To learn and maintain Japanese, or any other language, one must must develop a study routine. If one is in a class, some of this routine will be provided, such as assigned homework and test preparation; however, classes do not last forever, and to keep a language, one must use it.
Learning a language is not just one skill, but many. For this reason, it is important to have a well balanced routine. While the different skills build on each other, I have found it necessary to make sure that each skill gets at least some attention, and to grow in a skill one must practice and use that skill. For example, listening is very helpful to one’s speaking ability; however, one is never going to become proficient in speaking unless she actually spends time speaking. It is as simple as that.
So, how does one decide what practices to use? It can be a matter of trial and error, and one’s routine may, and indeed should, change over time as one becomes more proficient. Something may become too easy to be useful anymore, and something else that was too difficult early on may become useful over time.
In my own routine, Anime watching plays a central role. I use it in all different ways, and I have found ways to make it useful for every skill (except handwriting). For me, each way of watching develops different skills.
Below are the ways I watch, and the skills that they develop:
Slowly and carefully, with Japanese jimaku (“subtitles”), as described by Cure Dolly. This practice develops my vocabulary, kanji recognition, reading, reading comprehension, and grammar. On the other hand, for myself, this method does very little for my listening ability. I find that when watching this way, I am concentrating on the written word, and I barely take notice of the spoken words.
With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, with preparation. Because of the difficulty I described above, if I watch an Anime slowly and carefully, I always watch it again with jimaku at full speed. This matches the words that I have previously read and studied with the spoken word. It also serves as a review of everything I studied and researched during the careful watch. I have discovered that I get the best results when I do this at least one day after my first watch, but still within a few days. This way there is time for the new words and expressions to cycle through my Anki at least once, but it is still fresh in my mind.
With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, without prior preparation. I started doing this because there were only so many series I could manage at a time using the slow and careful method, and there were a lot of series I wanted to see. Yet, unexpectedly, I have found that watching some series this way develops some rather important skills, such as reading speed and the ability to understand what is going on from context, even when one does not understand all of the words. This is also useful in associating the spoken and the written word, because in order to keep pace with the action, one must use spoken and written cues. On the other hand, this method is not very useful for learning grammar or vocabulary. It does review the vocabulary and grammar one already has, though, and really forces one to use those skills at a real pace, rather than a practice one.
With English subtitles. As I discussed more fully here, I have found some limited use for English subtitles, although really this is the least helpful way of watching. I think that to be of any use at all, it must be accompanied by another form of watching. The uses I have found for English subtitles are to check my comprehension after watching with Japanese jimaku and to prepare to watch jimaku nashi (without any subtitles). The best time I have found to watch with English subtitles is a day or so after watching with Japanese jimaku (with or without preparation) and a day or two before watching jimaku nashi. I only include this step for the series I watch with my spouse (who is not studying Japanese).
Jimaku nashi, with preparation. For any show I watch with subtitles, I include a final watch jimaku nashi (without subtitles). For me, this is an essential step in the process. This reinforces everything I have previously studied in prior watches, and in my mind, this is the only time I feel like I am really “watching” a show, rather than “studying” a show, which is important in and of itself, I think. Everything prior is preparation for watching it jimaku nashi. While eventually one will want to be able to listen and understand unprepared in real time, I think that this is a later skill. I think being able to understand after preparation is a stepping stone to being able to understand unprepared.
Jimaku nashi, with no prior preparation. I tried this in my early days of Anime watching, but not for long. The reason for this was that I was not really getting anything out of it. I could pick out a few words here and there, and I would find myself making up little stories about what was happening (rather like a small child). After about six months of working with Anime, I could manage something for small children, like Anpanman, and have a general understanding of what was going on. Yet, now after over a year of watching Anime, I tried this again with Go! Princess Precure, and I found that I really did understand most of it (which I was able to confirm afterwards, when I watched slowly and carefully with jimaku). I tried this with a couple of harder Anime as well, and I understood less, but enough for it to be useful, I think. I still think that it is important to use the other methods I described to work on other skills, such as vocabulary building and reading comprehension. On the other hand, I think I am now ready to add this practice to my Japanese study routine.
Audio only. Lastly, I take select episodes and put them on my iPod to listen to over and over again, with only the audio. Usually, these are my favorite episodes, but they may also be episodes with important vocabulary. In the beginning, I chose episodes with a lot of singing to help with my pronunciation and ability to form morae, which are different than syllables. I found that singing along was extremely helpful. Now, I have about 30 episodes on my iPod, which I cycle through, usually using about about 2 episodes a day. This is almost completely passive learning, which I do while doing other things, such as housework. I think that the passive component is really important, because it allows Japanese to slip in at a deeper level than active learning does. It brings Japanese to the level that one does not have to think about it.
I have also recently found another use for the audio only component. I recently learned of the technique of shadowing, or trying as much as possible to talk along with the characters. Pronunciation is my weakest skill, so I am using shadowing to work on this skill. While this would be impossible with an unfamiliar episode, I have episodes on my iPod that I have been listening to for over a year, so much so that I almost know them by heart.
This probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is. I get enough benefit out of it, that for me, it is worth it. I hope that some of these ideas are useful to the reader.