Immersion month 4: Letting go of subtitles

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.


Thank you for writing this post log. It inspires me to persevere. I can relate to many of the troubles you have met. :relieved:


Writing about it really helps me better understand where I’m at, and shows that I’m not alone in this. Thank you for reading through it.


Thank you. It was an interesting post to read.
I still watch anime with subtitles because it really bothers me when I can’t understand even a little bit. I’m a perfectionist so it’s really hard to let go.
Partly because of that, I hardly ever watch anime anymore, preferring to read manga or light novels in Japanese where I can more easily look up words.
I need to watch more though because my listening comprehension is one of my worst skills…
I’ve taken to watching the news in Japanese without subtitles lately. Because I don’t really care about what they are saying, I’m less bothered when I don’t understand bits and pieces.


Not come across Pimsleur before, what are your thoughts?


I watch content with Japanese subtitles (not English) because I use subtitles for all English content anyway. It’s actually been kind of a rough ride accepting that, because so often the message is “you NEED to stop using all subs eventually or you’ll never be fluent”, which has been really demotivating before. Not accusing you of saying that, especially since your post was more about English subs! But it just made me think about it, haha.


Thank you for another great post! I have watched some anime with just Japanese subtitles…it was a bit difficult but surprisingly, I did not need to understand 100% to enjoy it… For Jdramas, for some reason I find Japanese subs a bit more distracting compared to watching anime with Japanese subs…

Maybe its me being selfish… in general, I just watch anime / Jdramas with English subs… I guess I just want to have one activity that I can just enjoy without overthinking it. I generally watch anime in the evening while eating, between Japanese study sessions hehe… its my “break” time hehe


Listening is by far my weakest skill as well, which is why I’m trying to watch more content. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’m lost when watching a series, but the struggle is worth it.

It basically jumpstarted my journey into speaking. Cemented some concepts and grammar early on, and most importantly, got me thinking in Japanese.

Compared to what’s available today, it may seem a little boring and outdated, but if you stick with it the material you learn you will learn very well. If your speaking needs work I would highly recommend it.

I totally understand that. I did very much the same thing. Eat dinner in the evening and watched a subbed anime. Did this for about two years. It really does feel like a reward. Watching without subs now… and it still feels very similar. It still feels like a reward, and it’s also a good to do before studying, kind of preps your mind.


Subs are in Japanese so that still 10 times better than English. And whether you’ll become fluent or not watching native subbed content, that’s debatable. I think that just depends on the individual. No one person or group holds the key to fluency, even if thats what they claim.

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Thank you for taking the time to write this post! It was a nice read, and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts and views on this topic. I might be one of those rare outliers from most of the data you’ve seen/heard about :stuck_out_tongue:

I explained a little bit of how I picked up Japanese in those posts a while ago, but to summarize, I think my idiosyncratic, personal mode of engagement with my entertainment is, by default, a cross between “fully” relaxing, and listening to a lecture in class! :laughing: I crave intellectual stimulation during my downtime, and so I seemed to find success with paying attention to a mix of subbed anime (heavy) and doujin vocal music (light) which helped me establish a strong phonetic base, and throughout my journey of learning more and more of the language, listening skill has always held a solid lead among the four core language skills.

Despite my early-to-middling progress within a lot of learning tools, I’d say I’m fairly proficient at just listening; I’ve sampled some JLPT N1 listening material and didn’t find myself struggling all that much, so my confidence is well-founded, I think. It’s been this way for a while, as even 5 years ago or so, I could watch anime and stuff like old-fashioned Let’s Plays on Nico Nico without the need for subs and comprehend more or less everything going on.

Edit: I forgot to mention, I even watched ぼくらの7日間戦争 subless the other day because I accidentally just forgot to turn on subs, and was too lazy to go and fix it, so I just sat through! :laughing: Gotta say, I went back and skimmed the subbed version afterward, and was not nearly as satisfied with the subs as my own mental experience of listening raw. It was an emotional experience that I think would have been muted by passing it through the interpretation of a translator.

Even if it makes me a statistical outlier, I’m proud of having been able to grow my skill in this way.

Tools like WK, BunPro, and diligent dictionary usage were undoubtedly vital to correcting a lot of the self-taught misconceptions I home-grew about some points of the language, though! 結局, nothing beats a proper, devoted effort to study!

Also: my sympathies about your brother :wink:

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Well thank you for reading. I truly believe that there is no real right or wrong way to go about it. But it helps to learn from people who have had success and a lot of experience. I’m jealous of the fact that you have a proficient listening level, probably makes consumption of media much more enjoyable.

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It does. In fact, that’s the main driving force of me wanting to continue learning, so it had better! :rofl:

But my reading is still pretty lackluster. I had to reset my WaniKani because I was crushed under a review mountain after a hiatus and losing morale, and now I can feel myself rusting out on kanji as I slowly catch back up to where I was… :sob: Having to look up every other word in simple sentences in a dictionary is soooo painful.

In any case, though, I wish you (and everyone else) the best with your listening journey; it is very rewarding, and it only gets more and more fun and rewarding once you start picking up those first snippets, so be sure to stick to regular practice/consumption! :blush: :two_hearts: