Watching with subtitles vs without

As the topic suggests, I heard from multiple sources that listening to native material without subtitles is the way to archive the true ability to master the listening skill.
I do not doubt that it can be useful, since it’s the endgame, but I found it much too hard for me to understand anything at all.

I tried watching a couple of hours of terrace house without subtitles now and it got me nowhere. I don’t understand what’s going on - at all. Here and there I grasp some words and sentences that MIGHT be the correct one, but since I don’t get the context I find the learning potential extremely elusive.
But again, I heard that exactly this “out-of-context” of not knowing is what will get you there and I do have my doubts that it is more useful than having the subtitles turned on and understanding at least the gist of what’s going on.

Can someone shed some light on why this method is so recommended?
Just to be clear, whenever I heard this method being recommended, it was clearly stated all the time that it was level independent and was necessary from the start.

I’m in an intermediate level of my Japanese studies, but still can not understand anything without subtitles.


For me is always on

English is not my native language and since I started studying it in 2005, to this day subtitles is a must for every tv show and movie, specially because I dont listen with loud volume, so reading it is.

For Japanese now, it has been one year watching anime with jp subtitles and of courrse for many many years I will still use it as a way to reinforce what I am learning.


At the start, and even in advanced levels, English subtitles can help you as long as you actively pay attention to the audio and try to figure out parts you didn’t understand just from the audio alone, or even just picking up new vocabulary and quickly seeing the translation in the subs.

Also worth mentioning is that sometimes the subs aren’t the best, so you need to be able to figure out if they’re just telling you the message without being literal, or even are just mistaken. Happens a lot more often than you would expect, even in official translations.

If you can, Japanese subtitles also work.

Sometimes you can’t tell what someone said because of the speed, or maybe can’t figure it out without context, but either just being able to see the subs, or especially the kanji, can help quickly show you what they meant.

You do need a relatively good reading speed for this, but even if you aren’t at that level yet, it’s probably better than no subs.

It might be a bit overwhelming to pay attention to the audio and have to focus on reading in Japanese at the same time.

No subs can be a learning experience. It lets you focus on what’s happening without worrying too much about what’s exactly being said, imo.

In a similar way that you would probably understand what’s going on in a movie if you watched it muted, though obviously not the finer details.

The problem is I do think you need to have a pretty good level for it not to be frustrating or just meaningless, besides picking up the odd word here and there, or being immersed in the language and picking up pronunciation and maybe grammar patterns.


I struggle with this too. I usually use JP subs and it skyrockets my comprehension. It can seem so bad without them depending on the subject. Maybe I will get there one day?

Somehow English subs can make it worse for me(discounting the option of muting the Japanese and only reading). It’s hard for me to not read it even though I can ignore them. But if I glance down to try to quickly grab a word, I can get all mixed up and end up not understanding the phrase at all in time. I definitely can’t seem to fully understand hearing one language and reading the other at the same time. The best I can do is read the English, and kind of get some extra nuance from the way the Japanese is phrased.

I also kind of wonder if there is a slight lag in switching from one language use to the other. It’s like the longer I’m only in Japanese mode, the better I get (it gets warmed up) and the English words seem to mess with that. Anyone else have the same experience?


There’s certainly a groove you get in when speaking and thinking in one language, but you can get used to switching quickly, or basically incorporating both at the same time.

Mexicans love to intersperse English words or phrases in their day to day conversations.

The more languages you know, the more you have to pull from, after all.

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Oh, sorry for not being clear on this. I meant Japanese subtitles.

I was wondering how much it really helps to just listen to the audio without any Japanese nor English subtitles.
When having the Japanese subtitles on, at least I can understand the gist of what’s happening.
Having none at all makes it really hard for me to even understand the general context.

It’s not actually that important to have them off, especially at the beginning. You still gain listening ability. And gradually you can force yourself to look away from them from time to time.

I think JP subtitles turn listening practice into reading practice, unfortunately.

I’ve been working on improving my listening skills lately, and I think repetition is invaluable. Watch something once with JP subtitles so you can tell what they’re saying, then rewatch while looking at the subs less and less, and eventually rewatch with no subs at all. It’s a way to turn difficult content into comprehensible input.

The alternative is to start with easy, N5-level material, but that’s usually too boring.


I think comprehensible input is important. So if JP subtitles is the way to make it comprehensible then it’s worth it. It is probably better listening practice to have them off, but then you have to drop the difficulty to get the same effect.

All things considered, If you can understand another language with that languages subtitles, that’s still impressive and whether it’s your listening or reading that’s improving the most, in the end you’re improving in the language , so maybe it’s okay to just keep chugging along.


I think I agree with @Escalus here – if you have .jp subs on all the time and need them to understand what’s going on, then you’re leaning on your reading ability, and you’re practicing reading, not listening. If you can’t understand without the subs, maybe look for material that’s a bit less difficult for listening practice purposes?


I’ll just echo what other non-native English speakers have said here. For me, subtitles in English have certainly been a massive boon to my motivation to watch things. What’s better, learning a little bit slower while watching content you love, or not watching things at all because it sucks to watch something and not understand squat? In a couple of years you can turn off subtitles and struggle just a little bit, or you can do like me and others apparently do, and just keep using subtitles when available.


I had a phase this year where I just watched for listening (no subs) and read for new vocab. I was watching Mob Psycho and was frustrated and just turned on the subs and suddenly the show was comprehensible.

I think once your vocab is in the 15k+ range watching without subs will be a less daunting task but if you’re just starting out you’re just practicing the little bit you do know.

Little parts that are harder to understand by listening, are different from those parts in speed reading. Say, if you made it JP sub on and no pause at 1.5x speed, it’s possible to miss something because of too many visual hints.

Also, I think that giving less hints, and trying to recall harder might be better for bettering the memory, as long as you can eventually connect the dots.

To get the best of both worlds, perhaps there is no choice but to re-listen.

Do you have any memory of what the sources of these recommendations were? Because I can tell you as someone who’s fairly advanced (holds an N1 (albeit with a lousy score), can hold conversations in Japanese quite easily, has written essays in Japanese, translates streams live EN → JP and JP → EN) that ‘level-independent’ and ‘necessary from the start’ are pure bullsh*t. You know why? Almost all my Japanese knowledge is from anime, and guess what? I watched most of them with subtitles initially, and I can currently no-sub many anime – even new episodes! – while understanding 60-90% of the words most of the time. (The exact percentage depends on the genre – if it’s something familiar like a rom-com or an isekai, I’m probably near 90%. I can go up to about 100% – minus a few words per episode – if I’ve watched the anime before or if it’s a very familiar genre.) I’m willing to bet you read that advice on some immersion-obsessed source like Refold, AJATT or Mass Immersion, and I can tell you from experience that it’s plain wrong.

Watching with English subtitles is perfectly fine. However, you need to be paying attention to the audio. Here are the rough stages and what you should be looking out for as you learn more Japanese:

  1. English subs, beginner – simple, common words you probably already know (boku, watashi, kedo, particles like ga, ha, he, wo) and very rough overall sentence structure (‘A and B’, ‘[phrase 1] but [phrase 2]’ etc.)
  2. English subs, lower intermediate – simple sentences, short phrases, rough overall sentence structure for long sentences
  3. English subs and Japanese subs/transcripts, upper intermediate – new vocabulary, interesting grammatical structures
  4. Mainly Japanese subs/transcripts, English subs when necessary, no-subbing where possible, advanced – new words, rare structures

I’d also advise comparing what you hear to the subs as much as you can. You will find that there are differences and inconsistencies. Sometimes those are due untranslatable things; other times the translations are just imperfect for various reasons (character constraints, translators lacking knowledge etc.). As you get better, you’ll rely on the subs less and less and start to notice the nuances in the Japanese more and more. I do strongly suggest moving towards JP transcripts/subs over time to get better though.

In any case, all the best, and if you’ve got more specific questions on the topic, feel free to keep asking.


That pretty much describes my personal experience. I can read the English subtitles or I can listen to the Japanese audio, but not both. However, Japanese show with Japanese captioning is no problem and increases my understanding.


I has to do with what your goal is for watching something.

If the main goal is listening practice the effectiveness of your time spent watching simply increases, as you are forced to simply listen to understand what’s going on. For that reason, non-visual media are also recommended.

That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to stop using subtitles ever. I never have, though I strictly don’t need them anymore. But, there can always be that one word you didn’t catch or understand, but which was important to the story and you would have had to look up. For example.

For me, when I watch anime, I want that experience to be relaxing and fun. I don’t necessarily want to make it full throttle “study time”. I’m fine with learning what new things I can, even if it’s less when having subs on than without them. :woman_shrugging:

Just do what suits you is my tip!

It’s important to have fun while learning things or you’ll eventually start feeling it’s all a chore. Anime, JP dramas or whatever it is you’re watching, should still be entertaining for you primarily. Then simply be happy when learning sometimes also happens. ^>^


Reading this, I wonder if one’s experience with translated subs depends on country of origin? :thinking:

Growing up in Sweden, where translated subs are norm on TV, in movie theatres, never dubs, you are so used to the format, that it’s easily to just mentally switch on and off whether you read the subs or not. And I defo mostly listen, don’t read, but when something is unclear, i subconsciously check the subtitles. :eyes:

essentially, you can learn to not read it all the time and just some of the time. You can choose to listen primarily. But it have to be a conscious choice in my experience, it doesn’t happen by itself. :eyes:

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I think this is a worthwhile list, and if one has time/interest to listen to the SAME bit of media 4x, then I’d recommend having a go at it in this order!


Sorry, I should have been more clear. I meant “not both at the same time”. I can ignore the subtitles and just listen. But if I do read the subtitles then I am no longer listening.

I expect that the amount of exposure to consuming subtitled content, especially at younger ages, probably has an impact.

Where/when I grew up almost everything (98%) I watched on TV was in English and subtitles were never seen. This was pre-cable/satellite/internet. We got 4 (3 depending on the weather) TV channels. One of them was French. The 2% of non-English TV I watched was French, specific shows I liked that were not available on the other channels, or hockey games. There was no option for subtitles for the French station. My french was good enough to follow, at a general/good enough level (if it was something I really wanted to watch). In Canada, where I lived, French was a mandatory part of school from grade 4 through grade 10, with French lessons every day. Aside from TV over the air, the only movies were at a theater in the nearest city a few times a year. Towards the end of my high school years we did get a VCR and could rent a movie. I did have a computer and access to a couple of BBSes (300 bps, text terminal only) but no video streaming :slight_smile:


Thank you all for your input I think you made my decision clear so far.
I will go with the Japanese subtitles approach for now to at least understand the gist and make it fun for me while learning to understand more and more Japanese.

Thanks all.