How to Learn Japanese Vocabulary with Anime, Movies and TV: 11 Important Tips for Success
With just a little bit of structure, anyone can use their favorite anime, TV shows or movies to build Japanese vocabulary.
The process doesn’t have to be complicated or scary—you just need a little bit of discipline.
In fact, I use a simple process to learn Japanese vocabulary from these types of sources. Let’s check it out!
- Pick Your Show
- Build a Vocabulary List During the Show
- Effectively Use Your List to Learn from It
- Make It Part of Your Study Routine
Pick Your Show
It may sound easy, but this is the step many people screw up.
Should you pick a show or movie you absolutely love? A boring one that’s great for studying? Or something in between?
There’s a balance that must be struck, so here are some tips for finding the right show:
1. Stick to your level or slightly above your level
Some people choose shows that are too difficult. The problem with this is that short-term progress usually takes longer than you’d expect.
The result? People get discouraged and may even burn out.
But picking a show that’s too easy can have a similar effect. You may find the material super easy. Then it’s possible to get lazy or overconfident and become discouraged when faced with real-world situations or more difficult material.
So it’s best to pick something appropriate for your level. If you’re a beginner, for instance, appropriate shows may be kids’ cartoons, such as “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Grave of Fireflies.”
If you’re looking for appropriate anime, this ultimate guide on anime genres is the perfect place to start.
2. Try to find something entertaining and useful
Another common mistake is choosing shows strictly for their educational value. For example, some people may study news programs or documentaries because they offer a wealth of challenging vocabulary.
But if you don’t find the material entertaining, you’re less likely to immerse yourself in it, enjoy it and learn from it.
On the other hand, if you only choose shows based on how entertaining they are, you may be overwhelmed with useless or irrelevant vocabulary.
I love “Ghost in the Shell,” a hardcore science fiction anime. But it really doesn’t add much valuable vocabulary. Many of the words are technical, irrelevant or even made-up.
After all, how often are you going to say “cybernetic” in daily conversation?
The best shows are those based in the real world, since they offer common vocabulary you can immediately use the next time you talk to someone. Any show that takes place in the contemporary world, for example, is ideal. You’re more likely to come across mannerisms and vocabulary that people use in real life.
3. Do test runs of several shows
The right show can teach you a core of useful vocabulary, but don’t obsess over finding the one perfect show. The more you diversify your shows, the more you diversify your vocabulary.
Try to pick at least two or three shows that are useful and entertaining.
There are different recommendations about how much you should understand a show in order to get value from it. One person may tell you 50%, another 80% and someone else may say less. I prefer aiming for 50% or lower—the more words that you don’t know, the more time you’ll have to spend studying each scene.
Give each of your shows a test run first to see how much you understand. Then ask yourself if you’ll stick with them long enough to actually learn something.
Build a Vocabulary List During the Show
Okay, now that you’ve got your shows picked out, it’s time to learn Japanese! Here’s how I recommend doing it:
4. List down every new word
Make a vocabulary list while you’re watching and include every word you don’t know.
I personally don’t believe in such a thing as “over-stuffing” your brain, but if that worries you, cut out words you deem irrelevant—especially if you are in school.
Keep your list simple and straightforward. Write down the kanji and furigana on one side, and the English translation on the other.
And if you’re a beginner who’s afraid of kanji, don’t worry about memorizing the kanji. Learning kanji is a completely separate ballgame, but just writing them out will help ease your fear and can supplement your other studies.
5. Use an electronic dictionary or app
I used to look up words using an ancient Seiko. It’s an electronic dictionary intended for Japanese students, but it includes a variety of functions: a kanji dictionary, a Japanese-English dictionary, a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, an English-Japanese dictionary and even an English-English dictionary.
I’d look up and write the words on the fly, rather than pausing each time I come across a word I don’t know. This did mean lots of words were missed, so I had to rewatch episodes several times.
It’s a common problem for learners, but there are online tools to make the process faster. For example, FluentU is a program that shows you authentic Japanese clips based on your vocabulary. Instead of manually looking up each word, you can just click on any word in the interactive subtitles and access the definition right away, with video and sentence examples:
For each video, I usually compile new words into flashcards on the app for an instant vocabulary list.
Effectively Use Your List to Learn from It
Once you’ve got your vocabulary list, the next step is to study the words so you can actually remember and use them in the future. Here are just a few ways to learn from your list:
6. Re-watch and review
Every time you watch your show or movie, review your list before and after viewing.
You can go down the English or Japanese side of your list and try to guess the corresponding word to trigger your memory.
This gets you familiar with the new vocabulary. You can then rewatch the show, which will help you learn the words even more. Try to see if you can understand what’s happening in the show without checking your vocabulary list that much!
Another way to review your new words is by seeing them in different contexts. For example, you can plug them into an online dictionary like Jisho to see example sentences.
7. Take advantage of spaced repetition
Flashcards are a time-tested approach that will definitely help you learn vocabulary. To supercharge your flashcards, you can use spaced repetition, the ultimate technique for remembering vocabulary long-term.
Spaced repetition means you review words in specific time intervals—right before you’re about to forget them. For example, when you’re just starting out with a new word, you review it every day. But the more you remember it, the more you can space apart the reviews, until you can just review the word every few years without forgetting it.
Here’s how it works:
There are plenty of apps and tools that use spaced repetition with flashcards, so take advantage of them for remembering your vocabulary list!
Since the vocabulary list for an entire video can get long, I usually just pick five to ten vocabulary words per day and add those as flashcards.
8. Use the vocabulary in order to internalize it
If you want to take your learning a step further, then learn by using.
Creating sentences and paragraphs is one of the best ways to internalize words (or any other aspects of a language).
Design homework and extra credit for yourself. For instance, for every vocabulary item on your list, use it in a sentence. Or practice writing sentences that incorporate multiple vocabulary words. Have someone check the sentences for you.
Another way to dive deeper into the studies is to create kanji lists from the vocabulary items. Study kanji lists using flashcards, kanji apps or the technique I described above.
And that’s the whole process! Pretty easy, right?
Make It Part of Your Study Routine
When you do it right and impose a bit of structure, learning from Japanese shows can be an excellent way to boost your vocabulary vocabulary and practice your listening skills. And with a little extra effort, you can create your own homework and practice other skills, such as writing and speaking.
Before you know it, the new vocabulary will worm its way into your daily conversation and your other studies.
To make it sustainable, keep these in mind:
9. Stick to your program
Discipline is crucial to making progress. Part of the problem with using enjoyable shows to study is that you can get caught up in the show instead of studying.
The fastest way to learn is by sticking to your program. So if you need to motivate yourself to study—say, by rewarding yourself after the show—then do it. In other words, you have to turn studying Japanese into a habit:
10. Give yourself breaks
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Make sure that you don’t overwork yourself. Not every show should be a “study show.” It’s always important to guard against burnout.
If you find that using your favorite shows to study makes them less enjoyable, then consider studying from less interesting shows so you can keep enjoying the ones you love.
11. Focus on immediate goals
This mindset actually applies to all areas of studying, but it can come into play much more when studying from difficult shows.
Why? You’re frequently faced with how much you don’t know. That’s one reason it’s important to pick shows at the appropriate level.
If you keep comparing yourself to your end goal (such as understanding a news program), you’ll always be reminded that you aren’t there yet. So pick the right show and focus on immediate goals, such as learning a particular list.
A little bit of structure goes a long way, especially when you’re trying to teach yourself Japanese.
Apply these tips, and it’ll be fairly easy to use your favorite shows to build your vocabulary quickly and easily!