Tactics

Can You Learn Japanese by Watching Anime? Yes – and Here’s How!

I would say that almost every person who is studying Japanese enjoys anime. I know I certainly do!

And since students love anime so much, and you can find a lot of it in Japanese without any problem, a lot of people ask: Can You Learn Japanese by Watching Anime?

There is a huge difference in opinion on this within the language learning community!

But at the end of the day, the answer is: “Yes, IF you use the right strategies to do so.”

Things aren’t always as straightforward as they seem in life. And the same holds true with language learning methods. There are some techniques that you can use with anime to learn Japanese, but almost nobody does them.

In fact, the way that most people use Japanese anime doesn’t really help them at all!

First I want to go over the way that most people do it. And after that, I’ll get into why it doesn’t work and how we can then flip that situation on its head and use some tactics that actually do work!

The (Wrong) Way That People Use Anime to Learn Japanese

I am not bashing people who want to use anime to learn Japanese. Personally I think it’s a pretty awesome idea! And there are quite a few people who have done it successfully in such a way that lead them to fluency.

But the ones who were successful used some of the strategies that I’ll talk about later on in this post. How the vast majority of people use anime to learn Japanese is like this:

  1. Watch anime in Japanese with English subtitles
  2. Read the subtitles and try to match it with what they hear
  3. Repeat for hours and hours

Now, at first glance you would think that this is actually a viable strategy. But there are a couple of huge flaws that beginners just aren’t aware of.

First of all, it’s really hard for humans to take in more than one set of sensory information at a time. That is, it’s hard to listen and to read at the exact same time.

You’re probably pretty good at it with English because you’ve been doing it for years and they align with each other perfectly.

But I’m willing to bet that you haven’t been listening to Japanese and reading English for years. Two separate languages coming in at the same time is usually too much. And these two language do not align perfectly. The word order is different.

And as you may have noticed if you are already studying Japanese, sometimes it is the exact reverse of English. So whatever part of the sentence you are currently reading, is usually the opposite part of the sentence that is being spoken.

In other words, when you read the subtitles in English and also listen to the Japanese, it’s doesn’t really match up and this leads to confusion.

So sometimes people just watch it without any subtitles. 100% Japanese immersion, baby! You might be thinking, “Is it possible to just pick Japanese up by osmosis? I mean, that’s the way that babies learn, right?”

Well again, it’s not quite that simple. Babies literally take years to learn a language this way.  And a lot of times people talk to them in short, simple sentences.

Plus, babies tend to participate with the language more than most people who passively listen to it. They like to play around with, try it out, and use their new words even if they sound totally silly.

I’d be willing to bet that most people who watch anime aren’t repeating the words that the characters are saying unless they feel pretty confident in their own speaking abilities.

Although, I will admit that it is a fine way to pick up one liners like “sugoi” (awesome!) or “maji” (seriously?). Full sentences though? A lot harder.

The Two Things That Hold You Back

Now that you know how most people go about it and the general reasons why it doesn’t work, let’s take a look at the “behind the scenes science” of why it doesn’t work. Afterwords we will get to some ways of approaching it that actually do work!

First off, you have to understand two things about the human brain:

(1) – Babies can hear every sound, but adults can’t.
(2) – You brain is designed to ignore non-important information.

Let’s go into more detail with both of these so that we can then understand why certain strategies actually work. We’ll start with number one:

When I was reading Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever, I learned a fascinating thing:

When we are babies, our brains are able to hear and notice every single sound that we hear. But when we grow up into adults, are brains actually learn to completely ignore sounds that are not a part of our native language!

Ever wonder why Japanese people struggle with the “L” sound in English? It’s because it doesn’t exist in Japanese. So to their ears, it sounds just like their “R” sound.

Perhaps this is why children can often times learn several languages pretty well with little-to-no accent. They are able to fully hear the different sounds of each language and there is very little crossover.

How this applies to Japanese with anime is that when you are watching it, your brain is going to ignore the Japanese sounds that you’re not used to hearing. Kind of scary, right?

I’ll tell you how to counteract this fact in a moment. Now let’s take a look at number two:

In your daily life, you take in an unbelievable amount of information through your different senses. In fact, its simply too much for the conscious mind to handle!

So you mind has what is known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS). This is a system that deletes, distorts, and generalizes all of the non-important information that you take in.

As an example, do you remember all the sights that you saw on your way to work last week? Most likely not as it wan’t all that important to you at that time.

Well the same thing happens with Japanese. When a lot of new words that your brain doesn’t know come at you really fast, your brain will delete them. As in, you can’t remember what was said.

Or you brain will distort them to sound like words that you DO know. Ever watch those funny videos where fans will put English subtitles on a Japanese anime and you’ll think “Hey! It really does sound like they’re saying those crazy English words!”?

Or your brain will generalize the Japanese words: “hmm, these words all sound the same…”

Don’t be mad at your brain. It does this to make daily life easier for you. And 95% of the time it’s great! It’s just when you are trying to learning a new language that it can be a bit of a problem.

How to (Actually) Learn Japanese Using Anime

If you want to overcome the two things we just discussed, you have to do this:

Make certain Japanese words important to your brain.

How do you do that?

You first study them in isolation, that is, not while watching anime. And then you watch the anime afterwords to hear the words that you studied in action.

Here are the steps:

(1) Get a list of the most common words used in the specific anime that you watch to watch.

This part may be a challenge if you want the words used in anime that’s not very popular (Naruto’s an easy one, for sure), but you can always start with this list of the “100 Most Essential Words in Anime” and then branch out to a specific anime later on.

You will want to study and learn those words on your own so that you brain knows that these new words are important to you. In other words, your brain will know what to look for (listen for?).

Then when you watch the anime, you brain will recognize the words that you’ve been studying and say “hey, I know these words!” They will just “pop out” to your conscious mind when you hear them.

It’s a pretty cool feeling when you’re watching anime and you actually comprehend what the characters are saying for the first time! It’s also super motivating!

(2) Watch the anime with subtitles once, then turn them off and watch it again.

Let me clarify this one so that you can see how it’s different from the methods that don’t work that we talked about earlier.

You watch the anime once and you read the subtitles. Go ahead and fully read them without worrying at all about connecting it to the Japanese words that are being said.

This will “prime” your brain because you will understand the meaning behind each dialog and scene.

Then you have to immediately re-watch the episode without subtitles. If you can’t turn them off, then use a piece of tape to cover them or something.

It’s vital that you do this right away while the material is still fresh in your mind.

This time you will be watching it 100% in Japanese, but if you’ve been studying the common words for that anime and you just watched it while reading the English subtitles, then you are actually going to recognize and understand a lot of what’s being said!

Since most anime episodes are about 20 minutes long, watching it twice in a row will take about 40 minutes in total. Make sure you pick a good one, since you don’t want to get board on that “Japanese only” replay.

Also, all of this is going to be harder if you’re just starting out with Japanese. But if you’ve been studying it for a while now, then it should actually work pretty well for you.

(3) This final step is optional, but will really accelerate your progress. It’s called “The Shadowing Method.”

I’ve written about it before, and even done a review on a book that teaches you how to do it, but here’s the meat and potatoes of it:

  1. Listen to the Japanese words.
  2. Immediately repeat what you heard.

Don’t even wait until the character is done talking. As soon as you hear a syllable, say it out loud yourself. This is a little hard at first (listening AND talking simultaneously) but it soon becomes easier with practice.

This is a fantastic way to build muscle memory (in your mouth), improve listening, improve intonation/rhythm, and increase the speed of comprehension.

But I leave this final tactic as optional as it takes a lot of work. Still… the more that you can participate with Japanese, the faster you will learn it.

Anime Makes Learning Japanese Fun

Perhaps the best part about using anime to learn Japanese is that it makes it a lot of fun!

You get to learn a language and be entertained at the same time. Watching a fun show and then recognizing certain words that the characters say is a very rewarding experience that keeps you coming back for more.

And when you see learning Japanese as a fun game, rather than as a chore, then you don’t really worry so much about achieving a certain goal within a particular amount of time. You just do it because you love to do it.

That’s one of the great secrets to making any new skill sustainable: Love the process.

6/5/17 UPDATE: I wrote a review on the Memrise app for leaning Japanese. They have a free course called Anime Japanese for Beginners that you might find helpful if you want to learn Japanese through anime.

Now I want to hear from you! Have you used anime to learn Japanese before? What other tricks have worked for you?

Let me know with a comment below!

8 Comments

  • Shanna

    As a linguistics major, I really enjoyed this post. Really good summary on language acquisition, which was always a fascinating topic for me. I always wanted to learn Japanese, but never managed to fit it into my schedule yet. However, I have used similar methods as the ones you suggest with Spanish, German, and Italian. Your second suggestion was especially interesting to me, because I came up with a similar method with American movies that have been dubbed in Spanish. That is, instead of watching first with subtitles, then without, I’ve already watched the movie in English, so I already know what the characters are saying, and then I just switch the audio to Spanish.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Shanna, that is pretty awesome that you speak so many different languages and that you’re a linguistics major too!

      Yeah, I like the method of already knowing what’s going on because then you know what the context of the situations are, so it’s easier to understand what the characters are saying. A lot of times you can even learn new words that you’ve never studied before this way, simply by seeing and hearing the way a person uses it.

  • Farhan

    I’ve always wondered the same thing – can I eventually become fluent in Japanese just by watching a lot of anime? Well, after reading your article, I guess it’s impossible to do that.

    However, I do feel that after some years of anime, I have become more familiar with the various rhythms, phrasing, and intonations of the Japanese language. Will this help when I finally start to seriously learn to speak Japanese?

    All the tips that you have provided will definitely help many foreign anime fans to make their anime-watching sessions more educational.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah if all you do is watch anime with subtitles, then you’re probably never going to become fluent. You’ve really got to have a strategy to approaching it that includes some time spent studying away from the show.

      But it is a really great way to learn rhythm and intonation. Even when you listen to most languages courses that teach you Japanese, the native speakers are doing a really good job at pronouncing the words so that new students can clearly hear it.

      But that’s not really how people in the real world speak. They’ve got accents, or they speak really fast, and so on. Anime is a great way to get used to that level of the language where people speak at a normal pace and in a natural way. 

  • Craig

    Great article. I actually attempted this method years ago and you’re right, watching with both English/Japanese on was a total waste of time from a learning perspective. I still got to enjoy my show, but I would argue I didn’t learn much of anything at all. This is a novel approach and will likely help me a lot more than my old method. Also, thanks for all of the background on WHY it doesn’t work. These days I spend most of my days studying Chinese, but the same ideas should apply to pretty much any language learning right?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Craig, yeah the principles should be applicable to other languages (like Chinese) as well. Although each language has its own unique properties that have to be accounted for depending on which language you are learning it from (i.e. your native tongue).

  • JR Andrade

    Hi Nick, as a lover of language, I absolutely love your article. You hit it straight on it’s core. I can truly relate, though not in trying to learn Japanese, but in Arabic. It is through focusing on certain words or phrases, and immersing in it, that we tend to fully grasp it and make it “music” to our ears, that we get to recognize it more, thus understanding it more. But yeah, I also love the Japanese language and know some basic words and phrases. Thanks for this fantastic article. Arigatou Gozaimasu! =)

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey thanks man, I’m really glad that you like the post! Yeah, it’s pretty cool how certain words start to stick out to you once you have spent a little bit of focused time learning them.

      I think of the video game Final Fantasy X, where one race of people (the Al Bhed, I think it was) speak a different language and each time you find a language book, your character can then understand a little bit more of them when they speak to each other. Eventually you can understand it all – just like in real life!

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