Until now, you’ve only been treading water in the kiddie pool.
It’s time for a challenge.
Have you tried to improve your Japanese listening skills by watching dramas and classic movies, but still feel like you’re stuck in a rut?
You’re not alone. Today, we’re going to dive into the deep end of the Japanese language pool together.
With some Japanese listening practice, you’ll be swimming toward fluency in no time!
The Benefits of Improving Your Japanese Listening Through Practice
Your language skills are linked together in a chain, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If your listening and speaking skills are weak, the rest of your Japanese language abilities will suffer.
Enhancing your listening skills has the unique ability to build your confidence—you’ll feel that you can tackle any situation without fear of being embarrassed by not understanding something.
By improving your Japanese listening skills, you’ll be able to understand your favorite Japanese music, programs and movies better than ever before! Wouldn’t it be nice to lift your nose out of your textbooks and enjoy Japanese during your leisure time?
I can tell you from my own experience: Once you get yourself out of your Japanese listening rut, your time spent learning Japanese will never be the same.
Why Immersion Is the Best Way to Improve Your Japanese Listening Skills
After studying Japanese for three years, a placement exam put me in a lower-advanced level class. I was very pleased. I thought that I was well on my way to mastering the language.
There was one problem: Despite being in a lower-advanced classroom, I didn’t feel advanced. I still wasn’t confident in my speaking and listening skills, and none of my classes so far had seemed to address this. Students and teachers were still using English as a crutch when discussing new concepts.
Nonetheless, I thought I was doing well and decided to enroll in an intermediate-level class at a different institution. On the first day, I discovered that the entire class was conducted in Japanese and Japanese only. It was a massive shock.
As it turns out, there’s a reason why Japanese class should be 100% in Japanese.
I picked myself up and started again. I refused to accept that I had gotten this far just to let myself be defeated. Now, I’m going to share with you some hard-earned advice that’s guaranteed to get you out of your Japanese listening rut!
Take Japanese Listening out of the Classroom
The most common complaint by people who take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is that they find the listening part of the test too hard. There’s quite a simple explanation for this: Many of us study in a classroom, but outside class, we only hear our native languages. How often do you hear Japanese in the supermarket or walking down the street?
In other words, it takes a big effort to regularly listen to Japanese outside of Japan. If you only ever hear Japanese in the classroom, your ears and brain will never get attuned to the language. To really be comfortable with a language, you need to be immersed. You need to take action to take Japanese out of the classroom.
Broaden Your Listening, Get Out of Your Safe Zone
This is easy to say, but hard to do. A classroom is a safe place controlled by a teacher and by being with students at a similar level of proficiency, there’s little fear of hearing Japanese that you don’t know.
On one hand, this is good since you can develop your language skills within a comfortable place where you won’t be afraid to speak and are under no pressure.
However, on the other hand, language is meant to be used in the real world. It needs to be used in order to be mastered and you need to be exposed to the language in a variety of different situations.
If you want to go to Japan or someplace where people speak Japanese, then you need to have functional language skills. This doesn’t mean that you need to understand every single word that you hear, but you should have the ability to listen to what someone says and be able to comprehend it.
This isn’t something that you can achieve in a classroom.
The tips below will help you achieve Japanese immersion even without having to travel to Japan. Follow these ten Japanese practice tips to avoid making the same mistakes as me!
Learn Japanese Levels of Politeness the Easy Way
One of the hardest things for Japanese learners to master is the complex system of social etiquette used in Japan and thus, in the Japanese language.
In short, you must change the way you speak in Japanese—and even the Japanese words you use—depending on the social situation. The way you talk to an elder is different than the way you talk to a child, and both of those are different from the way you’d talk to your boss and the way you’d talk to a colleague.
You must change how you use the Japanese language in order to adhere to a number of rules regarding politeness. The level of politeness will determine which particles you use, how to decline and what verbs you use.
While the lines might be fuzzy, there are several types of politeness in Japanese: there’s polite language, respectful language, humble language, honorifics and word beautification. Further, there are also around five levels of politeness in Japanese from very informal to formal.
We won’t get into these levels of politeness here, but immersion is the best way to learn these levels and all the complexities of Japanese social etiquette.
Immersion allows you to hear and see these types and levels of politeness in context. Rather than memorizing these levels and types, immersion allows you to make connections between politeness and real situations. This means that using different levels of politeness will be more intuitive when conversing with native Japanese speakers.
Improve Your Japanese Listening Skills with 10 Popping Practice Tips
The way to achieve functional Japanese listening skills is by throwing yourself into the deep end. I’ve distilled my personal experience into these 10 fundamental steps to improve Japanese listening skills.
1. Take Advantage of the Digital Age (with These 7 Resources)
The last couple of decades have seen marvelous jumps in technology and the expansion of the internet, which means that hearing Japanese is no longer limited to the rare audiotape, VHS or DVD. You can now go online and listen to an incredible range of Japanese TV programs, films, radio shows and more.
Just by doing a simple Google search, you can find listening resources covering a great number of different situations. There are video streaming apps and sites that allow you to watch anime, dramas, movies and TV shows. In addition, it goes without saying that video sites like YouTube have a huge collection of audio resources you can use.
Thanks to the internet, it’s also quite simple to arrange video chats through Skype or your video/voice chat program of choice. This means you can experience real-time Japanese speaking and listening practice. This would involve identifying a language partner through an exchange website such as MyLanguageExchange.com or Conversation Exchange.
Additionally, there are tons of great programs and podcasts out there dedicated to helping you get in that Japanese listening practice. Here are seven resources for beginners that are sure to train those ears!
FluentU’s vast library of Japanese videos is a great way to get some Japanese listening practice in. Each video comes with interactive captions in Japanese, so you can read along with what’s being said to deepen your understanding of the content.
English captions can be toggled on and off, so for that extra challenge, you can conduct your study session fully immersed in Japanese!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Let’s Talk in Japanese
This podcast is created by a Japanese teacher who aims to provide entertaining listening material to learners of all abilities. There are nearly 150 episodes, ranked in difficulty from JLPT N5 (easiest) to N1 (hardest). Each episode ranges from nine to 15 minutes in length, with topics including Japanese festivals, culture, food, family and more.
On his website, transcripts are available to read along to as you listen, helping you train your ears to pick up on each word.
Truly, this is a great podcast for absolute beginners. Mari speaks very slowly in a pleasant voice, with ample pauses to allow you to process what she’s saying. Each episode is five minutes in length, so even if you have a short amount of time to study, you’ll be able to squeeze in one episode of listening practice.
She also has a blog, which not only offers transcripts of all of her podcasts (complete with English translations), but also engaging and informative posts about Japanese culture.
jtest4you is overflowing with resources devoted to studying for the JLPT and, naturally, includes listening questions, as well. These quiz-style exercises test your comprehension with short audio tracks, so you can check your understanding of the content of Japanese sentences.
Every quiz comes with a section featuring key vocabulary contained within, so you can review unfamiliar words and phrases. With sections for all levels of learners, this is sure to become a valuable resource throughout your Japanese learning journey.
Nihongo no Tane
Translating to “the seeds of Japanese,” this podcast truly plants the seeds of Japanese comprehension in your mental garden! Aimed at upper beginner to intermediate levels, this bite-sized podcast is spoken in natural, but slow Japanese so that you can get used to hearing the language.
The presenter, Yumi, covers a wide range of topics, from the general, like holidays and seasons, to stories from her personal life. For instance, one podcast has her talking about her puppy Maro getting into all sorts of trouble tearing up the house!
Japanese Immersion with Asami
Have you ever thought about studying Japanese with children’s books? Learning through stories is a fantastic method of language acquisition, and Asami is a shining example of story learning done right. Asami’s channel focuses on teaching Japanese using picture books and puppet shows while reviewing the material with her American student.
She’ll explain the pictures in the book and ask the viewer questions to test their comprehension. Her series of puppet shows features conversational Japanese and illustrates different social interactions that directly pertain to the lessons at hand. All of her adorable content is sure to charm you, so definitely consider adding this resource to your study plan!
This website focuses on listening comprehension, featuring short clips (about five seconds) of Japanese TV shows, movies and cartoons. These small bursts are highly effective at training you to grasp key words, focusing on only one or two sentences.
So how does it work? The site plays a short clip, and then you’ll get quizzed on the one word of the dialogue. You can repeat the clip as often as you want. Once you’ve answered, you have the option to add the word to your study deck. If there’s a clip you find particularly interesting, you can save it for further review.
Though the site is no longer updated, its owner still keeps it running so that it remains a treasure trove of Japanese listening practice.
2. Be Proactive About Listening Practice
One issue with all of these resources is that it’s also easy to take a very passive approach. It’s one thing to simply watch a Japanese drama, but attempting to transcribe what you heard during a drama program takes the Japanese learning experience to an entirely different level.
You can develop your listening abilities by actively trying to decipher what you hear, regardless of what you’re listening to.
Thanks to media players, it’s possible to not only replay but also slow down what you’re hearing so that your mind can work out what it’s hearing.
Another approach that you can take is something that I like to call the “parrot” method: Select a particular dialogue, listen to it repeatedly and try to imitate it. It’s not just about hearing; it’s about listening. You need to be able to tease apart the particular sounds of Japanese speech and replicate them. If you can master this imitation, it’ll do wonders for your listening ability.
3. Listen to Real-world Japanese
As helpful as practice is from the safety of your home, nothing beats listening and understanding Japanese in real-time. This means having actual conversations, interacting with people and being in Japanese language situations.
For people outside of Japan, this can mean a variety of things. One option is the previously mentioned Skype chat, but you can also look for a language exchange partner who wants to learn your language and can talk to you in Japanese. This will provide you with a fairly safe environment to practice conversations, use the vocabulary and grammar that you do know and work on your listening comprehension.
The previously mentioned Conversation Exchange is also good for finding a face-to-face language exchange partner. You can also use websites such as Gumtree or Craigslist to list or find an advert. If you’re going to Japanese classes, then it’s always worthwhile to speak with your teacher and see if they know anyone. Alternatively, it’s also possible to put up a flyer at a university where there are Japanese students.
The next suggestion will depend largely on where you live. If you live in a city with a significant Japanese community, you might be able to find events such as Japanese film screenings, lectures, networking events and group language exchanges.
If you’re able to find these kinds of events locally then they’re perfect opportunities to hear Japanese on a regular basis! Try searching Meetup to find Japanese language partners near you!
4. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Now that you have some resources to infuse your daily life with Japanese listening practice, it’s up to you to get yourself into gear. Take advantage of every single chance you have to listen to Japanese. The old adage of “practice makes perfect” certainly rings trues here.
Rather than standing stunned like a deer in the headlights when someone throws rapid Japanese at you, constant listening practice will help you get the gist of what they’re saying. Soon, you’ll be able to distinguish critical keywords. This means you can understand the context of a conversation without worrying too much about understanding every single word.
Never stop asking questions! It’s a great habit to get into. When you’re out at a Japanese restaurant, don’t stop at ordering in Japanese—ask extra questions! Ask for a recommendation or even strike up a friendly conversation with the waiter or waitress.
In any situation where you can speak Japanese, take hold of this precious opportunity to exercise your Japanese skills and pay close attention to the Japanese spoken by natives.
5. Target Your Learning
Concentrate your learning on language for specific situations, depending on your goals.
If you love sushi, imagine being at a Japanese restaurant. Look up vocabulary and new grammar rules that are relevant to that scenario. Figure out how to ask questions related to meal recommendations, ordering food without certain ingredients or booking a table. Don’t forget to also look into what answers you may get in response!
In certain situations, there are only a few answers that you can expect to hear. If you really focus your listening practice, you’ll be prepared for anything.
General conversations with friends or acquaintances might move through an intimidating variety of topics. However, if you go to the bank you’ll probably only need bank-specific vocabulary. At the restaurant, you can focus on food. If you’re on public transport, you’ll just need to know how to ask about bus or train stops and travel times.
Note the activities that you have planned where you might encounter Japanese, and set up your Japanese language practice so you’ll know what to say in advance.
Want to set your goal on getting a certificate to show off your Japanese skills? Look no further than the JLPT.
As we’ve already mentioned a few times in this post, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT, is a yearly exam held to test an individual’s abilities in Japanese. On the exam, three main skill sets are covered: vocabulary/grammar knowledge, reading and listening.
Five levels, ranging from N5 to N1, are available to test your ability, with N5 being the easiest and N1 being the most difficult. N5/N4 levels focus mainly on classroom Japanese, while N2/N1 is oriented toward real-world Japanese. N3 serves as a bridge between the two.
As someone who’s taken this exam (specifically the N2), I can tell you that it tests you in ways that truly push your Japanese skills to the limit. You’re tested on your vocabulary knowledge first, then you’ll read a short story and answer questions about it and finally, you’ll have to comprehend a series of audio scenarios.
As mentioned earlier, the listening portion is an absolute beast—I consider it a miracle that I passed! (Though I did feel better when a friend’s Japanese professor said that particular portion was unfairly hard that year.)
So, how do you prepare?
For N5/N4, focus on the fundamentals of Japanese. In general, you’ll need to get all your kana and about 100~200 basic kanji memorized by heart. Any introductory textbook series will be a great place to get started, especially the Genki series.
For the listening portion, study everyday scenarios and conversations, such as going to the store and asking for directions. Build your listening skills and focus on close listening and attention to detail. Build your stamina until you can listen to whole dialogues and stay focused throughout the entire audio clip.
The N3 mixes classroom Japanese and real-world Japanese, so you’ll need to study a mix of both. Watching children’s shows and reading Japanese graded readers is a great way to get that authentic Japanese listening practice in, and Easy Japanese is a good choice for news articles and videos.
Ramp up your studies with intermediate Japanese textbooks, and try finding a language partner online for that extra dose of listening/speaking practice.
The N2/N1 is where things get elevated to a whole new level. You’ll be studying mostly from real-world materials at this point, with supplemental textbooks for grammar, vocabulary and kanji. Focus on watching the news for your listening practice, and browsing the video sections of specialized magazines online, since the vocabulary on this exam gets extremely technical, especially on the N1.
When I was studying for the N2, I watched anime based on light novels and Japanese dramas, taking detailed notes on each new word in a devoted notebook. For learning specific grammar points and breaking down sentence structure, I used the Shin Kanzen Master series and Jitsuryoku Up!, which really helped me work through the nuances of written Japanese, and listened to as much audio as I could get my hands on.
At the end of the day, what matters most is setting your sights on the level you want to pass, doing your research and concentrating your studies accordingly. That focus will pay off once that certificate is on your wall!
6. Leap into Total Listening Immersion
Whether you’re in Japan or not, this step for truly having first-class listening and speaking abilities is to be fully immersed in the language. It’s essential that Japanese become a part of your daily life.
You lucky folks already located in Japan will have an easier time with this. The absolute best way to learn Japanese is by experiencing Japan. If you’re elsewhere in the world, do your best to plan a trip as a student, English teacher, volunteer or casual tourist.
Let’s be real: Travelling to Japan might not be in the cards in your near future. Don’t give up just yet! Research Japanese companies that have offices in your country, as well as companies that do regular business in Japan. Your passion for learning the language might help you find a great position with opportunities to practice Japanese in a professional capacity.
You could also look into local Japanese cultural societies in your area. These are open for anyone to join. It’s not two birds—it’s a dozen birds with one stone! You can make Japanese friends, become more exposed to Japanese culture and find a new, engaging way to improve your listening skills.
7. Make the Most of Your Memory with Repetition
One of the brain’s greatest assets for learning Japanese is its memory. Despite its complexity, you can effectively “hack” the brain’s memory mechanism to maximize your Japanese learning power.
The hack is simple: The more your brain encounters something, the more it says, “this is important,” and it remembers that thing. To make this scientific, your brain moves important information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
That means one thing is crucial to your Japanese study regimen: repetition.
Getting something into your long-term memory can take a while, but if you review vocabulary and grammar as much as possible, it’ll actually improve your listening skills. This is because you’ll more easily recognize and understand things you’ve reviewed a lot.
To make words and phrases stick in your long-term memory, I recommend you use a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) software. This is a technological development that helps you memorize Japanese words, phrases and grammatical constructions.
The best SRS technology often uses flashcards, has audio and adds new words at regular intervals. An app like Speechling is good to use as it repeats leveled words and phrases with native audio.
8. Put Yourself to the Test
Even if you do a lot of listening, nothing matches the pressure you feel when listening to native Japanese “in the wild.” This means that even if you understand most of the Japanese you hear in the comfort of your living room, things may be completely different on the streets of Japan.
Because of this, you should test your Japanese listening skills regularly. In fact, a Japanese test will put just enough pressure on you that a conversation with a native Japanese speaker will seem less stressful.
With the internet, finding Japanese listening tests has never been easier. There are plenty available online whether you find them through a Google search, an app such as Japanese Listening Practice or even YouTube.
To make the most out of the experience, make sure to find tests that are at your level (either beginner, intermediate or advanced) and ones that actually ask you comprehension questions that you must answer in Japanese.
9. Have Japanese Background Noise
As I mentioned in tip number eight, Japanese conversations are where your listening is really put to the test. In fact, this is called active language usage: you are actively listening with the intention to understand and respond.
As a well-rounded Japanese learner, however, don’t discount passive listening. A little bit of passive listening can really go a long way.
A great way to have passive listening practice is to put on spoken Japanese whenever you have an opportunity for background noise. In fact, having Japanese as background noise while driving to work, doing laundry, vacuuming or even doing mindless work trains your brain to hear the pronunciation of the words and accent without focusing too much on it.
After some passive Japanese listening, you’ll find that your subconscious brain even picks up new words and constructions that you’ll remember during active use.
Finding Japanese background noise is easy! You can get it by listening to Japanese radio, talk shows, podcasts and music while you accomplish other tasks.
10. Speak as Much Japanese as Possible
Even though our post focuses on improving your Japanese listening skills, you won’t get anywhere without improving its twin: Japanese speaking. Just like reading and writing, listening and speaking go hand-in-hand.
In fact, progress in one area leads to progress in another, so in addition to the listening practice, you should practice speaking Japanese in order to improve your listening skills.
Speaking Japanese can be done actively by seeking out and having conversations with native Japanese speakers or other learners. There are a number of websites and apps that help you accomplish this goal even if you don’t live in Japan.
If you don’t feel confident enough to speak yet, you can still practice this skill! Try talking to yourself in Japanese. It’s a strange tip that works. You can describe yourself, your life and even the current activities you are doing. If you want to make the practice even more complex, try responding orally to Japanese learning materials or media.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be well on your way to improving your Japanese listening skills thanks to these ten tips!