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.


Return to the original article on learning Japanese through anime.

Using Anime for a Balanced Japanese Study Routine

To learn and maintain Japanese, or any other language, one must must develop a study routine.  If one is in a class, some of this routine will be provided, such as assigned homework and test preparation; however, classes do not last forever, and to keep a language, one must use it.

Learning a language is not just one skill, but many.  For this reason, it is important to have a well balanced routine.  While the different skills build on each other, I have found it necessary to make sure that each skill gets at least some attention, and to grow in a skill one must practice and use that skill.  For example, listening is very helpful to one’s speaking ability; however, one is never going to become proficient in speaking unless she actually spends time speaking.  It is as simple as that.

So, how does one decide what practices to use?  It can be a matter of trial and error, and one’s routine may, and indeed should, change over time as one becomes more proficient.  Something may become too easy to be useful anymore, and something else that was too difficult early on may become useful over time.

vlcsnap-2015-02-22-11h32m07s154In my own routine, Anime watching plays a central role.  I use it in all different ways, and I have found ways to make it useful for every skill (except handwriting).  For me, each way of watching develops different skills.

Below are the ways I watch, and the skills that they develop:

Slowly and carefully, with Japanese jimaku (“subtitles”), as described by Cure Dolly.  This practice develops my vocabulary, kanji recognition, reading, reading comprehension, and grammar.  On the other hand, for myself, this method does very little for my listening ability.  I find that when watching this way, I am concentrating on the written word, and I barely take notice of the spoken words.

With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, with preparationBecause of the difficulty I described above, if I watch an Anime slowly and carefully, I always watch it again with jimaku at full speed.  This matches the words that I have previously read and studied with the spoken word.  It also serves as a review of everything I studied and researched during the careful watch.  I have discovered that I get the best results when I do this at least one day after my first watch, but still within a few days.  This way there is time for the new words and expressions to cycle through my Anki at least once, but it is still fresh in my mind.

With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, without prior preparation.  I started doing this because there were only so many series I could manage at a time using the slow and careful method, and there were a lot of series I wanted to see.  Yet, unexpectedly, I have found that watching some series this way develops some rather important skills, such as reading speed and the ability to understand what is going on from context, even when one does not understand all of the words.  This is also useful in associating the spoken and the written word, because in order to keep pace with the action, one must use spoken and written cues.  On the other hand, this method is not very useful for learning grammar or vocabulary.  It does review the vocabulary and grammar one already has, though, and really forces one to use those skills at a real pace, rather than a practice one.

With English subtitles.  As I discussed more fully here, I have found some limited use for English subtitles, although really this is the least helpful way of watching.  I think that to be of any use at all, it must be accompanied by another form of watching.  The uses I have found for English subtitles are to check my comprehension after watching with Japanese jimaku and to prepare to watch jimaku nashi (without any subtitles).  The best time I have found to watch with English subtitles is a day or so after watching with Japanese jimaku (with or without preparation) and a day or two before watching jimaku nashi.  I only include this step for the series I watch with my spouse (who is not studying Japanese).

Jimaku nashi, with preparation.  For any show I watch with subtitles, I include a final watch jimaku nashi (without subtitles).  For me, this is an essential step in the process.  This reinforces everything I have previously studied in prior watches, and in my mind, this is the only time I feel like I am really “watching” a show, rather than “studying” a show, which is important in and of itself, I think.  Everything prior is preparation for watching it jimaku nashi.  While eventually one will want to be able to listen and understand unprepared in real time, I think that this is a later skill.  I think being able to understand after preparation is a stepping stone to being able to understand unprepared.

Jimaku nashi, with no prior preparationI tried this in my early days of Anime watching, but not for long.  The reason for this was that I was not really getting anything out of it.  I could pick out a few words here and there, and I would find myself making up little stories about what was happening (rather like a small child).  After about six months of working with Anime, I could manage something for small children, like Anpanman, and have a general understanding of what was going on.  Yet, now after over a year of watching Anime, I tried this again with Go! Princess Precure, and I found that I really did understand most of it (which I was able to confirm afterwards, when I watched slowly and carefully with jimaku).  I tried this with a couple of harder Anime as well, and I understood less, but enough for it to be useful, I think.  I still think that it is important to use the other methods I described to work on other skills, such as vocabulary building and reading comprehension.  On the other hand, I think I am now ready to add this practice to my Japanese study routine.

Audio only.  Lastly, I take select episodes and put them on my iPod to listen to over and over again, with only the audio.  Usually, these are my favorite episodes, but they may also be episodes with important vocabulary.  In the beginning, I chose episodes with a lot of singing to help with my pronunciation and ability to form morae, which are different than syllables.  I found that singing along was extremely helpful.  Now, I have about 30 episodes on my iPod, which I cycle through, usually using about about 2 episodes a day.  This is almost completely passive learning, which I do while doing other things, such as housework.  I think that the passive component is really important, because it allows Japanese to slip in at a deeper level than active learning does.  It brings Japanese to the level that one does not have to think about it.

I have also recently found another use for the audio only component.  I recently learned of the technique of shadowing, or trying as much as possible to talk along with the characters.  Pronunciation is my weakest skill, so I am using shadowing to work on this skill.  While this would be impossible with  an unfamiliar episode, I have episodes on my iPod that I have been listening to for over a year, so much so that I almost know them by heart.

This probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is.  I get enough benefit out of it, that for me, it is worth it.   I hope that some of these ideas are useful to the reader.

The Only Way to Learn Japanese.

There is only one way to learn Japanese.

There are various ways to learn about Japanese but only one way to learn Japanese.

Learning about a language is what you do with textbooks, classes etc.

It can be useful in helping you to learn Japanese. But learning about a language won’t in itself make you learn the language. That is why most people who learned about French or Spanish in school can’t speak it. That is why most Japanese people who do years of compulsory English barely know it beyond a few phrases.

To learn a language as opposed to learning about it there is only one way. You have to use it. Not practise it. Use it.

Way‐to‐learn‐JapaneseWhat does that mean? You are practising a language when you engage in staged activities purely for the sake of the language. You are using a language when you are doing things you would still be doing even if you were doing them in your native language. When you are actually making it your means of communication or understanding.

We have always advocated using Japanese by watching Anime (with or without Japanese subtitles), playing games, reading and other activities.

When you use a language you take a drop in “age”. You are limited in what you can do by your ability. This can give you a huge incentive to improve. You are doing what all small children do: struggling with language itself. Learning to understand and grow. Not dabbling in a “subject” through the medium of your native language.

Anime, games, books, manga and the like are excellent ways of using Japanese. However, they all have one thing in common. They constitute passive use of the language. You are receiving plenty of Japanese input, but you are not communicating. You are not engaging in the give‐and‐take of communication that is the primary function and the lifeblood of language.

The Cures at this site have communicated regularly in Japanese since early on in our Japanese adventure. However, there seem to be relatively few online opportunities to do this. There are dozens of sites for chatting about Japanese in English, but really nothing much for learners who want to use their Japanese. That is why we are trying right now to put that right.

Why such sites don’t exist seems to be for a number of reasons. The main one (and I suspect the others are often rationalizations of this) is that people are more comfortable talking in English about Japanese. Of course they are. Using language is about getting out of your  current comfort zone and slowly establishing a new one in Japanese (but having said that, our solution tries to make using Japanese as comfortable as it can be).

If the minute you put your textbook (or even your manga) down, you snap straight back into English, even when you are thinking about Japanese, your chances of really learning it are minimal.

So how do you start communicating in Japanese?

Our proposed solution is The Kawaii Japanese Forums. The purpose of these forums is to create a safe and gentle place where you can discuss anything and everything in Japanese. Talk about games, share music videos, compare the seasons in your part of the world with those of other members. Whatever you like (so long as it’s polite).

This way you start actually using Japanese interactively. If it goes well we may start Skype meetings where people can chat via voice. But don’t get scared. You can stay with nice safe text forums as long as you like!

A few questions about the only way to learn Japanese

Q. If I am talking Japanese with other non‐Japanese people may I not cement in mistakes?

A. This fear is common and rather exaggerated. We discuss it in detail here. Briefly it is much more important to use language than to worry about a few mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process. One should avoid them if possible but not be paralyzed by them. If you wait till you are perfect to use Japanese actively, the chances are you will wait forever.

Q. How early should I start actively using Japanese?

A. How keen are you to learn? You will get most out of the forums if you are upper beginner or above, but we Cures all started actively using Japanese before that. You learn by doing, and doing also makes theoretical learning easier. However, to participate before upper beginner level will take a lot of ganbari. If you are thinking “that sounds too hard”, it probably will be. If you are thinking “I’ll give it my all and manage somehow” then you probably will.

Q. Is there anything that can help me in following the Forums?

A. Yes. we recommend installing Rikaichan or Rikaisama. This will help you with words or kanji you don’t know. We also recommend a screen magnifier. Kanji at regular text size can be difficult to read when you aren’t very used to reading Japanese. This can help a lot.

Q. Ok. I’m on my way. Where were those Forums again?

A. Right here. See you there.


The Rhythm of Japanese: Improve your speaking and hearing

Drama Club begins with Amenba no Uta (Heartcatch Precure, Ep  16)
Drama Club begins with Amenbo no Uta (Heartcatch Precure, Ep 16)

The Amenbo no Uta is sometimes recommended as a way to improve one’s Japanese pronunciation. However, it can do more than that. It can also improve one’s ability to hear and comprehend the language.

But what is the Amenbo no Uta? It is a nonsense poem that is used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals as a daily warm‐up, from news‐readers to voice actors (and very likely politicians too). While it reads like a stream‐of‐consciousness dream‐sequence, there is method in its words, but not narrative method. Its aim is to drill all the sounds and combinations of Japanese.

It runs to a very strict rhythm, and this is particularly important for the Japanese learner.

One of the problems, not only with speaking but also with hearing, is that we post‐process what we hear rapidly and immediately. For first‐language comprehension this is very useful. We are able to hear all kinds of strange accents, mumbled words and distortions and adjust for them, processing them back into the sounds they “ought” to be.

However, when we hear foreign sounds, we process them back to the nearest familiar equivalent, often helped in the case of Japanese by Romaji transliterations, which also represent the nearest English language equivalent. So we hear し as shi, for example (in fact it is neither shi nor si but a sound that does not exist in English). This doesn’t matter too much for comprehension or comprehensibility, though it is good if we can overcome it.

More important is the fact that the English sense of rhythm is radically different from the Japanese, and this does make Japanese very hard to hear. Our brains are attempting to post‐process what we hear into something English‐like that is very different from what we have heard.

That is one great importance of shadowing. It forces us to say, and therefore become aware of, what we are actually hearing, not what our brains want to post‐process it into.

Reciting the Amenbo no Uta can also help with a very important aspect of this: Rhythm. English is a stress‐timed language, while Japanese is mora‐timed. A mora is not actually the same thing as a syllable. This statement sometimes puzzles people, but I believe we can demonstrate here exactly what we mean, using the Amenbo no Uta.

First of all, I would like you to read and listen to the first four verses. They are written in kana. As you may know, every kana corresponds to exactly one mora (ex cept the small versions of the three y‐kana: ゃ,ゅand ょ which always combine with い‐row kana to form single‐mora glides: きゃ, りゅ, ちょ etc.)

Here is the reading, at a relatively slow “training speed”:

あめんぼ あかい な
あ い う え お
うき もに こえびも

かき のき くり のき
か き く け こ
きつつき こつ こつ
かれ けや き

ささげ に すを かけ
さ し す せ そ
その うお あさせ で

たちましょ ラッパ で
た ち つ て と
とて とて たった と

I think you can hear the very regular rhythm:

1234 1234


1234 1234


Each mora is a beat of the poem (and you will also find this in most Japanese songs).

So here is why a mora is not a syllable. We have a very good example in the first line:

あかい な akai na (1234).  English speakers are prone to pronounce and hear this as a 123 “ak eye na”. Because in English the diphthong ai (often spelled “I”) plus any attached consonants is one syllable, eg. “time”, “mind” “sky”.

In Japanese there are no diphthongs. Japanese あい is not the one‐syllable English sound “I”. It is two morae あ and い. It is the same if a consonant is attached:

かい is か+い: two morae.

あかい is あ+か+い: three morae.

This is why it is important to read Japanese in Japanese script.

Going back to the beginning of the line, we are prone to read あめんぼ (1234) as amenbo (123). It doesn’t help that that is how it is written in Romaji, but we would do it anyway because that is how English works. We post‐process what we hear into something we are used to hearing rather than what we actually are hearing.

So already, unless we are attuned to the rhythm of the poem we have 123 123 instead of 1234 1234 for the first line.

あめんぼ is four kana and four morae. a me n bo. ん is always a mora of its own. Japanese people always think of it that way. If a Japanese person says bangohan to you and you don’t catch the word, she will repeat it slowly and carefully:

ba n go ha n (12345)

pronouncing each mora separately.

Fortunately, for much of the poem morae and syllables are the same, so we are able to catch and hold the rhythm easily. But the places where they aren’t are very important. By using this exercise regularly and getting it into one’s blood, one begins to feel the mora‐rhythm of Japanese. Once one has that, the language becomes more hearable. Naturally the Amenbo no Uta should be combined with listening to regular Japanese (your favorite anime is fine, so long as there are no English subtitles).

To round up a few more common difficulties in these first four verses:

We are prone to hear さしました sashimashita (stung) as sashimashta (1234). This is not exactly the fault of Romaji (though the kana tell us how many morae there really are). Most Japanese speakers suppress the second “i” sound almost completely, if not completely. But even if it is completely suppressed it still takes up a mora.

This is another way morae differ from syllables. A mora does not have to contain much in the way of actual sound. It is a beat, whether fully voiced or not.

When saying the Amenbo no Uta you could emphasize this by pronouncing the word sashimashita with the second “i” vowel fully spoken. However, I would advise against this. It is important to practice giving full mora value to morae with no vowel.

A very similar consideration applies to the small tsu. The fourth verse uses several of these, and each time they occupy a mora (as they always do).

We may hear たちましょ ラッパ で tachimasho rappa de as 1234 123, but if we do, it is because we are not counting the gap between ラ and パ (marked by ッ) as a beat.

Because I am writing this, it tends to sound very theoretical. In fact it is quite the opposite. We are talking about the rhythm of the language. Its very heartbeat. You need to to feel this in your blood, not just know about it.

If you can chant Amenbo no Uta every day with its proper rhythm…

1234 1234


1234 1234


…you can safely ignore everything I have written here. You will be getting the language in a more natural way.

Still, I hope you found it of some use.

The Full Amenbo no Uta

あめんぼ あかい な
あ い う え お
うき もに こえびも

かき のき くり のき
か き く け こ
きつつき こつ こつ
かれ けや き

ささげ に すを かけ
さ し す せ そ
その うお あさせ で

たちましょ ラッパ で
た ち つ て と
とて とて たった と

なめくじ のろ のろ
な に ぬ ね の
なんど に ぬめって
なに ねばる

はと ぽっぽ ほろ ほろ
は ひ ふ へ ほ
ひなた の おへや にゃ
ふえ を ふく

まい まい ねじまき
ま み む め も
うめ の み おちて も
み も しまい

やき ぐり ゆで ぐり
や い ゆ え よ
やまだ に ひ を つく
よい の いえ

らい ちょう さむ かろ
ら り る れ ろ
れんげ が さいたら
るり の とり

わい わい わっしょい
わ い う え を
うえきや いど がえ
おまつり だ

PS ‐ there is one line (only one) where the scansion is not regular. Once you have the feel of it you will get a little “glunk” (to use the technical term) on that line. Presumably it was caused by the exigences of getting all the sound combinations into one poem. It really is a 力作, or a tour de force as we say in ‐ uh ‐ English.

I will send an invisible winged Dollykiss to the first person to identify the “odd” line in the comments below.

Remembering Japanese: the Funnel Theory

Japanese learning rememberingI recently discovered the Funnel Theory of language learning.

It came about when I was advising some beginners on learning hiragana. However, in this case learning hiragana works as a microcosm of all language learning.

The only way to learn hiragana is to plunge in and isshokenmei (with all your might) just learn it. It should take about a week. Two weeks at a maximum.

I have seen people pick at hiragana for months. They learn three one week and three the next week. By the fourth week they have half‐forgotten what they learned in the first week. These people may be shy of working at it, but they are in fact making a lot of unnecessary work for themselves. Learning hiragana is going to take far more work hours this way.

The thing to do is tackle it, bring it down, and then start using it. Because what you don’t use, you lose.

Here is the funnel theory in a nutshell. Think of learning hiragana – and this applies to language as a whole, as we shall see – as trying to fill a funnel with water. The fundamental rule of filling a funnel with water is this:

If you aren’t pouring it in faster than it is running out, you are wasting your time.

Hiragana is a small funnel, so we can see this at work. The pick‐at‐the‐edges learner is spending as much time re‐learning as learning.

Bigger learning tasks are bigger funnels. An entire language is a huge funnel. But the same principle applies.

Even with one’s native language, if one stops pouring in (using it regularly) one starts to notice the loss. It is subtle because the funnel is huge and the drainage is small. But the longer one stays completely out of contact with one’s native language the more one finds that when one does try to use it one constructs sentences in ways more appropriate to one’s everyday language, and sometimes gropes for everyday words.

In terms of actually learning a new language I would say that Funnel Theory, while always important, is most critical at two points. Early beginner and Intermediate.

In the early beginner stage if one is learning too slowly the funnel will never start to fill at all. It is draining as quickly as it is being filled and no water really accumulates. The funnel just gets wet.

Beginner stage is a danger point for learning and a lot of people drop out early on. They say “It is impossible”, or “I am not cut out for learning languages”.

And it is impossible. Impossible to fill a funnel at that rate of flow.

However, serious learners keep the flow high and learn quickly. We all have weak and strong points in language (learning a language is not one skill but several), but overcoming the funnel problem at beginner level is not difficult if one is serious about learning.

Intermediate level is the next major point at which Funnel Theory presents problems.

Intermediate can be difficult, especially for lone learners.

At beginner level, up to upper beginner, learning is very straightforward. There are certain things you need to know and lots of places that will tell you exactly what they are. You learn basic vocabulary which is again straightforward. No question that you need all the basic words in a language.

At intermediate it becomes much trickier. You know all the basic grammar, conjugations etc. Intermediate books (even upper beginner past a certain level) are collections of “grammar points”, ways of expressing different things, presented in no particular order other than roughly decreasing order of frequency in regular use. Vocabulary becomes more specialized. A lot depends what you need, what you are intending to use it for.

At this point, as at the beginning, it is easy for language to start draining faster than it runs in.

A serious student of Japanese told me before I even started that this stage is “grueling”. You just have to work, work, work till it hurts or you will fall back faster than you move forward.

Is this true? Yes, if that’s how you go about things. It isn’t how I go about things and it isn’t the way I recommend you do.

My serious student friend was just that: a serious student. To her, Japanese was an academic subject. One she was very serious about.

To me, Japanese is a language. My language. Not the one I was born with, but the one I love.

So let me say this. Intermediate is wonderful!

Funnel and all, it is wonderful.

Because at intermediate level you can really start using Japanese* and as long as you are using it extensively, that funnel is filling. I am not saying one should stop studying, but I would say that at this stage study becomes secondary.

In fact I would go further and say that if you are only studying, then unless you are doing it to grueling levels (like my friend), the funnel will start emptying faster than it fills.

But if you are using it. Playing games in it. Watching anime in it (with or without Japanese subtitles, but not with English ones). Reading books or manga in it. Holding regular conversations in it. If you are doing this then the funnel keeps filling. You also have some structure for learning. You learn the vocabulary and grammar you actually encounter.

You probably want some explicit study to help the funnel fill faster.

But (big, big but)

• If you have plenty of real use without the study, at this stage, the funnel will keep filling.

• If you have study without the real use, it is in serious danger of starting to drain.

This is bad news if your intentions with Japanese are not honorable. If you are merely dallying with her, your chances of retaining her are small.

But if you truly love her and mean to make her yours, it is very good news indeed.

* My fellow Cures and I forced real usage by pure ganbari long before we were really ready, and it did a lot of good. But intermediate is still wonderful because that is when it really starts to come into its own.

Learning Japanese through Anime – English Subtitles

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.

vlcsnap-2014-12-28-21h12m10s82This 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.