I personally think that one of the best ways of studying Japanese on your own is by using tv shows or movies that include subtitles. This can improve both your listening and reading abilities, while also introducing you to new vocabulary and sentence patterns. I also think that Netflix is one of the best resources for following the tips that I am about to lay out, although if you have other ways of obtaining videos and SRT subtitles (such as torrents), that can work as well.
The following tips don’t all need to be followed, but are simply to give you some suggestions on things that I find useful or effective. You can work out your own study regimen based on what works best for you.
Choose a show that you like
I think it’s important to choose a show that you actually enjoy, because you are going to be spending some time with it! You should also try to aim for something with dialogue that is around your level, but this isn’t as important as choosing something that you like. Even shows with the most difficult language are going to have some sentences that you can understand, and no one is forcing you to understand every single sentence. With that said, however, it can be disappointing to struggle through an episode and not be able to understand significant parts of it, so you should at least try to avoid shows with more difficult speech when you are just starting out.
I also recommend starting out with a scripted show, such as an anime or drama. While many people recommend shows like Netflix’s Terrace House because it has “natural” dialogue, I think it is not really ideal for someone who is starting out. Multiple characters will be talking at the same time, and subtitles might have partial sentences from different people displayed at the same time, making it more difficult to follow. That’s not to say that these types of shows are not good to learn from, I just think you shouldn’t start off with it.
You also need to make sure that whatever show you select has Japanese subtitles available. The main reason that I like Netflix is that it has a large selection of native Japanese material in a variety of different genres that all have Japanese subtitles available. This makes it very easy to get started.
If you are still at a beginner level and don’t think you can work through an actual episode of something, then I recommend you start off with Erin’s Challenge. This is specifically developed for Japanese beginners, and you can follow many of the same tips and techniques that I outline below.
Set a goal for how quickly to progress
You also want to set a goal for yourself as to how quickly you want to progress through a series. This is to keep yourself on track and hopefully avoid giving up, or “taking a break” for a few days that turns into a few months. You might want to aim for an episode a week, though this may depend on a few different factors, such as the length of the episodes, or the level that you are currently at.
Watch the episode
For beginners, I would recommend starting out by watching the episode with subtitles in your native language. As you become better at Japanese this will likely just be a waste of time, and takes away from the important skill of trying to figure things out on your own. The main purpose of this is just so that you can understand what is actually happening in the show, and to spend some time actually enjoying what you are going to be studying from. While watching, you should be listening intently to the audio, trying to pick out words or understand what the characters are actually saying.
Once you are advanced to the point that you can understand a large portion of the episodes, then I would recommend initially watching with Japanese subtitles instead.
Go through line-by-line with Japanese subtitles
Our goal here is to try to come to understand as many lines of dialogue from the episode as possible, and learn new vocabulary and phrases. This is going to be the most significant part of the process, and where you will be spending the most of your time. There are a LOT of different things that you can do here, so I’ll go through a few of the things that I have tried:
– Use Subadub to study Netflix subtitles.
The Subadub browser extension lets you watch shows on Netflix while overlaying the subtitles in text format. This allows you to easily copy and past text (for example into a dictionary or into your SRS), or use assistive reading extensions like Rikai-kun or Yomichan. You can also turn on English subtitles within Netflix and Japanese subtitles within Subadub, to view both languages at the same time, which can help you understand new words without having to look them up. You can also download the subtitles as SRT files.
– Watch Anime and Dramas with Japanese subtitles using Animelon or Anjsub
Animelon and Anjsub are two sites that let you watch Japanese content with subtitles. I’m pretty sure that they are not entirely legal, but if you are ok with that, then they are pretty nice options, especially if you don’t have a Netflix subscription.
– Watch downloaded shows using PotPlayer
If you like to download videos files onto your PC from torrent sites (or wherever), then PotPlayer is a pretty nice video player to use for studying from them. You can get Japanese subtitles for many anime from Kitsuneko.net to use with this. PotPlayer lets you have multiple subtitle languages at once, lets you easily copy a word or entire line to the clipboard, and you can easily seek to the previous or next subtitle, letting you replay lines over and over.
– Use Subs2SRS to study subtitles anytime, anywhere
Subs2SRS is a fantastic tool that can generate Anki flashcards from subtitle files. This works pretty good with subtitles that you download from Netflix using the Subadub extension mentioned above. A lot of people use Subs2SRS in different ways, but I prefer to use it for a technique that I have dubbed micro reading. That link will show you how exactly I set it up, but I essentially just create flashcards for an entire episode, then use Anki to read through them all once, discarding ones that I understand, and keeping ones that I want to study further. This lets me work my way through an episode whenever I have a few minutes free throughout the day, rather than having to sit down at my PC for a long period of time trying to work through the episode.
SRS what you want to remember
Once you have gone through the episode looking up words, then you might want to add them into your SRS software (such as Anki) to study and remember them. It’s up to you how you do this. Some people might want to try to learn everything that they didn’t understand at first, while others might just go for what they feel might be most important. If you hate doing SRS reviews, then maybe don’t even do this. Figure out what works for you. One thing I do strongly recommend though, is to study short phrases or collocations rather than an entire subtitle line.
Watch the episode again with Japanese subtitles
Finally, once you have gone through the episode, studying and learning lots of new material, then it’s time to watch once more. This time you will just watch the episode normally, with Japanese subtitles. You might be shocked at how much you can understand now!
Listen to the audio
For listening practice, it’s good to take the episode audio and just listen to it whenever you can. It’s easier if you download shows from torrent sites, because if you have a file of the actual episode, there are tools that you can use to easily extract the audio so you can listen to it seperately. If you are watching a Netflix show, things are a little less convenient, but you can still use the Netflix app on your phone to play the episode anytime, and it sometimes even allows you to download episodes onto your device so they can be played repeatedly even when you don’t have internet access.
Move on to the next episode
Each episode will probably become a little bit easier than the last one, as you start to accumulate more knowledge. Once you have made it through an entire season of a tv series, you might even want to go back and watch them all again, either with Japanese subtitles, or without subtitles at all.