What’s not to love about anime?
Anime has it all: high-quality animation, fantastic soundtracks, stirring voice-acting and educational potential.
Yes, you read the last one right!
Many learners of the Japanese language find anime to be a helpful resource to boost their studies. A love of anime may even be the primary reason why they sought to learn the language in the first place. It’s a motive that’s becoming more commonplace as the unique world of Japanese cartoons and animation continues to attract fans from all over the world.
But is it truly possible to learn the Japanese language, in all its intricacies, just from watching anime? It certainly seems like a dream come true for any anime lover, but is there a catch to it all?
Can You Learn Japanese from Anime?
Anime is a great supplement to your Japanese studies. Watching anime while already possessing a degree of Japanese knowledge is a fun, engaging way to test and enhance your existing skills. This method can also encourage your own advancement in the language, as learning more Japanese will make it easier for you to watch and enjoy your favorite shows without guidance. Indeed, the express usage of anime as a learning tool has been studied in a variety of ways and results exist to show the benefits of doing so.
On the other hand, it’s not the best idea to have anime be your primary Japanese learning resource. In general, this is a much more difficult feat due to a number of limiting factors.
Firstly, while anime may help to familiarize you with Japanese sounds, it won’t necessarily go out of its way to boost your vocabulary skills. You can quickly get used to the phonetics of the language by just listening to what’s being said, but connecting the sounds to meanings and subsequently memorizing such connections will require work on your end. Subtitles that provide translations may not fulfill this role as much as you’d like them to, as certain liberties are often taken with these translations to make them more accurate than precise in capturing the original meaning.
This leads to the second potential pitfall of depending on anime for Japanese learning: Even if you do learn some vocabulary from anime, it’s probable that you will gain “broken” comprehension. You may be able to pick up and understand bits and pieces of a given line, but not be able to comprehend it as a united whole. While this is common for beginner learners who are still coming to grips with all the language’s intricacies, this isn’t a good habit to foster when you’re trying to genuinely progress in your Japanese fluency.
Lastly, the Japanese used in anime tend to have their own unique quirks that, when utilized in real-life conversation, can sound strange or off-putting. In fact, they can be dead giveaways to native speakers that a learner has garnered their Japanese skills from anime. When starting any language, you want to learn it in its standard form to get the most use out of it; afterwards, you may then branch out to learn the less common forms of the language. Anime Japanese may end up doing more harm than good to your language skills if you don’t pay attention to what is and isn’t standard or “acceptable” speech.
However, all these reasons don’t negate the real possibility that, when utilized properly, anime can still improve your Japanese skills while also increasing interest in the language and culture. So what are some methods that you can use to make a learning experience out of an anime’s runtime?
How to Learn Japanese with Anime
There are plenty of fun challenges to be had when learning from any kind of audiovisual entertainment. With how engrossing anime can get, you should keep in mind a few things so that your learner’s brain remains in action.
Know when to include or remove subtitles
Subtitles in anime are crucial for at-the-moment comprehension, but with focused attention, you may treat subtitles as your primary method of memorizing Japanese vocabulary and their meanings. The same Japanese phrases can be consistently given the same subtitles, which will help to ingrain them into your knowledge bank.
However, sometimes subtitles can become too much of a crutch. It’s great to have translations so you could enjoy the anime at a better capacity, but constantly relying on them to make sense of what you hear won’t really aid your progression in the Japanese language.
Many anime viewers desire the ability to simply watch a show without having to have their eyes trained on the small text on the bottom. After all, being so honed in on the subtitles makes it easy to miss all the actual fun stuff going on above. Why not put that wish to practice? Try to watch parts of an anime without subtitles to see how much you can understand. You can then take note of what words you did or didn’t catch, and study the latter. This way, you’ll be actively engaged in learning and practicing your listening comprehension skills.
There are other ways to utilize subtitles, as well. Instead of English translations, you can use Japanese subtitles. That way, you’ll not only be practicing your listening skills, but also your Japanese reading and writing skills. With more aspects of the language involved, this challenging method can lead to a pretty comprehensive beef-up of your Japanese.
And don’t exclude songs, either! Anime song lyrics, along with their subtitled translations, can be very useful for speaking practice (aided by the catchy nature of the tunes themselves). In fact, since songs utilize a lot of repetition of phrases and words, it’s possible that song lyrics will be the first things you learn and lose the need for subtitles for!
Watch an episode at least two times
(Or, just watch the second season of Haruhi.)
For any episode of anime you decide to learn from, you should realize that simply watching it once won’t be enough for you to glean much language knowledge. You’re bound to get distracted by something; anime is, after all, meant to be entertainment.
For the first viewing, watch an episode of anime for what it is: exciting, thrilling content. Enjoy and revel in any impressive eye-candy animation, well-acted dialogues, earworm-inducing music and so forth. This is your time to be a casual viewer and consumer.
For the second viewing, or whenever you’ve had enough time to properly geek out, you must now enter learner mode. All visual and narrative distractions have been accounted for, so now your priority is to pull apart as much educational material as possible by focusing on and dissecting the spoken Japanese in a technical manner. Frequently pause and rewind segments of an episode to make sure you can get what you need.
It’s possible that you may have started an anime after having read its precedent manga version, which can help you more quickly utilize an animated episode for learning since you already know the plot. Actually, you may also find great Japanese-learning potential with manga that can benefit your consumption of anime derived from them.
Watch out (and avoid as needed) unique speech quirks
If you’re learning Japanese with “Pokémon,” you wouldn’t be focusing on all the repetitive sounds and self name-calls from the friendly creatures, delightful as they may be.
Many times, certain characters in anime will use a speech pattern or dialect unique to them. While this may boost their charm and popularity among viewers, such a trait may prove to be a distraction for your learning purposes.
Speech quirks can include a myriad of things, such as the use of specific regional dialects, the addition of words to the end of phrases, repetitive filler words, the referring of oneself in third-person and so on. Most of these habits detract from the standard Japanese that you should be learning. It won’t do for you to pick up these traits as they can interfere with both proper comprehension and speaking of the language.
Here’s a few examples from different anime of the kinds of speech quirks you should be wary about.
As soon as a character shows up speaking in a clearly non-standard manner, keep tabs on them and be wary of utilizing their speech as learning material. Of course, once you’ve gained enough confidence and skill in Japanese, you can revisit them later to study how their manner of speaking serves their character.
Have a translator or dictionary handy
Subtitles are great for you to generally understand and enjoy the content of an anime, but they’re not 100% foolproof. Depending on who provides the subtitles, you can get different interpretations of the same spoken lines, and these interpretations may include oversimplifications or subjective elements in an effort to better reach the non-Japanese audience.
Therefore, you should keep a Japanese translator or dictionary handy with you so that you can look up specific words and get more in-depth info about them. You may end up being surprised at the actual meanings you discover from the vocabulary heard in anime, and you can then see how the subtitles may have tweaked them. Some dictionaries can do a lot of heavy work in providing word breakdowns, such as including alternate meanings based on context, etymologies, guides on how to write the word in all three Japanese systems and so forth.
With such a translator, you can go beyond the filtered nature of subtitles to better understand and appreciate what you hear. As a tip, you should try to find a translator or dictionary that can also take Romaji input if you’re unsure how to write with Japanese characters.
Actively listen for familiar and common vocabulary
In the world of language learning, repetition is memory’s foremost friend. The more you hear a word or phrase, the better you’re able to remember it until you reach the golden point of non-active recall. Active listening is the key skill here; you really have to hone your ears in order to pick up individual elements that make up a given phrase. In this way can you become familiar with and grow to learn Japanese vocabulary from audiovisual media such as movies, TV shows, and yes, anime.
Regardless, anime can be very good at teaching you vocabulary and the context they’re used in, and if you actively listen, you can pick up a lot of repeated words and phrases. It’s highly likely that you already know a number of words that you can individually pluck out from a character’s speech, even if they’re spoken rapidly. That’s already a great start, and now you can start intently listening for any other words that pop up frequently. Become acquainted with them, learn and understand their meaning based on their usage and work to store them into your memory bank so you can move on from them to focus on other words of lesser frequency.
As mentioned earlier, anime can be great for learning vocabulary in bits and pieces. However, one of the biggest pitfalls that can happen when learning Japanese from anime is a lack of grammar education.
Without grammar knowledge, your ability to make sense of any complete phrase can be filled with gaps, all of which can open into an abyss of misunderstanding and confusion. Japanese grammar is indeed quite unique and trying to learn it strictly from watching anime will be difficult if you have no basic foundation to stand upon.
That being said, with focus and some existing vocabulary knowledge, you can learn some of the workings of Japanese grammar via sentence deconstruction. Analyze a spoken phrase’s word order and where elements such as pronouns, verbs and objects are placed. You’ll probably need the help of subtitles and translations as you essentially treat sentences as configured puzzles to pick apart.
This isn’t an easy feat and it can seem tedious, but with enough practice, you can likely harness the fundamentals of Japanese grammar. This in turn can make you better comprehend what you hear without constantly depending on subtitles to make sense of things for you.
Be wary of impolite speech
We all have our fears when attempting to talk with a native speaker in their language, whether it’s the anxiety of being misunderstood or the worry of saying indecent things without our knowing.
Unfortunately, it’s a common problem that those who learn Japanese from anime end up unintentionally using rude, insulting or overly informal speech, and any of these can be a big no-no when you take into consideration how much weight Japanese culture puts on proper expression of respect. The dilemma often happens because the context in which the offensive speech was used wasn’t understood within the anime, which can occur readily since not all nuances and dynamics of a scene are explicitly explained. Moreover, plenty of anime feature characters that choose to forgo standard or expected language conventions that follow basic courtesy, leading them to naturally speak in an informal or impolite manner (such as in this example from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure). Constantly seeing them act in such a manner within their world can make their behavior seem commonplace.
So when you’re watching anime, be attentive to speech that includes words that you wouldn’t want to use in everyday conversation, especially if said conversation was with a stranger or someone who should be spoken to with a degree of respect. The subtitles can make clear what the offensive words are, but rude characters are also often overt in their lack of manners and desperate needs for attitude-checks, and other characters’ reactions to them will be your cues that there was some break of decorum. If you’re ever unsure, then do some quick research to assuage or confirm your worries.
Keeping in mind all these tips when watching anime will help you to make it as much an academic experience as an entertaining one. However, if it’s your first time attempting to learn Japanese from audiovisual content, then the feat may be quite challenging. Luckily, you can get some guided practice with the use of FluentU.
FluentU’s diverse catalog helps you to learn the Japanese language as it’s naturally spoken in different contexts while at the same time providing cultural insight. Much of the media would be the kind watched by real Japanese natives, so of course, you’ll also be able to find anime-related content.
With its built-in learner functions, FluentU works to take off much of the burden that comes with language learning. Each video comes with interactive transcripts, and these aren’t just your average subtitles. With a single tap of a word, you can access its definition, audio pronunciation, supporting illustrations and usages in example sentences.
Review is also an essential part of language learning, and with Japanese, you can’t get enough of it. With FluentU, you can utilize the provided vocabulary lists for videos or create your own personal list of any new and interesting words you learned from videos. You can also put to practice your knowledge retention with fun quizzes that test your Japanese in-context. Based on your progress, FluentU can then offer other videos for you to continue progressing in your studies.
If you’re interested, check out FluentU Japanese and try out the program’s free trial via the website or as a downloadable app available for both iOS and Android devices!
So now you have an idea of what to do in order to make the most out of anime. Now comes the inevitable question: what kind of anime would work best as a Japanese learning resource?
How to Choose the Best Anime to Learn Japanese
There are a number of features you can scrutinize when deciding on what kind of anime to use for your Japanese studies, whether you want to learn from full anime series or from animated movies. Here are a few factors you should consider before you make your choice:
You can expect to learn certain Japanese from an anime based on its genre. The genre, or the category in which the subject matter of a show largely falls under, often serves as your first point of reference. It can help you determines your choice to include or exclude a series or movie from your watch-list. The genre may also indicate the kind of vocabulary you might encounter in the anime.
Some genres, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, craft their own fabricated vocabulary and use a lot of fanciful or technical language that probably won’t do much good for your learning. That doesn’t mean anime of those genres should be avoided, as they can still be useful, but it does mean you’ll probably have to be extra careful navigating through the kind of things you hear in the anime. Luckily, the non-Japanese or imagined terminology are often quite obvious to spot via subtitles or their pronunciations.
Other genres such as slice-of-life and drama are likely to have more “mundane” common Japanese that you would hear in real-life, as the worlds that are made under these categories often depict more normal, familiar circumstances. Thus, if you spot an anime of such a genre with an interesting enough synopsis, it may be a good idea to check it out as a potential learning resource.
Each anime has its own story to tell. Regardless of how ambitious or simple in narrative an anime aims to be, there will always be certain themes or messages to be sought from the plot. Being aware of what these are can also help you to expect how interactions and dialogues within the show will be carried out.
Think, for example, of an anime that chronicles a conflicted romance during a time of war. You can predict with reasonable confidence what you may hear within any given episode: impassioned exchanges between the lovers, stoic and lingo-heavy military conferences, quiet talks of doubt and loud proclamations of confidence.
So before you start watching an anime, be aware of what the anime may be attempting to portray within its story so that you can more readily keep up with the kinds of conversations that would occur. A glance of a plot synopsis, or even a review of the show, can help provide you with this insight. Of course, you wouldn’t really know what exactly an anime’s characters would talk about until you watch it, but your own familiarity with anime of similar narratives may serve to prepare you for what’s to come.
A good, dynamic cast of characters is often the primary reason why any viewer would remain thoroughly entertained and invested in a show, but characters may also be the reason why you would choose and stick with an anime for your learning purposes. They’re the ones doing all the talking, after all, but what kinds of things are they talking about?
A single glance at an anime’s cast will probably give you accurate expectations on how characters would interact, and thus, what kind of Japanese you would frequently hear. For example, an anime with high school main characters will probably contain a lot of conversations appropriate for real high-school teens. Meanwhile, a historical anime revolving around a royal family will probably contain more archaic and highly formal Japanese.
Depending on what aspect of Japanese you’re looking to learn, certain characters of certain anime can promise more consistent exposure to the style of speech or use of vocabulary of interest.
Even if an anime wants to be as popular with the crowd as it can be, creators know that a certain demographic will react best to the content. Target audiences formulate a lot of what can go on in an anime, language usage included.
Age together with gender are probably the most notable factors of the target audience. Japanese can be quite diverse in form. Depending on the main consumers of the content, the kind of Japanese used may differ quite dramatically. For example, anime catered towards young boys—known as the 少年 (しょうねん) demographic—may commonly feature the kind of language appealing to those individuals. On the other hand, anime catered towards an older female audience—known as 女性 (じょせい)—demographic would probably feature the kind of Japanese most familiar to young women.
Furthermore, target audiences can also affect the simplicity or complexity of the Japanese used in anime. You might assume that you should find something that caters to your age level, but if you’re a beginner in Japanese learning from anime, this kind of logic probably won’t work. Anime marketed for older audiences may feature more advanced Japanese that stretch beyond the basics of the language, so you wouldn’t want to start with those shows.
Don’t shy away from anime that’s targeted for younger audiences! Disney and Pixar films, plus much of today’s animated media, are clearly meant to be consumed by youngsters, but they’re still very much enjoyed by adults. The same goes for anime and Japanese kids’ cartoons in general; not only are children-oriented shows very fun and amusing, but they’re also likely to use much simpler Japanese, which would be of great benefit to less advanced Japanese learners.
Learning potential versus entertainment value
All of the above factors will play a role in helping you pick which anime can benefit your Japanese studies. The last aspect to consider that combines all these considerations will be an assessed balance between its educational opportunities and its entertainment appeal.
Let’s face it: Sometimes, less enticing options can prove to be more helpful in the long run. It’s the classic veggies versus junk food dilemma, and if you choose to learn Japanese with anime, you may run into the same conflict. Some shows may prove to be more educationally useful to you even if they aren’t to your taste.
That’s not to say you should avoid exciting anime in general for your studies. You should just be aware that they may work more as a source of amusement than a reliable resource that holds fast your learner’s retention. You definitely shouldn’t pick anime that will bore you; however, you should also be open to anime that would generally fall off your radar, as they may end up containing the Japanese material more relevant to you and can also better hone your focus and skills.
In the end, you may greatly appreciate such anime once you feel that you’ve gained both practice and improvement in your Japanese skills.
So what’s the power level of anime as an educational resource? Well, with the right mindset and focus, pretty darn high!
You surely have episodes to catch from your favorite shows, now see if you can turn them into your own fun Japanese study lessons!
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