Learning Japanese Vocabulary Watching Anime (Part 1)

Lately I’ve been working to learn new Japanese verbs while watching Japanese animation. I’m at a level where I understand more than I realize, so I tend not to “hear” the individual words spoken. Also, visual content gives a lot of context, which makes things harder.

The easiest method for learning a new word is hearing it many times over. Hearing a word and seeing the context it’s used in (and perhaps having English subtitles) along with repetition makes it easy to remember. An example word I learned by hearing it many times over is “tasukete”, which is the verb “tasukeru” (saves) in the te form (in this case, an informal command), thus, “Save me!” It also helps when remembering a word also bring an image of the situation it was used in, which makes for a colorful and useful visual mnemonic.

Learning New Words Helps to Learn New Words

Learning verbs by listening for verbs in an episode of a series means knowing the many forms a verb can conjugate into. The less forms you know, the less words you can pick up. I would recommend learning a handful of common verbs and their different forms to begin with. Don’t concern yourself over the meanings of mite, minai, mireba, and mita, only know that these are forms of miru (mimasu), or “see”, “look”. Once you know these words, even without meaning, you’ll “hear” them more often when watching anime (or other Japanese material, such as a live action, or a CD drama). With visual context, you’ll gain an “understanding” of the “situation” in which a word is used.

An example from my experience is from an episode of Detective Conan. I think it was roughly around episode 100. Teenager Ran and teenager-turned-child Conan are in a home when a resident uses his performance magic to make a flock of doves fly out from under Ran’s skirt. After this startling event, Ran holds her skirt down, looks at Conan, and asks sternly, “Mita?”

Before Ran’s “Mita?”, I knew “mita” was a form of “miru”, and I knew miru was look, and see. I didn’t know what the ta form of verbs meant. Obviously Ran wasn’t asking for Conan to look; she was asking if he “saw” her underwear. I pulled out a book on Japanese verbs and looked up the ta form. Sure enough, it marks the past form of a verb. Miru is see, mita is saw.

Thanks to Ran’s embarrassing situation, I learned the casual past tense form of verbs. I already knew the polite form (mimashita), as that’s what I learned in Japanese class back in high school. Unfortunately, while I’d use the polite form myself, it’s very rare to hear polite dialogue used in Japanese animation. Characters such as Pepper in A Little Snow Fairy Sugar and, if I recall correctly, Tomoyo in Cardcaptor Sakura do speak properly, which is nice for a listener who is used to this form of verb.

Anime Viewing for Learning Lacks Efficiency

As pure study material, Japanese animation is probably one of the worst methods to use. It requires time and effort. A book you can easily skip around in, often with an index to locate words for you. With an animation episode, you’re at the mercy of sitting and watching an entire episode. This in itself isn’t a bad thing as long as you have the focus to catch new verbs as you listen. Otherwise, watching is pure entertainment, and you’ll then have to re-watch it with more focus to learn anything.

I used to skip the opening and ending themes when watching anime, as I’ve already seen them a few times after the first few episodes. This might not be such a good idea, as there may be new words for me to learn. It gives me a chance to catch new verbs in the same song day after day, thus repetition. It’s especially helpful when every other viewing of the theme has subtitles of the Japanese words in romaji. I picked up the word soeru (“attach (a letter) to”) in “Sugar Baby Love”, the opening theme to A Little Snow Fairy Sugar, only after I was about 12 episodes in. I would have learned it sooner if I made an effort to learn it sooner, and I wouldn’t remember it after finishing the series had I not made the effort at all. The sooner the better, so it will be heard as many times as possible before finishing a series.

I’ve considered documenting episodes where I hear a verb, how far into the episode, and the situation, maybe with a screenshot. This would be a lot of work which might have no practical benefit to myself or others, so maybe I won’t go through with it. It doesn’t help when I think of this as I’m coming out of watching two Japanese series, am working through an Australian live action series, and am preparing to begin watching a Korean animation series. The next Japanese series I plan to watch is set for more than two months away.

If you want to learn words by watching a Japanese series, don’t expect to pick up too many words through osmosis. Just as with anything and everything, the amount you take out of something is directly proportional to the amount of effort you put into it. You may just have to learn new words before you hear them in a series to solidify knowing their meaning, and you might not even hear those words. At the same time, when you do hear a new word you don’t know, you must be diligent in writing it down, learning its meaning, and reviewing it. In a later post, I’ll go into the methods I use for review.

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