Tactics

How to Learn Japanese Through Video Games

There are lots of different ways that you can learn to read and speak Japanese. One method that has been gaining popularity lately is learning Japanese through video games.

There are of course a lot of native Japanese video games that you can get and start playing/studying to get better at the language.

And there are even some video games that are specifically designed to teach you Japanese in a step by step method.

But some people in the language learning community actually hate this method (video games) and say that it doesn’t work. They advise that you to stay away from video games until you have already mastered the language, or are at least at a very high level with it.

So, is playing a Japanese video game a good way to learn or not?

I’m going to say yes, but with a few conditions as to how you go about it.

Why Use Video Games to Learn the Japanese Language?

First of all, let me briefly talk about the two different types of learning that people naturally use: intensive and extensive.

Intensive learning is “learning with the intention of understanding everything.”

Extensive learning is “learning with the intention of enjoying the material.”

In other words, when you are reading a book that teaches Japanese, or you are taking a course on the language, you are engaged in intensive learning.

You spend a lot of time reading and understanding a small amount of material because you want to know what all the words mean, how each part of the grammar works, and what types of situations you would use them in.

Intensive learning is very important, and something that you should be doing each and every day for your study time.

But when it comes to things like watching Japanese anime, reading Japanese manga, and of course playing Japanese video games, you want to switch over to extensive learning.

It’s almost like a form of immersion. You really just want to take in lots and lots of natural Japanese and enjoy the story of the show/book/game that you are using. What that means is that you are not going to understand everything that’s said in Japanese.

This is OK. This is natural. This is how people learn new words though things such as:

  • The actions of the characters
  • The context of the dialog
  • The emotions of the speakers
  • And so on…

Let me give you an example of learning Japanese this way:

When you open up a treasure chest in Dragon Quest XI, it first displays the name of the unique item that you’ve come across, and then the sentence always ends with 手に入れた.

Here’s the question: Do you only see 手に入れた when you open chests? Nope!

That same phrase also appears every time you find a hidden item in the grass, or when you get an item from a monster.

From those three scenarios, can you guess what 手に入れた means?

Well if it pops up after you get a new item, it probably means something like:

  • You Got an item
  • You Found an item
  • You Obtained an item (it’s this last one FYI)

You might still need to look the word up to know precisely what it means, but can you see how those two things (repetition and the context) actually give away the meaning of 手に入れた?

This is something that is going to happen over and over again as you continue to play the video game in Japanese.

This means that you are going to learn a lot of new words in a very natural way.

Your brain is always looking for patterns, and once it’s gotten enough examples of a word, your brain will make its own rules on what that word means and when you are supposed to use it.

You’ve already experienced this phenomenon with the English language when you can correctly use a word, but you’re not sure exactly sure what the correct definition of it is.

This same thing will happen with Japanese for you. You just need enough input for you brain to make the connection.

Now let me address a few more common criticisms of this learning method before moving on to how to learn Japanese with it.

The Naysayers: “The Words You Learn in Games Are Useless!”

Some people say things like “video games are too advanced for learners and they are full of non-useful words!”

Excuse me, but I happen to think that knowing the Japanese words for “He’s summoning a dragon” is very useful to know!

In all honesty, most people who would play a video game in Japanese anyway, are going to find those “video game only” words like “magic, monster, treasure chest” extremely useful since they plan on playing (what else) more Japanese video games once they’ve mastered the language!

If you’re like me, getting to play great games that are only available in Japanese is one of the primary reasons for learning the language.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wait until you’re fluent. You can enjoy playing Japanese video games right now, and as a bonus you are going to learn some new words along the way.

The other thing is that, even though a phrase like “You’ve learned a new spell” might not be something that you use outside of a video game, the “You’ve learned ______” part of it is actually a “real life sentence.” *Gasp!*

Knowing that, do you see how it’s really just a few vocabulary words that are unique to the gaming world? At least half (probably more) of the words you will encounter are ones that people use in real life anyway.

As an added bonus, you are going to learn how to correctly use Japanese grammar when you spend lots of time reading these JRPG words and sentences.

It should come as no great shock that Japanese grammar (supposedly one of the hardest aspects of the language) is the same whether you use it with “magic items vocabulary” or “household items vocabulary.”

You might not be able to explain grammar rules when you learn from a video game, but you will be able to use it correctly. If you could only pick one of those two options, the second one (using it) is way more valuable for you.

So, if you’re convinced that it’s OK to learn Japanese this way, then you’ll probably want to know which games you should use.

What Types of Japanese Games Should You Play?

There are two primary types of games that you can use to learn Japanese, and I’m not talking about the genre.

I’m talking about those aimed at teaching you Japanese, and those that aren’t.

I’ve played a few of the games that are designed to teach you Japanese words, phrases, and the basic kana systems. I really like the intention of these games, but personally I find them to be a little on the repetitive (and therefore boring) side of things.

I haven’t played this one yet, but I played the one before it that teaches Hiragana.

I also feel that there is way too much English, and not enough Japanese in them. I would pass on these types of games unless you manage to find a really awesome one. And if you do happen know of great one, let me know about with a comment.

The other type of games that you can use are the ones aimed at Japanese gamers who play them for fun. This is the type I play and would recommend you do as well.

Genre isn’t all that important as long as it contains a lot of one thing: Dialog!

The best case scenario would be that you can find a game you really want to play and it has these three things:

  1. Japanese voice acting
  2. Subtitles of the dialog
  3. Furigana for the kanji

Even though this would be “the best,” it’s OK if one or two are missing. The new Dragon Quest game I am playing only has subtitles, and it’s enough for learning purposes.

Having fun is essential since you need a game that’s going to keep pulling you back, even when you’re not entirely sure what’s going on.

Are there any “Japanese only” games that never made it to America that you’ve always wanted to play? Pick one of those to play. I will explain the process you should use with it next.

A Few Learning Techniques to Use While Playing

FIRST OFF, you want to pick a game based on the things I mentioned above (fun + lots of dialog). I’ll assume that you have the one that you are most interested in playing.

SECONDLY, get a notebook that you can write down reoccurring words and kanji. You don’t want to translate every single thing that you encounter and that you don’t understand. If you do that, you’ll spend an hour just trying to learn the intro speech.

I recommend that you only jot down the things that you see three or more times. If you keep seeing it pop up, and you can’t guess at what it means from how it’s being used, then go ahead and look it up and record it so that you have a super fast way of refreshing your memory the next time you see it.

What’s great about learning this way is that, it’s almost like a Spaced Repetition System since these new common words are going to resurface again and again.

Some of these words are going to be unique to video games and JRPGs, so you’d probably never learn them in a textbook, but you can be sure that they will be invaluable for not only your current game, but the next one you choose to play as well.

THIRDLY, try to “get the gist” of what’s being said in the dialog. I would say that if you can understand at least 25% of everything that you read, then you can actually probably figure out what you’re supposed to do.

You character’s mom might be reminiscing about when you were still a baby, but as long as you caught the part about how you were supposed to meet someone at the north gate, then you’ll be able to progress through the game.

I would say it’s a good idea to try to learn about 5 new words or so per gaming session. Assuming you game at least once a day, that would add up to about 1,825 new words and phrases per year.

THAT’S A LOT!!!

5 words per day is a good goal since you won’t overload yourself with too much new information all at once, but you will still be setting yourself up for success in the long term. This is how you take advantage of the power of time.

I mean, let’s be honest: wouldn’t you love to learn 1,825 new Japanese words each year while playing Final Fantasy or Pokemon?

Even if 802 of those words are just Pokemon names!!!

You can certainly learn more new words per day if you want too. The only thing is that I would advise you do so if it doesn’t take away too much time from actually playing.

Remember that the goal of extensive learning is to consume lots of native material and have fun while doing so.

You should still be putting in your 30-60 minutes each day of the regular, intensive learning with a book or course.

Shortcuts (Cheating?) to Learning Japanese When You Game

Did you know you can cheat with this method?

“But how?” you ask me desperately. Well my friends, I will tell you!

(1) – You can get a script of the game! Obviously I’m not the first person to suggest that you use video games to learn more Japanese.

Here is a link to a list of scripts that people have been able to get a hold of for various Japanese video games. If you have one of these for the game you are playing, it should be a lot faster and easier to look up new words and phrases.

Some of the scripts also have an English translation along with them so that the heavy lifting is already done for you!

(2) – You can play a game with English subtitles on! A lot of Japanese games keep the Japanese voice acting when they localize it for American gamers.

This is similar to Using Anime to Learn Japanese. It’s not a perfect method for learning Japanese, but you can listen to what the characters say, and then try to understand it before looking down at the English translation.

Think of this one as kind of a compromise: you’re going to understand everything that’s said (English subtitles) but you still want to get at least some Japanese into your brain (Japanese audio).

If you want a game with an incredible amount of dialog in it, that will allow Japanese voices and English subtitles, then I would recommend one like Persona 5. You can get the Japanese audio as a free download.

And yes, I play a lot of PlayStation 4!!! Although there are certainly many Japanese games for other consoles and PC as well.

The newest Pokemon games on the 3DS (X&Y, Sun&Moon) let you choose which language to use when you make a new game file. Choose Japanese with Kanji.

(3) – You can use Google Instant Translate! Did you know that the Google Translate app on your phone has a “live translation” mode?

It’s kind of crazy! And really cool. Even though the results look like word soup.

When you see something you don’t understand, just pull out your phone and aim it at the screen in picture mode. You should be able to see a few keywords that will help you to get a feel for what’s being said.

Just don’t take it literal.

It’s Time to Be a Kid Again and Just Enjoy Playing Video Games

I remember when I was a little kid and I used to play video games all the time. I didn’t always know what was going on in the story, or what I needed to do next, I just knew that I enjoyed the game and that I wanted to play more.

Take back your attitude towards video games from when you were young and apply it to playing them in Japanese.

It’s okay to not understand everything. Just aim to have fun and I’m confident that you will learn some Japanese, even if you don’t really try to.

What do you guys think?

Have you tired learning Japanese with games before? Are there any games out there that you are going to use these techniques on now that you know about them?

Let me know with a comment below!

6 Comments

  • Simon

    Thanks! I took Japanese in middle school and high school and loved it. I didn’t get a chance to continue studying it but wanted to get back in to it. I dont remember much but feel like this method can help me get back into it full swing quickly as I would love to play some Pokemon or Zelda in Japanese, and since I play them a lot, I’ll probably pick up the common phrases quickly.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Oh man, that’s really cool that your schools taught Japanese as one of the languages. There were only three offered when I went, and they were Spanish, French, and Korean. No Japanese unfortunately. 

      The great thing about games like Zelda and Pokemon is that, for the most part, you don’t have to read the text to really enjoy the games. Most of the game can be figured out intuitively, and the funnest parts of the game are the battles and puzzles.

      This is perfect since you don’t have to understand everything that’s being said in order to play them and really enjoy it. 

  • Katherine

    This is a very interesting article. I feel there are numerous ways to learn languages. Your information about intensive and extensive methods was helpful. I like that you suggest using both methods to truly learn Japanese. Your suggestion to write down words or phrases that you hear repetitively is a helpful idea. Your “cheating” options were good to include. Finally, having fun while learning Japanese sounds like a winner.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I think that a lot of people feel that only intensive learning is the “correct” way to learn new information, but that’s not really true for people in the real world. 

      We are constantly looking at things and analyzing them in an order to figure them out, and this is when a lot of natural learning occurs.

      Of course I still believe that you need intensive study sessions because they are often the periods where the most learning takes place, but by playing games in Japanese you can pick up a few new words, have a lot of fun, and perhaps most importantly you can spend more time with the language.

      One of the most common problems that newbies have when learning Japanese is that they simply don’t get enough input with it. You need to spend a little bit of time learning words and concepts, and then get lots and lots of examples. Playing video games are a great source of native materials that you can use. 

  • kenuetrecht

    Very interesting strategy, but it makes a ton of sense! I think this is a great way to combine the study and learning of a new language with something you do for leisure making it seem like less of a chore and just something that you naturally want to pick up. In the 80’s and 90’s before most games had voice acting and cinematic cutscenes, the only way you could get the story or even sometimes vital information on how to progress required you to be able to read and video games were a big part in how I did learn to read as a kid, so I am definitely in support of this method for picking up the written Japanese language as games often have very repetitive keywords or important phrases they introduce the player with that you will naturally become familiar with and before you know it you will be recognizing Japanese words and able to apply them to use outside of the video game!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, doing lots of reading while playing games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time definitely helped me to get better at reading English. 

      I think back then, the only game that I had ever played that utilized voice acting was Star Fox 64, it was pretty amazing!

      And even Star Fox had subtitles in English, so you could follow along and match what you were hearing to the words on the screen. 

      Like you said, using video games as the medium for getting better at a language makes it seem less like a chore and more like a fun experience. Which is a really great way to get someone to learn!

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