Tips for studying Japanese using subtitles

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.

What you need to know to learn a foreign language by Paul Nation (book)

I finally got around to reading this great book by Paul Nation, What you need to know to learn a foreign language. The book is offered as a free PDF from his website. If you are unfamiliar with Nation, he is a leading researcher in Foreign Language Education with an interest in vocabulary acquisition and teaching methodology. While most of his research is aimed at the classroom, with this book he attempts to bring the results of his research to the student who might be trying to learn a language on their own.

It’s a somewhat short and easy-to-read book that just gets right to the point rather than giving you long-winded anecdotes and motivational stories. It could easily be read in a single afternoon. Much of the book in influenced by his “Four Strands Principle”, in which he believes that the most effective way of learning a language involves balancing your study across four different types of learning.

The Four Strands consist of:

  1. learning from meaning-focused input (listening and reading)
  2. learning from meaning-focused output (speaking and writing)
  3. language-focused learning (studying pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar etc)
  4. fluency development (getting good at using what you already know).

The main meat of the book consists of descriptions of twenty different learning activities that you can do, with different activities fitting into each of the different strands. He also spends a short bit of time explaining exactly WHY certain activities can be helpful. For instance, did you know that doing just a bit of timed reading can quickly improve your overall reading speed by 50-200%?

Here is a list of the different types of activities described in the book:

  • Reading while listening
  • Extensive reading
  • Narrow reading
  • Role play
  • Prepared talks
  • Read and write
  • Transcription
  • Intensive reading
  • Memorized sentences or dialogues
  • Delayed copying
  • Repeated listening
  • 4/3/2
  • Repeated reading
  • Speed reading
  • 10 minute writing
  • Repeated writing
  • Word cards
  • Linked skills
  • Issue logs
  • Spelling practice

I mention this just to give you a general idea of what you can expect to read about in the book. For the details of what each activity actually entails, you’ll need to read the book (which again, is free).

There are a lot of different opinions out there about how to learn a language. There is one camp which advocates focusing solely on input, and not worrying about anything else. Nation, on the other hand, argues that a fully balanced course is the way to go. While there is research out there to argue a lot of different opinions, we may never know for sure exactly what is truly optimal. With that said, nothing that Nation writes in this book feels terribly controversial, and it all just seems to make sense. I can’t imagine that these ideas could really steer anyone wrong, so I highly recommend this book for anyone who is currently learning a language.

Micro reading with Anki

I have to admit, I’m not much of a reader. I used to love reading when I was a kid, but I just can’t force myself to sit down and read anything these days. Part of it probably comes from being forced to read a ton of difficult books that I hated during high school, and part of it probably comes from my ADHD and the large number of distractions in my life these days.

So when it comes to learning a language like Japanese, simply not reading anything can obviously be quite detrimental. I’ve tried to force myself to read over the years, but it’s just so annoying, I can never stick with it. Reading would be no problem if I just just jump in and out whenever I want, read a few sentences here, a few sentences there, just whenever I feel like it. But reading to learn requires a bit more setup and time investment than say, just picking up a reader’s digest while on the toilet. For instance, I might want to look up words while I’m reading, keep track of sentences to review later, and things like that. Reading on a digital device has the problem of it being difficult to keep your place in the text saved whenever you are reading a web page or something like that. If I want to just invest five minutes towards reading right now, I literally wont make any progress.

Anki has been a great help to me over the years when it comes to learning Japanese. I can just pop in for five minutes here, five minutes there, and before I know it I’ve spent 30 minutes of my day studying, using nothing but down time that would have been wasted otherwise. I wanted to be able to read the same way. I can’t dedicate 30 minutes to reading something all at once. But if I can put in one minute here, ten minutes there… I would be able to make a lot of progress.

I don’t know if there is any existing term for reading in small chunks at a time, but I’m going to call it micro reading. I spent several days thinking about micro reading and how I could implement it into my life. I searched around for existing software and even considered writing my own dedicated application for it, but then it hit me–Anki is already the perfect platform to implement my idea of micro reading!

Here is the basic concept of how it works:

  1. The text you want to read has to be parsed into a format that can be imported into Anki, one sentence per card. (my Little Charo scripts are perfect for this!)
  2. Tweak some settings in Anki just for your reading deck (settings can be found below)
  3. Go through the reviews to read your text one sentence at a time.
  4. If you understand a sentence, you mark it good/easy. If you don’t understand something in a sentence, fail it.
  5. At a later time, come back and delete all of the cards that you marked good/easy. As for the cards you failed, you can study or research the material further, or move it into another deck for normal reviews.

So first of all, this method can not be used with everything. Physical books or manga obviously wont work. E-books that are locked down with DRM are out of the question too. But articles or stories that you find on websites can be used, as well as things like scripts of games or movies. As long as its plain text in a digital format, it can be modified to work.

Anki Settings

When importing your text, you want to create a special reading deck specifically for these cards. You definitely don’t want to dump them into one of your existing decks! In the import settings, you will also want to be sure to select “Import even if existing note has same first field”. This will keep Anki from discarding duplicates. Because our purpose is to read an entire story or article, we do not want any sentences to be missing!

micro reading import settings

Next, you want to go into the deck options, and set up a new options group specifically for this deck. Again, you definitely don’t want to go changing the options on any existing deck! Now, there is some flexibility here as to exactly how you set this up, but here is how I have done it. I set “steps” to 10080 which is a week. This means that even when I fail a card, it wont come back for a week. The reason for this is because this deck is NOT going to be used for reviewing anything. I don’t want any cards to come back to me a second time! The key thing to remember with this method, is that you are going to have to go back into your deck and do something with your failed cards. How often do you plan to do that? Daily? Weekly? This is what you want to consider when setting up the steps value. You want it to be long enough so that cards don’t start coming back before you have had a chance to clear them out.

Next, make sure “order” is set to “show new cards in order added”, and then I set “new cards/day” to 9999 so I can read as much as I want.

Next there is the “Graduating interval” and “Easy interval.” Anki has three answer buttons for new cards: Again, Good, and Easy. My idea of micro reading has no concept of “good” or “easy”; it simply uses a pass/fail paradigm. Thus, I set both graduating interval and easy interval to the same value. You can feel free to make them different if you think it will help you in some way. The actual value you put for the intervals isn’t very important, I just like it to be clearly different than the interval specified in “steps”.

Finally, you want to make sure that “bury related new cards until the next day” is UNchecked.

micro reading deck options

And so, now you can start reading in Anki! Just go through, read the text on the card, mark it pass (good or easy) if you feel good about it, or mark it fail (again) if you want to look over something on the card later.

Then later on when you have some time, we go into Anki’s card browser, and select the failed cards. You can quickly find all of your failed cards by searching for: “is:learn deck:Reading” (or whatever your reading deck is named)

Now you can take your time with these failed cards, look up words you don’t know, or maybe move the card over into one of your normal review decks. Then, you want to go back and delete all of your passed cards.

Alternate Method

Rather than fussing with your deck settings, you could just simply delete cards that you can read, and suspend cards that you want to check again later. With this setup, you never even actually review any cards, you just simply delete or suspend. Depending on your Anki client(s) this might be a little tricky to do. The desktop Anki client has an annoying shortcut for suspending cards, but I’m sure that could probably be changed some way. The Android client lets you set up gestures to delete and suspend, which is pretty easy to use. I have no idea about the iPhone client. If you ever use the web client, I believe you are stuck using the deck settings method.

Outcome

I have actually been using this method for about a week now. My objective was primarily to just help me make some amount of progress in reading, as opposed to not reading anything at all. In that regard, it has been a big success. I am actually reading far more than I thought I would! I believe that the biggest advantage of this method is that it completely separates reading from studying. While I am reading something, I don’t have to fuss over whether or not I want to look words up in a dictionary, or if I want to add something into Anki, or whatever. I just read and mark stuff to come back to later. Even if I never do anything with the cards I failed, I at least made some reading progress! This is definitely how I will be doing most of my Japanese reading for the foreseeable future.

Manga

Intensive VS Extensive Reading – Is there a silver bullet for language learning?

I occasionally see arguments being made regarding language learning that extensive reading is better for you than intensive reading, or vice versa. Often it might be backed up by a personal anecdote, such as “I was doing intensive reading for AGES and I didn’t make any progress at all! Then when I switched to extensive reading, my reading ability shot through the roof!”

But this is not really an article about reading. It’s more about different study methods, and why you shouldn’t necessarily listen to anyone who tells you “you should do THIS and not THAT”. Let’s look at intensive and extensive reading as an example of this.

Intensive Reading – Involves carefully and methodically reading a passage for the purpose of comprehension. May involve looking up words or grammar. Is usually very slow and takes a long time to progress very far in the text.

Extensive Reading – Involves reading text quickly, with little concern for complete understanding. It doesn’t matter whether you know all the details as long as you can see the big picture. There is no time for things like looking up words in a dictionary, you just want to get to the end.

So, which of these reading methods do you think is better? It’s apples to oranges, isn’t it?! It’s not really possible for one to be “better” than the other, because they are fundamentally different things with different goals and objectives. Will intensive reading help you learn a language? YES! Will extensive reading help you learn a language? YES!

Okay, so some things will work better for some people, and some things will work better for other people. Article over, right? Nope, because that’s not my point here at all. I don’t believe that it’s simply a matter of “this works better for me, so I will just do this”. Rather, it’s a matter of cross-training. Being well-rounded and ensuring that you get plenty of practice and experience in ALL aspects of the language.

Thinking about intensive reading and extensive reading, it might seem that they are two completely different things. One of them can train certain skills, and the other can train other skills. But they aren’t actually completely separate. They are actually linked in certain ways that compliment each other. Doing a lot of extensive reading can be a big benefit to you when you are reading intensively, and intensive reading can also benefit you when you decide to do extensive reading. How is this?

Well, let’s imagine a scenario in which you have been focusing solely on intensive reading for a while. You are learning a lot of new words all the time, and you pride yourself on being able to fully understand the stories that you are reading. But, no matter how long you do this, you are still coming across a never-ending list of new words, like an insurmountable wall. Despite still learning new things, it feels like you aren’t making much progress, and your reading speed is really slow as well!

So now you switch to extensive reading. In a short time, you notice a massive improvement in your reading speed. You start to realize that some words just don’t really matter all that much, and probably aren’t worth your time to stop and look them up. You will probably come across them again at some point, after all. You make it through a book ten times faster than you ever would have before, and it feels great!

Now at this point, if you were the hypothetical person that I mentioned in the first paragraph, perhaps you have come to the conclusion that extensive reading is the way to go, and you were doing it wrong all along up until now, so you go on some forum and try to spread the gospel of extensive reading. But the only problem is, your extensive reading progress did not occur in a vacuum. You had built up a tremendous amount of knowledge through intensive reading, but had neglected certain skills. When you begin to practice through extensive reading, those skills would quickly be brought up to par because they are building upon what you already have. If you had originally started out purely with extensive reading, then you likely would not have made progress as quickly, and you would have run into other sorts of problems. For instance, most of the words that you encounter could go unlearned even after numerous encounters with them, or you might have feelings of being completely lost because you don’t comprehend a single thing you are reading.

It all contributes to your overall understanding of the language. If you focus on one area, then you are going to get better at that one thing, and you are still going to suck in other areas. But even training in just one area still increases your overall ability. So if you later go out and focus on an entirely different aspect of the language, you aren’t starting from scratch, you are starting from a solid foundation.

If you have followed some of the posts I have made on this blog, you might know that when I originally started this blog, I had real issues with my Japanese listening ability. I had done very little practice in this area, despite the fact that I had learned tons of words and grammar. So I began doing some extensive practice with Japanesepod101.com, and I saw huge noticeable changes in my listening ability. Some might look at this sort of progress and say “Wow! Japanesepod101.com must be the best way to learn Japanese! Look how fast I’m improving!” But honestly, Japanesepod101.com is not just some amazing resource that will take anyone from zero to hero. The fact is, I was already fairly decent at Japanese, but my listening ability just sucked donkey-butt. Because I had a strong foundation to work from, that’s why I was able to improve my listening ability rather quickly. By the time I started reaching more difficult lessons in Japanesepod101.com that are more in line with my actual overall ability, my listening gains started slowing down a lot.

I think a good analogy for this is the Olympic games. Michael Phelps set an amazing record of winning 8 gold medals during the 2008 summer Olympics! And he has won 22 Olympic medals in total! But… those medals were all for swimming. Because of the similarity between events, there is a very large amount of transferable skill from one event to another. What I mean is, getting a medal in both the 100m butterfly and the 200m butterfly is quite different than say, getting medals both in fencing and archery.

With learning a language, the different facets like input & output, speaking & reading, etc, are all interconnected. You aren’t going for gold medals in totally separate events, you are just training to be well-rounded in different facets of one overall thing. You can’t JUST read, or JUST have conversations, or JUST do Anki reviews. You’ve got to cross-train in everything, and each individual aspect that you get better at will simultaneously help you to get better at all the others.

And if you suddenly change up your study methods and you find that you are making much better progress, that doesn’t mean that you’ve found a better study method, it just means that you’ve found your weak spot.

 

Run software in Japanese mode without the headaches

Over the years, I have often seen people recommending to run one’s operating system and all of your applications in Japanese mode. This will apparently get you to thinking in Japanese more frequently, and you’ll learn a lot of computer related terminology.

But I’ve never done this, for one big reason: it’s annoying as hell. When I am trying to get work done, I don’t want to sit there wasting my time guessing at what the kanji are saying, and messing around with things by trial and error trying to figure out which menu option is the one I need to click on. When you get stuck trying to read something, trying to look up the text can be annoying as the font sizes are usually very small, making it both difficult to read and difficult to use an OCR application on it.

But I recently realized that there was a better way to ease yourself into the all-Japanese immersive PC environment. You see, most software has its interface translations stored in simple text files! This makes it really easy to get a full list of every single part of the interface, in both English and Japanese. There are a couple of different ways to benefit from this. For one, you could just dive straight into the Japanese version of an application, and refer to the English translation file when you have trouble reading something. Or you can approach it more slowly, by first reading through the Japanese translation file, adding words to Anki, and then switching over to using the application in Japanese at a later time, once you have learned the words it uses.

So how do you get these translation files? First of all, just check inside the folder where an application has been installed. In Windows, this is usually “C:\Program Files” or “C:\Program Files (x86)”. After peeking around inside an application’s folder, look for a folder named something like “locales”, “languages”, or “translations”. This will usually contain translations for several different languages, so all you need to do is find the Japanese file, and the English file. Not every application stores its translations like this though, and not every application has a Japanese translation. If you can’t find anything, just move on to a different application.

When you do find translation files, they could have different extensions, such as .ini, .xml, .dat, or something else entirely. But most of them can simply be viewed in a normal text editor like Notepad. Sometimes, you might find files with a .mo extension. Unfortunately, these are not text files and you are unable to view them.

Sometimes, translations and language packs are available as a separate download for some applications. If you can’t find a translation installed on your PC, then try checking the website for that software to see if anything is available.

To give you a quick peek at some of these language files, I put together a small pack with the English and Japanese translation files for “7-zip”, “PotPlayer”, and “notepad++”. You can grab it here to take a quick peek at how these files are typically formatted, and to see if this might be a helpful way for you to ease into using your PC in Japanese!