Immersion is one of the best ways to learn Japanese–or any language, for that matter.
But what if you’re not living in Japan?
Can you really immerse yourself from outside of the Land of the Rising Sun?
Yep. Sure you can.
Danny Choo–a popular blogger and businessman who lives in Japan–called it “virtual immersion.” In other words, just surround yourself with the Japanese language in your own home. That’s what I did before I moved over there for the first time and it works.
Since listening is one of the most difficult language skills to tackle outside of the country, I think it’s important to pay close attention to mastering this skill.
The more you work on this up front, the less nervous you’ll be when you arrive and strike up your first conversation.
Here are 11 ways you can immerse yourself and listen to Japanese even if you aren’t in Japan:
YouTube is one of the first stops to make when hunting for Japanese audio.
You’ll find everything from Japanese lessons to TV clips to cooking lessons to NHK documentaries.
To Get Started:
If you’re a beginner, simply typing “日本語” (nihongo) into the search box will bring up a long list of Japanese lessons.
For intermediate and advanced students, “料理” (ryouri) will bring up cooking shows, “NHK” will bring up full-length shows from the popular Japanese TV network, “アニメ” (anime) will bring up anime, and so on.
Obviously, you can get more specific with your searches. I even managed to find full-length versions of Death Note, one of my favorite anime series.
To take your YouTube experience one step further, you’ll want to read more about FluentU down below—keep on scrolling! FluentU’s online Japanese immersion program takes amazing videos from YouTube and transforms them into a unique learning experience.
Niconico is a wildly popular Japanese video hosting site.
Naturally, it has lots of cat videos and other random clips that may not be too helpful, but there’s also plenty of native Japanese to listen to.
One thing that surprised me when I first visited the site was how many live streams the site has. Though YouTube has live streams, they don’t seem to be nearly as popular.
To Get Started:
In the upper left corner of the site you’ll see a little menu with a few links. Click “Live.”
Here, you’ll find tons of live streams hosted by real Japanese people in real time. You can hop on to a live stream, chat with the host with your keyboard or on video, host your own live stream to practice your speaking, and more.
If you want to build your conversation skills, this is a great place to start. You’ll be exposed to slang, informal speech patterns, different dialects, and so on.
In my humble opinion, this type of exposure is a necessary supplement to structured lessons.
But, of course, everybody needs some structure to their Japanese lessons. How else are you going to learn the right way to speak?
And it’s not always easy to listen to native Japanese, which can be really fast.
FluentU offers a ton of structured lessons that are ideal for every level, from beginner to advanced, and that are tailored directly to you. The video lessons naturally include audio, but also have interactive Japanese subtitles for learning new vocabulary.
These lessons are a great leg up if you find native Japanese too fast or difficult…I know I did at first.
To Get Started:
Getting started with FluentU takes less than 30 seconds.
Simply visit the sign up page, click “Sign Up For Free,” and dive right in.
Not sure how good you are? Don’t worry.
Just pick a fruit–any fruit (you’ll find out what I mean). Within a minute or two you’ll find out if you need to increase or decrease your level.
There’s a huge range of contemporary videos to choose from here—just take a look at one small sample:
You’ll get reading practice too, since every video is subtitled. FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive captions. These interactive captions will show you the definition of a word (and simultaneously pause the video) whenever you hover your mouse over it.
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?
Every time you use FluentU, the site keeps track of the grammar and vocab you’ve learned and the words you struggle with, personalizing video suggestions and learning sessions based on your unique set of knowledge.
It’ll then recommend the natural next step in the progression of your learning. You’re delivered a 100% personalized experience.
Try it today on your computer or tablet, or download the FluentU app for iOS or Android devices.
4. Audio Textbooks
Another way to get some structured audio lessons: grab yourself a Japanese textbook that has audio CDs or downloadable audio files.
Pimsleur and Living Language are two well-established textbook companies that also include audio files with their books. Unless you’re already an advanced student or some kind of language genius, it’s a really good idea to build a foundation with a textbook.
That said, Living Language is a little more focused on the textbook. Pimsleur comes with a reading component, too, but this is secondary and not heavily focused on. The audio is the huge selling point for them—you can use this program to learn easily and effortlessly, wherever you go. Many people use this program for learning while driving! Just let the teachers guide you from basic phrases to complete sentences. It always prompts you to listen, repeat and respond, making it highly interactive.
Each new Pimsleur lesson builds on the previous ones, cleverly weaving what you’ve already learned into new concepts. All in all, this program can help you make a seamless transition from newbie to fluent, with plenty of time and practice. And you can rest assured that fluency always comes first with Pimsleur.
As with FluentU, these types of structured audio programs can help you build confidence and skill at the same time in a structured setting…the perfect precursor to daily conversation or on-the-job Japanese.
To Get Started:
Most of the audio textbooks out there offer free samples.
To try out Pimsleur’s Japanese course for free, head over to their site and give it a listen.
To listen to samples of Living Language’s course, drop by their “language lab.”
5. Anime, TV, & Movies
Of course, learning from anime, TV, and movies is another way to virtually immerse yourself in Japanese. This is a great way to learn vocabulary that you wouldn’t normally find in textbooks.
Whether you watch anime through YouTube, NicoNico, or buy your videos from a store, I advocate taking a disciplined approach to learning Japanese. Make vocabulary lists, practice, review, and practice some more…
The more active your approach to learning, the faster you’ll make progress.
To Get Started:
I’m sure you know how to get your hands on your favorite Japanese shows.
Though Amazon has a few popular shows on its digital shelves, see number 9 below for some sites that have bigger, better selections.
Then check out some FluentU posts that can offer some great tips and advice for learning from videos:
- A Complete Guide to Learning Japanese with Anime
- 3 Simple Steps to Learn Japanese Vocabulary Through Anime, TV, and Movies
- How to Learn Japanese with Subtitles: 4 Ways to Get Started
- Learn Japanese with Movies: 10 Modern Classics for Japanese Learners
- Learn Japanese with a Drama: 10 Great Dramas to Get Started
6. Native Japanese Speakers Online
One benefit of interacting with live Japanese people is that you can work together and help each other out with your language learning.
But don’t worry–even if you aren’t in Japan you can still interact with Japanese people online.
As with other resources that give you real-world exposure, you’ll learn the words you need for everyday conversation, plus slang, informal speech patterns, and so on. But unlike sites like NicoNico, which often streams live people speaking at their own pace, your language partner will probably adapt to your level, so it won’t be as overwhelming.
If you find yourself a professional language tutor, that much the better. Not only will they know how to speak at your level, so that you can understand them and learn new things, but they’re also going to be experienced in listening to students, picking up on mistakes and giving useful feedback. They can even help you practice your listening skills with the resources mentioned above. This kind of targeted practice is virtually guaranteed to improve your conversational Japanese skills.
Verbling is perhaps the best and most reputable resource for finding Japanese tutors who can meet up with you online. There are tons of tutors to choose from, so you can look around until you find the perfect one for you. Skill Silo is another nice online tutoring tool—one that comes with textbook materials and pre-made course plans for more structured learning—and it lets you purchase tutoring sessions in blocks.
To Get Started:
First, make sure you’ve got an email account and a Skype account. (If you’re opting for the Verbling route, no Skype required!)
Second, sign up on the sites mentioned above.
Third, create detailed profiles on the sites that explain who you’re interested in meeting, what your interests are, and so on.
Finally, start posting on the sites to draw attention to yourself. It may take a bit of time before you find the right language partners, but when you do it can be very rewarding. When seeking a Japanese tutor, be picky and find someone who’s able to teach you whatever you want to learn.
7. Native Japanese Speakers…Offline
Yes, there are Japanese people outside of Japan.
Good places to find them are at Meetup groups, universities, community colleges, and through online social networks. Exchange students are usually more than willing to do a language exchange and help you out with your studies.
If you liked the tutoring option but want to stay offline, you might be able to find an in-person Japanese tutor in your local area by surfing Wyzant—though you’ll probably need to live near a larger U.S. city to find someone.
Obviously, speaking with Japanese people is one of the primary goals of anyone studying the language. So the sooner you can dive in, the better.
Yes, it may seem overwhelming at first, but don’t get discouraged. Just keep supplementing your real-world practice with other structured studies and it will all start to come together.
To Get Started:
There are so many options:
- Go to Meetup.com and look for Japan-related meetup groups. Join them. Visit them. Have fun.
- If you’re a student at a community college or university, look for any type of international student clubs – especially ones that have the word “Japan” in them. And go to the cafeteria or student lounge, then look for a group of Japanese students. Talk to them. Make friends.
- Go to a Japanese grocery store, restaurant, or bookstore in your city. Talk to the Japanese people that work there. Make friends. Ask for pointers.
- Attend comics conventions and follow signs to the anime.
- Attend Japanese or Asian cultural festivals in your city.
Bonus tip: When you do a language exchange with Japanese people–online or offline–don’t mix Japanese and English together! This was a big problem for me and the Japanese students I studied with. It’s hard to discipline yourself to block off chunks of “English time” and “Japanese time,” so just make sure you don’t throw Japanese and English words into the same sentence.
8. Japanese Podcasts
Japanese podcasts are a great way for beginners and intermediate students to learn topic-based vocabulary, essentials of grammar, and phrases. They are good preparation material for students who want to get ready for real-world conversation.
And they are perfect for the on-the-go student!
Listen to them on the bus, in the car, at the park, on a boat, walking to class, or standing in line at the ramen shop. Most of the podcasts you’ll find online, such as NHK World or The Japanese Page, are perfect for the beginner.
There are a couple out there that include more advanced audio lessons…but by the time you get to that level you’ll also be ready for some native conversation, through sites like NicoNico or a language exchange site.
To Get Started:
Read the FluentU post that covers Japanese podcasts in detail, then visit some of them.
Find the ones that are right for your skill level.
Give them a listen.
Download them on to your devices and make them part of your study routine.
Okay…I’ll be honest…I hate singing. I’m just not cut out for it. At all.
Bonus Story – Once upon a time, I used to work at a bar in Japan. Like many bars in Japan, they had a karaoke machine.
The owner of the bar kept pushing me to sing and join in the karaoke party…but when I finally did, they told me, “Er, thanks, but never do that again.”
But if you do have musical talent (or even if you don’t but like karaoke), then music is a great way to practice listening and speaking (well, singing) because it helps you with vocabulary and it can be more entertaining than just reciting boring textbook phrases.
And if you enjoy something, you’re more likely to remember it.
An added benefit is that you’ll be able to participate in karaoke sessions when you hang out with your Japanese friends.
To Get Started:
Right Stuf Anime is another great place to find everything Japanese, from music to textbooks and manga.
Although I use Amazon’s US site to get my textbooks and other learning materials, if you’re looking for a bigger selection of Japanese media then you’ll want to head elsewhere.
Software programs are another structured way to build up your listening skills in bite-sized chunks. Software can be a great way to throw together some basic building blocks of vocabulary and phrases. Not to mention work on basic pronunciation…
Rosetta Stone is a pretty popular program…but not necessarily cheap. You probably already know that Rosetta Stone costs several hundred bucks, but some people swear by it. There’s a reason why it’s so famous worldwide, after all.
You may still have Rosetta Stone stuck in your mind as that yellow box in the airport, but it has come a long way in recent years to integrate online language learning. Rosetta Stone includes online classes, games and mobile apps, hopping on board with a lot of recent language-learning trends. If you can afford it and want to try the software’s unique approach to learning–which teaches through pictures–then it may well be worth a shot.
One software program which I haven’t tried is Transparent Language, but I’ve heard great things.
Rocket Japanese has a quickly growing reputation around the internet for its fun, effective teaching style. It’s all about speaking Japanese than you ever thought possible, all while falling in love with real Japanese culture.
Though it can be a bit pricey depending on the materials you choose, Rocket Languages is known for its incredibly vast amount of downloadable content. It’s also very well-structured, which is great for those of us who have no clue how or where to begin! And, hey, the program has a number of different account types that may appeal to you depending on your budget.
To Get Started:
To try Rosetta Stone, visit the Learn Japanese page and click Try Japanese next to the product you want to try.
For Transparent Language, visit their Learn Japanese page and click one of the free trial options.
To see if Rocket Japanese is the right program for you, go right ahead and give their free trial a spin.
Apps, of course, are another great way to learn basic phrases, vocabulary, and pronunciation. They can be downloaded in seconds, carried with you on your smartphone, and a few are starting to introduce audio clips.
Most apps are suitable for beginners, but once you hit the intermediate or advanced levels, you may need to find resources that are a bit more robust.
To Get Started:
If you’re an Apple user, just head over to iTunes and type in “learn Japanese” or “Japanese.”
And if you’re an Android user, do the same on Google Play.
And…just to be fair…here are links for those of you who have Windows Phones.
And there you have it.
Plenty of ways to listen to Japanese, plus direct hyperlinks to get you started. So no more excuses!
And many of these options are free, free to try, or pretty affordable. In most cases, all you need is your computer. If you’re reading this right now, we’ll assume you have one of those…
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.