Anki’s language can seem pretty much fixed. There is nowhere in the settings to change it.
So if you started with it in English as a newbie and now have a set of massive decks, it looks like you’re stuck with an English interface.
That can be pretty annoying once you have your computer’s system in Japanese, your browser in Japanese, your Kindle in Japanese, your smartphone and iPod interface in Japanese. This doll even worked out how to get the back end of this site into Japanese.
So it’s kind of ironic to have Anki, your biggest single Japanese learning tool (after VLC for anime, of course – that’s easy to put into Japanese), staring at you in English every day.
Fortunately, even though there is no obvious way to do it, and you have to use a slightly scary hack, it can be done.
How to Change Anki’s Language: Step by Step
1. Sync and quit Anki. If you don’t have an account to sync to, you are best advised to get one (they’re free).
2. OK. Here’s the scary bit. Read this carefully before you do anything.
What you have to do is get rid of Anki’s preferences file.
On a Windows system you will find this at:
On a Mac you will find it at:
But don’t delete the file. Rename it to, say, prefsold.db. That way if something goes horribly wrong you can go back to your original prefs file. You really are best advised to make copy the of entire Anki folder in a folder other than Documents. This is probably not necessary in most cases but it makes sure you are absolutely safe.
3. Restart Anki. It will start by asking you your language. Annoyingly, you don’t get the chance to change it at any other time, which is why you had to do this.
Anki will insist on syncing. Depending how big your decks are and how much audio you use (I use a ton with my Dolly Sentences Method), it can take a while.
4. Don’t panic. Once this is complete, everything may be all right but it may also not be. When I got to this point, my Anki interface language was in Japanese but my Japanese-named decks were suddenly in English. Anki had reverted to a very old state with very old versions of my decks. I still don’t know why (I’m just a doll), but it just about scared the paint off me. I have a ton of self-made audio cards and I’d rather not lose them.
Don’t worry. I just synced again and everything was back to normal except in Japanese. Be sure to sync down, notup if you have to do a second sync. Anki won’t delete anything from your computer. But make sure you have the old prefs file to return to in case things do somehow get messed up.
This is how your Anki should now look:
I won’t talk you through the interface as you already know it. But if there’s anything in the screenshot you think might cause you a problem, make sure you make a note of it in your English version before you make the change. Going back is possible but probably not something you will be over-anxious to do!
Interestingly, if you are dabbling in J-J definitions this will give you a little push along the way. English definitions will feel decidedly out of place in your new all-Japanese Anki!
Can you learn Japanese free? Absolutely. We can show you how to get to native-level fluency without spending a single penny.
Let’s assume you have no resources at all other than a computer or a tablet (you are reading this after all). You can’t travel. You can’t buy anything. Can you learn Japanese to complete fluency?
Absolutely you can. We’ll explain how.
It will be hard work, but any method by which you really learn Japanese, free or otherwise, is hard work, even if you spend fortunes on it. The methods we recommend have the advantage of being fun as well.
The best way to learn Japanese, or any language, is immersion. This is how children learn. But can you have Japanese immersion without living in Japan?
The answer to that is yes. The internet has made it possible. Ironically enough many learners who do live in Japan find it difficult or impossible to have Japanese immersion. This is because they are often teaching English and living in a heavily English-language environment in Japan. You could well find that your chances of Japanese immersion are better outside Japan than living there.
So if you want to learn Japanese free, how do you go about this?
Using the power of the internet it is absolutely possible to immerse yourself. YouTube is full of Japanese material. You really don’t need to watch any English media at all if you don’t want to. I don’t.
You can fill your iPod with Japanese songs and stories and anime soundtracks. Hukumusume is a really good source of Japanese stories both written and downloadable audio.
You can and should fill your ears with Japanese all the time. If you need to concentrate on something, turn it down, not off. Only when you really need to concentrate very hard do you have to stop the flow of Japanese completely.
Learn Japanese Free: how to get started
Maybe you don’t know any Japanese, or only a very small amount. Is it going to help filling your head with sounds you don’t understand?
There are different views on this but my view is “probably not”. You need to find a way to get a foothold in Japanese before you start. But don’t worry. You can still learn Japanese free. This doesn’t have to cost anything.
These techniques will guide so that you will be able to immerse yourself in Japanese and build your understanding step by step.
Thinking in Japanese
Japanese immersion isn’t just about reading and hearing Japanese. It is also about communicating in Japanese and thinking in Japanese. There is only one way to learn Japanese. You only learn a language by using it. Everything else is just learning about the language.
This means doing the things you used to do in English in Japanese. Watching movies, reading books/manga, playing games etc. It also means communicating with others in Japanese, and thinking to yourself in Japanese. And outer communication is the key to to inner thoughts.
This is the aspect of learning Japanese that most online, lone-learner techniques ignore. And it is very important. Language is a means of communication. The mind does not process input-only language as “real language”. You need to be using language to communicate thoughts and develop relationships before your “linguistic mind” can start firing on all cylinders.
Fortunately we have you covered there too. The Kawaii Japanese Forums are there for people to talk about Japanese or anything else, play RPGs or word games, or do anything else they want in Japanese. It is an easy stress-free, friendly way to ease yourself into the waters of Japanese communication. And (as you probably guessed) they’re free.
The Forums are the perfect bridge to get you across the psychological barrier between feeling Japanese as a “foreign language” and feeling it as something you actually live.
Learn Japanese Free – or very cheap
You probably have an iPod, phone or some kind of MP3 player already. But what if you don’t? Can you still learn Japanese free?
We can’t recommend a way of getting a free MP3 player, but you can get a cheap Chinese player on eBay or a local fleamarket for well under $5. It may lack some bells and whistles but if you want to keep the flow of Japanese into your ears and listen to stories and songs, even the cheapest player will do the job.
If you have a little more money to spare you could (if you don’t already have one) get a Nintendo DS. This game machine is “obsolete” so you can buy it very cheaply. It has a ton of excellent Japanese games with a lot of text, often with furigana. Unlike its more recent sister the 3DS it is not region-locked, so you can buy second-hand Japanese games cheaply on eBay or elsewhere.
But assuming you can’t even afford this, you absolutely can learn Japanese free.
Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.
If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.
To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.
Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.
Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.
Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.
People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.
Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.
Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.
How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online
Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:
1. Get a guide to basic Japanese grammar. This can be one of the standard textbooks like Genki 1 and 2 (I used them). If you don’t have money to spend, you can use Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide; it’s free and very good.
2. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.
3. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.
Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.
3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?
How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But really loved. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.
Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.
Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?
OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:
(Preferably some basic kanji) The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no Plain present Plain past (-ta form) Plain negative Plain past negative -te form Masu form Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative
All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it.
With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.
You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.
You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.
Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.
Building a core Japanese vocabulary, and then building out from it, is the biggest single task in learning Japanese. Bigger than kanji.
It’s the same in any language. The vocabulary of a language is vast. And if you go about learning it in the wrong way the results can be devastatingly disappointing.
What are the wrong ways to build a core Japanese vocabulary? More importantly, what is the right way?
The wrong way in my view is to use a vocabulary list. Any vocabulary list. And this includes things like the Anki Core 2000, core 6000 and core 10,000 decks. In the very beginning you might find a very basic word-list useful. But lists of any size are a mistake.
Let me explain why by example.
I have seen people on Forums ask questions like “How many words do I need to know before I can read simple manga?” These people diligently work through Core Japanese Vocabulary Anki decks, often building up to the “magic” 10,000 words over many months.
And then what happens? They pick up a manga or a light novel. And they have to look up every other word. It isn’t a lot better than before they did the “core Japanese Vocabulary” deck. At this stage (and I have seen this happen pretty often) they become seriously disillusioned and wonder if they haven’t wasted their time. And who can blame them?
What went wrong? Why didn’t it work? What should they have done?
The Myth of “Learning Japanese”
The big problem here is part of a bigger problem. The myth of “learning Japanese”. The idea that you prepare and prepare by “study” and then one day you know enough to actually use Japanese and do something fun.
The trouble is, that day keeps receding into an ever more distant future.
Let’s get back to vocabulary and see how it works:
“Maybe if I’d done 15,000 Core Japanese Vocabulary words instead of 10,000 I would be able to read that book”.
I hate to be the party pooper here, but no, you wouldn’t.
Because everything you encounter in Japanese has a different vocabulary. The core Japanese vocabulary decks are actually crafted around newspaper frequency. They may help you if you want to read newspapers. I don’t know. I don’t read newspapers in English. I personally think that trying to read newspapers while you are still trying to acquire a core Japanese vocabulary is trying to run before you can walk.
So let’s take a book as an example. A simple novel series (something at a level you can reasonably hope to tackle). You look at it. You are appalled (if you have been slogging at some core Japanese vocabulary list). You need to look up every other word.
Don’t be appalled (especially if you came here first and haven’t poured months into core Japanese vocab lists!) because:
This is your “core list”.
Don’t worry about abstract core Japanese vocabulary lists. Start right where you mean to go. Pick a book appropriate to your level and start reading it. It works with Japanese subtitled anime too. That is where I got most of my vocabulary.
“But I need to look up every other word.”
Yep. And so you would (to your horror) if you’d done a huge “core Japanese vocabulary list”.
Start reading. Look up all the words you need. Enter them into your Anki.
“Isn’t that a major pain?”
Not more than slogging through an abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”. Well, a little more because you have to make your own deck. Fortunately for you (unlike we ol’ timers who went before you) the process is now completely automated. Rikaisama will allow you to add words to Anki with a single keypress. Don’t neglect this wonderful gift.
Now you can save yourself the trouble of setting up your Anki with Rikai and making all those single keypresses when you look up a word
You can use a pre-made core Japanese vocabulary deck. But when you’ve worked through that, however many months it takes, as soon as you start on a book, you’ll still have to look up a large number of the words anyway. Lazy people take the most trouble!
Because here’s the thing. Every new thing you encounter in Japanese has its own vocabulary. There is such a thing as “core Japanese vocabulary” of course. But it is big and a lot of it does vary with what area you are dealing with.
So if you start with something you actually want to do: an anime series, a children’s novel or manga (preferably part of a long series) you will start learning the vocabulary that belongs to that area. Of course, a lot of this will be “pure core Japanese vocabulary” and useful anywhere. But just learning “abstract core” doesn’t prepare you to read any particular thing. At the end of any abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”, as soon as you try to take your knowledge into any real area, you are barely literate. And this is so disillusioning.
But learning organically you grow into what you are reading. As you read on, you find you are looking up less and less (in the first book or first dozen or so anime episodes). When you read more in the same series you find you are looking up still less. When you have finished the series, if you pick something close in genre and type you will still be on pretty firm ground. And all the time your Japanese vocabulary is growing.
And, with the possible exception of the very early “look up every other word” stage (but I enjoyed that, and you might too, especially if you aren’t already burnt out with “core Japanese vocabulary lists”). You are having fun. And you aren’t “studying Japanese” or “practising” Japanese. You are using Japanese, even if rather slowly at first.
And here’s the most important thing:
The fact that every area of Japanese, every genre, every writer even, has a particular vocabulary, that is so devastating to “core Japanese vocabulary deck” users who spent so long “preparing” to read Japanese…
That is your best friend.
Why? Because as you read your book, or watch your Japanese subtitled anime, and then the series, and then more of the genre, you keep encountering the same vocabulary. And that cements it far, far better than Anki alone or any abstract list.
I do still recommend Anki, but you will get through it much faster this way because the words will be cemented in by real regular use, not just artificial flash-cards. You will learn the “pure core” words because you encounter them anywhere.
But the truth I believe is that there is no such thing as a core 10,000. The language’s true core isn’t that big, but its peripheral-core or penumbra-core is much bigger, and is dependent on exactly what area you are in.
Is this worrying? Not really. You will pick up the true core. You will be able to handle most regular conversation (provided you work on output as well as input) and you will gradually grow your peripheral-core vocabulary by using Japanese and enjoying it.
Not by doing some artificial “preparation stage” and continually looking at your watch wondering “how much of this do I need before I can…”
Because the answer to that question tends to be very disappointing.
How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: Ninja Tips
So let’s get down to practicalities.
What are the best practices for learning Japanese vocabulary organically?
1. Choose something at your level. It can be anime. The Dolly Anime Method is ideal for this. It can be manga or books. But don’t try to run (at least not too fast!) before you can walk. Choose something reasonably appropriate to your current Japanese “age”.
2. Preferably choose a long series. That way you can get used to its vocabulary and learn a lot of words by encountering them often. This supplements your Anki with valuable organic exposure. The old Heidi anime, for example, has around 50 episodes and subtitles with furigana. I wish I’d found it earlier!
3. Pop new words into Anki using the automated method built into Rikaisama. Some people manage without Anki by pure repeated exposure. It depends how your mind works, but I think Anki is good for most people. However, repeated exposure will make things go much smoother, quicker and deeper than “raw” Anki.
4. Use mnemonics if you need them. More about this in the linked article. Don’t be afraid of mnemonics in learning vocabulary. They have a long history in classical Western scholarship. They “pin” words into place in your mind and fall away when you no longer need them. But they can really help with new words.
5. Learn Kanji with words. This is really an article in itself but I mention it here. Don’t try to “learn kanji” in the abstract, but do learn them along with the words you encounter. Break them down into their components and make little stories for them (unless you don’t need to. Some folks I know are visual-kanji wizards. Lucky them!) Either way, kanji are vital to Japanese vocabulary. They may look scary but they are really little darlings and will soon become your friends. Believe it or not, they make Japanese vocabulary much easier in the long run.
6. Don’t go overboard with Anki. You don’t need to enter every unknown word even though you will be entering a lot at first. But don’t choke yourself. Use judgement and avoid words that are not likely to recur much. Remember that Rikaisama also conveniently includes word frequency information. You shouldn’t get number-bound but it is a guideline to bear in mind (as is the likelihood of a word to reappear in the material you are reading). You will pick up some words without Anki.
All right. You’re good to go. If you have comments or questions, pop them below. I’ve probably forgotten something! Also if you’re hitting problems with this method, don’t be afraid to ask. I have done (and continue to do) it myself and helped others with it. I am happy to help you too.
With this method you can build a core Japanese vocabulary smoothly, organically and enjoyably.
1. They don’t want to. In my view this is the best reason not to. In fact, it is the only good reason not to.
I “know some French”, as people (wrongly in my view) say. But it is not my default language or one of my default languages. Why? Because I am not in love with French. To me it is a foreign language. It is not my language. Japanese is my language. English is just the language I happen to know well.
I can read books in French, slowly, if I have to, but I can’t hold much of a conversation. I wouldn’t say I “know French” at all. I only know about French. And that is where I am happy to be with French. If that is where you are happy to be with Japanese, that’s fine. You don’t need the rest of this article.
2. They feel uncomfortable in Japanese and want to return to “real language” as soon as they have stopped practising it. Mostly they don’t say, or even explicitly think this, but actually it is what is happening.
This is the second biggest reason after 1, and I strongly suspect that all the other reasons are largely rationalizations of this.
English (if you are a native English speaker) feels like “real language”. Anything else feels like a sort of game. That is why the internet is full of sites talking about Japanese in English.
There seem to be endless people who are genuinely fascinated by Japanese and sometimes quite advanced in it who still return, as a matter of course, to “real language” (English) in order to talk about their enthusiasm for Japanese.
Now if you already fall into category 1, this is quite natural and proper. I don’t talk about French in French either. But if you are serious about making Japanese your language, if you are serious about learning Japanese and not just learning about Japanese, you must overcome this first and most serious barrier.
This means you have to:
Step outside your English comfort zone and
Create a new comfort zone in Japanese
And, of course, at first the Japanese zone won’t feel comfortable at all. Making it comfortable — making Japanese the (or a) default language that you actually use, and not a foreign language that you “practise” — is largely a matter of changing your perspective and getting used to Japanese as a (or the) primary means of communication.
3. They are afraid of making and/or hearing mistakes.
As I said, I believe this is to a large extent a rationalization of 2. If you fall into category 1, you don’t need excuses. Embrace it, as I do with French. But if you really want to make Japanese your language, you need to be aware of the problems caused by 2. So let’s break 3 down into some of its sub-departments:
A) I am embarrassed about my poor Japanese
This can be a good reason for using it among non-native speakers. We are all learning and happy to learn together. Embarrassment has to do with seeing Japanese as “a language”. One can retreat back into the “safe haven” of English. But if one is establishing zones where Japanese is the only language, then you just have to manage it, mistakes and all.
Small children make mistakes all the time. What do they do? Cheat back into a language they know better? They can’t. They don’t have one. They just have to ganbaru. And if we are serious about this, so do we.
B) But won’t this cement my mistakes and make them permanent?
In one word, no. In five words, only if you let it.
If you are continually imbibing Japanese material, you will keep learning. All of us can look back on what we wrote in Japanese six months ago and squirm a bit at how awkward and unnatural it was. Just the way you might squirm at baby videos of yourself. We are all growing children. And gosh we can be at that bashful age at times!
But we are growing. And let me add a very important thing:
You do learn by your mistakes. What? Even when no one is correcting them? Absolutely. You can hear a particular speech form a dozen times (in anime, manga, books etc) and still not get it right when you try to use it.
But when you have tried using it, you become aware of the problems surrounding it. Next time you encounter it, you will hear/read it much more clearly and be thinking “Ah, that’s how to say it properly”. In fact, you will be doing just what small children do.
Input alone will not teach you these things. You also need output experience, however flawed, to make you aware of the issues and teach you to listen for the right things. Now, every time you encounter this speech form it will be consolidating your knowledge and comfort with it in a way that would not have happened if you hadn’t tried to output it.
Input and output are inextricably intertwined in real language. One in isolation will not make language become natural. Textbooks and classes know this and try to compensate with book exercises and stilted “conversation practice” that is kept nice and sterile and mistake-free by following the book.
But if you want to make Japanese your language, you have to step outside these artificial arenas and start getting your hands dirty with real use.
Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are part of the learning process.
C) If I am interacting with non-Japanese people in Japanese won’t I be learning unnatural ways of speaking?
This is a small problem but nowhere near as big as the problem of not using your Japanese. If you have plenty of native input (whether people, anime, novels, games, television or what), you will learn. Having Japanese moving around in your head helps you to learn. Even incorrect things help you to learn. Learning loves to have something to “stick to”. That is how the mind works.
Part of the reason people can, and often do, study so much and never really become proficient in a language (even if they can pass exams) is that the language is locked away in the little “study” compartment of the mind rather than being a part of life.
This is far, far more dangerous to your Japanese than learning wrong things. A senpai who has passed JLPT1 and is fluent tells me that her breakthrough came largely because she talked only Japanese with her German roommate. Did she hear a lot of bad Japanese? Certainly. But her mind was working in Japanese a lot of the time.
Mistakes are not some fatal disease. They pass if you give them a chance to. They sound funny to you after a while, as you grow in Japanese.
But guess what? You don’t grow in Japanese unless you are in Japanese to start with.
Japanese is like swimming. You can read about it and take dry-land instruction and play in the shallow end with water wings till the cows come home; but you won’t really start to learn it till you dive right in and get wet.
The idea of learning to think in Japanese—actually switching one’s “inner monologue” from English to Japanese—is one I have been thinking about and working with for some time.
I have read advice on this, which essentially boils down to making yourself say the things you normally say to yourself in Japanese. Like “what a nice day”, or “where did I put that pencil?”
Eventually, because the mind is a creature of habit, Japanese will begin to dethrone English as your default means of thinking.
That is the theory and, given a lot of determination, I think it works. But it is possible to make the process much easier and more effective.
Let us just think things a little further and wonder to what extent does one actually have an inner monologue? In English or Japanese?
Having an inner monologue to a large extent rests on being alone. If you are in company you say what you think to those you are with. If you are alone you say it to yourself. Maybe.
We all work differently, so I can only talk about my own experience. I am an extravert and a person to whom communication is a paramount need, even though circumstances lead me to mostly live the life of a hikikomori (sometimes it is hard being a doll in a human world).
My word-world revolves around communication. When I think things in words it is usually because I am thinking in terms of communicating them. Otherwise I tend to think in a vague non-verbal kind of way.
Now when I say “thinking in terms of communicating them” I don’t mean that I am necessarily going to communicate them. Often I am not. But I am thinking them in words with a view to their potential communication. What I might have said if such-a-person was there. How I might tell the story. How I might blog it. If I used Facebook, I would probably think what I might post there. Etc.
You might state things in a somewhat witty or sardonic manner. You are not trying to amuse yourself. You are saying what you might say to amuse someone in your circle if they were present.
Now you may not be the same. I don’t know how other people are. But in my experience “inner monologue” insofar as it is really “monologue” (i.e. verbal) at all is actually potential outer dialogue.
In practice—at least if you are anything like me—this has important effect on how (and whether) we can change our thinking to Japanese.
When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in English, I think in English. When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in Japanese, I think in Japanese. It really is as simple as that.
The “brute force” method of making myself say things to myself in Japanese is really doing it the hard way, and it only lasts as long as I am actually thinking about it. But if I think in terms of expressing it, say, on the Kawaii Japanese Forums, or to someone with whom I habitually communicate in Japanese, it comes out in Japanese naturally.
Language is made for communication, and communication (at least in my case) determines our language. Even in English, we will think differently, make different kinds of joke, be more or less formal, depending on what kind of person we are (vaguely) thinking of speaking to when we verbalize to ourselves.
Mentioning the Kawaii Japanese Forums sounds a little like self-advertisement, but it isn’t as if we make any money out of them, and no one else seems to be doing anything similar. They absolutely aren’t the only way of doing this, and it is good if you have various people that you regularly speak to/correspond with in Japanese only. In my experience that only is important because it determines Japanese as the pure default language in that relationship. When I think about A-san I think in Japanese.
Set up as many such situations as possible. Then when you find your inner monologue is in the wrong language, instead of thinking “I must think in Japanese”, just think of speaking to A-san about whatever you are thinking, or posting it on the Forum (even if it is something you might not actually post). If you have Japanese-only Twitter, think about tweeting it. Or do. (I don’t tweet a lot myself, but if you tweet at me in Japanese, I’ll tweet back). But you don’t have to do it. You just need to gear your mind into that communication-sphere, which is Japanese.
But for that, of course you must establish Japanese communication-spheres. And keep them regularly active. If you don’t know where to start with that, I really do recommend popping along to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. And join in! Really, we welcome newcomers of every level, and we are all learning, so don’t feel shy. えんりょしないで！
Language is communication. Communication is people. Inner monologue is outer dialogue internalized. Thus (certainly in my case and very possibly in yours) the key to inner monologue is outer dialogue.
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?”
“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 overallcomprehension.
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.