Last month, I have read a few bloggers’ thoughts about watching Anime Raws, which got me thinking about a strange idea that some people have: learning Japanese just by watching Anime. While it can be beneficial to watch Anime without subtitles, I will also focus on some reasons why it’s a terrible idea to try to learn Japanese just by watching it. (Image Source)
Is Learning Japanese just from Anime even possible?
From several years of watching Anime with subtitles, I hardly learned anything except a few words. While some can argue that you can learn some of the words and phrases, it can only get you so far. It’s only when I started studying Japanese that I began to understand it. The problem I see with the idea of learning Japanese from Anime is for the fact that the translations are usually not accurate and that there are some things that get lost in translation. Even if you assume that the translation is correct, you will still have a hard time understanding because you will only know a handful of words, not the grammar and how each sentence is structured.
Here are some of the problems I see with this approach:
1. The kind of speech used in Anime is different from real life
If you completed beginner level Japanese, you should know that the first form of speech the teacher usually focuses on is polite. Polite speech is usually used when talking to strangers, acquaintances, coworkers and teachers. In contrast, casual or informal speech is usually used when talking to someone close to such as friends, family members and people who respect is not due such as children. Here are two examples of these forms of speech:
Polite form: 昨日由美さんに全部りんごを食べられましたっけ。(I seem to remember that all the apples were eaten by Yumi yesterday. Am I right?)
Casual (Short) form: 映画館で「花」という映画を見に行こう。(Let’s go see a movie called “Flower” at a movie theater.)
Another difference in the Japanese used in Anime is gender speech. Anime, Manga, Light Novels and video games tend to use this because these mediums exaggerate some aspects such as gender and emotions. However, in real life, this is rarely used at all (except for the moderately masculine and feminine speech in some cases). Because of this, people will think that it’s a part of normal speech and use it inappropriately. This might be interpreted as impolite, especially words used in male speech (男言葉). Because of this, gender speech is not taught at a beginner level, but rather at an intermediate level (my Intermediate Japanese textbook has a page on this.).
Examples of Gender Speech
あした雪が降るかしら。（I wonder if it will snow tomorrow.)
今日は冬のように寒いわ。(Today is cold like a winter day.)
一緒に明日の試験を勉強してくれないの？ (Would you like to study for tomorrow’s test together?)
教科書を借りないかい？(Do you want to borrow my textbook?)
2. Japanese is more than just conversation, but writing too!
Another flaw with the idea of using Anime to learn Japanese is for the fact that you will never learn the writing systems. In Japanese, ひらがな, カタカナ and漢字 is used, not romanji (ローマ字)! Since Japanese is a syllabary language (meaning each kana represents a syllable), knowing all three is essential. To me, Kana was easy to memorize after 1 month of memorization.
In addition, knowing Kanji (漢字, lit. Chinese Characters) is also important as it gives meaning to a word. While they look intimidating, if one knows all the radicals, which is parts that make up the character. For instance, the kanji for 男 (man) consists of 田 (rice patty field) and 力 (power). By knowing all the common radicals used in Kanji, 90% of the characters will be somewhat easier to understand. Also, flash cards are also useful to memorize them too.
3. You won’t fully understand honorific speech (敬語).
Another thing that you won’t understand by just watching Anime to learn Japanese is honorifics. This does not only consist of suffixes used for names, but also in honorific speech. There are two types, which you usually learn at an upper-beginner or intermediate level, the respect and humble form. Respect form is usually used to talk up the actions or state for the person you respect such as a teacher/professor or your boss. The humble form is used to humble your own actions to show respect to your superior. While I won’t go into further detail since I covered this previously, this aspect of the language along with honorifics can be difficult to master for the fact that it plays a big part in the language.
4. Let’s be honest, who actually learned Japanese and fully understand it just from watching Anime?
I think people will have a hard time understanding actual Japanese as one will only know a handful of words, some probably not that useful in everyday conversation. If anything, Anime is better suited for supplemental material once he/she has completed beginner or even intermediate level. Even so, once cannot expect instant gratification as learning any language requires some studying, practice and effort. While in class study will suit some people better since one will have conversation practice and a teacher to ask questions, there are a good number of online resources, tools and textbooks one can take advantage without taking classes. Personally, I used Genki I and II, Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, Lang8 and Anki (flash card program) for my self-study and I knew more of the language than I can learn just from Anime. Not only that, I learned some cultural aspects of Japan.
Does this mean that watching Anime without subtitles is pointless if you don’t know Japanese?
Absolutely not! Watching Anime without subtitles can allow one to appreciate the medium as a whole such as the animation and the music without getting distracted by the subtitles and English dubs. With some understanding of Japanese, one can experience Anime as its intended. The main reason I don’t watch Anime without subtitles is not because my listening comprehension for Japanese is weak, but I want to understand what I watched. Still, one can do this by watching the RAWs and then watch it with the subtitles to get the same effect. For me at least, I prefer playing video games as my supplemental resource since it’s a lot easier to find new vocabulary to learn.
What are your thoughts about watching Anime without subtitles? Should people really use Anime as a sole resource or one should learn it in class or through textbooks? Feel free to share your experiences.