My view on using English subtitles is pretty well known on this site. The short answer: I don’t recommend them. I’ve softened up a bit over the years and have accepted some middle-ground methods like reading English summaries or watching in English first followed by Japanese. But what about the much less talked about topic of Japanese subtitles? Many people think this is a no-brainer. It’s Japanese, so it doesn’t matter. Do Japanese subtitles deserve a free pass though?
Japanese subtitles’ early reign
If you are a beginner or intermediate level, you don’t need me to tell you how useful Japanese subtitles can be. Your reading ability is probably miles ahead of your listening, so Japanese subtitles give you access to a world of native media you wouldn’t normally be ready for yet.
If this is you, then please go ahead and binge on Japanese subtitles. You get reading, you get listening, and most importantly, there is no English. Removing English is a top priority, and Japanese subtitles are a key to getting there. They’ll give you confidence and preparation to a Japanese-only world.
Japanese subtitles eventually need restraint
Japanese subtitles won’t ever harm your Japanese. If you are watching something in Japanese, with Japanese subtitles, your Japanese is getting better. More precisely, your Japanese reading ability is getting better. Reading ability is great, because it complements all your other skills. But your reading ability will dominate early on no matter what you do. Your Japanese listening ability… not so much.
One of the things people discovered while using Jalup Situations here is how challenging audio flash cards can be. Jalup Situations solely tests your listening ability from the early Jalup Decks. An audio sentence on the front with no text is surprisingly challenging, even if you’ve mastered the Jalup decks.
To get good at conversations, you need to have conversations. This is why people are shocked at their first conversation, despite studying for several months before having it. Listening is the same. To get good at listening, you need to listen, without the assistance of Japanese subtitles.
Breaking Japanese subtitle addiction
“I can stop Japanese subtitles whenever I want!”
The reality isn’t so easy. Japanese subtitles make you feel strong and in power. You get used to the empowering feeling of understanding and enjoying native Japanese material. What happens when you strip your assisted boost away? Your listening ability appears to drop by 20% or more, and you feel as though you’ve taken many steps backwards.
Think of this as a positive. Because when you finally drop them, you realize how much of a handicap they were actually giving you all along, and you know where you have to now improve.
Continual reliance on Japanese subtitles keeps you in your comfort zone. You know my view on Japanese comfort zones… The good news is that the methods to break away from English subtitles can be applied in exactly the same way (minus the English).
If you are an advanced or higher level learner, recognize the addiction, and start planning to break it.
Are Japanese subtitles really that bad?
In the scheme of things that are good and bad for your Japanese, Japanese subtitles are not bad at all. The worst case scenario is a slower development of your listening ability, in exchange for greater reading.
You also can’t and shouldn’t avoid them altogether. Variety shows should become a great part of your immersion experience, and the subtitles they have are giant, in your face, and pretty much unavoidable. Sure you could try to look away, but this decreases your enjoyment of a show.
Japanese subtitles aren’t something bad that you have to banish from your Japanese life. They are amazing for your early levels, and just need to be continually decreased over time.
What is your experience with Japanese subtitles?
Are you using them? Did you eventually stop?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.