Until now, you’ve only been treading water in the kiddie pool.
It’s time for a new challenge.
You’re not alone. Today, we’re going to dive into the deep end of the Japanese language pool together.
The Benefits of Gaining Total Mastery in Japanese Listening
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 skill has the unique ability to build your confidence – you will feel that you can tackle any situation without fear of being embarrassed by not understanding something.
By understanding all the Japanese you hear, you can blow your friends away with your skill. You’ll also be able to better understand your favorite music, programs and movies better than ever before! Wouldn’t it be nice to lift you 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.
Learn From My Mistakes
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% Japanese.
I picked myself up and started again. I refused to accept that I had got this far just to let myself be defeated. Now, I’m going to share with you some hard-earned advice that is guaranteed to get you out of your Japanese listening rut!
Take Japanese Listening Out of the Classroom
If we look at Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) takers, we see that, for the thousands and thousands of students studying Japanese outside of Japan, the most common complaint is that they find the listening part of the test too hard. There is 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. The classroom is a safe place controlled by a teacher and by being with students at a similar level of proficiency there is little fear of hearing Japanese that you don’t know. On one hand this is good, 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.
The reason for this is that if you want to go to Japan, or if outside of Japan go to an event 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 that you have the ability to listen to what someone says and be able to comprehend it. This is not something that you can achieve in a classroom.
How to Dive into the Deep End with Japanese Listening Practice
The way to achieve functional Japanese listening skills is by throwing yourself into the deep end. I have distilled my personal experience into these six fundamental steps to improve Japanese listening skills:
1. Take Advantage of the Digital Age
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 audio tape, VHS or DVD. You can now go online and listen to an incredible range of Japanese TV programs, films, radio shows and more.
Even with a simple Google search you can find listening resources covering a great number of different situations, and there are video streaming sites that allow you to watch anime, dramas, movies and TV shows. In addition, it goes without saying that sites like YouTube have all manner of video clips. For example, the JibTV and FujiTV. YouTube channels are a couple of great starting places.
It is also thanks to the internet that it is quite simple to arrange video chats through Skype, etc., which allow you to experience real time Japanese speaking and listening practice.This would involve identifying a language partner through an exchange website such as Japan-Guide or Conversation Exchange.
A new start-up, Versify offers an alternative to Skype. You can video chat with native Japanese speakers to practice speaking. Simply search profiles for someone who’s available at the same time as you (based on the availability schedule they’ve filled out), and start chatting!
Another great way to learn Japanese is with FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos like TV shows, commercials, and inspiring talks, and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos—just take a look at one small sample:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple in-context usage examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. You’ll also find audio pronunciations, synonyms, helpful images and more. Tap again to add words you’d like to review later to your running vocab list.
And that’s not all. FluentU’s learn mode lets you learn Japanese even better by turning your selected videos into personalized language lessons. You’ll go through exercises that show the video clips as the prompts, multimedia flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
The best part?
The whole time, FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary and grammar that you’re learning with each video you watch. It’ll then recommend the natural next step in the progression of your learning. You’re delivered a 100% personalized experience.
2. Be Proactive About Listening Practice
One issue with all of these resources is that it is also easy to take a very passive approach. It is one thing to simple 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.
By being proactive you can develop your listening abilities by actively trying to decipher what you hear, regardless of what you are listening to. Thanks to media players it is possible to not only replay but also slow down what you are hearing so that your mind can work out what it is hearing. For example, if you have a drama or film on your PC you can use media players such as VLC to slow down the speed of the video and sound.
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 be able to replicate them. If you can master this imitation, it will do wonders for your listening ability.
3. Listen to Real World Japanese
As much practice as you can get in the safety of your home, nothing beats having to listen and understand Japanese in real time. This means actual conversations, to interact with people and be in Japanese language situations.
For people outside of Japan this can mean a variety of things, one option being 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, to use the vocabulary and grammar that you do know, and to 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 an advert or find an advert. If you are going to Japanese classes then it is always worth to speak with your teacher to see if they know anyone, or alternatively it is 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. In big cities with international populations, such as London, Paris, and New York, there are significant Japanese communities. In these neighborhoods you will be able to find many events such as Japanese film screenings, lectures, networking events and group language exchanges. If you are able to find these kinds of events locally then they are perfect opportunities to hear Japanese on a regular basis!
Now that you have some resources to infuse your daily life with Japanese listening practice, it is 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 single situation where you can speak Japanese, take hold of this precious opportunity to exercise your Japanese skills and pay close attention to Japanese spoken by natives.
5. Target Your Learning
Concentrate on language for specific situations. Imagine you’re still out having sushi at that Japanese restaurant. Before you go, do your research. Look up vocabulary and new grammar rules that are relevant for 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 so many kinds of answers that you can expect to hear. If you really focus your listening practice you will be prepared for anything. General conversations with friends or acquaintances might take move through an intimidating variety of topics. However, if you go to the bank you will 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 you have planned where you will encounter Japanese, and set up your Japanese language practice so you’ll know what to say in advance.
6. Leap into Total Listening Immersion
Whether you are in Japan or not, the final step for truly having first class listening and speaking abilities is to be fully immersed in the language. It is 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 skill.
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