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?
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
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.
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.
*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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.