Some people say it is not possible to learn Japanese from anime. The most common critics, in my experience, are Japanese natives who have never gone through the experience of learning Japanese themselves. In truth, it is possible to learn Japanese from anime. I have seen myself and many others do it.
However, this does not mean that you can learn Japanese from only anime—you will (of course) need to supplement your Japanese study with other materials. To learn Japanese from anime (or TV, or podcasts, or manga, or books), you need to understand one important principle: the principle of i+1 understanding.
Anime and i+1 understanding
We learn Japanese (or any other language) when we are exposed to language that is challenging but not too challenging. If you want to learn Japanese from anime, you have to already understand some of what the characters are saying.
In my book on language learning, I quote linguist Stephen Krashen:
“We acquire … only when we understand language that contains structure that is ‘a little beyond’ where we are now. How is this possible? How can we understand language that contains structures that we have not yet acquired? The answer to this apparent paradox is that we use more than our linguistic competence to help us understand. We also use context, our knowledge of the world, our extra-linguistic information to help us understand…”
Anime, when used correctly, is a great tool for getting the context needed for true learning. Like manga, anime exposes you to language in its context accompanied with colorful images and clear audio. Plus, it’s fun! However, for this learning-from-context (i+1 learning) to work, we need to make sure that the anime we watch is only “a little beyond” our current level of Japanese. This means that we need to watch out for what I call “naive immersion.”
Why learning through naive immersion does not work
I wish it were true that you could just watch your favorite anime shows and absorb all of the Japanese you find there. Sadly, that’s not how language learning works. You do need to put the effort in and try to understand what is going on.
A few years ago, I tried to learn Korean by only watching Korean dramas. It didn’t work. But, from that, I learned a valuable lesson. Naive immersion, which involves blinding watching or listening to try and “pick up” the language from the environment, does not work. To truly learn languages, you need to understand what is going on. And no, English subtitles do not count.
When doing the research for my book, I found that the linguist Stephen Krashen was saying something very similar:
“[My theory] explains why it practically impossible for someone to acquire a second or foreign language merely by listening to the radio… This requirement also explains the apparent failure of educational TV programs to teach foreign languages. The input is simply not comprehensible. My own children watched programs such as Ville Allegre faithfully for years, and acquired about as much as I did.”
When learning, you need to be good enough at Japanese to understand 50% or more of what is going on. The material can be challenging, but it should not be impossible to understand.
Who should learn Japanese from anime
Here’s an easy way to test whether or not you are ready to learn Japanese from anime. Find an anime show intended for children (something like Pokemon is fine). Watch it, and see if you can, with some guessing, follow the storyline. If you cannot, this means you are not yet ready to learn Japanese from anime.
It’s still fine to watch anime, of course. Just don’t believe that you are getting any learning benefits from it. For i+1 learning to take place, you will need to go down one more step in difficulty to something like simple podcasts or guided audio listening courses.
All along the language journey, you should be making this adjustment. Choose the right tool for your current Japanese level. Anime, it just so happens, is a tool that works for intermediate or intermediate-advanced learners. If you are at a more beginner level, you need to choose a different tool.
How to learn Japanese from anime
Now, let’s assume that you can understand and follow simple anime. This probably means that you are already an intermediate-level learner. In that case, here is a workflow that you can use to learn:
- Watch anime, preferably with Japanese subtitles
- Whenever you hear something you do not understand, consider looking it up, with the subtitles as a guide
- Later, turn those difficult phrases into SRS flashcards
- Review the flashcards regularly
If you’ve seen my post on how to learn Japanese from manga, you can see how this is essentially the same workflow, adapted for anime. That’s because SRS flashcard harvesting is the most effective method out there by a large margin. There’s no better alternative that I know of. Use it, and you can learn twice as fast as your peers (or faster).
If you are tech-savvy, you might also want to try using software like subs2srs, which can automatically generate flashcards from video + subtitle files. It’s a great tool.
A final note
Learning Japanese from anime is fun, rewarding, and can be extremely effective—if you take the right approach. But, as always, remember to have fun! Fun is the secret spice to motivation and productivity. Cheers.