Is it Okay to Use English subtitles?

English subtitles: fair ground or demonic enemy? This is a heavy debate run through Japanese learners usually between levels 1 to 25. This site has on a number of occasions said not to use them in any manner, ever. But do they have any inkling of benefit? Or are they really to be avoided like a starter textbook written entirely in Romaji?

Anime Subtitles

Just in case you are completely out of the loop, and had full faith in subtitles up until this intro, let’s briefly recap why there is animosity towards these little monsters that appear at the bottom of your screen.

1. Watching a video with English subtitles is almost exactly the same as watching it English dubbed

Yes, you may pick up a few words here or there in Japanese after viewing. But for the most part, you will remember what you watched in English.

And here is how most people try to justify it:

“But I’m focusing on the Japanese while watching!”

This works. For maybe a few minutes. Then you unconsciously start focusing on the plot and action. You are using subtitles because you don’t want to miss out on understanding everything, so trying to focus on the Japanese as well is creating a bit of a conflict.

2. You are engaging in false hope

You get the impression that this is study time because, to repeat the above, you are “focusing on the Japanese.” The danger is that it will appear as though you are not progressing after watching 100 hours of anime. You are correct. You aren’t progressing. You will feel like you should be. This leads to stress, doubt, and annoyance with your Japanese studying.

3. You are creating a hard to break habit

The longer you stick with English subtitles, the harder it will be to finally pull yourself away from them. You are using them because you want to continue to enjoy your favorite series. But then at what percentage of understanding will you stop using them? 40%? 60%? 80%? When is enough? You are using subtitles because you don’t want to miss a single plot point. When will you actually give them up?

The Subtitle Seduction: Give in or resist?

But let’s finally look at the positives that I never have discussed on this site. I still am firm that the positives are outweighed by the negatives due to these above issues. But for some people, these positives are enough, especially if it allows them to use English subtitles without guilt. I want to start this with a simple statement that should ring true to your Japanese anime studying heart:

Any Japanese is better than none

Really.

Anime provides you continual motivation

I know you like anime. It is a primary mover for the Japanese learner. And remember, a never-ending supply of motivation is one of the fundamental requirements for anyone to ever be anywhere near successful in Japanese.

You don’t want to kill your love of anime by making it a bothersome chore. This feeling becomes stronger when you have been watching a long running series you have fanatically been following for years. Then one day you stop using subtitles. Your frustration of no longer understanding the very series that you started learning Japanese to understand better becomes apparent. I’ve been there. Even when my Japanese was starting to get good, I was so tempted to just let myself use subtitles for certain series that I really loved, and was eagerly looking forward to their new episodes every week. Even understanding 70% wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to miss a single 1% nuance.

So you watch it in English. Yeah, it isn’t directly helping your Japanese. But I know that when you are done watching it, you will have a sudden spurt of motivation and there is a high chance that you will go into Anki kick-ass mode for some time. You are likely to put anime into your deck. The more you watch the anime you love, the more likely you want to progress faster in Japanese.

We all need a break sometimes

Regardless of how intense you are, you will occasionally need an “English break.” One of those moments where your brain just says “Stop. Really, just stop. Give me a second to recover.”

Some watch regular TV from their country. Some watch regular movies. Some play video games.

I see it like this: If you are going to have an English break anyway, why not make it an anime with English subtitles break. If watching with English subtitles is pretty much the same as watching it in English, it should have that same “restful” feel for your brain. And you get the benefit that it’ll keep you on the right track to quickly get you back into studying Japanese, rather than divert yourself too far away into something like viewing a Walking Dead marathon.

Combine it with another method

The second you mix English subtitles with another tactic for learning Japanese, you turn it into something more beneficial. Take words and sentences and put them into Anki. Use Subs2Srs to automatically extract screenshots and dialogue directly from the Anime. Shadow whatever you hear.

Immersion Assistance

Good passive listening immersion works best when:

1) You have already actively viewed the material first
2) The material is enjoyable, memorable, and spurs on emotion

Even if you didn’t get anything out of your active watching of anime with English subtitles, put that material on your immersion ipod and fulfill both requisites above. Once it is in your player, and you are listening to it passively every day, all the previous negatives fade away. Yes, you lost the original time for actively watching it in English, but you made this small sacrifice in exchange for a better passive immersion environment.

How have you made your peace with English subtitles?

The decision on whether to use English subtitles should be personal to you. Hopefully this post will aid in that decision, or keep whatever decision you made firm.

Also, it’s been a very long time since I’ve looked at English subtitles, so I may be missing out on some more relevant and recent positives and negatives involving them. How do you approach them? What are some additional negatives or positives that you have found with using them? What are your strategies for making them work to your advantage? This is a major topic for Japanese learners, so your opinions in the comments section will be extremely helpful.

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*Note: while the focus of this article is on anime, this also includes using English subtitles to watch J-dramas, J-movies, varietys shows, etc.



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).

Comments

Is it Okay to Use English subtitles? — 40 Comments

  1. Thanks for the clarification. I’ve been immersing with shows I’ve previously watched subbed for a while now, and it certainly feels like it’s been useful.

    Something I remind myself of periodically is that if the goal is not to miss even a single percent of nuance than subtitles are also a loss. A good series will convey a lot in subtle moments of direction, animation, voice acting and so on, and it’s easy to miss these moments while reading and processing the text. Which is why I’ve also been rewatching series unsubbed. I experimented with rewatching each week’s episode unsubbed later in the week and that didn’t work too well (at least for me) but revisiting a whole series some time after it ended has been great. It’s all the stuff I loved the first time, plus several whole new dimensions.

    Also, my usual pattern has been to go through the chart of new series each season and group them into “check out” and “skip.” This season for the first time I added a third category, “check out raw”, which I think of as sitting between the other two. There’s been some migration between categories in both directions, but overall it’s been working pretty well.

    (I should really start doing the same thing with dramas… I’ve watched several older series, but somehow I’ve found it harder to get on board the currently-airing-drama bus).

    BTW, in case anyone hasn’t discovered this already, most (if not all) of the subtitles on Crunchyroll can be disabled from a menu that’s accessible by right-clicking on the player.

    • “BTW, in case anyone hasn’t discovered this already, most (if not all) of the subtitles on Crunchyroll can be disabled from a menu that’s accessible by right-clicking on the player.”

      Do someone knows another site which has more raw animes?
      This one is good but it lacks the majority of the series.

    • You bring up an important negative point that isn’t covered by Adshap’s summary above. Fansubs often are not very good translations. Most of these translators don’t know Japanese very well yet and generally once they get to a the point where they do know it well they give up fansubs for paying work.

      I think you also rob yourself of that feeling of achievement when you start to understand more of the plot subtleties and the nuances from the voice acting.

      If you want to increase your comprehension of a series your time is well spent repping a subs2srs deck. That knowledge will carry over to future episodes and future content. Watching the subtitles does neither.

      • Even official subs can be off. I’ve come across many Ghibli subs that just don’t do the work justice. In fact, it seems like they just pull the dialogue from the English dub, rather than translate the Japanese. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, coffee was translated to hot cocoa, for instance, because in America kids don’t drink coffee so they must have felt it wouldn’t make sense to kids.

        • That particular example is pretty amusing. For one it’s more of an issue of localization rather than translation but more importantly I think more Japanese kids would drink hot cocoa as opposed to coffee! I guess maybe there’s less social stigma in Japan against giving kids coffee?

          • Good point! I don’t think the stigma is any different in Japan than America with kids and coffee. Perhaps the coffee was to show that Kiki was coming of age at 13-years-old, and perhaps it gave the anime more of a western feel. Ghibli movies are filled with western things such as bread and cheese, maybe it’s just one of those things.

            • Either way, I think we can all agree that it is a terrible idea to give kids coffee… the little pests have enough energy as it is :P
              So maybe we can just consider this an instance of mercy towards the poor parents of western kids?

  2. I don’t use English subtitles very often, only every now and again.

    I try to watch a show first without them. If I find that it’s just too hard to follow what’s going on, I go to the English subtitles to at least get a gist of what’s going on. Then, I go back and watch the show again a bit later without the subtitles and pick out the words I don’t know according to what I remember in English during that scene.

    I’ve only done with this a few dramas and anime out of the near hundred I have watched, so it’s not something I do too frequently. I just use them when I really feel like I need them.

  3. Don’t use English subtitles at all, apart for one show. But when I do watch subtitles with it, I always mentally notice the grammar and the vocabulary and tell myself if it is a formal word or informal word. I only glimpse at the subtitles to get a gist but then focus on the actual speech. I gave up subtitles a month ago. They were just slowing me down.

  4. what about using japanese subtitles on japanese media? i picked up drama and added japanese subtitles files for it, do you think that can be beneficial if you have input in reading and hearing at the same time?

    • I would say it depends on what you’re aiming for.

      I find that if there are Japanese subtitles, I rely on my reading skills to understand which takes away from my listening skills. So, if you want to focus on listening skills, I’d cut out the subtitles. If you want to focus on reading Japanese really fast, the subtitles are helpful.

      But if you need subtitles, better they be in Japanese in any case.

  5. There’s one thing I’m wondering though. How do people get their anime’s audio in their iPod? The only way I could think of would be to use something like audacity to record the sounds from your soundcard while playing an episode, but is there a simple way that you guys do it?

  6. It is great to use L1 subs to keep Japanese media interesting to you. But I would recommend to drop them asap when you get sufficient enough with your Japanese fluency.

  7. Well, I generally suggest my students to watch something they don’t know first with L1 subtitles (I’m an English teacher). After that, to watch with L2 subtitles and then, after the third time, watch it forever without subtitles. Do you think this is wrong?

      • It’s not to do that in a single sitting. They can do that at different times. I do that with Japanese and I feel really comfortable. I can’t find Japanese subtitled dramas, but I’m watching GTO. I watch it first with subtitles, then put it into my cell phone so I can listen to all the audio during the day and then, on the following day, I watch it covering the subtitles. And whenever I want to repeat the episode, I do it without subtitles. Whenever I want to watch “The Lion King” or the first 10 seasons or so of “Pokémon”, I watch them only in Japanese, with no subtitles.

  8. My situation is completely different than most of you out there, because I’m not from an English-speaking country.
    I’m Brazilian thus English is already my L2. And despite being at a business level, I don’t consider myself native level yet.

    I’m using the laddering languages technique, learning Japanese through English, in order to keep improving my L2.

    That being said, I’m using English subtitles because that way I’m training my English reading at the same time that I absorb Japanese media. After that, I put everything in my cell phone and listen to it thousands of times.

      • It’s not actually clear what you are trying to ask about exactly, but I’ll try to answer the question of whether it makes sense for you to count using subtitles as improving your L2.

        Incidentally, my L1 is also Portuguese (mas de Portugal em vez de do Brasil). The main difference between our cases is probably that I would consider my English to be at native level.
        That said, given that you mentioned elsewhere that you read 100+ books in English in a single year, I really don’t see how reading subtitles is doing much of anything to improve your English, unless you are watching material that somehow covers holes in your vocabulary. Rather, I would expect that whatever shortcomings still remain in your English are particular to the skills other than reading and need hence to be addressed by actually practicing those skills.

        Edit: I think a good way to know whether subtitles are doing much for you is the following test: try watching something with subtitles but try not to read them. If actually avoiding reading the subtitles requires more focus than reading them (which is how I feel), you’re probably getting little to none L2 improvement out of them.

        • Honestly, I just want to use more English than Portuguese. And I watch animes and I read manga without English help. But Dramas for me are a whole different story. They are deep and they have many deep stories that we should understand. I prefer to watch them for fun with subtitles, and then load them into my cell phone and after that listen to them until I get tired of them (I’ve been listening to GTO 2012 for like two months and I’m not tired of it yet).

          • If you are going to use subtitles, I agree that you might as well use your L2 (English). I also assume that it would be hard to find dramas subbed in Portuguese even if you tried?

            • There are some, but they are subbed by people who don’t even know Portuguese correctly. I’m a Portuguese teacher, it’s a pain for me to read wrong Portuguese. And even in this case, we have only the most popular animes, some of the best ones are impossible.

              Thanks.

  9. Hello folks. Hoping I don’t get massively ridiculed or blasted for going slightly off topic (I mean, this is japaneselevelup after all right?), I could really use some help and hoping someone here can offer some insight as to what my next purchase should be. I’ve been studying Japanese off and on and really have the time this summer to sit down and practice 24/7. I’ve purchased the following book recommended to me by a friend (I’ve actually ordered it from Japan): http://tinyurl.com/JapaneseforBeginners

    You can check the pages this book has from that link above to get a feel for how good the book would be. It was recommended to me by a native Japanese speaker in Japan.
    I am wondering what book I could use to supplement this? Perhaps one that could teach me Kanji? Any suggestions?

  10. I am still definitely a level 1 learner. I can introduce myself and that’s about it. In no way shape or form am I able to understand anime. What should I do then? I am working with other books and sources to actually learn Japanese, but I would love to be able to pick up some Japanese when I am watching anime as well. Any ideas?

    • You can still listen to anime in the background, to learn to differentiate between the sounds, but I would only do this with series you have watched in the past and know well, and don’t need to focus on.

      At level one, watching new anime, with or without subs, will have minimal value towards your Japanese ability.

      However they can be used as a great motivator, since I’m sure that is a big reason in wanting to study Japanese.

      For example, for every hour you study Japanese, reward yourself with a 20 minute subbed anime.

      • At what level do you feel that watching new anime (or drama) starts to have value?

        I just finished RTK and am about 300 J-E sentences deep and still find a lot of things to be white noise. According to the level test, I’m a solid Level 10.

        • I usually recommend the half way mark:

          Around 900-1000 on RTK
          500 J-E sentences

          It will have value a little before this, so it also becomes a bit of a personal feel.

  11. Do you think it is okay to refer to the subs for the meaning of phrases/words that I have heard multiple times but don’t understand, or will I eventually learn them through immersion? Sometimes I find that it is hard to look up spoken words since I am unable to guess the spelling of the word I want to look up.

    • The problem with that is the subs don’t often match the original word. Translation is a bit of an art, which changes meanings slightly to match the situation.

      If you are trying to pull out the words, try subs2srs. That provides them for you in text format.

  12. Go to school to learn japanese, also watch english subbed japanese anime take a pen and paper and write down word for word first in eglish then bellow that word in japanese i use the program i had to get for my class i casted 379$ fudhe man i am going to sac city college in sacramento california

  13. I have been looking everywhere, but I can’t seem to find anime with Japanese subtitles… I have tried looking on amazon.co.jp but I can’t seem to track anything down…

    If anyone knows of any reliable places where I can buy anime with Japanese subtitles I would appreciate it very much.

  14. For me, the whole reason I’m learning Japanese in the first place is because of anime. I’ll admit I’m a “casual gamer” when it comes to this, since I don’t have that much motivation for learning Japanese, but watching anime without subs for learning Japanese would just ruin my anime watching experience.

    You see, the anime I watch tend to lean toward sci-fi, mystery, and psychological themes, so without subtitles there would be no way for me to understand the anime in the first place, and that seems pretty dumb to me for now, where I can’t even translate the first line from most of the anime I watch.

    When I started out watching anime with subtitles it’s true that I basically didn’t listen to the conversations, and only read them. But after you’ve watched a lot of anime this doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. Sure, I’m only properly listening when they aren’t speaking what seems to be complete nonsense, but I would rather not learn Japanese than to lose out on all the plot.

    • I found the best way to handle that problem was to get your sub-free time in by expanding into something new.

      Consider picking up an anime with a simpler theme that you might not have otherwise watched, and watching that without subs. Alternatively, you could do what I did and give Dramas a try. I was honestly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying them.

      Beyond that, there’s manga. Maybe you could get the JP manga of an anime you like, and try to read that? It’s a huge boost to go through something a second time in Japanese that you’ve already done in English. Same applies to Video Games if that’s your cup of tea (that’s how I get most of my JP-only time at this point, outside Anki).

      I think Adam is right that the less you rely on subtitles, the faster you’ll progress. But I also think motivation is your most critical resource in moving forward, and that it’s worth sacrificing some efficiency to avoid burning out. It’s all about finding the right balance.

  15. I’m using subtitles to watch an anime episode once or twice (depending on it’s difficulty level) and then it goes into my immersion pod. I seem to be picking up a lot more when I’ve first understood what’s going on in the anime, and at my current level I can’t understand anything interesting without subs. I can also enjoy the same manga with a dictionary, after having watched the anime. I’m pretty sure that on my level it’d be frustrating to read a completely unknown story.

    I’ve also noticed that it’s very important for the immersion material to be something I love and something that really sticks to my mind, so that I can really see the events in my mind’s eye when immersing. I try to listen to the Japanese when I first watch it and often pause it to skim the subs first and then listen. I’d like to think that using subs like this can’t be too bad.

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