This post is part of a series called “Learn Japanese with...

Each post highlights a specific resource or method you can use to immerse yourself in Japanese anywhere in the world. In today’s world of smartphones, apps, streaming video, podcasts, etc., anyone with internet access can learn Japanese no matter where they happen to live. This series will show you exactly how.

See the entire series here and check out my book Master Japanese for even more tips and resources.

“Languages are about people. If you don’t have real people, films and TV are the next best thing.” Katie Harris, Joy of Languages

Why Video Rocks for Language Learning

Video is one of the best language learning tools available in the Japanese learner toolbox:

  • Video creates a strong visual context that helps you understand content that may otherwise be beyond your reach.
  • Videos usually have subtitles, which help increase comprehension and provide reading practice when you put on subtitles in the target language.
  • Videos are the the next best thing to being in Japan. Staring at pixels might not ever replace living abroad, but videos can at least create a highly immersive, engaging forms of language learning input.

How to Choose the Right Videos

Choose Videos that Fit Your Interests

Video can be one of the most enjoyable forms of Japanese language input, but not if you are forcing yourself through uninteresting content. A general guideline to follow: if you would not watch something in English, don’t force yourself through it in Japanese.

Choose (Mostly) Comprehensible Videos

With enough effort, patience, and courage, you can watch any videos you want, regardless of your current Japanese ability level.

That said, it’s much more enjoyable—and much more effective from a language learning perspective—to choose content that you can mostly understand.

It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: you want your video “porridge” to be just hard enough. Not too hard and not too easy. In my experience, an ideal comprehension level is about 70 to 80%.

Below this, your video porridge will probably be too “cold.” You’ll either have to stop the video too frequently to look up unknown words or you will have to soldier on not really understanding what’s happening. In either case, you lose the all-important “flow” of the story, and the show or movie will become tedious and uninteresting. It will take a significant amount of motivation and discipline to keep going, which transforms video-based language learning from an inherently fun, immersive activity to laborious language study.

On the other hand, if you know almost every word in the video, then your video porridge is too “hot.” On this end of the spectrum, you’re really just watching TV, not learning a language.

How to Create a Comprehension Sweet Spot

In the wild, you will rarely find “perfect porridge.” Especially when just starting out in Japanese, most of the video content you find will be beyond a comprehension level of 70 to 80%. But don’t despair! There are a number of ways to increase comprehension and better follow the flow of the story.

Read About the Movie or Show Before Watching

Most streaming services will have a brief description about the TV show or movie, which is a good place to start. But if you don’t mind spoilers, you can usually find more in-depth descriptions and plot synopses on IMDB or Wikipedia (especially using the Japanese version).

Watch with English Subtitles First

If you have the time and energy to rewatch the same movie or episode multiple times, watch with English subtitles on the first time through so you clearly understand what’s happening. You can then watch again with Japanese subtitles on (if available) to strengthen your vocabulary, practice reading, and better connect the spoken and written word. Lastly, watch again with no subtitles to strengthen your listening skills and immerse yourself more deeply in the story.

Get Help from a Japanese Tutor

Once of the best ways to get more out Japanese videos is enlisting the help of a tutor. There are heaps of places to find good Japanese tutors online today, but I’ve had the best luck with iTalki. Once you find a tutor you like, here are five key ways they can help you learn through videos:

  • Ask your tutor to help find Japanese videos, TV shows, movies, anime, etc. that fit your level and unique interests.
  • Agree to watch a given episode (either together in real time or asynchronously).
  • Discuss the content and storyline before and after watching. The former increases context and comprehension and the latter helps you consolidate your learning.
  • Go over any words, phrases, or structures you didn’t understand.
  • Put a reminder on your calendar to watch the same episode again in a few months. This will provide valuable repetition, deepen your learning, and provide a valuable progress check. Nothing motivates more than seeing and feeling progress.

Keep a Dictionary & Notepad Handy

As you watch a show or movie, look up or jot down a few key words and phrases that you want to learn. Don’t worry about catching every new word (as mentioned above, this will interrupt the flow too much), but try to catch a few useful or interesting terms or structures.

Recommended Video Tools

Modern Japanese learners are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding Japanese videos to stream, rent, or buy. See my following posts for resource recommendations and detailed tips on how to get the most out of each tool:

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