Can You Learn Japanese from Watching Anime?
So, you want to know if you can learn Japanese from watching anime.
With almost all answers from me, the response is it depends. Yes and no.
We’re in for a long read here, so just to start off, I’m going to shoot out a bunch of yes no answers real quick:
- No, you can’t learn Japanese JUST from watching anime (unless you’re some kind of genius).
- Yes, you can IMPROVE your Japanese from watching anime
- No, you should not speak Japanese like how anime characters do
- No, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn other things from anime such as vocabulary terms and grammar patterns
- Yes, You can spend years studying Japanese formally at university or any other kind of institution, and still learn things from watching anime, even if it’s just a new vocabulary or common phrase here and there.
- Yes, there are certain types or genres of anime much more suited to learning from (romantic comedies set in a school campus are much more friendly than science fiction mecha series with an overload of technical jargon).
- Yes anime is cool as hell, no matter how old you become.
- And lastly, but most relevantly now: No, watching anime is nowhere near the most efficient way to learn Japanese.
This is where my personal advice comes in:
If you intend to start studying Japanese seriously, as in you have a set goal to be this level within this amount of time or are going to be moving to Japan or anything like that, do not put hard time and effort into trying to learn Japanese from anime. Instead, put that time and effort into studying more educational resources, and the ability to understand the Japanese in anime will naturally come along with that.
This approach that we’re going to talk about should only really apply to people who love anime, watch a lot of it, and want to turn that enjoyable experience into the seeds of an educational opportunity too , even if just super casually at first. For example, maybe you’re in high school right now and plan to take Japanese classes and study it seriously in college, but have a couple of years and a lot of anime you’ll be wanting to watch until then. For example, maybe you’re not invested in learning the language enough to study kanji 2 hours every single day or are too shy to practice speaking to a stranger online for practice. But what you do do is watch an episode of anime every day while eating dinner or something. Even with something as simple as that, that’s 2.333 hours of being exposed to Japanese speech a week. If you been a fan of anime for even just a year, that’s roughly 120 hours total. The idea here is to take advantage of that decent amount of exposure and turn it from Japanese just sounding like an alien language to Japanese being something you’re able to at least make a bit of sense of and in turn have an opportunity to learn some new-say a new word, or phrase, or grammar pattern, from each line of dialogue you hear.
So basically, what you want to do is introduce yourself to the absolute basics of the language and reach a bare minimum level.
And the good news is that if you watch enough anime, it’s already very likely that you’ve done this, just to a lesser degree. Lots of anime fans will know and are likely to never forget the definitions of words like (Ready? Anime word recognition test in 3,2,1…) kanojo, kokoro, suki, baka, kawaii, senpai, tsundere, bakemono, chikara, daijoubu, ganbaru, jigoku, kareshi, mochiron, sasuga, sugoi, tomodachi, etc. despite never having learned hiragana (the Japanese characters) or what sounds the Japanese language even uses. Why? Simply because those words are among the most commonly used words in anime and after you’ve heard them so many times, they’ve become ingrained in your memory. We’re going by the same principle here. We just have to establish the foundation for it to happen for a wider range of words-and even further, for grammar.
And so, the approach that we’re going to recommend for people interested in accomplishing this is to:
Spend a good week or two at least learning the absolute basics of the Japanese language:
- The letters, or more correctly termed, characters it uses. While there are three different writing systems for the Japanese language, they all use the same pronunciation, so you theoretically could get by with just learning the first of the three, hiragana, in the beginning. (1-4 days)
- After that, you learn the basic sentence structure to Japanese sentences. (1 day)
- Then get introduced to word types, adjectives, nouns, verbs, particles, etc. and get an idea of how to distinguish a given word as one of those types. (1-5 days)
So now you might be going, whoa, whoa, whoa, 1-2 weeks to learn all that information? Just because you’re calling it the basics, doesn’t mean it takes that little time to learn.
Well, let’s see if we can boost your confidence a bit by doing a condensed, proportional example version right now and get a glimpse of the process. First, we’ll try to introduce you to the utmost introductory information about each of those subjects, then we’ll jump into an example line from an anime and break it down with just that information.
-We are going to skip hiragana/katakana/kanji because that simply cannot be taught in the span of a few minutes-
Basic Japanese Sentence Structure (loosely the opposite order of English sentence structure):
“I ate a hamburger.”
(SUBJECT > VERB > OBJECT)
“Watashi wa hamburger o tabemashita.”
(Literal English translation: “I hamburger ate.”)
(SUBJECT > OBJECT > VERB)
*plus particles after NOUN words to mark them as such, e.g. topic/subject marker particle wa after the noun watashi to mark it as the subject/topic and direct object marker o after the noun hamburger to mark it as the direct object
Japanese Word Types:
Adjectives: 2 Types. What we call i-adjectives (い) and na-adjectives (な). i-adjectives are called that because they end in the i-sound. On the other hand, na adjectives can end in anything and are called that because the character na appears after them when they modify nouns.
Nouns: The most vast word group, these words can end in essentially any character/sound.
Verbs: Also a very vast word group. Has the most forms of conjugation, which take a lot of time to learn but become easier to distinguish once done (e.g. words ending in (ました, ませんでした, etc. are obvious verb words). Generally divided into two sub-groups, ru-verbs and u-verbs, because they end in ru (る) and u (う) respectively. However, this only applies when they are in what is called the Dictionary Form, which is the superficial equivalent of the present/future tense in English.
です (desu) and だ (da): A copula, a word used to link subject and predicate. Usually marks the end of a clause or sentence.
Now, a short and simple line from one of my favorite anime series, One Piece.
“Luffy wa kaizokuou ni naru otoko da!”
(Literal translation: “Luffy is Pirate King become man!”)
(Proper translation: “Luffy is the man who will become Pirate King!”)
Of course, the English translation of the line right there is going to be something you’ll be given if you’re watching the show with subtitles. The Japanese line we have provided and written out is something you’d have to pick up yourself by ear. It goes without saying that this is why learning at least hiragana would be important.
Now for the analysis. How many of these words in this Japanese line, of the seven, do we recognize with our current knowledge?
- (Luffy/ルフィ) = name of character = noun (also appears before subject/topic marker wa, which means it is a subject/topic/noun)
- (wa/は) = particle/topic marker
- (kaizokuou/海賊王) – one of the words we’re likely to not know as a complete beginner
- (ni/に) = particle
- (naru/なる) = another word we’re likely to not know as complete beginners, but from what we just learned, we could assume it’s a verb because the ru ending
- (otoko/男) = the last of three words here that we’re likely to not know, but we might be able to presume that it’s maybe a noun based on the spelling
- (da/だ) = copula to end the sentence.
So, four out of seven. Not bad. This gives us:
“Luffy is [UNKNOWN NOUN] [UNKNOWN VERB] [UNKNOWN NOUN].”
The only verb in the English translation we have available is “become”, so then we now have:
“Luffy is [UNKNOWN NOUN] become [UNKNOWN NOUN].”
We know from Japanese sentence structure that object type words such as direct objects, indirect objects, etc. are positioned before the verb action unlike in English where they appear after the verb.
So this means the word positioned before our verb, naru/なる, is connected to the action. We refer to the English translation and see that that word is “pirate king”. So then we confirm that kaizokuou/海賊王 means “pirate king.”
“Luffy is Pirate King become [UNKNOWN NOUN].”
Which leaves the last unknown word to become the last word left in our English translations, “man.” Thus, otoko/男 means “man.”
“Luffy is Pirate King become man.”
While this is our definitive answer when it comes to meaning, but we do need to naturalize it to make it sounds like proper English.
”Luffy is the man who will become Pirate King.”
In the end, if we didn’t take the time to learn about Japanese sentence structure, verb words, noun words, adjectives, particles, etc. we would not have had any means to engage in this process of elimination and potentially learn 3 new words from one line of dialogue: kaizokuou/海賊王 means “pirate king,” naru/なる means “to become,” otoko/男 means “man.”
Even if you’re not catching the Japanese lines by ear perfectly and are barely only making sense of two of the seven words-say you only heard the “ni naru” part of that sentence, that can still be good for you because it’s reaffirming for you various nuances about the language such as the fact that you use the particle ni with naru to make the grammar pattern that is “to become.” Admittedly, ni naru is perhaps an overly simple example, but there are in fact a lot of verbs out there wherein it’s hard to remember whether to use them with the particle ni/に or some other particle like o/を.