Japanese School in Japan,Fukuoka - NILS

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Learning Japanese through J-Dramas


A lot of international students learn Japanese due to a wide variety of reasons. Some learn it because of anime, some because of manga, while others like to watch Japanese dramas. However, watching anime or dramas do not simply mean that they use it as means of learning the language. Some prefer to watch it for leisure while some use it to learn and improve their Japanese. As for those who watch J-dramas to learn Japanese, the key is to take full advantage of the subtitles that tend to come with these J-dramas.

Why Learn Japanese through J-Dramas?

Well, they are fun! Some of the best dramas in the world are in Japan. They tend to be short, typically around eleven episodes, and emotionally intense. They are very addictive too. The actors in dramas speak very clearly and usually only one person speaks at a time. Dramas feature useful, conversational language. In addition, this is the best way to learn things like 相槌(あいづち), which are sounds given during a conversation to indicate comprehension. There are constantly new drama series which frequently tackle current cultural concerns or problems. Not only will you get to learn the language, but you will also gain a deeper understanding in Japanese culture.

To assist you in your journey in learning Japanese through J-dramas, I will show some techniques to make full use of the subtitles as they will definitely help you improve your Japanese.

Techniques for Learning Japanese with Subtitles

Simply Rewatch to Learn with Subtitles

One strategy can make a big difference to your Japanese learning experience. This is to simply watch each episode with subtitles, to try and listen out for the grammar and vocabulary that is used, and then to watch the episode again without subtitles. When you watch the episode the second time you will notice that you will remember the general gist of the conversations and the plot, the challenging part will be to listen and to comprehend.

From your first viewing you would have picked up some new vocabulary, as well as heard the grammar and vocabulary that you do know. With this in mind the first thing you need to do on your second viewing is to pick these out again plus the new vocabulary you heard previously. You can build upon this by watching the same drama again and again. After enough viewings you will find you can easily watch the episode without subtitles.

A special aspect of this is that Japanese dramas tend to only have eleven episodes, so if you can understand one episode perfectly then you are perfectly positioned to watch the other episodes with little preparation. You could even challenge yourself to watch the rest of the series without subtitles.

Dissect Every Subtitle and Master Every Word

It’s often not enough to just compare the Japanese subtitle and English translation. To really master the words, you need to dissect the subtitles and study each word individually. This involves steps like:

  • Looking words up in a good dictionary or thesaurus. This helps clarify the meaning, but also by using a thesaurus you can discover similar words.
  • Find good examples so you know how the words are used. It’s often not enough to just use the information provided in a dictionary. You need to get examples and kick the tires a bit.
  • Input words and examples into flashcards. To increase your efficiency and be more systematic, you can create flashcards based on the dictionary and thesaurus. You can either do this online through an app and add your new vocabulary to your flashcard desk, or simply create a physical flashcard deck. For hardcore flashcard aficionados who use Anki and have some technical prowess, this open source project called subs2srs might really speed up your learning process.
  • Review words on a periodic basis with your flashcards. You need to be consistent with your review, and also systematic with scheduling words. You don’t want to spend too much time spending easy words, for example.

Reverse Engineering – Using subtitles to translate the dialogue back into Japanese

This method is an extremely good way of using subtitles, but it is very challenging and time consuming. The combination of video, sound and English subtitles are weapons to be used, we just need to learn how to use them. First of all watch the drama episode with subtitles first in order to give you an idea about the plot, as well as what is said in the dialogues and more specifically the kind of language that is used.

The next step is to try and transcribe the dialogue, with the subtitles turned off, in Japanese. This will require repeated viewings and you will have to listen very carefully in order to get everything written down. If you are watching on a computer you can take advantage of certain software to slow down the video and sound so that you can hear every syllable.

Once you are finished you will have a transcription of the Japanese dialogue along with the video and audio to listen to, and the subtitles to refer to in order to understand how this Japanese drama has been translated. You can pick up a lot of vocabulary and grammar, see the differences between how different genders, and generations, speak and also gain an insight into translation.


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