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 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. A 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 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 is not 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 to 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 words and what verbs you use.
While the lines might be fuzzy, there are several types of politeness in Japanese: there is 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
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.
Another great way to get some Japanese listening practice is FluentU.
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” 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.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or Android!
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, 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 or find an advert. If you’re going to Japanese classes, then it’s always worth 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 are able to find these kinds of events locally then they are 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.
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 will 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 listening itself, 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!
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