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Japanese Learning Badassery Part II: Watch Anime But Actually Learn Japanese

This post is the second in a series about real Japanese practice out of fun Japanese things. Be sure to check out the first part, about using video games to study Japanese as well.

Anime is fun to watch, but surely it's a cornucopia of Japanese to be learned too, right?

If you’ve read anything on the internet about teenagers and young adults trying to learn Japanese, you’ve probably come across the story of the sad little anime fan—the weeaboo as he is also known—who attempts to learn Japanese, only to fail horribly. His excitement over anime leads him to believe he’d be good at learning Japanese; after all, when he finished watching all 500 episodes of One Piece he feels he has acquired a rather extensive vocabulary, such as the words 仲間 (nakama), 大丈夫 (daijobu), and 海賊 (kaizoku).

This reason this happens is simple: watching (english subtitled) anime will not help you improve your Japanese beyond getting used to hearing Japanese being spoken. Watching subtitled anime requires no effort on the learners part; in other words, there’s no resistance.

As I’ve said before, self-studying requires that you incorporate resistance into your reviews. In other words, you need to challenge yourself.

Watching anime in hard mode (AKA: resistance ON; subtitles OFF)

The first thing I should mention is that complete beginners should not try to learn a lot of Japanese from anime. It’s fun to pick up common words, and useful to learn various 相づち (aizuchi / filler words), but beyond that, I’m going to require the same prerequisites that I stated in my shadowing post:

  • Knowledge of Kana and basic Kanji
  • Decent Japanese grammar skills
  • At least a month or two listening to and understanding beginner-level Japanese. For example, after having gone through a level or two of Pimsleur Japanese.

To learn from anime, you need to set up a consistent study system where in which you’re not just watching anime—you’re learning from it. That means simply watching un-subtitled anime straight through is not particularly helpful: it’s too easy and quick. There’s no way to avoid actually spending the necessary study time.

Watch your anime with Japanese subtitles

Japanese subtitles are great things. You get to read and hear Japanese at the same time without any English interference. As a someone who (supposedly) isn’t completely fluent in Japanese, having the words written down will help with comprehension greatly. There’s a large collection of Japanese subtitles that can be found here. I’ll go with a personal favorite: Death Note.

Now let’s go over how I would go about studying:

1. Write down the Japanese sentence (from the subtitles). It’s important to write the sentence yourself even if you can just copy-paste it from your subtitle file: you’ll end up remembering more.

そんなことしたら、性格悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

2. If you want to study vocabulary, follow the same five-side flashcard procedure I’ve detailed before. To refresh your memory, here’s a sample card for 「性格」:

Side 1: 性格

Side 2: せいかく

Side 3: character; personality

Side 4: そんなことしたら、[性格]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

Side 5: そんなことしたら、[せ…]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

3. However, since this is an anime, you can also rip the audio using any recording program of your choice and use it in conjunction with your Japanese text. I used WireTap Anywhere to choose my video player as my input audio source, and recorded the audio to Audacity:

[audio https://sites.google.com/site/coldfrost/files/ryuk.mp3]

The test of your listening and speaking ability comes when you can repeat the sentence after you hear it without looking at the Japanese text—but you should look in order to see if you get the reading correct. Remember, there is no penalty for being unoriginal when learning Japanese. Even if you’re unoriginal, and are merely repeating, you’re correct. The point is to get yourself speaking in real Japanese rather than a strange mess of incorrect grammar and Japanese-sounding English words that beginners often find themselves using.

4. After you feel you’ve reviewed enough, such as making flashcards for all of the words you didn’t know, and after having gone through a good number of listen-and-repeat sentences as well, test yourself! Go back to the episode after a few days and watch it without subtitles. Hopefully you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll understand.

There’s no secret trick to any of this.

By using anime as your study material, you essentially turn your favorite episodes into your Japanese textbook. You have to create the study material yourself, but you’ll be better served in your learning process by doing so. While the Japanese in a good textbook will be no less valid than the Japanese in an episode of Death Note, hopefully you find anime more interesting so you feel actually interested in studying it.

I know that when I go through textbook sentences, while they’re not bad, they don’t exactly make me super-excited about Japanese either. However, as an anime fan, I’m able to vest more energy into studying because I enjoy it. And frankly, when I study something I enjoy, I’m much more efficient and I enjoy it much more.

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Using Video Games to Study Japanese: A Grandia Case Example

Alternate Title: How to be badass: get better at Japanese by playing video games while your friends are stuck in class using Genki I.

I’ll admit that the alternate title here is a little misleading: you might be able to become better than your friends, but simply playing your video game of choice isn’t going to do anything for you. You need to have a plan, and you need to follow it carefully and methodically. You might be playing a game, but you’re not playing around.

My Experiences Using Grandia to learn Japanese

Title screen from grandia—but you're not allowed to begin until you look up all the kanji!

The great thing about using video games to learn Japanese is that the video games that are going to contain the most text are RPGs, and many of these originate in Japan. So if you have a favorite RPG—think Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Age, Pokémon, etc—then a Japanese version is bound to exist. One that contains lots of text to read will obviously be better.

I personally love Grandia, so going through the Japanese version and trying to figure out what is being said is fun. There’s lots of text to read and the characters travel to a variety of places so the vocab will be varied. Plus, having gone through the original English version, I’m not completely lost on what to do. Here’s what you’ll need in order to effectively study from your video game of choice:

  1. The game.
  2. Your flashcard program of choice that supports multi-sided flashcards. A popular choice is Anki, although I’m personally partial to iFlash—it’s your choice in the end.
  3. If possible, a separate English translation of the Japanese text—one for Grandia can be found on GameFAQs, although they probably exist for many other games as well.
  4. Patience—you’re not playing the game normally this time around.

The search for the Sulfer Weed medicine begins!

Your task while playing is to essentially mine the game for all that it’s worth—jot down every sentence you think is useful and not overly convoluted with difficult or rarely-used words. Using the above screenshot as an example, let’s see how I would go about creating my flashcards:

1. Write down the sentence in Japanese.

苦しそう。。。

いま薬草を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。。。

If you’re not sure how to read a kanji so that you can enter it into your computer, you can search by kanji by handwriting or by kanji radical.

2. Know what the sentence means in English.

If you’re having trouble, the sentence may be too difficult for you at this point—you can save it for later after you’ve improved your grammar—or you can check your English translation for an idea.

3. Now you’re ready to build your flashcard. Here’s what I would use for the new unknown word 薬草:

Side 1薬草

Side 2: やくそう

Side 3: medicinal plants

Side 4: 苦しそう。。いま[薬草]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Side 5: 苦しそう。。いま[や…]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Multiple-sided flashcards gives me a wide variety of ways to go about studying. I could start by studying the sentence, doing Side 4 first by reading it out loud. If I don’t understand the key word I’m trying to study (I put it in brackets in case there’s more than one word in the sentence I might be studying), I’ll look at Side 3, the English meaning, to remind me. If I don’t remember the reading as well, I can also look at Side 2.

And when I want a bit more intensive practice after I get the meaning down, I could do a Side 5-2-1 review. That is, look at Side 5 first and try to recall the reading (Side 2), and after that, recall the writing of the kanji itself (Side 1).

There are many different ways you can choose to study your cards, but I believe combining these two methods—meaning you go over each card at least twice before you can count it as memorized—is very effective.

Words of warning

When playing through games with authentic Japanese text, you’re bound to run into a lot of words you don’t know—this is a good thing! However, don’t try and rush through studying by quickly creating cards and moving on; slowly work your way through the cards and the game so you’re actually learning.

There may be thousands of words you don’t know, so this isn’t going to be a fast process if you actually want to get something out of it. Going to fast leads to input overload, as I’ve discussed before. So take your time and enjoy learning Japanese! These techniques can be applied to anime and manga as well—so choose whatever medium you like best when studying.

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying, video games