Category Archives: Learn Japanese through anime

Learning Japanese through Anime: hearing Japanese without subtitles

Learning to listen like a child
Learning to listen like a child

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?”

“Only little.”

“¿Habla español?”

“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:

Kikitori – the Dolly Sentences Japanese Listening Method
The Rhythm of Japanese: Improve your Japanese speaking and hearing
Harmonizing: How to Shadow Japanese (for people who can’t shadow)

Return to the original article on learning Japanese through anime.

How to Learn Japanese through Anime

Even dolls learn Japanese through anime
Even dolls learn Japanese through anime

Can you really learn Japanese through Anime? Some people (usually people who are selling something) claim you can easily do so. Others (usually professional grumps) say, for various reasons, that learning Japanese from anime is an idiotic idea.

I am going to share my experience with you, and give you step-by-step instructions for what I have found to be the best method of learning Japanese through anime. Two points just to make matters clear:

• I am not selling anything. Everything you need for using this method is available free over the Internet. I am just sharing what I have learned by experience.

Skip introduction and jump straight to:
How to learn Japanese Through Anime

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary organically
How to learn Japanese Grammar

* This is not a get-fluent-with-no-work scheme. Everything about those schemes is wonderful except that not working doesn’t – uh – work.

Learning Japanese through anime is fun but it also takes a lot of effort and dedication. Don’t expect to kick back and enjoy a few episodes and become fluent in Japanese. That isn’t how it works.

For me anime has been a very important part of Japanese learning, though as a space-alien with special needs, my experience may not be applicable to everyone. However I suspect some of it might. So let me tell you how it was for me

I really, really really wanted to study the language properly. Never having gone to school I have learned everything I know – from the Earth’s history to a smattering of French and Spanish – in bits and bobbles that I picked up along the way (except typing which was taught to me by a charming alienophile). Japanese I wanted to learn properly; systematically; the way people do learn things (even where I come from).

I was kind of desperate to learn systematically but it just wasn’t possible. As a very ditzy wind-up doll alien (all right I am not really a wind-up doll, but I am an alien) I don’t have a systematic bone in my head. It wasn’t possible for me to attend a school, and I couldn’t find a teacher who would teach me systematically, or anyone who could/would give me even minimal advice on how to find one or how to go about it.

So it has been bits and pieces as usual. I certainly didn’t start to learn Japanese through anime. In a limping and lumbering way, with odd bits of help here and there and the messy doggedness of an unsystematic mind, I went through the first two basic books on Japanese (in my case Genki I and II with a few bits of Nakama I). I couldn’t even do it in order as my mind is so scattered, but I think everyone should probably struggle through that however uninstructed. Learning Japanese through anime can help a lot, but you really do need the basic grammar.

However, I had very little empathy with the books. I have never been to school or in business. I have never “dated” an alien (I mean an alien-to-me) or, come to that, anyone else. If someone talks about travel and train times or other practical arrangements in English to me, I need a translator. So all the things that are supposed to make such texts seem “real” and “relevant” to me put them into a world further removed from my own than many works of fantasy.

What has helped me a lot is learning Japanese through anime. Hee – yes, I have read the sites that grumble about how bad anime is for learning, so let me give you my view on the matter.

First of all, I agree that watching anime with English subtitles is next door to useless if you actually want to learn Japanese through anime. You can pick up the odd word that way. You can actually learn more than the odd word if you are very disciplined. At the very beginning of attempting to learn Japanese through anime I went extremely slowly through a few with English subbies trying to catch the Japanese, looking up words I thought I heard. Working seriously on why that noise ended up as that subtitle. That was somewhat helpful, but still not all that useful in my view.

I also tried watching with no subtitles. There is a school of thought that says “just try watching with no subtitles, let it wash over you and try to follow the story and eventually you will understand”. I don’t know what to say about that. It seems you would have to put in countless hours with no idea whether whether you were really learning Japanese through the anime or not.

I think that method (in conjunction with other study) might work for some folks. People learn differently. And I haven’t altogether given up on some version of it. But for me it isn’t the best way to learn Japanese through anime.

How to learn Japanese through Anime

What is the best way to learn Japanese through anime? Well I actually learned it from a native Spanish speaker whose English is truly excellent. She attends an English-speaking school in a Spanish-speaking country, and most of her classmates still speak abominable English. Hers is near-perfect.

I asked her how her English got so good, and she said it was through watching English movies with subtitles – English subtitles. She said it was four years of continual watching before she could take the subtitle training-wheels off. But good heavens – those four years really paid off.

So that is the path I took in attempting to learn Japanese through anime. Now let me say from the start, it is a lot tougher for a European-language speaker to use Japanese subtitles than to use subtitles in another European language.

I am sure you know why already. The easy part is that it takes a long time to recognize kana quickly enough to just “read” as you would, say, Spanish because it is in two different “alphabets” (syllabaries if you want the correct word). The hard part is, of course, the kanji.

But don’t worry too much about that because this is the best way of overcoming the difficulties of learning to read Japanese. The kanji won’t stop you because with this method you can paste them directly from the subtitles file into a dictionary. And even without this extra difficulty, until you are pretty advanced (and probably don’t need this article) you wouldn’t be gliding through anime at full speed with half an eye on the subbies.

You will be slowly and carefully stopping every few seconds to look up words and work out grammar. I told you that learning Japanese through anime is not a no-work shortcut. When I first started watching with Japanese subtitles it took me hours to watch a 20-minute episode. I am faster now, but it still takes more than 20 minutes.

This is a good thing. You will learn a lot of vocabulary this way. You will also learn grammar. So if you want to follow my recommendation, here is what you will need:

Stop press: Since this article was written there are several sites where you can watch Japanese-subtitled anime much more easily. Check them out here.

1: Anime
2: Japanese subtitles (free). You can get subtitles for a lot of shows here.
3: VLC media player (free).
4: Aeigisub or other subtitle-editing application (free – needed for adjusting the timing. Not as difficult as it sounds).
5. Anki.

Anki is an important part of this system for learning Japanese through anime. What you need to do is watch anime in Japanese, with Japanese Subtitles. Go as slowly as you need to. At first you will need to stop several times at almost every speech. You will encounter a lot of new words. Look them up and enter them into Anki [you can now make a card with a single keypress using Rikaisama]. Anki is spaced repetition software (smart flashcards that know how well you know what you are learning and what is the optimal interval for repeating it (ranging from one minute to over a year) based on the brain’s learning patterns.

Work on your Anki every day in conjunction with your anime watching. You will learn a lot of vocabulary and you will find you very often remember the context in which you first heard it. This is an important aspect of learning Japanese through anime as it gives you a good understanding of how the word is actually used, and will also make it easier to remember. As you continue learning Japanese via anime you will encounter the same word again in different contexts. This will improve your understanding of the word’s range of meaning and implication and also make it increasingly easy to remember. That is how language acquisition works. Understanding and memory go hand in hand. The better you understand the better you will remember — and vice versa.

Here is a more detailed article on this method of learning vocabulary.

You should also be working on grammar. If you can’t see why those words add up to that meaning, try to find out. Also make a second Anki deck. Your first is vocabulary, your second is sentences. Enter example sentences with translation.

Here is a more detailed article on learning basic grammar.

Maybe you are thinking this doesn’t sound like much of a fun way to learn Japanese through anime. Actually it is fun and you will find you get faster pretty quickly, which makes it more enjoyable. But it is work. It takes self-discipline and dedication. I watch my favorite anime by this method and part of my approach is to assume that Japanese is the only language. I put myself in the position of a child acquiring language. There isn’t some other language to fall back on. Either I understand it in Japanese or I don’t understand it.

Now clearly this is somewhat notional as I allow myself a Japanese-English dictionary. And what about English Subtitles? Often your anime will have English subtitles and (so long as they aren’t hard-coded, and they usually aren’t if it is a .mkv file) VLC will allow you to switch between the Japanese subtitles, the English subtitles and no subtitles.

Should one ever “cheat” and use the English subtitles? My suggestion is, not often. But if the level of dialog is ahead of one’s understanding it can sometimes be good to try one’s best to piece together what is being said and then use the English subtitles to verify/clarify. That way one may become aware of new grammar points. If the dialog is very much beyond one’s ability it can occasionally be useful to actually watch a few minutes with English subtitles and then use the Japanese ones and try to see why it meant what it seemed to be.

Two caveats here: 1. If it happens often, find a simpler anime. You are punching too far above your current weight. 2. Please bear in mind that English subtitles often aren’t exactly accurate translations of the Japanese. Often they put things in ways that are deemed more suitable for Western audiences. So please use English subtitles sparingly and with caution.

You are probably aware that some people strongly argue against the use of anime in learning. Some would argue that J-drama is much better. I have no strong view here for anyone but myself. You can find J-drama Japanese subbies and I imagine everything I have said about learning Japanese through anime would apply equally to dorama. Personally I have little interest in grown-up stuff, Eastern or Western; but that’s just this silly alien wind-up doll.

For the frequently heard objection that anime talk is not “natural” and one should not try to talk like an anime character, there are a few points to consider. If you use things like One Piece and Naruto, you probably will end up with some pretty odd (and often not very polite) Japanese. With kawaii anime like the various Precure series, a little common sense will tell you things like which characters use formal Japanese (e.g. Cure Beauty, Cure Rosetta), which use retiring or shy language (e.g. Cure Peace), Which speak particularly informally (e.g. Cure Marine), which speak in Kansai ben (e.g. Cure Sunny) etc.

Is their speech stylized and sometimes exaggerated? Yes. But the point to bear in mind is that your speech patterns will be far more influenced by the Japanese people you actually converse with than by fictional characters, and if you don’t converse regularly in Japanese you won’t really develop speech patterns at all. Neither would you have any use for them if you did.

Speech patterns are a different question altogether. We are talking here about using anime to learn how Japanese fits together, to build vocabulary, to see it in action, and to start using and enjoying Japanese.

Hard work and discipline are not the opposite of enjoyment (and if you think they are you need to learn the full cultural meaning of the word 頑張る ganbaru). You can do both at once  — enjoy watching, enjoy working, and really learn Japanese through anime. If you would like individual help getting started with this method, go here.

Learning Japanese through anime, Phase 2!

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary
How to learn Japanese Grammar