hours on end watching Star Wars as a kid. Why is that relevant ? Well, I only owned the VHS in English. Actually, most of the movies I had in my room as a kid were in English. Get it ? In English. Not in German.

The only reason I remember any English to this day is that I never stopped watching / hearing / reading English medias for extended periods of time. Had I watched Star Wars in German, I would probably be fluent in German by now.

Those English VHS tapes kept my English alive, even though I left this trilingual school very early, and never had another English class for another 6 years.

And then at age 10, my parents got me a DreamCast with Shenmue. A brilliant game for sure, one of my all-time favorites. And, as it happens, it was only available in English dub with English subtitles. My English back then wasn’t perfect; heck, it wasn’t even that good, but I wanted to play this game so much that I just plunged head-first into it, and I enjoyed every second of it, picking up English phrases and vocabulary by the ton along the way.

Then came Phantasy Stars Online on the DreamCast. An online multiplayer RPG. Again, there were no French dedicated servers; the playerbase was international. So everyone spoke English, and so did I. And it was tremendous fun; most of the people I played with were in the same situation as me; they spoke little English and had to make do to be understood. So there was nothing to be shy about, pretty much everyone was in the same boat, including Japanese players.

Even though the English I spoke and read back then was loaded with grammatical mistakes and very flawed, it didn’t hamper my English learning the slightest. Quite the contrary, in fact, it gave me a huge boost in confidence and a solid understanding of how the language worked.

So when English classes started in high school, I could just talk circles around everyone, despite not having learned a single grammatical rule. Ever. I just understood the “concept” of the language, the musicality, if you will. I could tell by ears only if a sentence sounded right or wrong. I couldn’t explain why, but I could correct it. I couldn’t provide any grammatical or syntactical insights to save my life, but I could make a wrong sentence right again.

As for German, I remembered so little of it (read: “jack s##t”) that I didn’t even bother taking German classes. I went for Spanish instead. Despite having learned tons of German for three years on a daily basis early on in my life, learning words in German that I didn’t know in French or in English. I didn’t follow up with German; I didn’t watch German-dubbed movies; I didn’t play German video games; I didn’t watch German cartoons. And as a result, I forgot all of it, while English stuck with me through and through because I had fun playing English video games, speaking English online with complete strangers from all around the world, and watching English media.

I am not a “language genius”. There is no such thing. I just exposed myself to lots of English, hours upon hours of it, and the language came flowing naturally. Not once had I the impression of “learning” English. I was just playing with it, reading in it, writing in it. I just… had fun in it. At no point did it ever feel like working, I just did it because I was enjoying it. The point wasn’t even to LEARN English, it was to play those video games I loved and couldn’t play in French because there was no French version. It was to watch those movies that I only owned in French. English fluency came almost as a fortunate side effect. I didn’t have to work on it, it just… happened, for lack of better words.

And so when I looked up your website, it all came crashing down on me; this is how you “learn” languages. This is how I “learned” English. But it took your writings for me to realize it. And if only for that, I am grateful. So I cancelled the orders I had placed for (expensive) Japanese textbooks and audiotapes, and ordered RTK1 and tons of manga with the money I saved. I’m about halfway through RTK1, and I’m loving it.

Entering the kanji [into the SRS] and making up stories for them can feel a bit tedious at times, but whenever I feel down about it, I just take a glance at the other side of my desk and see “デスノート”, “ドラゴンボール”, and even non-furigana stuff like “新世界より” (the book), “Black Lagoon” and “ヘルシング”, and it gives me that little extra bit of motivation to get going.

When I take a break, I fire up Kill Bill (Japanese dub, seriously, it’s even better than the original), Star Wars (J-dub), or one of the numerous anime series I’ve got lying around.
When I walk around the house, it’s with the Japanese Harry Potter or LOTR audiobook, or with NHK News or Fuji TV on in the background.
When I go to run some errands, it’s with a JUNK podcast. When I work, I put some 椎名 林檎 (awesome) or Shing02 (aww yeah 歪曲 is a freaking masterpiece) and just do what I have to do.

It’s tremendous fun, and it feels guilty. When I go to bed, it’s with my PS VITA and ペルソナ4 ザ・ゴールデン, which I already played I English, so I know the plot. I’m immersing myself, and it feels so natural that something feels wrong when I’m in a situation where I can’t have Japanese going on 24/7, like when I’m visiting my family. It feels good, I’m having fun, and even though I haven’t finished RTK yet, I surprise myself being able to read and understand some sentences I find here and there in my manga or in some anime / movies I watch.

And I could go on and on about the satisfaction I feel when I can recognize a kanji I learned when I’m outside my little Japanese wonderland. It could be on the bus on a kid’s T-shirt, at the second-hand Japanese bookstore, or on the menu of a fake Japanese restaurant or written on a wall in the background of a movie; no matter the place, no matter the overall meaning of the sentence : just being able to make sense of a writing system that so many people dismiss as impossibruuuuu if a great reward in itself. I’m not afraid of coming out now : I love kanji. I love the Japanese writing system. It’s beautiful, rich and it just makes sense.

So thank you, Mr. Khatz, for your website. It helped me realize what I knew all along, but didn’t know I knew (phew). It helped me get past those little monolingual forum know-it-alls who took 4 years in Japanese classes and came out frustrated and bitter about anyone trying to learn the language another way (i.e. not the “academic” way). It helped me realize that I’m not a language genius (that’s a relief; being a called a genius is extremely derogatory IMO: it dismisses any effort / time one might have dedicated to achieving something). I’m just a staggeringly handsome guy who happens to love languages and Japanese (pop) culture.

Everyone can do it, once they go past the mental blockade. Screw social conventions, screw academia. Your method works, I applied it unknowingly to English, despite having never been to an English-speaking country in my life for more than 2 weeks at a time (and even then, not that often), and despite never learning a single grammatical rule or cracking open a single English textbook (except in English class in high school, but I pretty much slept the entire time during those).

There is no miracle, no secret recipe; just do it, and stick to it. Living in the country is not a requirement, never was (or perhaps when the Internet wasn’t around, but that’s a big “perhaps”) and never will be. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking country and I speak English. I live in a Dutch-speaking country and I don’t speak a single word of Dutch (because I’ve got no interest in learning it and I’m living here only very temporarily). Your location doesn’t matter, [insert country here] is where your make it out to be.

So thank you, Dear Leader, for allowing me to go past the social conventions and the mental blockade. I’m on a fast track to Japanese fluency, and no one can stop me. See you at the top of the mountain.

… have you ever thought of creating a cult ?


Do you have a success story you’d like to share? Hit me up!
Also, your Mom is not a virgin.
These are facts.

  15 comments for “It Worked For Me, Why Not You? The Success Story of a Frenchman In The Netherlands Who Learned English (and Now Japanese) The AJATT Way

  1. Amir
    February 21, 2014 at 01:09

    Yo Greg what’s up brotha, I’m currently living in Luxembourg which is pretty close to the Netherlands, anyways my story is EXACTLY the same. There is a gaming series I love, where some of the games are only available in English(no German,French), and the whole series ONLY in Japanese. It’s the “Tales of” series (Symphonia, Phantasia, Destiny…) I hadn’t even started English in school yet, and my English was REALLY limited only words like “Hello” and “F**k” you know, the words everybody knows, haha. But that didn’t stop me from playing my favorite games. That what happened afterwards is already beautifully explained by handsome Greg. At the beginning with my first game, I didn’t really understand anything, but after arround 30 h of gameplaytime (it’s a JRPG series, that means lots of Text, Voiceacting,Story etc., lots of sentences and words to pick up :P) I actually started to understand what was going on at the last part of the game, especially the most dramatic stuff that happened, like when somebody dies etc. Those are also the epic lines that are still stuck in my head, that I just memorized out of the emotions I felt during the entertainment I was getting through my gaming. What happened afterwards could be described as a chain reaction, I just wanted to play more of this series, since my English had already gotten better, I started going on Youtube etc. (around 2006, where everything(all the good stuff) was pretty much still in English on the internet) where I found other addictions, Youtube channels, websites and other immersion media I liked. The most amazing thing was, when I finally started to have my first English classes arround the age of 13. Let me tell you, I was(and still am ;) ) quite a lazy student, but the results I was rocking, dear GOD, I was ALWAYS first in class, I hadn’t seen any grammar rules before, but I simply did everything automatically. I understood everything while others were having trouble at the most basic things. I NEVER studied for ANY test, not even a bit, I just kept my awesome environment and immersion(=FUN baby) on. (which proves to me that classes suck) And you know the annoying girl “Stacy”(AJATT celebrity ;P) , who is always in every class, and wants to be best and annoys the hell out of everybody. Haha, that jeaulousy in her eyes, she tried so hard to catch up with my grades, but never could. My immersion and fun I that I was having in English where way too much. I’m sorry Stacy-babe, not living in the environment of the language you’re trying to learn and only studying for the test that is up ain’t gonna work. No matter how many 臥薪嘗胆「がしんしょうたん」and 努力「どりょく」you do it ain’t gonna work. Don’t hate me, don’t blame me. Blame the way society works and blame your unfortune for not finiding this amazing blog. ;) (well at that part of time I didn’t know of AJATT aswell, but I was convinced that it had to do with my environment, and Khatz師匠 eventually confirmed that belief to me.)
    Last year, I was trying to learn Japanese the same way, but it doesn’t work exactly the same as in English. I had to find a way to learn the Kanji (and Kanas). And that’s how I found this blog, thanks to which I am now able to maintain my amazing Japanese environment. Thanks Greg and Khatz for this amazing post.
    My full follow-up story will come after I suck even more less in Japanese. That means when I feel like it.
    気のまぐれってことさ。 (-‿◦☀) Which you are going to accept of course, I mean Khatz師匠 loves his AJATT 後輩達 , rigghhht? ;P

    My kanjis are already done, and I’m currently at around 7000 sentences|MCD’s. So that stuff can wait, I’m back off to playing some Tales of Destiny remake with my brother on the PS2. Ahhh you don’t know how awesome it feels do finally play those games I’ve always wanted to play. I actually don’t suck that much anymore, well I’m able to understand the main plot. (which actually doesn’t matter, ask my lil bro, even though he doesn’t understand sh*t what’s going on in the game, he’s still having a blast, but COME ON dawg, THAT battlesystem! :D)


    • Livonor
      February 21, 2014 at 05:07


      • Amir
        February 21, 2014 at 10:29

        笑!他の学生の意見はどうでもいいだろう。俺にとってあなたのやり方は正しいだと思うよ。ここはおそらく誰でもそう思うんだ、安心しろよ。 (´▽`)ノ

        • Livonor
          February 21, 2014 at 12:29


  2. Livonor
    February 21, 2014 at 04:38


  3. Adrian
    February 21, 2014 at 06:10

    Picked English up the same way in the UK when I came from the icy, post-commie fields of northern Poland.

    I didn’t even know that it was AJATT method (or any other official method). ‘It learned it’ I didn’t learn anything. All I remember was that my 11 year old friend (who was slovakian) told me not to speak Polish to him or I’ll never learn English, and he was right. (Polish & Slovakian are very similar, speaking one you ALMOST speak the other.)

    When I went to high school my ‘school spanish’ was mediocre. Because I am lazy, and didn’t like learning shopping lists. This was good because it shattered any of my perceptions about ‘being good at languages’.

    You know, I remember we spent about a year preparing and memorizing this speech that we would be tested on. It was about what kind of holiday I prefer to go on.

    Now, this pre-memorized, pre-checked speech felt good. It was IMPRESSIVE to those (who didn’t have an effin’ clue) around me. Like a good circus trick. I was ‘speaking spanish’. But heavens forbid you actually asked me something (other than ‘how old is your sister?’) I think the very fact that we say ‘Do you SPEAK Spanish’ distorts people’s reality of what a language is, and what it is for. You can speak, and not understand fluently, but you can’t understand fluently, and not speak. Understanding/being used to is what language ultimately comes down to.

    A lot of people will feel like because they’re not learning stock ‘phrases’ every month that the method is not working.

    This is normal.

    However, although I know all this, I’m at AJATT BECAUSE I’m lazy. Because my circumstances aren’t forcing me into a corner. AJATT tells me it’s okay to be lazy, and that instead of trying to kill my character, I should just find ways of doing things that match my character, that there’s no need to beat myself up in the pursuit of the honorable pie in the sky that’s reserved for the ‘hard worker/dilligent blah blah’ and all those other words that turn me off.

    ありがと Khatz.

    • Amir
      February 21, 2014 at 10:37

      Yo Polish brother! :D
      In my opinion, it’s not you who’s at fault (with being lazy and stuff) but the educational system. I mean who the heck wants to learn a DRY shoplist. How would somebody even define lazy? I’m sorry, but I’d rather watch an awesome movie in Spanish than study a pointless list. Everybody with common sense would probably do the same. ;)

      • Livonor
        February 21, 2014 at 11:55


  4. Livonor
    February 21, 2014 at 12:02


  5. Lunar
    February 21, 2014 at 20:50

    So much of this article matches my experience it’s almost freaky. I could pretty much write the same exact thing and save for the ‘Frenchman in Netherlands’ it would hold true :p

    Since I made the decision to learn Japanese, I’ve been looking back at the way I learned English a lot. It’s actually rather difficult to remember how I did it, but I somehow did it, without the aid of classes and textbooks (well, I had English at school, but I never really studied for it and I hardly ever did homework). And I wanted to know how I could do it again, but with Japanese this time around.

    Even though I don’t want to give up using English at home completely, which means I might not progress as fast as those who do take the plunge, I did just order my first completely Japanese video game – Final Fantasy X HD! This is going to be one hell of a ride, since my level of comprehension is still pretty low :D

    Oh, also – I am taking Japanese at my university. It’s not all bad, at least a few of the classes are with a native speaker who seems to greatly overestimate our ability to understand her and has switched from like 70% English 30% Japanese to 90% Japanese 10% English. And that’s good. I find myself understanding more than I expected, so it’s a nice little confidence boost. The kanji classes on the other hand are pretty bad, I mean c’mon, we spend 1.5h ‘working’ on a set of 12 kanji. I can learn 12 kanji in ~20 minutes! I certainly won’t remember them well until after a few weeks of SRSing and I won’t remember all readings but… neither will those who use the classroom method. The textbook also kinda sucks (suprise, suprise), for no reason other than the fact that it’s dreadfully boring. Yes, it covers all important grammar points, yes it has dialogues which show how those grammar structures might be used, but it’s just dull, completely unengaging and repetitive. Even the teachers repeatedly told us they think the book sucks, in which case I don’t understand why they won’t ditch it altogether.

  6. February 25, 2014 at 10:23

    I most certainly am not fluent in Japanese yet, but I can say that I relate. When I first started learning, I thought that taking a class would teach me everything I needed to know. I knew nothing about the art of language learning, much less immersion. After a couple of years of classes, I realized I was learning nothing. And guess why? Because I was doing the exact opposite of what this guy did. I was only doing the class required assignment, passing tests and quizzes but not using Japanese at all during my daily life. Then, I came across this site, and the rest as they say, is history!

    I started to increase my consumption of Japanese media, listening to Japanese music, watching the dramas, the variety shows, reading Japanese websites, etc. Being an English major, 100% AJATT-ing wasn’t possible, since I had to read texts in English, write essay in English and do research in English, But I certainly was using Japanese everyday. Again, I haven’t reached the point of 100% fluency, but I have had small victories. I finished RTK 1, I no longer need subtitles for anything that I watch in Japanese (well, barely anything, unless the vocabulary is full of jargon), and I can read manga, articles, etc. Once small victory I have had recently is listening to a podcast I began listening to when I decided to take on immersion. Before, I only understood words here and there. This was about last year. I listened to the same podcast recently and understood basically everything! There are times when I wonder, “why even bother?” and hoo boy have I fallen off regular vocabulary acquisition. But achieving victories like that inspires me to go on.

    I get asked occasionally how to learn Japanese. I constantly answer “watch Japanese movies, anime and dramas. Read and listen to Japanese everyday. Constant exposure, if not 100% immersion is the key. But people never want to listen. I think they expect me to tell them the name of a textbook or some quick fix method. I recently heard someone say that they had temporarily put Japanese study on hold because “it’s too hard to learn by yourself.” It’s not! Who said language learning had to be a group activity? It’s something that is perfectly do-able on your own. Sigh. Anyway, I’ve ranted enough.

  7. Felipe
    February 25, 2014 at 16:36

    Hey Khatz, I have a Kanji SRS approach that I wanted to share. It’s very lazy, but it’s only convenient when you already have a relatively big Vocabulary and have been reading japanese books for a while, but I think anyone can incorporate this technique:

    SRS question: 残
    now the question is, do you know how to use this kanji in a word or sentence?, if so, grade yourself accordingly. If you don’t quite recognize it, give yourself a bad score.

    The thing is… now you have some vocabulary, there’s no need to associate kanji with keywords… you already know the kanji, so.. good grade!. (smoother and lazier SRS, and a lot faster)

    Also, this is only good for people who wanna practice kanji recognition only… I dont give a crap about handwriting.. its useful to learn it better, but not worth the effort IMO :)

    • Felipe
      February 25, 2014 at 16:39

      (in other words… if you know some words that use that kanji, or if you are already familiar with it, then give it a good grade, without necessarily giving the right keyword)

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