NO SUBS: The Ultimate Context Builder

my setup

Greetings. I haven’t posted in quite some time because of … life. If you’ve been following this blog over the past few months there have been a lot of challenges I’ve had, but I’ve kept my research going. I took about 2.5 months break to test a few theories and things are starting to pay off.

Okay, what is ‘NO SUBS’? Simply put, watching your native content without subtitles. It is the holy grail of self-demonstrative ability.

There are a few reason to aim for this point:

No subtitles shows you were you actually are. If you can’t follow anything, you aren’t ready.

No subtitles exposes the scientific overlap of word saturation (i.e the number of words you’ve learned and internalized) and also grammar saturation (grammar you have internalized and are able to follow at native speed). 

No subtitles also forces your brain to adapt in the manner it did when you were a baby, through context cues emotions and so forth. 

No subs, is the ultimate goal, because in real life, we don’t talk with subtitles, hence, getting rid of the ‘subtitle handicap’ allows us to really start processing the language as it is, versus being stuck in a mode of ‘semi-translation’.

Does a Japanese person turn on the TV then turn on subtitles? No. They turn on the TV and watch it without subs, because that’s what they have always done. It is natural for them ( and you in your native language). So you need to have this skill and develop it quickly once you reach a certain threshold of listening time to other work, to ensure your brain says to you ‘hey this is normal’. Once you can watch things in context without the need for reference, this will extend to speaking as well by proxy.

Reaching this stage requires a specific overlap of time and ability. As I’ve stated numerous time, looking at data as “sets of data” and not randomly allows us to predict this ability within a certain window of certain. The follow data is relative to ‘ability’.

5,000 words in your target language gives you 98% recognition of spoken and written words(Nation, 1993).

2,163 words are the base need to read all Japanese printed text (based on the 日本語能力試験 list

450 grammar patterns is equivalent to N2 (Lower Advanced Japanese) based on list from

1000 listening hours translates to an ability to process the language at a high listening level. (Based on my observation and correlation with research by Bern Kamps)

As these points intersect organically, ability increases over time. Think of it this way, it is very hard to know 5,000 words, 2,163 Kanji, have 1000 listening hours, several hundred grammar patterns and NOT have any ability in the language.

Some dub this as ‘progressive overlap’. I also call it ‘progressive predictable overlap’, as when you hit certain thresholds, they directly equate to jump a in both ability and comprehension.

When To Go NO SUBS (in theory)

Watching things without subtitles means you must be at the very least, comfortable in following what you are watching. This does not mean 100% comprehension. Remember, we must trust the brain to do what it does. The brain gets data from context, does its thing and is helping us more than we think. When the brain needs to ‘flex its muscles’ (work harder) it gets more efficient. Your ear has to get much sharper, your brain has to piece together grammar, it has to try and figure out what is going on and it has to to do this tens of thousands of times. There is no ‘safe space’ of dictionaries, reference books or apps to help here. You understand, or you don’t.

I don’t think there is much value in watching anything you don’t like or cannot understand. When I was learning German, I didn’t have Netflix at the time and had to use a bootleg site to stream all my immersive content. Because these were streams, there were no subtitles. So from day one everything I watched was with no subtitles. But i watched films I knew, so even though I didn’t understand everything yet, I could follow everything and knew all the contexts and most of the storylines. 

Now this was due to circumstance (no Netflix) but not some kind of ‘stress test’. I was just determined to get my immersion in. Plus in the beginning I couldn’t follow everything that well. I was just so excited that I could hear words and follow along it kept me going for some time. So when to go No Subs?

Based on what i’ve seen, a good time is when you start to approach intermediate grammatical knowledge, have crossed maybe 500 hours of immersion and you have around 3,000 words or so. Watching things without subs very early will be stressful not because of a limit of ability, but just data. Let’s consider this:

If i know: 500 words, have 50 hours of listening/watching and know say 50 basic grammar patterns. This means (from our numbers) that I will not know 90% of everything I encounter. 

Conversely, if i know 3,500 words , have 850 hours of listening, know 2,163 Kanji and I’m halfway through N3 grammar, I should have a more robust processing ability. I will not know 30% of words I encounter, and may know about 70% of standard and most common grammar. However, high frequency words show up more often than ‘expensive words’ lol, and most conversational grammar is repetitive.

Using this data as a benchmark, I don’t think there is  any massive benefit  from watching with No Subs super early. So your brain will be overworking trying to figure things out, but without enough deeply embedded reference points. It won’t have enough data to organically be effective. Now some people may argue against this, but as i’ve explained (particularly with Japanese) if you can’t read Japanese you can’t even really train the language at an advanced level without inhuman effort. If my brain has tens of thousands of reference points in place (from hundreds of hours of listening, lots of reading etc) then the brain can ‘do the math’ and process things in real time. I get the benefit of my activity, versus just raw stress and having to ‘plough through’.

For example, after watching a BUNCH of stuff in German with no subs I ended up getting Netflix and then watching the series “Dark” with German subs. It was a fantastic experience. So i’d watch some stuff with some stuff without, and eventually I found myself watching speeches and interviews (without subs obviously) online. In fact, because I’d started from ‘No Subs’, it felt weird to use subs! But this was around the 4.5 month mark. The ‘breakthrough’ came down the line, not immediately. it was when the number of words I knew, listening time and number of grammar patterns learn (B2) all overlapped and then the brain organized it and extrapolated to make rapidly spoken regular speech able to be processed in realtime.

You see, in the beginning the usefulness of immersion is mostly passive. You haven’t mastered the phonetics of the language by ear yet, you don’t know any words, phrases or much grammar. You really just want a lot of listening to help your to  brain to start piecing things together. You won’t initially be able to follow everything obviously, which is why you need time and lots of hours of listening. After about say, 250-400 hours, you’ll notice much more ease with regular sentence patterns and the language itself. It won’t feel ‘as stressful’ to sit and watch Japanese for extended periods of time and therefore you can watch more of it (developing a compound effect). Having subtitles on in the beginning makes things ‘doable’ since you won’t know anything and you still want to enjoy watching your favorite shows and series. After learning 2,163 Kanji and getting the ‘gist’ of the language, you can switch to Kanji subs. Test how comfortable you are. Once you switch, don’t switch back. When you feel that stress ‘i didn’t get that word’ or ‘i’m not sure what he meant there’, this is really good. This ‘stress’ is what makes your mind make notes and fix things later down. You cannot have this ‘stress’ if you have English subs or you try and read the Japanese subs (which are most of the time not even exact word for word transcriptions). See how comfortable you feel (or uncomfortable) and then don’t switch back.

A large part of what i’ve been doing is ‘measuring predictability’ and developing the ability to gauge when certain breakthroughs happen. This was the basis of my theory with German and I figured the same could work with Japanese, the only caveat being that i’d first need to learn all the Kanji to develop the ability to train the language at a high level. Once that was accomplished, doing the same steps int the same order should give the same results. So here we are. I’m presently watching Gilmore Girls (season one) in Japanese (No Subs) with no issues following the narrative thus far. I’ve also watched a few episodes of Star Trek with No Subs (following it OK, but Star trek is chock full of obscure scientific vocabulary) but I am not ‘lost’, because i’ve had Japanese subs on all my movies (and I never read them lol), so i’ve sort of been ‘No Subs’ for some time now.

No Subs is the direct demonstration (to yourself) that you are now able to process Japanese, at native speed in realtime and also understand different types of things in various contexts. Movies obviously allow for literally hundreds of thousands of situation to train your brain and it only gets stronger with more exposure. Since my German journey had me watching hundreds of films with no subtitles, as I learned more German consciously (grammar study) the natural overlap reached a point where all basic and intermediate words, phrases and contexts were very understandable and I was able to watch many films with no subtitles, which funnily enough, is the ‘normal’ way to watch films. Training of this nature is progressive, but i’m not trying to be completely stressed out during this process, hence my last notes.

IMPORTANT THINGS I’VE NOTED (with German and now Japanese)

  1. Don’t Stress this. At all.  – as i’ve said, based on raw data your ability becomes more and more predictable as you get closer to hitting those data based numbers. For most languages, once you cross the barrier for intermediate grammar, you will notice a natural leap in comprehension. Getting to intermediate grammar study (after learning a few thousand words is maybe 90-120 days) so at this point you’ll have may 4 or 5 months with of a lot of listening. Somewhere during this time you can go No Subs if you are comfortable.
  2. You must be comfortable. If you are doing this, trying to look up every word, trying to figure out every statement and make flashcards, this won’t be fun at all. Let your brain use its superpowers. ‘Comfort’ in this context, is defined as the ability to follow what is going on let’s say, between a range. You decide. let’s say 70-90%. So if people are yammering on about the environment and how to save it like in the series 日本沈没希望の人 (ninon no chinbotsu: kibou no hito) ~ ‘Sinking Japan: The Person of Hope’, I know they are talking about the sea, plate tectonics, the environment etc. But I can’t study everything in realtime. There has to be study time and then processing time. We have to let go.
  3. The comprehension effect is rapidly progressive. The more you listen, without subs (when you cross the threshold) the better you start to understand like…. everything. 
  4. This can be challenging, especially with content that feels ‘beyond  you’. You will feed the urge to turn on English sometimes to figure things out, but this won’t help you. This is training and you have to think of it that way. This is why watching things you already know to extreme levels are quite helpful. But also switching it up is also helpful. I’ll dive a bit deeper into these observations in another post. But 頑張ってね!(ganbatte!) ~ try your best. I know this contradicts point 1 a bit, but really, at some point you need to see where you are. Can you watch a talk show without subs and follow? Can you watch movies? Listen to podcasts? It’s good to know. The only way to go is just to jump in. Sometimes I watched multi-speaker shows on Youtube were people talk bullet fast, use a lot of words phrases and references I don’t know, but sometimes I’m not lost. Sometimes I can follow almost 90% of what’s happening, sometimes its 30%. But each time i get a word, a bit of context (without reference) my brain has done some more pushups.
  5. RAW input is time based, but within your control. You can literally try and watch as much content as you want, since the more you watch the sharper you get. Which leads to point 6.
  6. Your consistency with NO SUBS will be  directly relative to how interesting the content you consume is. I started watching Gilmore Girls because I wanted a kind of comedy drama to follow that was ‘light’ but useful with lots of contexts and situations that program my brain . Star Trek is fun, but ‘heavy’ in terms of themes, words and contexts so I want things I can mixup. Remember, you are going to be watching things you don’t fully understand, so it can’t be slog. It can’t be a drag. You have to feel like you are gaining something from the activity. Rewatch the classics: Matrix, Fast and the Furious, Batman, whatever you have access to. Dive into No Subs in a fun way. If something is way above you (even if you can hear everything) switch to something else.
  7. When you are at this stage you are the CLOSEST to a monstrous breakthrough than you realize. You just need more data. Keep piling on words, keep learning more and more grammar and the brain will do the math. I remember when I was learning German I tried watching an episode of ‘The Big Bang theory and I literally felt the stress boiling in my blood. This is IMPOSSIBLE I said to myself. They were talking so fast. But maybe 60-90 days later I was watching it without any issues (and understanding it), which blew my mind.

So the reason I can navigate this stress now is because I know this stuff works and i’ve mapped the breakthrough points. It is SOOOOOOO much to work though, and this is why I have incredible respect for all language learners. They are some of the toughest mental people you will ever meet (perhaps without knowing it).

One of the biggest skills to learn in this journey has nothing to do with language. It is managing stress, gauging where you are and training yourself to be mentally strong. A lot of your progress ‘activates’ after months of work. Meaning, a lot of your actions won’t start showing benefits till month 3, 4 or even 5. The brutal work loads, the frustrations it all starts to pay off after a certain period of time. Your ‘shortcut’ is work ethic. Someone who outworks you will make more progress in less time, but it is relative. We all get to the finish line the same way. Someone can do it in 4 months, who cares if you do it in 6 or 7? Consistency is the king.

I’m presently in a sort of ‘active listening’ and ‘grammar building’ phase which i’ll get more into in another post another time. I’m able to transcribe sentences (active listening training) and i’m comfortable with production (grammar building) so let’s see how the overlap works.










About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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