As far back as I can remember, watching anime with subtitles was almost a rite of passage. The debate rages on to this day, dubs vs subs. And yes, at one point in my life I was one of those wee…ahem, people who would lambast other anime fans for watching dubs. Not knowing much Japanese, in my mind I was watching it in a more authentic, true way, the way the creators originally intended. Sure, I wasn’t understanding what they were saying, but I was clearly hearing Japanese being spoken, so surely I would learn or pick up something. And to be fair, I picked up a word here, a word there, a useful phrase, and memorize the most repeated basic things like most Pocky munching, Ramune gulping Akatsuki cloak wearers. But formation of sentences, vocabulary, grammar, was practically non-existent.
I’m not going to get deep into the science as to why watching Japanese content with English subtitles doesn’t work, since that topic has been deeply covered and better researched by other individuals, but I will let you know what I’ve garnered from my own experience and observations over the years. To this day, (most people in the US at least) who become interested in learning Japanese is usually because they got into anime. By the time most of them can take a proper Japanese Class, it is either in High school or College. By then, many of them have already consumed a good amount of anime with subtitles, so compared to everyone else in class, they should have an advantage, but this is rarely ever the case. Those individuals that drowned themselves in subtitles had so much trouble recalling the most basic vocabulary, and could barely form a sentence. A couple did pick it up well enough, but most of the students that did well watched very little anime, mostly focusing on the textbook material and the teacher’s lessons. It was easy to see who was doing well and who was not. The anime fans, while passionate and enthusiastic about wanting to learn initially, often had their morale crushed by the fact that they could not understand the most basic things. Some would just stop going to class altogether, me included when I got to Elementry II in my first year of college. When I returned to college years later to take that Elementery II class again, I had all three volumes of Pimsleur down and plenty of self study under my belt, I crushed the class the second time, same teacher and all. One who I still know to this day. But sitting next to me was kid who was the about the same age when I took that class the first time. Enthusiastic about the language, big anime fan, genuinely wanted to learn. He stopped coming after about three or four weeks. There is a little bit of relief knowing it’s not just you, but it also hits hard when you know someone else is going through what you once went through.
Then there is the case of my brother who I’m pretty convinced, has probably watched approximately 15,000 hours of subtitled anime and can’t speak a lick of it. This may seem like an exaggeration, but I’ve seen him binge 100 episodes in a few days. He even has issues recognizing the language outside of the context of anime, and he’s bilingual. While I will admit that he doesn’t have very good language intuition, I can say that I don’t either.
Watching with subtitles is also very labor intensive for someone who has studied Japanese before. It actually can be more tiresome in many cases. When someone doesn’t know Japanese or very little, they are mostly processing the English subtitles and the images, so while it is more taxing than just watching dubbed in English, for the most part it is negligible if your English reading ability is average. When you know some Japanese and are understanding some of it, not only are you processing the images, English subtitles, and the Japanese that you know, but you are also processing the English translation relative to the Japanese dialogue, picking out works you don’t know, making comparisons to the English, you may think about how you may have translated it instead and so on. It’s way more information to process because your constantly switching between two languages, whereas if you were just watching it raw, you’re only processing Japanese. It’s almost like trying to play two instruments that are differently tuned at the same time.
One thing that I also feel holds people back from dropping the subtitles is the notion of understanding everything, and I totally get this. As an amateur writer myself, I care about each line of dialogue, each nuance, each reference, and I want the audience to understand it as well. I am the type of person who will talk to most NPCs in rpgs, and read dialogue that is not relavent to anything important in the main plot. But you have to ask yourself one question; What more important? Understanding everything, or bettering my Japanese? You may miss a reference or two, you may not understand the sentence even if you’ve looked up every word and looked into all the context, sometimes you may be completely lost, but I feel that the struggle is much more beneficial in the long run. It’s a similar struggle to living in Japan and trying to do things on a daily basis there. Yes, you may not understand everything the cashier says, setting up wi-fi can be difficult, going to the pharmacy may lead to you having to take out your dictionary on more than a few occasions, but that struggle gets easier with time. English subtitles can save you if you’re just at home watching something or playing a game, but they will not be there in the real world. I mean, I’ve literally been walking down the street in Akihabara and heard young, western anime fans say “I need subtitles right now.” There will be quite a bit of struggling, some frustration, and times that you may just want to turn the subs back on. But trust me, the feeling of understanding a piece of dialogue, a deeply rooted reference, an entire scenario in Japanese. The feeling is far more fruitful and exhilarating than reading interpreted dialogue that is a approximation of what was actually said. And I’m not taking away anything from translators and interpreters who do the best job that they possibly can, but they understand this perhaps better than anyone, and put their own spin on it for the sake of the narrative and the audience its being translated for.
But perhaps the biggest sin in watching with subtitles, is that it’s like having training wheels that never come off. I remember riding my bike with training wheels as a kid. I was on them longer than most kids should have been. Nobody could really explain or articulate to me how to go about riding a bike. My parents are both Mexican immigrants who just had to learn if they didn’t want to walk an hour to school. The other kids, they just thought it was weird that I still had training wheels, but didn’t do much to help me out. So I just tried and tried for hours on the weekends, until one day I finally balanced myself well enough and was riding freely. I was exhilarated, shouting, basking in the glory despite the blistering Texas heat. Then I crashed head on into the basketball post. That’s fine, I got up and kept rode again the rest of the evening. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. But what if I just put the training wheels back on after I had crashed that first time? Unfortunately, I feel that this is an issue that is far too common among Japanese learners, especially those who watch anime. I can attest to being one of those people who put the training wheels back on more than a few occasions in my lifetime. And despite the training wheels, it sort of did feel like I was experiencing Japanese to a certain degree. Although, if you did see someone, especially an adult using training wheels, I really doubt that you would call them a bicyclist.
So in the end, i’m definitely not anti-subtitle. They can be helpful early on and through the process, especially if you switch to Japanese subtitles. But even Japanese subtitles can be a hinderance to your listening skills if you rely on them too much. At least I feel that has been the case with me. If I feel I really need to know something and haven’t been able to figure it out with out the context, dictionary, and Japanese subtitles, then on a rare occasion I will turn on English subtitles on for a line or two of dialogue. Otherwise, it’s something I tend to stay away from these days. The brain likes to take the path of least resistance, and if there are English subtitles there, your eyes will eventually gravitate towards them even if your Japanese is at a decent level. And besides, on the more pompous side, when they ask you dub or sub, you can answer……raw.
April was a tumultuous month for me, in the relative sense. Apart from a couple life changes, I was summoned to jury duty and was selected. Was in the courtroom for a week and while it was a good experience, and I don’t regret doing my duty as an American citizen, it did put a hamper on my routine. My immersion took a bit of a hit, but I did watch Dad of Light on Netflix which was interesting, if a little sappy. The kansai-ben deck definitely helped out for that series (Thanks Asher). Some very good gaming vocab in that series which is can be very helpful for gamers. Speaking of gaming I didn’t play as much in Japanese this past month. Still going through Persona 5 Royal, and very unwisely started Fire Emblem Three Houses as well. Good luck to me on that. Reading was very weak overall. I’ve been sleeping a little better, but exercising less. Since I changed up my routine at the beginning of this year, April has definitely been the least productive and least immersive month. Looking to get back to more productive days with less filler time overall. Random Youtube is still something I’m struggling with. Before each video I watch I have to ask myself “1, do I actually care about this, and 2, am I going to get any benefit out of watching this?” It worked before, so I’ll try this again. In May, probably going to start a new anime and continue reading through the light novels and manga I’ve currently going through. Been getting out more since cases are down in my city, so may be a good time to get to speaking again.