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Language domains

October 19, 2023 — Tatsumoto

As learners, we can divide our target language into domains to better navigate the territory. Being aware of language domains helps find the most optimal path to fluency.


What is a domain?

A domain is a subset of the target language that is characterized by frequent use of certain vocabulary. Such vocabulary is often specific to the domain and is used noticeably more than in other areas of the language, in other domains. Words that are commonly used in one domain tend to be less frequently used in other domains.

Here are some examples of language domains:

  • Everyday conversation, real life conversation. This domain includes vocabulary related to talking about nothing. For example, asking "how are you?" or chatting about the weather. Real life conversation is different from scripted, edited, and acted content.
  • Slice of life drama, anime, movies, etc. Everyday conversation, but scripted, more detailed, more structured. May include common words from a variety of other domains. Often covers topics related to household, school, work, and more.
  • Various fiction genres, each genre representing its own domain. We encounter fiction in the form of drama, anime, movies, etc.
    • Science fiction.
    • Fantasy.
    • Business and finance.
    • Sports.
  • Non-fiction. For example, documentaries.

As you can see, any language can be easily divided into numerous domains. This list can be further expanded or modified.

Generally, the more a genre deviates from everyday conversation, the less comprehensible it is going to be in the beginning. The medium in which content is presented or recorded also influences the level of difficulty. Usually, books are more challenging than comic books, and comic books are more challenging than movies and TV shows.

Another factor to consider is dialect. Many languages, including Japanese, have regional dialects that can significantly differ from one another. Differences in accents alone can make the language incomprehensible, even to native speakers. In some cases, two dialects can be so distinct that they are considered separate languages.

Role of domains

Why do we need to care about domains? Because the fastest way to obtain high-level comprehension in your target language is to narrow your immersion focus to a particular domain of the TL, master that subset, then move to another domain and repeat. On the opposite, frequently jumping between different domians will cause a lot of frustration and slow down your progress since each new domain will meet you with a load of unfamiliar words.

It's more efficient to master a small set of domains first, taking one domain at a time, than tackle many domains at the same time and have a bad time immersing in either of them. Immersing oneself in one domain at a time creates a natural spaced repetition environment. You frequently encounter the same words used in different contexts. This helps you memorize the words better in addition to using the SRS.

Another reason why domains are important is that you want to avoid content that is way above your current skill level. Choose immersion content that is not too difficult but is challenging enough to learn something new from it and grow your ability.

First domain

When you start to immerse for the first time, you know nothing, so naturally you need content for beginners, an easy domain to immerse in. Choose content with a simple story. A slice of life anime is going to be easier to follow than a science fiction TV show about time travel.

Mastering your first domain will give you ground to expand from. It makes sense to choose something scripted and centered around everyday conversation. On this site we recommend starting with slice of life anime and TV shows. Visual content is easier than just audio or just text because it shows you the story instead of only telling you. In addition, anime is easy to understand because it is voiced by professional voice actors who typically speak clearly and use the standard Japanese dialect. This ensures that you're learning from high-quality, accurate sources of spoken Japanese. Slice of life is a good genre to pick first because it is stripped of specialized vocabulary (専門用語). Specialized vocabulary that is unique to a particular field will pose a challenge at this stage. For example, if you're not fluent in Japanese yet, try to watch shows about baseball and see how crazy it gets.

What to do with domains

Be aware of them, particularly in the initial stages of language learning. Make wise choices regarding the media you immerse yourself in, taking into account the domain it belongs to and its difficulty based on your current level of comprehension and other domains you have mastered before.

When choosing content, don't neglect the importance of enjoyment. Find material that aligns with your interests. The more fun you're having when immersing, the more you will learn. Avoid immersing yourself in something solely because you feel you should. If slice of life content isn't fun, explore other domains that interest you.

Be prepared for a potential decrease in overall comprehension when starting to immerse in a new media, such as finishing one anime and starting another. Don't be surprised or disheartened by this. The vocabulary used in one domain can vary significantly from the vocabulary used in another domain. Comprehension greatly depends on the specific domain. For instance, you may have 95% comprehension when watching anime but only 70% comprehension when watching the news.

Mastering the first domain, the slice of life domain, acts as a gateway to exploring other domains. When you move from one domain to another, take into account how "far away" it is from the domains you already know. To optimize your journey towards fluency and flatten the learning curve, it is advisable to gradually progress from easier to more challenging language. Avoid jumping between domains that are too far away from each other. For instance, after slice of life TV shows, you can move on to adventure, fiction, or sci-fi genres. From there, you can venture into comic books, manga, and eventually novels.

Expanding

Proficiency in a particular domain does not necessarily translate to proficiency in other domains. For instance, understanding anime in your target language requires different vocabulary than understanding classical literature. To gain expertise in each domain you want to acquire, you will have to deliberately immerse in it.

Once you understand slice of life anime or TV shows, move to similar domains. Vocabulary used in related domains overlap. Tackling a similar domain ensures that you won't be starting from scratch when you move to it. The greater the overlap between the new domain and the domains you have mastered, the simpler it is to master the new domain. As you become proficient in more domains, trying new domains becomes easier because there is a larger set of shared language between what you have already immersed in and what you are going to immerse in.

Speaking

Being proficient in one domain, such as everyday speech, is not enough for engaging in meaningful conversations with others. Achieving true mastery of a language requires delving into a diverse range of domains. Language is a tool for acquiring knowledge. Without a sound understanding of what to say and how to say it, discussing a topic is impossible. To effectively converse on a given topic, one must first acquire extensive knowledge of the matter through listening and reading. One must also familiarize oneself with how native speakers talk about it, which is different from what you may learn from books, lectures, tutorials, or Wikipedia articles. Of course, it's also different from the way you talk about the topic in your native language.

For example, you may learn about history of Japan, and then you can talk about it. Or, you learn about Japanese food, and then you can talk about it. After you master numerous domains and become able to speak your target language, identify a few specific topics and situations you want to feel comfortable in when having conversations with native speakers. Focus all your immersion and output practice on those topics (domains).

Since our active vocabulary is always significantly smaller than our passive vocabulary, it is critical to gain solid knowledge about the area of interest and know a lot more relevant words, phrases and expressions than you might be able to use during a conversation.

Domains become irrelevant

The more words you acquire, the larger your vocabulary grows, the easier it is to immerse in new domains of the target language. And although highly specialized domains will always initially pose challenges due to limited understanding, these barriers gradually blend over time.

AJATTers who have dedicated multiple years to learning Japanese are able to choose a wide range of immersion content freely, understand it effortlessly and have fun consuming it. So, after a certain point in the journey you won't have to use domain boundaries anymore to guide your choices of immersion content. However, reaching such proficiency requires immersing all the time, having a high level of comprehension in a variety of different genres of content, acquiring vocabulary from a wide range of domains.

As you strive for language mastery, it's crucial to explore as many domains as possible, provided that the content is of personal interest.

The Dictionary Domain

Monolingual dictionaries, e.g. Japanese to Japanese dictionaries such as 大辞林 or 明鏡 form a standalone domain. This domain uses vocabulary that you rarely encounter elsewhere. We call it defining vocabulary. The domain is quite small compared to others, but it's a good idea to tackle this domain in a structured and deliberate manner because you won't see these words in your immersion as much. This process is often called going monolingual and you're supposed to start it after your learn about 3,000 sentences bilingually, or about 3+ months after starting to learn your target language. Although people may choose to go monolingual at any other point in the learning process.

Once you learn defining vocabulary, definitions written in your target language will become much more comprehensible, and you will be able to completely ditch bilingual dictionaries, such as JMdict.

When to move to another domain

It's time to move to a new domain when you feel comfortable immersing in your current domain and when you feel that there's not much left for you to learn from the current domain. If you need a concrete metric, choose a new domain once you reach adequate comprehension in the current domain, meaning that you understand 95% of it. However, it's okay to use a different metric or use none at all.

Tags: guide