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.

12 thoughts on “Learning Japanese through Anime: hearing Japanese without subtitles

  1. Thank you for this article, Cure Dolly. I think it is very important. I have been watching jimaku nashi from the beginning of my Japanese anime watching, but it has always been re-watching shows I watched with jimaku in some way (sometimes with English subtitles). I had tried to watch jimaku nashi unprepared early on, and it was rather muri. Like a small child, I would make up my own stories of what was going on. I have just begun watching jimaku nashi completely unprepared again, and there is a huge difference! Watching unprepared is a *lot* more work. Watching prepared is actually a little like “kicking back” and watching (although there was a lot of work beforehand); watching unprepared is nothing of the sort.

    I have a bit more patience with repeat watching, so I use the same Anime for my different kinds of watching. Watching carefully with jimaku after watching jimaku nashi is interesting, because you can check what you understood and what you did not understand. I am finding that I am not too far off in my unprepared watch now, and I know what I did not understand. Heee…that is a relief actually… I am not thinking I understand something, and understanding it wrong.

  2. “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).”

    I don’t really agree with this. Although I agree, using Japanese subtitles at the beginning of your Japanese journey is a very wise decision, this can also be replaced with reading lots of manga and watching anime without any subs (including no Japanese subs) and have the same affect. I would add, repeated listening is important.

    I do wish I watched anime with Japanese subtitles as a beginner though! I watched with English subtitles for a while, then finally gave them up when I was at a proficient level. I wasn’t ready to give them up until after reading a lot of manga in Japanese and listening to anime in the car repeatedly, then I had the proper proficiency for watching new anime and dramas without subs. That’s why I think manga can replace the Japanese subtitles. But if I could do it over again, I think I’d go with both Japanese subs and manga! Haha.

    I also feel watching with Japanese subtitles does not really improve your listening skills, only your reading skills. Maybe it improves your listening skills a tiny bit, but you need to be doing listening without any Japanese subtitles as well in the mean time, which is the main reason why I disagree with waiting six months to a year to do so. But what I recommend is ripping the audio and listening to it in the car, while walking, on the train, wherever you go during the day, because then you’re actually focused on the audio. Both listening and watching at the same time can actually be very distracting, which is why listening to audio alone after you watched it for the first time is really important! So perhaps, watch with Japanese subtitles first, then rip it and listen to it on the go!

    Sorry if I missed any details in your post, it was lengthy and I tried my best to read it! But my comment may have missed out on something you wrote because sometimes reading long texts like this is hard for me.

    Very good topic.

    1. Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful comment. Please also accept my apologies for approving your post so late. I lost access to the Kawajapa mailbox for a while (Dolly incompetence). Anyway:

      I think I expressed myself a little confusingly in the passage you quote. My further apologies.

      I did write:

      “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).”

      But I didn’t intend by that to say that one shouldn’t watch Japanese without subtitles during that period (in fact I make it clear later in the article that I did just that myself).

      What I meant was that one should not drop the subtitles method. Whether one adds some non-subtitled anime into the mix is one’s own choice (and I am in favor of it if you have the extra time to give to it).

      And of course this advice only applies if you are using the method outlined in the original article, which uses Japanese subtitled anime as the core of one’s Japanese learning. This was what I did, and I am not saying it is the only way or the best way (different things work for different people), but that is what you need to do for this method.

      I did, as I said, use non-subtitled anime secondarily. I have memories of working through Anpanman movies sometimes going over the same five seconds ten or twenty times. I do think though that for learning grammar and vocabulary that isn’t terribly helpful. Books and manga are another matter and I agree that they can probably substitute for some of the subtitle work. I haven’t used them that much myself which is why I don’t comment on them.

      I also, rather than ripping soundtracks (which always feel kind of chaotic to me – but that’s just me, no one else seems to find that, and I have better luck with gentler shows) put fairy tales on my ipod.

      Now whether working with subtitles does or doesn’t improve your listening is a matter of debate, it seems. I feel that it actually does, but I absolutely agree that you need non-subtitled listening too and that it is much more fundamental to listening. And also real-time listening, not just the sort of thing I did with Anpanman (though I think that has its place too).

      However, I do think subtitle work has helped my (admittedly abysmal) listening. One reason I say that is that nowadays with subtitled material, I find the audio mostly as good as furigana. That is, it is sufficient to remind me of a kanji I might not have recognized without it and to tell me what to look up if I don’t know the word. At first I used to have to copy words out of the subs file and paste them into Jisho.

      Now you may argue that it is my other listening that did that, but my instinct is that a lot of it came from subtitle work.

      Anyway, it isn’t a very important argument because I am in overall agreement with what you are saying. Raw listening is very important. The only thing innovative (as far as I know) about what I am saying in this article is the suggestion to watch material that you know you can handle reasonably well with Japanese subtitles. I don’t mean that you need to do that exclusively. But, especially for those of us who find listening comprehension something like a sheer rock face, this does give some confidence and make finding some handholds more likely.

      It also separates two problems. Those of us who have a lot of trouble with listening are often riddled with the doubt “Is this because my listening is poor or because I really don’t know a lot of the words?” The aim of this method is to make it possible to work on material where you can know that the problem is primarily listening. If you can breeze through ten episodes of an anime with subtitles but can’t hear a thing without them, you know where the problem lies. And you know you have a fair chance of understanding as you get your ear in tune.

      I would also say (this is really another topic) that absolutely raw listening is almost another world of language. It involves various meta-skills like understanding what someone might be saying under the circumstances. I am afraid I am very poor at this even in English. I usually can’t follow a chat show in English (not that I often try, and never any more) not because I don’t understand the words but because I can’t follow the way of thinking and the general cultural outlook.

      When I was in France, my friend, whose French was at that time much worse even than mine could still understand people a lot better than I could because she had a much better grasp of what people might be saying. All of which is really to say that meta-skills and contextual awareness are very important to raw listening.

      Oh I have probably rambled off the point, but I hope it was of some use.

      1. Oh! I see. Yes, I thought I had read that you also listened to things unsubbed for listening practice, so I didn’t understand why you said people shouldn’t for 6 months to a year. But now that makes sense! Thanks for clarifying. Just a misinterpretation, which I thought might have been the case.

        Very interesting! Meta listening… In English, I’m a weak reader (as you may have already been able to tell in the first place), but a strong listener. I do think cognitive skills can play a big part in language learning, and finding out things like meta listening would be a really good key in recommending someone a certain way to learn a language. Listening was a gateway to actually improving my reading skills in Japanese, while for others it may be the reverse.

        Do you have any articles on meta listening?

      2. Meta-listening not being my long suit (it may be my greatest single weakness) I might not be the best person to write about it! On the other hand it may be good to write about ways around the problem for the “meta-listening challenged” like myself. In fact I suppose the advice in this article is one of those ways.

        I would also suggest that meta-listening might fall into (at least) two categories, the macro and the micro. What I wrote about in the comment above is macro-meta-listening. Ie it revolves around social/cultural context. But perhaps related to this is the “micro issue” that I have touched on elsewhere:

        Writing about my sentences approach, I said this:

        The vital point to grasp here is that while our natural, “naive” view of native-language kikitori is that we hear correctly and therefore understand, to a large extent the reverse is true: we understand and therefore hear correctly. Of course both are going on at once, and it is the interplay of the two that makes language-understanding possible.

        The point I was discussing is that in hearing we need to know what is likely, which words tend to belong together etc, and that a lot more hearing than we think consists of “normalizing” what the brain initially thinks it heard to what we know it is likely to be. We have been doing this since early childhood and most of the time it is so near-instant that we are barely aware of it. I have also pointed out in a different context that this can be a hurdle in that we have a tendency to hear “foreign” sounds incorrectly because we “normalize” them as we would in our familiar language.

        This is really talking on the micro level about individual words and sounds. I noted that a person can go through life mispronouncing a word in her native language, because once she has a fixed idea what it “should” be she will go on “normalizing” it to that in her hearing.

        It is very possible to be bad at macro (cultural) meta-listening and normal at micro (sounds/words) meta-listening. I think that is the case with me. It is probably possible to be the reverse too.

        On a kind of “super-macro” level I think there is also (for some people) an issue of “trust” in understanding. For example, when I first started watching Tanoshii Moomin Ikka I kind of thought “These are odd-looking creatures, I hope they are ‘good people’.” When I learned to love and trust them I started finding them easier to understand. Of course it was partly getting used to their voices, but it wasn’t just that. It was also a sense (on a deep level that one can’t really control) of “these are safe, good characters. I can let them in”. I don’t suppose it will be a full solution to my problem (because trust isn’t the whole issue), but I can already see that I have more “cultural trust” in a Japanese talk show than an English chat show.

  3. I forgot to check “notify me of new comments via email” so I’m checking it now! As I might forget to look back at the comment sections of this and want to know what other comments are posted.

    1. Oh dear. I am afraid I am rather the opposite of a scholar. Most of the ideas I write about come from observation, though I do pick things up here and there and often don’t remember where.

      Speaking of observation, I was, following this discussion, observing my own subtitle-behavior. Use of subtitles is a scale, I think.

      At one extreme end is working through them at a rate of about an hour to five minutes of anime time, which one does a the beginning (not an exaggeration in my case as a lot of time was spent researching grammar forms as well as looking up vocabulary and entering it into Anki).

      At the other extreme, I notice that the famous laziness (or efficiency) of the mind means that one often doesn’t read the subtitles at all so long as one is understanding without them, and at other times the eyes may just pounce on a couple of kanji to clarify what words are being used (and I notice that a lot of Japanese television pops up text for the main points of things. I am not very familiar with English language television but I get the impression that Japanese does it more).

      So I think to a degree the mind is trying to wean itself off subtitles just because it finds reading them where it doesn’t need to a bit mendokusai (but then I am a slow reader even in English so that may be more me).

      Anyway, I am not trying to say that subtitled listening is the way to improve one’s hearing because I don’t think it is. Just posting some observations-along-the-way.

      One more interesting thing is that trying to listen can involve a kind of “clash of consciences”. I have a “conscience” that says “you shouldn’t just lazily move on before you’ve understood completely. Stop and get it right.” The other “conscience” says “You are supposed to be doing this at full speed and catching what you can. Don’t you touch those controls”.

      Of the two “consciences”, for me, the “stop and get it right” one is much the stronger and I have to work to suppress her. I know some other people have a similar problem because I have had to give advice like “watch with the controls out of reach”,

  4. They do vary somewhat in quality, and of course tastes differ. But I would say, in terms of depth and story (the things that keep you glued to the screen) Doki Doki is probably the best, followed by Smile (I actually slightly prefer Smile because I love the characters so much but I would say that Doki Doki is objectively the best).

    Other good ones include Heartcatch and Suite. Last year’s Happiness Charge was rather silly and disappointing. This year’s Go! Princess is a lot better but so far not up to the highest standards of the series (they’re a tough act to follow) in my opinion.

    If you are very keen on the jouhin “Princess” theme though, that may make it a good choice for you. And of course there is something rather nice about watching a show that is happening in Japan right now. The shops will be full of Go! Princess goods right now.

  5. Thank you for your recommendations. Ill try DOKIDOKI it looks KAWAII. My vocab is awful so Im trying to find easy things to watch.

    Your post was interesting since I havent been sure how long to stick with subs. Ive been listening actively to stuff without a transcript, but the more I realize the role that expectation plays the more I start to think that your hybrid method is the way to go.

    However I am very curious to know how it has been working for you. Can you say more.

  6. If vocabulary is a problem then using subs is the way to go if you are using our anime method. This way you will learn core vocabulary plus the vocabulary associated with the show itself, which will help you to watch the show more effectively, which in turn will help you learn more and hear more.

    It is difficult to say how far one’s listening is improving over the short term. It is a slow process that advances by barely perceptible increments, like a plant growing. Or perhaps more like a child growing: it isn’t as fast as a plant!

    I do know that my listening is better than it was a year ago. I sometimes (being very absent-minded) don’t even notice when I haven’t re-timed the subs after a half-time break because I am just listening. Provided it is simple commonly-used language, I can sometimes do that. Listening is still my short suit, as it is in English, but I think it is very slowly getting there.

    If you are using our method you definitely need to keep up with the subs because that is where you are getting your vocabulary. It is also where you are learning things like what people do say often, and what words “belong together”, which is very important to your listening.

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