Improve Your Japanese Listening Skills with 10 Productive Practice Tips
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 stuck in a rut?
With some Japanese listening practice, you’ll be swimming toward fluency in no time!
- Why Immersion Is the Best Way to Improve Your Japanese Listening Skills
- 1. Take Advantage of the Digital Age (with These 6 Resources)
- 2. Be Proactive About Listening Practice
- 3. Listen to Real-world Japanese
- 4. Practice, Practice, Practice!
- 5. Consider Studying for the JLPT
- 6. Leap into Total Listening Immersion
- 7. Make the Most of Your Memory with Repetition
- 8. Put Yourself to the Test
- 9. Have Japanese Background Noise
- 10. Speak as Much Japanese as Possible
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. There was just one problem: I didn’t feel advanced.
I decided to enroll in an intermediate-level class at a different institution—and discovered that the entire class was conducted in Japanese. It was a massive shock.
As it turns out, there’s a reason why Japanese class should be 100% in Japanese. Here are a few:
- Take Japanese listening out of the classroom. The most common complaint by people who take the JLPT is that they find the listening part of the test too hard. If you only ever hear Japanese in the classroom, your ears and brain will never get attuned to the language. To get really comfortable with Japanese, you need to be immersed in it!
- Learn Japanese levels of politeness. There are roughly five levels of politeness in Japanese, from very informal to formal. Immersion allows you to hear and see these levels of politeness in context. Rather than memorizing these concepts, immersion allows you to connect politeness with real situations, making them more intuitive to use when conversing with native Japanese speakers.
- Broaden your exposure to the language. When you’re surrounded by students at a similar level of proficiency, there’s little fear of hearing Japanese you don’t know. If you want to go to Japan or somewhere where people speak Japanese, you’ll need the functional language skills to understand how people actually use the language and comprehend what they’re saying. This isn’t something you can achieve in a classroom.
When you’re ready, dive into these 10 practice tips to really start developing your Japanese listening skills:
1. Take Advantage of the Digital Age (with These 6 Resources)
You can go online and listen to an incredible range of Japanese audiobooks, TV programs, films, radio shows and more.
There are video streaming apps and sites that allow you to watch anime, dramas, movies and TV shows. And it goes without saying that sites like YouTube have a vast collection of audio resources you can use.
Arranging video chats through Zoom or your video/voice chat program of choice is also quite simple.
This means you can experience real-time Japanese speaking and listening practice by finding a language partner through an exchange website such as MyLanguageExchange.com or Conversation Exchange.
Here are our favorite resources.
Let’s Talk in Japanese
This podcast is created by a Japanese teacher who makes entertaining listening material for learners of all levels.
Nearly 150 episodes are ranked in difficulty from JLPT N5 (easiest) to N1 (hardest). Each episode is 9-15 minutes long, 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.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language skills.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)
This is an excellent 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 long, 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 has engaging and informative posts about Japanese culture.
jtest4you is overflowing with resources devoted to studying for the JLPT and, naturally, includes listening questions.
These quiz-style exercises test your comprehension with short audio tracks, so you can check your understanding of the Japanese content.
Every quiz has a section featuring key vocabulary, so you can review unfamiliar words and phrases. With sections for all levels, this will become a valuable resource throughout your Japanese learning journey.
Nihongo no Tane
Translating to “the seeds of Japanese,” this podcast indeed 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 you can get used to hearing the language.
The presenter, Yumi, covers various topics, from holidays and seasons to stories from her personal life. For instance, one podcast has her talking about her puppy Maro getting into trouble tearing up the house!
Japanese Immersion with Asami
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. Her adorable content will surely charm you, so 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 keywords, focusing on only one or two sentences.
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 can 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 keeps it running to remain a treasure trove of Japanese listening practice.
2. Be Proactive About Listening Practice
It’s one thing to watch a Japanese drama, but attempting to transcribe what you heard during a drama 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.
Media players allow you to replay and slow down what you’re listening to so that your mind can work out what it’s hearing.
Another helpful approach is what 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 to and understanding Japanese in real time. This means having actual conversations, interacting with people and being in Japanese language situations.
One option is the previously mentioned Zoom call, 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 for practicing conversations, using the vocabulary and grammar that you do know and working on your listening comprehension.
Conversation Exchange is 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. Another alternative is to put up a flyer at a university with Japanese students.
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!
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 headlights when someone throws rapid Japanese at you, constant listening practice will help you understand what they’re saying. Soon, you’ll be able to distinguish critical keywords.
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 this precious opportunity to exercise your Japanese skills and pay close attention to the Japanese spoken by natives.
5. Consider Studying for the JLPT
If you’re looking for a certificate to show off your Japanese skills, look no further than the JLPT.
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a yearly exam held to test an individual’s abilities in Japanese. The exam covers three main skill sets:
- Grammar knowledge
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.
The listening portion is an absolute beast! To prepare for it, study everyday scenarios and conversations, such as going to the store and asking for directions. Develop 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.
- 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, especially the Genki series, will be a great place to get started.
- 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, 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.
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 helped me work through the nuances of written Japanese. I also listened to as much audio as I could get my hands on.
6. Leap into Total Listening Immersion
It’s essential that Japanese becomes part of your daily life.
If you live in Japan, you’ll have an easier time with this. The absolute best way to learn Japanese is by experiencing Japan. If you’re elsewhere, do your best to plan a trip as a student, English teacher, volunteer or casual tourist.
But let’s be real: traveling to Japan might not be in your cards in the near future.
Luckily, you can research Japanese companies that have offices in your country or those that do regular business in Japan. Your passion for learning the language might help you find a great position with opportunities to practice Japanese professionally.
You could also look into local Japanese cultural societies in your area. These are open for anyone to join.
You can make Japanese friends, become more exposed to Japanese culture and find a new, engaging way to improve your listening skills. It’s not two birds—it’s a dozen birds with one stone!
7. Make the Most of Your Memory with Repetition
The more your brain encounters something, the more it says, “this is important,” and the better you remember it.
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 improve your listening skills. You’ll start to recognize and understand things more easily after you’ve reviewed them a lot.
To make words and phrases stick in your long-term memory, I recommend you use Spaced Repetition System (SRS) software.
The best SRS technology often uses flashcards, has audio and adds new words regularly. 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.
With the internet, finding Japanese listening tests has never been easier. There are plenty available online through Google searches, apps such as Japanese Listening Practice or even YouTube.
To make the most out of the experience, 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
Don’t discount passive listening. Even though active listening is essential, a little bit of passive listening can go a long way.
A great way to practice passive listening is to put on spoken Japanese whenever you have an opportunity for background noise.
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 on it.
After some passive Japanese listening, you’ll find that your subconscious brain even picks up new words and constructions you’ll remember during active use.
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.
Progress in one area leads to progress in another, so in addition to the listening practice, you should practice speaking Japanese to improve your listening skills.
Speaking Japanese can be done by seeking out and conversing with native Japanese speakers or other learners. Several websites and apps 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. You can describe yourself, your life and even your current activities. Try responding out loud to Japanese learning materials or media to make the practice even more complex.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be well on your way to improving your Japanese listening skills thanks to these ten tips!