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.

Japanese Learning Podcasts

Podcasts can be a useful source for learning Japanese. Some of them are great for practicing your listening comprehension or for shadowing. Others try to “teach” you things, through explanations of grammar or vocabulary. I’m really not a fan of this “teaching” type of podcast, as I prefer to learn things like grammar through a textbook or web site where I can see things written down and take it at my own pace. But, I can understand that some people might be interested in that sort of thing.

I think a big problem with Japanese learning podcasts is that it seems to be rather difficult to make material that is interesting enough that you actually enjoy listening to it. There are a lot of podcasts that I feel have some nice content, but I find that I have stopped paying attention a few minutes in. If you aren’t really paying attention to what you are listening to, then it’s not going to be of much help. I realize that this is a totally subjective thing though, so some of the podcasts that would put me to sleep might actually be fairly interesting to someone else.

Here, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite podcasts, ranked according to how entertaining I personally find them to be!

GoGoエイブ会話

GoGo Eibukaiwa is a casual, mixed English-Japanese conversation podcast. It’s just two dudes chillin’ and talking about stuff. One guy speaks in English and the other guy speaks in Japanese. The main reason that I love this podcast is that it is actually entertaining to listen to. A lot of other podcasts feel so boring, but this one is often funny and interesting. The guy speaking English keeps you from ever feeling lost, so it doesn’t require a lot of mental effort to listen to this one. The only downside I would say, is that its really more of an English-focused podcast than a Japanese-focused one. There are over 200 episodes as of this posting.

JapanesePod101

There is a lot of content here. They have been around for over a decade and are still putting out new lessons on a weekly basis. You can always get the newest lessons through their free podcast feed. If you pay for a premium subscription (or opt for a free trial) you can access the whole back catalogue of lessons, download the dialogues seperately from the lesson audio, get supplemental materials like vocabulary lists and transcripts, and access their “line by line audio” tool. Some of their lessons are pretty great, and some are pretty awful. I have written an article a while back on what lessons I think are most worth your time (I really need to go back and update this some time). They cater heavily to beginners but also have some content for intermediate and advanced learners. I still regularly listen to some of the older dialogues for listening practice.

LearnJapanesePod

I remember trying this a few years ago and not liking it much. I decided to give it another shot recently, and I like it a lot better now! It looks like it improved a lot when they started “Season 2”. They only put out about 1 podcast month, but the content is both useful and interesting, and you can download the dialogues separately for listening practice.

News in Slow Japanese

In theory, this is a great idea for a podcast. Listen to a short news article in both slow and normal-speed Japanese. The website also includes transcripts and vocabulary lists. There are over 300 free articles to listen to! There are additional lessons for premium subscribers. A lot of people seem to like this, so I don’t want to be too hard on it, but I honestly don’t think I could choose more boring articles if I tried! I wouldn’t even bother reading most of these articles if they were in English. I would love this podcast if it just had stories that were half-way interesting.

NHK Easy Japanese

This set of 48 lessons aims to teach basic Japanese. It all comes across very clinical and boring, basically reading out an explanation of every word from a dialogue and then talking about some grammar points. The website does have a lot of good supplemental content and the lessons are available in 17 different languages. They have recently begun a new series called “Easy Japanese: Step-up” which is being broadcast on NHK World television.

Listen to Simple Japanese Stories

I recently happened across a small collection of basic listening material that some of you might find helpful. There is a collection of Japanese Graded Readers called にほんご多読ブックス (not to be confused with the more well-known レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー series of readers). While I strongly recommend these types of books for learners, they are quite expensive. However, it looks like you can download audio of the books completely free! There are several hours of simplified Japanese audio here, so it could be well worth your time to check it out. Of course, this is no substitute for the real product, but it can at least give your listening skills a workout!

にほんご多読ブックス MP3 Download

Netflix in Japanese

Wouldn’t it be great if Netflix offered lots of awesome Japanese content? Well actually, they do! They just like to keep it hidden away. Almost every Netflix Original is dubbed into Japanese, and contains Japanese subtitles as well. But in order to access it, you may first need to change Netflix’s language setting to Japanese.

If you are just browsing Netflix in English, you probably wont find Japanese audio options anywhere. I recently started seeing Japanese subtitle options start appearing, but until recently, those were hidden away too.

netflix-english

So to change this, all you need to do is go into Account Settings, then look for the Language option, and then you can select 日本語. That’s all there is to it! Now, Netflix’s entire interface will be changed to Japanese. And, when you check the available audio and subtitle options…

netflix-language

And now you can watch all your favorites in Japanese!

netflix-japanese

Furthermore, you can use the following link to specifically seek out shows that have either Japanese subtitles or Japanese audio: https://www.netflix.com/browse/subtitle/ja

If the link takes you to a login page, you will need to login and then click the link again.

How to rename and organize files from JapanesePod101.com

JapanesePod101.com has thousands of audio tracks, pdf documents, and videos that you can easily download all at once through an XML feed. But, the files all have cryptic filenames and the MP3s have inconsistent, missing, or altogether wrong ID3 tags, which make it impossible to know what’s what! If you try sorting things by filename, lessons from a particular season don’t even get grouped together or appear in order! Its a total mess!!

So, I’m going to walk you through the process of getting things cleaned up and organized!

Download the files

My Feed

First of all, you need to download the files from JapanesePod101.com. Premium members can use the “My Feed” option to set up a feed that contains all the files you want. If you don’t currently have an account with JapanesePod101.com, I would recommend reading my review of it, which tells you how to sign up for a free trial of their premium service.

You can then use the feed to download the files to your computer. I suppose most people use iTunes. Juice seems to be another popular podcast downloading tool, but I couldn’t get it to work on my computer. I had success using RSS Owl to download the podcasts.

Renaming the files

Since the format of the filenames does not remain consistent, standard file renaming tools are not much help here. Completely frustrated, I resorted to making my own program to rename the files. I will share it here, but it only runs on Windows, though I will include the source code if you would like to try porting it to another system.

Also please note, that this program was only made for my personal use, so it has NOT been thoroughly tested or debugged. It is entirely possible that you could lose your files, or it could rename/damage something unrelated. That shouldn’t happen though, but just be warned that I take no responsibility! Again, the source code will be there if you want to inspect it.

And before you begin, BACK UP YOUR FILES BEFORE RUNNING THIS PROGRAM ON THEM!!!

JapanesePodRenamer

Download JapanesePodRenamer for Windows – Click Here

This program will basically turns filenames like this: 215_B108_081006_jpod101_dialog.mp3
Into something like this: Beginner Lesson #108 – A Way with Words – Dialog.mp3

Instructions

First, you need to download a copy of the XML file that Japanesepod101.com uses for their RSS feed. This can be obtained from the “My Feed” area of their website. If you can’t figure out how to actually download a copy of the xml file to your pc, try emailing the url to yourself. This will give you a link that you can right-click on and then “save as”. Next, you need to have actually downloaded the files from this RSS feed onto your PC (for example, the actual mp3 or pdf files). The files should all be collected into a single folder.

Then, open up JapanesePodRenamer, and click the “Select Folder” button to select the folder your files are stored in.

Then press the “Select XML” button to select the XML file that you downloaded. When you do this, you should see the list fill up with filenames and titles that were extracted from the XML file. This has no purpose other than verifying that you loaded a valid file.

Finally, after making sure you have first backed up your content, press the “Rename” button, and your files will get renamed.

Sorting

sorted into folders

Once the files have been renamed, it shouldn’t take you long to manually sort them all out into separate folders if you want to. I would highly recommend it, as it will make the process of correcting the ID3 tags a bit easier.

Correcting ID3 Tags

mp3tag

Now for the final step, correcting the ID3 tags, so that the MP3 files will show up with correct titles, album, and so on. While there are numerous programs out there for editing these tags, I found that the best one for me was MP3Tag. It is a Windows program, but apparently can run on OS X and Linux through Wine.

Now, I’m not going to write up a full tutorial to the program itself, as I’ll leave that for you to figure out. The program is pretty straightforward though. But basically, first you want to make sure that the “Album” tag is named for the title of the Season that the lesson comes from. For example, Newbie Season 2 will have some files that have the album listed as “Newbie Lesson S2”, and some just listed as “Newbie Lesson”. If you have correctly sorted all of the seasons lessons into a folder, then this is as simple as selecting all of that folder’s files within MP3Tag, and then batch edit the Album title for them on the left side pane.

You might also see that many of the titles are not consistent, with some having the season title before the lesson title, while some don’t.There are two buttons along the row at the top of the application which can help with this, which say “Tag – Filename” and “Filename – Tag” when you hover over them. These can either rename the files based on information from one of the tags (you would use the title tag of course), or you can rename the title tag based on the filenames, whichever might work better for a given situation. You might need to manually rename some things here or there. You will find that Newbie Season 1 is definitely the worst offender as far as things being inconsistent.

Track numbers can also be out of order. Once you have them all sorted by filename, you can easily fix the track numbers using the button along the top row that says “Autonumbering Wizard” when you hover over it.

Once you are finished, give yourself a pat on the back, and start practicing your Japanese listening!