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Notes from the coffee mill...

March 2001

Anime and the Art of Learning Japanese....

Learning Japanese can be a challenge sometimes, so when you love anime so much, how useful is it to study from the programs you love? Is it a good way to learn? What are the strengths and weaknesses of using anime as a source for studying the language? Let's face it, there is such a variety out there, that depending on what you want, there's bound to be something there to suit your purposes. As with any medium, anime covers just about any genre and will have an appropriate vocabulary base to suit said genre.

Looking at language learning, there are three major areas that need to be built in order to start; listening, speaking and structure (writing). Of course there are other areas such as vocabulary, appropriateness, accuracy, idioms etc., but they are part areas to the three primaries. Learning a language, one needs ideally to build all three, but to do so equally is not usually possible. Probably the most difficult area for non-native speakers is the written language. With the many different reads to the characters, and some characters being very similar, it can become quite confusing. Add to that, special reads for certain kanji and it becomes extremely confusing. (How do you know that the characters 'god' ("kami" or "shin") and 'alcohol' ("sake" or "shuu") combine to become o-mikki?!) Learning the exceptions is more along the lines of becoming a 'kanji-hakase' and is well beyond the scope of this editorial however.

Anyhow, back to anime and learning Japanese. The main use for anime is undoubtedly to build listening skills. Depending on the anime source, it can be a good way to build basic vocabulary, and comprehension. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that you're going to be able to learn Japanese just by listening to anime, although you may be able to pick up on some minor vocabulary over time. To really make use of anime and learn Japanese you do need to be studying it in some form at the same time. Rather, how *good* is it as a source of Japanese? Is it accurate? Well it depends. If you think about learning English from Hollywood productions, how good is using "Rambo" as a source of English? How about Driving Miss Daisy? The range and type of show and the Japanese involved will vary widely. Many kids' shows will involve more childish Japanese and some unusual pronunciations (slurring and certain word usage) which reflect children's speech. Similarly, some of the more adult shows will have very little useful dialog beyond cursing and shouting indecipherable expletives or screaming. Go too far towards formality and you might end up with Tale of Genji and it's archaic speech patterns, or Rurouni Kenshin and his referring to himself as "sessha" which also doesn't happen in modern day Japan; it's highly indicative of the older samurai era.

So, looking at using anime to learn Japanese, one must first decide what aspect of the language is important and to what level one wants to learn the language. At the very basic level, the idea would be to build a language base using modern Japanese that isn't too difficult. No problems. Most "kids" shows (PG and under) use fairly basic Japanese which isn't too difficult. Indeed Meitantei Conan is probably one of my favourite animes simply because it's a genre I enjoy (mystery) and is easy to understand with little vocabulary that I won't be able to grasp. Meanwhile, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo is much better story-wise but the vocabulary occasionally stumps me as it can be specific to a subject in school or some other term which unless you're involved in the area, you might not have been exposed to as a non-native speaker. Likewise, it's important to think about listening in general. If you get caught up in the translation game and struggling to understand every single word, then you're not listening to the language. You're listening to the words. While it would be nice to be able to understand everything, it's just not practical as a learner, and so one must also try to understand through inference. (Think about understanding a conversation in a noisy restaurant or bar and how much of what's being said is actually heard versus inferred).

One of the main advantages to using anime is that it's a readily available source of current Japanese in a variety of forms. What other form of Japanese entertainment is as readily available in as large volume, which is also available in different translated forms? While some people may want to watch dramas, they simply are not brought over as much or in such quantity. Major hit movies may make it, TV serials like Glass no Kamen, or Cinderella Story simply won't cross the waters. While dramas have the advantage of being live action with the actors speaking their lines, anime is disadvantaged by having voice actors. Regardless of how good a voice actor is in conveying emotion, the loss of seeing someone speak their lines makes listening more difficult. Much of our comprehension is based on watching a person's mouth and deciphering sounds according to mouth shape; that much is lost in the animated forum. (Again think about that noisy restaurant or bar).

Looking at anime, there are several areas that should be considered regarding usefulness as a learning source: vocabulary, grammar, level of ease/difficulty, modernity, speech level (politeness), idioms/colloquialisms, and overall usefulness. While some kids anime will have more idioms, and lower level of politeness, the rest are on the lower end of the difficulty scale making it one of the easiest ways to start building one's listening skills. The trick to using anime to building language skills however is to choose something which is appropriate for oneself. Personally, I like mystery and fantasy (horror/occult) genres as well as a touch of generic drama. So for me, watching anime such as Meitantei Conan or (more suited for my ability) Kindaichi is a good choice since I'm likely to be interested in the genre anyways. Watching something you're not interested in simply is not going to work, as it won't be fun or interesting.

Looking at the target age group of a given show will have relative breakdowns regarding usefulness. For example young kids shows, will have basic Japanese (vocabulary and grammar), minimal idioms/colloquialisms, everyday politeness to slightly lower politeness, good modernity, will have a low-medium usefulness and will generally be easier to understand (good for beginners). On the flip side, it will also have the mental (maturity) level for children, which may be a major drawback. Teenage programs, will have intermediate Japanese, a fair number of idioms etc., possibly use a number of dialects, will vary in politeness from rude to fairly polite, will likely be very modern unless it's period material, and will vary in usefulness from very useful to not very. (Better for intermediate listeners). Lastly adult oriented material is going to vary the most. It can have very modern to archaic Japanese, may involve older idioms instead of current idioms, may contain a number of expletives and the grammar will vary widely. The main advantage is that it's also going to be about the only source of high keigo speech patterns as well as other specific forms of the spoken language. (Good for upper intermediate plus listeners). While this isn't necessarily clear cut separation, and there will be definite crossover, generally that's how things will fall.

Most commonly spoken on anime programs of course is standard Japanese, not to say that there aren't other dialects present; there is occasional use of other common dialects especially Kansai or Osaka dialect (ben). However, the *use* of Kansai-ben doesn't necessarily mean that it *is* Kansai-ben. Native Kansai people are occasionally annoyed because the dialect is being imitated and is not the true dialect. Hattori Heiji of Meitantei Conan as well as Kero-chan of Card Captor Sakura are two examples of this. As non-native speakers, chances are you wouldn't know that it's not true Kansai-ben, but if you've lived in the area for a year or more and have good listening skills, it's something that you might pick up on. As it isn't proper dialect, copying the speech pattern could result in something truly warped which may create comprehension problems for both sides should one go to Japan (or speak to a Japanese person). Of course, the use of the other dialects adds some colour to the program and the character that uses it and is also useful in strengthening one's listening skills.

The main drawback to using anime as a source of listening material is that there is a lot of colloquial Japanese, the pronunciations may be slurred and if you're limited to one primary program, then there's the possibility of thinking that a given character's speech quirk is in fact normal. Likewise, depending on the level of the program, it could influence the level of speech that one uses which results in some unusual speech patterns (in my case sounding like a punk teenager) rather than speaking like an adult. While a stint in Japan will clean up some of the problems, it can be tricky to get rid of some of the more ingrained habits.

As a source of listening material, anime is truly very useful and has a wide variety of material which should be able to cater to just about anyone's needs. There are programs that vary in modernity from archaic Japanese clear up to current speech. Likewise, there are politeness levels varying from gutter speech right up to addressing company presidents and using high keigo. Idiomatic usage is also prevalent but is not always present such that people from rank beginner to high intermediate will find something useful to build their listening skills. However for speaking material, it's much less useful. Because of the use of non-native dialect speakers, some of the dialects will be improperly portrayed. Likewise, the use of speech quirks to build character depth, as well as to indicate age makes anime much less useful for speaking practice.

Lastly, as a source of grammar and accurate Japanese, it is again not particularly useful for beginners. For high intermediate level learners who already have a grasp of the language construction patterns, seeing the inaccuracies is not likely to create too much confusion as to what is proper Japanese versus unusual usage. However, for beginners, the variety of sentence structures, slang and other colloquialisms may well create a great deal of confusion or worse, unusual grammar patterns for the learner. When looking to use anime as a source of listener learning material, it's important to choose one's source material carefully.

ja ne,

Jane Nagatomi, 2001.03.01

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