Can You Really Learn Japanese from Watching Anime?

One of my dad’s friends once told me, “All the Hindi you could ever need to know exists within the average Hindi movie.” Having watched many and understood the majority of the plot, I can confirm that in my experience, it is true. However, I won’t lie that I was initially suspicious of that statement. After all, when was I ever going to say things like, “Love is the song of the lord”, in poetic Hindi-Urdu at that? But as I began reading more and learning about the role of language in my English class and Spanish class, it is clear to me that media, to a degree, can reflect contemporary styles of the spoken and written language. Note I use two specific words here: can and contemporary. I say can because it is not always true. There is such thing a poorly written period piece, and can happen as easily in English as in Japanese. I also say contemporary because the language used in a particular medium of communication always suits a particular period, though not necessarily the modern one.

Now this brings me to the question of the post: can you learn Japanese from anime? Now, I’m going to be addressing this as a broader topic in this post, but this specific instance is perhaps one of the most common and serves as a good point of comparison. Many anime are adapted from manga, which are two separate media, but I’ll get to that soon. Anime has a considerable range of genres, including drama, fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and the infamous magical girl genre. Because of the range of genres, there is a similarly wide range of language. In a historical anime about feudal Japan, the language may feature archaic constructions and diction characteristic of the Edo period. Obviously, modern Japanese has shifted greatly since then, but watching such anime can serve as a valuable lesson in recognizing historical references and jokes involving the language of the era. And granted, this is all true assuming you watch the subbed versions. You can learn from anime, provided you actually have a working knowledge of Japanese. By being able to recognize certain constructions, you can pick up new vocabulary, by reading the subtitles and comparing the word and the construction used. As for someone like myself, who hasn’t actually started learning Japanese, I recognize a few set phrases here and there, but I don’t know enough of the grammar to extrapolate from the spoken language. Remember, guessing can be your greatest tool! It’s rather like process of elimination, because if you can pick out most of the other words in the sentence and then look at the translation, it’ll be easier to figure out the unknown word(s). Remember, this isn’t exclusive to Japanese! This can apply to just about any language with a well-established media presence, which unfortunately screws over minority languages and those without a written tradition. Watch a Korean drama to improve your listening skills and follow along if you can. As a Korean learner, I can say that it definitely helps. If you’re looking for recommendations (well, really, my friends’ recommendations), The Heirs is pretty good, and Bride of the Century isn’t bad either. If you can get past numerous scenes of the main theme playing while the protagonist is crying their eyes out in a cellar or in their room or something, then it’s a worthwhile experience.

Moving on to the other side of media: the written tradition. Going back to the Japanese example, manga can be a great tool in learning new kanji and also familiarizing yourself with the written language. Even though Japanese, as a language, can be somewhat challenging, it’s one of the few languages where it’s very easy to get into reading. If you’re a Spanish or Arabic learner, you might be hard-pressed to find native material that you can mostly understand at a lower level. But a word of caution: the written form of any language historically lags behind the spoken language. What I mean is that what people say may not be appropriate for what is written. For example, I say the word, “hella” when I speak in English, to mean “very”. And I do use them interchangeably, primarily as a shift in register. But I would almost never use the word “hella” in written format, although it’s becoming more common in texting, informal messaging on forums, and such. Sometimes, as in the case of Kannada, the written language may not even sound the same way as it’s spoken. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading and writing! Both are important sources of learning new vocabulary and practice. It’s important to be well-versed in both the spoken and written form of the language, so that you have more than one way of acquiring new information.

That’s all I have for this time! If you have any comments, feel free to leave some. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.