Our article on learning Japanese through anime has proved to be the most popular page on this site. I know a lot of people are using this method and I can vouch for the fact that it is an excellent way to learn Japanese.
Once one has been using this method for a while, the question starts to arise: “I am definitely learning Japanese through anime. But am I learning to hear Japanese this way?”
So let’s talk about this.
A good friend suggested that using Japanese subtitles is an obstacle to developing the ability to hear Japanese. I would not go that far. In fact I think it helps. However, hearing is a distinct skill in itself, and it is not the primary one that learning Japanese through anime with Japanese subtitles is intended to develop.
It will help, especially in the early stages. You will be associating the sound of actual Japanese voices with the subtitle text. Don’t even think of leaving off the Japanese subtitles for the first six months to a year (assuming you start learning Japanese through anime very early in your Japanese learning adventure).
My Spanish speaking friend, whom I mentioned in the first article, who learned pera‐pera English largely through watching English movies with English subtitles, kept the subtitles for around four years. Since I regard her as my senpai in this area, wouldn’t I recommend the same for learning Japanese through anime?
My answer to this, as my own experience evolves, is “yes and no”. Yes insofar as I think you will want to watch anime with Japanese subtitles for at least four years. The subtitles teach you a huge amount. You are learning new words, and new grammar. You are finding out a lot about the language that you couldn’t discover by listening alone (unless your listening is a whole lot better than mine).
Make no mistake, watching actively with subtitles is labor‐intensive, especially at first when you are looking up every other word. It takes a lot of ganbari in those early days. I would guess that the drop‐out rate from learning Japanese through anime at this stage is high.
If you stick with it (zettai ni akiramenai!) it becomes faster and easier pretty quickly. But if you are assiduous, you are still learning a lot as you move on to more complex and sophisticated anime. You really are learning Japanese through anime. Anime is your university.
So now I am going to surprise you by talking about more passive ways of learning Japanese through anime. Watching without subtitles and watching with Japanese subtitles but at full speed, not stopping for words or grammar you don’t understand, just grasping what you can on the fly.
In the original article, I wrote: “Don’t expect to kick back and enjoy a few episodes and become fluent in Japanese.” Now I am kind of telling you to do just that. But only kind of.
This is phase 2 of learning Japanese through anime. You have already learned a lot by slogging through anime line by line until you are actually able to understand Japanese in action. Now you are ready to start developing your pure listening skills.
This is not instead of watching carefully with Japanese subtitles. You should still be doing that for as long as you need to. Four years? Very likely.
When should you start watching without subtitles? I started in the first six months, firstly with the Paboo Project and then with Anpanman, which is aimed at very young children. As with early learning with Japanese subtitles, it was a struggle. Especially with some of the (wonderful, I may say) Anpanman full‐length movies, I would often have to repeat the same five seconds over and over to catch what was being said.
However, what I want to talk about here is the phase 2 level of learning Japanese through anime where you start aiming to understand spoken Japanese at full speed.
Now you may be saying “I have been learning Japanese through anime for quite a while and I have learned a lot of Japanese, but I am still hopeless at hearing the language.”
Don’t worry. Listening is a skill in itself. You need to work on it separately. That is what we are talking about now. It is one of the harder skills and some people find it harder than others. I am one of those who find it especially hard. To tell the truth my English kikitori isn’t always that good. I’ll tell you a true recent story just for fun.
I was stopped in the street the other day by a nice lady who was clearly selling something related to health. She talked away in English and I had no idea what she was talking about. In the end I said:
“Sumimasen. Eigo wa chotto nigatte desu kara, zenzen wakarimasen.”
Of course she had no idea what I was saying and said:
“Don’t you speak English?”
“Sumimasen. Supeingo ga dekinai n desu kedo.”
“Well, God bless you.”
“You also please.”
It was a slightly naughty way of stopping her, perhaps. But it wasn’t really untruthful. I honestly could not understand what she was talking about. I picked up “health” and, well, “health”, and that was about it. I couldn’t even understand enough to ask a question about it. Take me out of areas I understand and my English listening is really not good.
I said “I am sorry but I really had no idea what she was talking about” to my Very Quiet Doll‐Keeper (who had retreated to a safe distance and pretended to be a lamp post as soon as we were approached), and she said “You are lucky”. So I guess she had heard it even from a few yards off and understood it enough to find it icky. Me, I had no idea.
Anyway the point here is that listening is really not a thing I excel at. So if I can do it in Japanese, you can too.
But can I do it? It isn’t easy but I think I am slowly getting there.
I said I was only kind of recommending kicking back and listening. Actually real‐time listening is anything but kicking back, at least at first. It requires a lot of alertness and attention. The full‐speed listening method of learning Japanese through anime is intensive. You are making your brain work hard to grab whatever it can in the time available.
Some schools make students fill in the blanks in a script by listening carefully again and again to a movie clip. I am not saying this is a bad approach. But what I am talking about is different and, I believe, necessary.
The mind is lazy (or, if you prefer, efficient – it is averse to expending excess energy). If it knows it will get two or three (or more) tries at the same passage, it won’t work at full pressure on the first hearing. So by watching at full speed you put it on the spot. Get what you can as fast as you can because the next sentence is coming at you at full speed. And the next. And the next.
“But you don’t learn the new words and grammar that way”. Nope. Let’s be frank. It is going to be a long time before we have sufficient vocabulary and knowledge of sayings, expressions and turns of phrase to perfectly understand everything that comes down the pike (imagine how familiar you have to be with English to understand that “pike” expression).
So unless you are prepared to wait a couple of decades before you can engage in real Japanese with no training wheels, you need to start being able to get the gist even when you don’t catch/know every word. As I just showed you, I am no genius at this even in English. It is a challenge for me. The reason I can write “for dummies” articles is that I am a dummy (doll actually, but why split hairs?)
The indication that hearing is a separate skill from other understanding, and the signal that you are ready for some phase 2 anime watching, is when you can understand an anime pretty easily with Japanese subtitles, but not much at all without them. This is a clear indication that the problem is with listening recognition itself and not primarily with vocabulary or grammar.
In the first anime article I talked about those people who say “Just watch anime without subtitles, let it wash over you and in the end you will start understanding”. I expressed my doubts about this approach.
However, once you are at the stage when you know that you do have a pretty fair understanding of what is being said so long as you can see it written (generally you aren’t looking up a large number of words per episode and you aren’t often stumped by the grammar) it is time to devote some of your anime time to trying to understand the spoken word.
In this case I think one can begin watching like a small child. Try to pick out what you can. Enjoy the story from the visual cues and the little you can gather from the words. At this stage your listening should start to improve.
Shadowing, so that you have a clearer “muscle memory” of what Japanese words are supposed to sound like (rather than what your ear post‐processes them as), is also a help here [I will write more on this soon].
My way of going about this (it isn’t the only way, but I find it works) is along the lines of “wide reading”. Wide reading is a technique based on reading a lot of words (one aims at a million) in books slightly below one’s level, without stopping to look up unknown words or grammar, in order to familiarize oneself with the language.
Similarly I am watching a lot of anime that is not the most complex I can manage fairly fast with Japanese subtitles, at full speed with no subtitles
Doing this at the correct level, you won’t understand everything, but you should start to understand enough to follow what is happening. A very important point, I think, is when you find yourself, from time to time, forgetting you are watching “Japanese” and just watching the story. In those moments, which become more and more frequent, Japanese has stopped being “a language” to you and has become Language.
One has to regain the child’s mentality of just accepting that, say, when grown‐ups are blathering you may only vaguely know what they are talking about (I suppose I haven’t really lost that in English), and when children are talking, or grown‐ups are talking to children, (choose children’s shows) it is quite a lot clearer.
Like a child you become familiar by wide‐watching with turns of phrase. Some things become so familiar because they are said all the time, that you can hardly miss them. Sets of words (collocations) start to “belong” together in your mind because you keep hearing them together.
Like a small child you are beginning to climb the long ladder of spoken‐language comprehension.
This is what I term phase 2 of learning Japanese through anime. It is not sharply demarcated from phase 1. You will continue to use Japanese subtitles a lot. They are still an important key to learning more words, more grammar and all the various things you need to know. And you may already have begun some jimaku nashi (non‐subtitled) listening with simpler anime some time ago, as I did.
The difference in this phase of learning Japanese through anime is that, in your hearing‐oriented wide‐watching, you are watching in real time with anime that are not difficult but not toddler level. And you are aiming for quantity and overall comprehension.
For this level of watching I am finding the productions of the 世界名作劇場 (World Masterpiece Theater) very useful. They are anime adaptations of children’s classics, most of them with a lot of episodes, so there is plenty to watch. Whether these are best for you depends on what interests you.
It is important here that the story holds your interest. Don’t worry too much about what passages you are and are not understanding. That sort of thing is for your more detailed subtitled watching. The aim of this wide watching is to develop your ear, and for this I think it is best not to worry too much. Concentrate, certainly. Do your best to catch what you can.
But remember, for you, at this time, Japanese is the only language. There are no dictionaries here, no grammar explanations. Like any child you are there with a magical story and with Language itself, trying to understand.
The wide‐watching phase of learning Japanese through anime is your first plunge into Total Japanese.
More help with listening and speaking: