Studying Japanese With Subtitles

Like this? You should see Tofugu’s “Studying Japanese With Drama Guide” – it’s like this post, but bigger (and better!).

Okay, so I’ve been known to say that people should get off the couch and stop claiming they were learning Japanese from watching anime with subtitles. I think 99% of the time this is still true, because most people aren’t actively studying with the subtitles (and instead just watching as much TV as possible catching a few things here or there, then using “learning” as an excuse for consuming so much media). Today I’m going to sort of take the opposite stance from where I usually am and tell you how I think you can use Japanese TV/movies/anime to learn Japanese, and subtitles actually play a big part in this, surprisingly!

Who This Is For

I don’t think everyone can use subtitles to learn Japanese. I’d say that someone who’s at more of an intermediate/advanced level will get way more out of this than someone who’s a beginner at Japanese (if you’re a beginner at Japanese, I recommend TextFugu to get started, especially if you’re self-teaching yourself). This is because it takes a while to be knowledgeable enough to actually be able to look things up, figure things out, and know what to search for when you need to find / learn something. If you don’t have this experience, learning from Japanese TV/Movies/Anime will most likely just be plain discouraging (and if it’s not, you’re probably not trying hard enough).

Update: Some good points made in the comments! Also good to be intermediate / advanced level before doing this because then you know about gendered language, how to avoid copying cartoony weird voices, and so on. You basically will have to knowledge to know what not to do while using this method!

Also, in terms of time spent, beginners will get a lot more out of other resources in the same amount of time (versus spending time watching video). Intermediate / advanced level Japanese students will get a lot more out of that same amount of time, making it a lot more worth while.

Where To Find Japanese Media

There are a bunch of ways to get your hands on Japanese television, movies, or anime, most of which I can’t really talk much about. A lot of Japanese movies can be bought on Amazon, in local video stores, and so on. There are even a good number of Japanese movies on Netflix. Of course, being the netizens that you are, I’m guessing you’re finding these things elsewhere. Point is, the Internet is a great place to find something interesting that you can study with. I’m sure a lot of you have many gigs of Japanese content on your computers already… all legal of course… ahem.

Now, I’d say there’s two kinds of content (at least in terms of this article), and that is hard subbed and soft subbed. We’re talking subtitles here, so we’ll ignore RAW (totally in Japanese, no subtitles) and save it for another day.

Soft subtitles are subtitles you can add and remove, whenever you want. They are sometimes separate files and sometimes part of the video file. You can use a player like VLC to play videos with subtitles (subtitles are under “video” in the menu).

Hard subtitles, on the other hand, are stuck on the video no matter what. You can’t remove them, and they’re part of the video itself. These are a little harder to work with, but do okay if that’s all you can find. If you can, though, seek out the soft subs as they tend to be better (but are a bit more rare, I’d say).

Either way, I think finding something will (hopefully) be the easiest part for you – using it to study is where things get difficult.

Studying With Subtitles

I’m sure there’s a billion ways to study with subtitles, but I think it comes down to a few important things.

  1. Being active in your learning (versus being passive)
  2. Watching the same thing multiple times
  3. Being at a high enough level to be able to use your content as a Japanese learning resource

Here’s the step by step of how I’d recommend using Japanese subtitles to study Japanese:

1. Break Things Up Into Chunks

Depending on your level, I’d make the chunks smaller rather than bigger. I’d say if you’re “intermediate” level, keep the chunks at 30 seconds to a minute. If you’re advanced, 2 minutes to 5 minutes. If you’re better than advanced, then you probably don’t need to read this article. Go enjoy some TV subtitle free.

I know that breaking things up into smaller pieces makes it hard to enjoy the content, but the goal is to get to the point where you can enjoy it without subtitles, so it’s important to take it a piece at a time. The less Japanese you know, the smaller the chunks (and goals) should be, so that way you don’t get discouraged (and ultimately just end up quitting or taking the easy way out).

2. Listen, Compare (To The Subs), And Write Down

This is where “being active” comes in. When using subtitles to study, it’s uber-important that you’re actively comparing and thinking about the subtitles versus what is actually spoken. When you’ve listened to it enough times, it’ll be time to write down the Japanese. I’d recommend using Evernote (read about Evernote and Japanese here and here) to write out the conversations.

If you’re at too low of a level, this becomes tough to do as well. Being able to listen, remember, then write down something gets easier the better you are at Japanese, so if you’re having trouble just know that it’ll get better the more you practice. It might be really tough at first, but things will start slowing down as you listen to more of it. Pains me to say this, but anime tends to do a better job enunciating and speaking slowly, so this may be a way to start out.

3. Shadow

Now that you have the Japanese written down, it’s time to shadow. Language shadowing is a pretty great way to practice, and if you do enough of it you will really start seeing it pay off. The idea is that you have both the audio and text of something (in the language that you’re learning). As you listen to the audio, you “shadow” by speaking along with it. The text is just there to help you along (until you don’t need it). You’re basically just learning to speak like the person who is speaking on screen.

4. Repeat Chunk After Chunk

Then, when you’ve mastered one chunk, you move on to the next chunk. Before you know it, you’ve finished an episode.

5. Watch It Raw (And Understand It!)

The last step, after you’ve gone through all of the chunks, is to go back and watch it raw (without subs). In theory, you should understand everything (and it should be a really good feeling of accomplishment too, I imagine!). You should also be able to speak along with the conversations, as well, if you want! If you have something that’s hard-subbed, you’ll just want to take another window on your computer and cover up the subtitles. If you’re watching on your television, then just tape some paper / cardboard over the screen to cover most of it up. Not the best viewing experience (why I recommend soft subs) but will totally work and get you the same results.

Then, Be Consistant

If there’s anything I talk about time and time again, it’s consistency. You’ll learn so much more by studying every day (versus studying ALL day Saturday, or something like that). It’s just how your brain works. Little accomplishments made over a long period of time equals huge results. If you do this every day, you’ll surely get better at Japanese. For Intermediate / Advanced students, it definitely would have the potential of taking you from intermediate→advanced or advanced→fluent.

Good luck, and please be active when you’re watching Japanese shows! :D

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  • peteykun

    2 years too late but that was probably 「あの。。。おくさまお元気ですか。」.