How to practice listening for Japanese language

Update: More resources, including podcasts posted here and here.

By far one of the most difficult, yet most critical skills to learn for a language is the ability to listen clearly. I have studied Japanese over the years, but especially the last couple years in preparing for the JLPT certification test. I’ve spent a lot of time expanding vocabulary and reading, but I discovered recently just how poor my listening skills are, despite being married to a Japanese woman.

I took a mock JLPT test for Level 3 recommended by Mr. Belton and his excellent blog on Japanese resources. The mock test book has two tests in it, including a nice listening practice CD, so Sunday night I took the test, and to my surprise failed miserably. Some sections, like Kanji and reading comprehension I did well on, because I have been practicing those so much, but sections like grammar and listening I totally bombed. Grammar, especially particles, proved to be much harder than I thought, so I am using a Grammar practice book also recommended by Mr. Belton above, in conjunction with Anki.

But what about listening? I realized that no matter how much memorization and practice you do on vocab and grammar, it doesn’t help much listening, and if you can’t listen to Japanese, you can’t converse and your skills are very limited. Listening is truly a difficult skill to acquire, and takes quite a bit of practice. My wife and I talked about that a lot yesterday, and she told me a story about a celebrity who moved to Japan a while back, and started watching a lot of Japanese TV, especially jidaigeki (時代劇) or historical (read: samurai) dramas. The result was that they could converse well in Japanese, though some of the vocabulary they used was kind of outdated (from watching too many samurai dramas). ;)

Nobody’s perfect I guess, but it tells me that the only way to improve Japanese listening and conversation is to just listen, listen and listen. The celebrity above had to listen to Japanese for years to get any good at it. My wife said when she first lived in the US, she had to watch years of English TV before she really “got it”. So, listening is the hardest skill to acquire, and has no shortcuts.

But how can you develop a routine to listen to Japanese? I tried watching dramas at home, but with work and parenting, my schedule is chaotic and it’s hard to develop a routine. And I can’t watch dramas on DVD at work, but I realized earlier today that I could listen to streaming media instead. After poking around the Intertubes for a while, I found a nice directory of Japanese language media, mostly news. I like watching Nihon Terebi News (NNN) in particular, since that has a full 20-30 minute news episode each day. Japanese news is pretty difficult to understand, since the language is pretty formal and lots of difficult terms, but I realize that it has a few advantages:

  1. The content daily is unpredictable, so you have to just listen, rather than contrive what they’ll say.
  2. The topics vary quite a bit, as do the events, so you get a good variety, instead of just getting used to listening to one topic.
  3. The speed is pretty fast, so you get used to listening to a normal speed of talking, rather than language lessons which intentionally slow things down.

Further down the list is Seebit TV, a more local channel in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture,** seems to run all day with programs, so you might get a better variety from that one. I am listening to some of each while working. :)

Now, this does not replace actual study through things like, but it helps supplement this with some good, intensive listening practice. Since I setup an Outlook reminder daily to listen to the news, I can do this while working but keep exposing myself to Japanese.

So, once again, my wife is the bodhisattva who helps point the way for me.* Thanks dear! :)

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. More content posted here.

* – Actually she got tired of me mis-interpreting what she said, even with simple questions.

** – Home of Naoko-san and her excellent blog.

9 Comments on “How to practice listening for Japanese language”

  1. arunlikhati says:

    I posted about this on your previous blog, but I think it will help: You can listen to streaming media while working at the office, even without consciously trying to make out what the news is saying. This is especially helpful if you download a newscast and play it on repeat. Even though you may not be spending much conscious effort in listening, your brain still integrates this information. Combined with only 30-90 minutes a day of active training (best in 30 minute intervals), your listening skills will probably improve faster than only watching Japanese television.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Arun,

    This is exactly something I’ve been wondering lately. I think I missed your last response, so please accept my apologies. In any case, I was worried that if I only passively listen, then I might not learn much, but I do notice how my mind kind of floats in and out of the conversation I am listening to over streaming media, which to me sounds like when I listen to English language programs, so it’s the same effect.

    Yeah, I still study actively (usually an JPod lesson a day or every other day), and spend time on Anki daily thanks to an Microsoft Outlook calendar reminder, so I hope these will balance out my Japanese better. I am quite concerned about how unbalanced my training and self-study has been up until now. :p

  3. Hi, Doug,

    The description of your feeling about the difficulty in mastering Japanese especially the listening skill well fits my experience of learning English which is my second language (Japanese being my 3rd).

    Having lived in an English speaking country for 17 years and yet I still struggle with it. I think my English level in general is of the same level of your Japanese. Listening is my biggest concern.

    The secret of attaining a big leap in mastering a language, I think, is the amount of time you can spend to expose yourself to an environment of that language.

    I think your barrier is the nature of the roles you have to play at this stage of life. Sometimes we can only follow the course of nature with a determined but relaxed mind.


  4. Doug says:

    Wow, well said Mr. Chen. Well said, indeed!

    The roles I have to play are ones I am grateful for, so I am not complaining at all, but like you said, it can make learning language difficult. But, before I get too old, I am determined to really give it one last big effort. :) Actually, I have a second reason as well, in that I hope to use my language skills later when I resume my training as a Buddhist priest. That’s something I had to drop years ago, due to circumstances at the time, and hope to take up again, but this time smarter, wiser and with better language skills. It’s not something most readers here even know about because it was something from my very first blog almost 4 years ago, but it’s something I never really gave up on either.

    Indeed, we can only follow the course of nature with a determined, but relaxed mind.

    Thank you!

  5. Kendall says:

    One source I have for listening to Japanese is music. I have a number of OST from anime that I enjoy listening to, even though I can’t translate many of the lyrics I am finding I can make out more of the pronunciations as I learn more Japanese. I also have movies in Japanese that I can listen to as well as your typical Japanese learning aids.

    One of my concerns will be my pronunciations. One of my learning tools (Nintendo DS: My Japanese Coach) lets me record my voice and compare it to the Japanese pronunciation, but it’s still limited. I don’t currently know anyone offline that speaks Japanese that can listen to me, but I won’t be that far along for a while. I at least have a natural knack for foreign accents.

  6. arunlikhati says:

    I forgot to mention that another finding in the study on perceptual learning was that the subjects learned better if they got a full night’s sleep!

  7. dipta says:

    For sure listening is a key part of any language, what’s the point of reading and such if you don’t even understand? But I think the harder part isn’t actually listening, there’s a point where you can understand pretty well what people say and mean, but it’s a totally different story actually expressing yourself the same way. You get stuck with the question “oh, what was the word he/ she used? The expression??”
    When you can engage in a normal conversation about anything without any of this topics in mind is when you can consider yourself fluent, isn’t it?

    However, if you mean for JLPT, then maybe listening is the hardest IF you don’t live in Japan or have to listen to it everyday, everywhere?
    I just remembered my friend’s case; he speaks very well as he has been in Japan for a couple of years and, although he can’t read half as much, he passed the JLPT 2 kyuu last year. Maybe he couldn’t make it with the new rules now, but it’s just to say that kanji and grammar were the hardest parts for him.
    Think for me listening isn’t the hardest either. Even when I first arrived in Japan, it wasn’t the difficult part, maybe because I listened to a lot of Japanese music and watched drama too?^^;;
    Well, sorry for the long text, but just wanted to add that most people I know never got to learn the language with their spouses, but with friends, classes, etc.

  8. Doug says:

    Hi dipta, and welcome to the JLR. I think you’re right that listening and exposure really help your language skills a lot more than study. Though study is needed somewhat to help provide context. :)

  9. dipta says:

    Yes, I definitely agree that, without studying, your language skills (in any language) will never be that great.
    BTW, have you tried the 2kyuu Kanzen master kanji book? There’s exercises for you to write the sentences you hear with the proper kanjis. It might be helpful too.
    Or maybe, since this is kind of an old post, you already passed the 2kyuu and don’t need it anymore^^

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

Gravatar Logo

Please log in to to post a comment to your blog.

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers