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English in Japan and the problem with their subtitle

April 23, 2012

A lot Japanese asked me,”How did you learn English so well?” And I always answer the same way,”Watching movie, playing games, and listening to music”. If they asked which is the most effective, I would say watching movie and playing games. There’s 2 reasons for that:

  1. You have to read the subtitle (in my case Indonesian) while watching the movie
  2. You have to read the text in a game to understand it

So in my opinion, listening and reading is important in learning other language. While listening to music you actually listening to it, you don’t actually learn anything unless you looked up at the lyrics. Remembering a lyric of a song is also a good way to learn English. You’ll learn new words and also how to pronounce it.

Now, Japanese people also watched American movies, dramas and music, so why are they bad in their English? One reason was already mention in my previous blog, it is because their usage of Katakana to express a lot of foreign language. The usage of the katakana restrict their tongue to speak in correct English pronunciation.

Another reason that I found out is the subtitle in the movie they are watching. They don’t translate the words in the movie as it is, they make a subtitle that explain the conversation but it was never the exact meaning. And not just movie, games with subtitle also have this problem.

Maybe I can explain this better with an example. Take a look at the image below taken from The Matrix (1999):

"Please, come, sit."

Look at the subtitle and what Morpheus actually said. He said 3 words, all separated, so you should translate it text by text:

  1. Please – どうぞ
  2. Come – こっち
  3. Sit – 座って

So the subtitle in my opinion should be something like this,「どうぞ、こっち、座って”」but what they did was translating it by giving it a new sentence, telling him to “Well, sit here”. It’s a totally different meaning from the original context but it explains the situation. So you can’t say the subtitle is wrong because it’s kinda have that meaning too, but you can’t also say the subtitle is right because it’s not what Morpheus actually said. In order to learn English you can’t use this kind of subtitle. When I watch this in Indonesia, we actually translate it as it is,”Silahkan, kemari, duduklah” and with that I just learn 3 new words.

Let’s take another example. This is from a scene where Switch tells Neo that they don’t have time to play 20 question. Sorry, the screencaps is on Neo, because  the screen was on Neo when Switch was talking :p

"We don't have time to play 20 questions"

See the translation. It means,”We don’t have free time for talking”. It’s a totally different English from what she actually said. I know, saying “no time for 20 questions” basically means that they don’t have free time, but with that subtitle it actually talk about something else and just explains the situation as it is. In Indonesia, we translate this as,”Kita (We) tidak (don’t) punya (have) waktu (time) untuk (to)  bermain (play)  20 pertanyaan (20 questions)”.

I don’t know why the Japanese subtitle creator feels the need to change the sentence into something that is easier to understand, but I guess this is a reason why Japanese people can’t learn from watching movie as much as I did.

This doesn’t happen only in the Matrix movie. I’ve been watching a lot of movies in Hulu Japan and sometimes they don’t provide English subtitle so I use the Japanese one, and they have a lot of miss translation. It’s still explains the situation, but it just wasn’t a direct translation.

Another problem with the Japanese learning English is that the grammar is different. English and Indonesian put verb before object, while Japanese put the verb at the end of the sentence. So this might sometime cause a problem when they try to translate something. But I believe they can do a much better translation without making a new sentence.

So Japanese people, my recommendation for you to learn Japanese would be:

  1. Watch the movie with English subtitle and try to understand the words there,
  2. Speak in English more, and most importantly,
  3. Stop speaking English in Katakana terms. In fact, never use it unless you are speaking in Japanese. Try to differentiate when you speak English and Japanese.
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Categories: Daily Life In Japan
  1. May 22, 2012 at 17:07

    So true. Subtitles don`t help much at all really when it comes to learning a language especially when your base knowledge is at zero. That`s why so many otakus in America will spend ten-twenty years watching anime and still know only basic words and useless japanese phrases. You`d think that after 20 years of exposure to the language and watching japanese media nonstop would lead to at least some degree of fluency, but that really never happens. Why? Cause otakus are less into learning the language than they are in following story-lines. They don`t look up unknown vocabulary, they don`t look into the grammar discrepancies, and they certainly don`t feel like spending hundreds and thousands of hours studying the actual language.
    Subtitled videos are virtually useless when it comes to learning.

  1. May 7, 2012 at 20:33
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