The language-learning intermediate plateau is tough. You’ve grown out of beginner-friendly resources, and you see diminishing returns from traditional studying because the more advanced grammar points and vocabulary are less frequently used. But at the same time, at this level you’re finally starting to see glimpses of the payoff from all that studying: for the first time you can sort of understand your favorite shows or books or whatever else motivated you to learn the language in the first place, and when this happens it’s magic!
At this point, you want to move beyond textbooks and study apps and find materials in your target language – podcasts, books, TV, shows, video games, forums, etc – and spend as much time with them as possible. But, at least for me, this is easier said than done. Getting the difficulty level right is tricky, of course. It’s also challenging to stay motivated, because using your target language is a lot of work. Ideally, by choosing media you enjoy, getting invested in what’s happening can help with pushing through the extra challenge. But if you pick things you really love and force yourself to read/watch/play them in your target language, it can be frustrating because you’re missing out on a lot of the nuance that you’d be able to understand in your native language. On the other hand, if you go too far in the other direction and choose something that you’d never touch normally, it’s difficult to force yourself to spend much time with it.
I finally got past the plateau in French within the past year or so, where I can now comfortably watch/read/listen without fear of missing too much or quickly becoming exhausted. I’m still struggling with Japanese. That’s where Disney Dreamlight Valley, a game released in early access last month, comes in. Gameplay-wise, it’s a pretty shameless Animal Crossing clone: you earn money, gather materials, and find, buy, or craft things to customize your character and village. The hook, of course, is that the villagers are all Disney and Pixar characters.
I’m not a Disney fanatic – to be honest, I’m lukewarm on most of the films I’ve seen – but playing this game in Japanese is the best thing that’s happened to my progress since I found the excellent Nihongo con Teppei / Nihongo con Teppei Z podcast. The simple and familiar (read: blatantly copied) gameplay makes the instructions easy to follow. Meanwhile, the cast of Disney characters are an endless source of varied and entertaining dialogue and questlines. The character variety is especially nice for Japanese, where word choice and sentence structure depend on gender, age, and personality. Furthermore, prior familiarity with these characters gives context that helps a lot with guessing the meanings of words I don’t know. The fantasy setting doesn’t hurt, either – a lot of the dialogue revolves around a small set of concepts like “night thorns” or “dream shards,” many of which are English loan words spelled out phonetically.
When I’ve read enough dialogue to set my head spinning, I can cool off by doing some mindless fishing or farming for a bit. This comes with a gentler form of immersion, where I pick up the names of fish or flowers simply by encountering them. And when I’m ready to brave walls of text again, there are always new requests from the villagers to take on. This loop, where I can effectively control the language difficulty in an intuitive way, is my favorite part of the game. Because of it, I’ve not only had no problem persuading myself to stick with Dreamlight Valley, I’m even finding it mildly addictive!
With the caveat that finding good practice materials is very subjective, I can solidly recommend this game for language immersion. In addition to Japanese (and of course English), it’s currently available in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin (simplified characters).