Over a year ago, Cure Dolly wrote a wonderful and helpful article about How to Learn Japanese through Anime. I have followed that method for almost a year myself, and I think it has really helped me learn. Watching Anime with Japanese subtitles is not my only learning tool, but it remains an important one. In that article, Cure Dolly discussed that using English subtitles is not very useful, and I agree with her.
The trouble with using English subtitles, aside from the translation difficulties, is that our minds are efficient, and despite our good intentions, will take the easiest route to understanding possible…which is English. For example, I have noticed that when I used to watch shows with English subtitles, when the theme song played in my head later (and it often did), I heard the music in my mind with the words in the English translation, even though I actually heard the song originally in Japanese.
This being said, there are some shows I still watch once with English subtitles. The reason for that is I live with someone who is not learning Japanese, and there are some shows I watch together with her. I think that there is an important strategic value to this. One of the things that attracts many of us on this site to Japanese is its culture, including the importance of community and family. Learning a language and using immersion really does require one to make adjustments to one’s life, and it is so very helpful to have the support of one’s family and one’s household. Sharing the shows that you are watching with one’s household can be a good way to solicit and encourage their support.
Aside from the social advantage, I have found ways to make this time useful to my studies as well, which may also be of use to some readers. First and foremost, anything I watch with English subtitles, I watch again without subtitles. For kikitori (“hearcatching”), it is quite helpful to be able to anticipate what is likely to be said next. Even if I have only recently watched the show once with English subtitles, I can actually hear and understand much more when watching jimaku nashi (without subtitles) than I can watching a kinnie cold for the first time (or for the first time in a long time). I have done (and do) both, and there is a clear difference in what I can catch.
If Japanese subtitles are available, I watch the show with them before I watch with English subtitles. This increases the chance of me actually hearing the show in Japanese rather than in English. The mind is efficient, and it will rely on the memory of the previous work I did with the Japanese subtitles in understanding, as much, if not more than the English subtitles. This also gives me the opportunity to check my work. I can say…oh I did understand this….or oh dear, I missed all of that explanation.
This being said, use of English subtitles is a slipperly slope. In order to minimize the dangers, I have two rules for myself. I only use English subtitles when watching with someone else and never watching alone. If she does not want to watch the show, I do not watch it with English subtitles at all. Knowing this rule also gives my family member a sense of importance (she is helping me safely “check my work”). I can not emphasize enough that the more family support one can get, the better. I also do not give the show my full attention when watching with English subtitles. I do a lot of handcrafting, and if I watch a show with English subtitles, I work on a project at the same time. This means I am not looking at the screen the entire time, because I often need to look down at what I am working on, so that I need to rely on the spoken language from time to time.
Actually, as an aside, I have found that to be an interesting test of whether I am processing the show in English or in Japanese. Before I started learning Japanese, I would watch a show with English subtitles when doing other tasks, and I would find myself surprised that I would lose track of what was happening when I would look away. I would then remember…oh I am understanding through the subtitles, and not through what I am hearing. Now that I have learned much more, I do hear the Japanese when I look away (even if I do not understand every word). It is quite interesting really.