Practicing Listening to Japanese, part 4: just get used to it, already!

In my never-ending quest to prepare for the JLPT and to improve conversational and listening skills over all, I like to explore new methods and ways. I write this once again after a humiliating experience with my wife earlier today, where she asked me something really easy in Japanese and I just sat there like an idiot saying “what?” over again. But this is only the tip of the iceberg…

Although I passed the JLPT N3 recently, I was somewhat dismayed at how low my listening score was. Since I’ve spent a lot of time practicing vocabulary and such, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that that score was higher, while listening score was lower than I thought. But if I hope to have a chance in the JLPT2, and to hold a conversation with my wife without her getting flustered, I really need to get used to hearing Japanese more.

Even before today, I was thinking about this subject and it reminded me of when I moved to Ireland for a year on a work contract. Ireland and America are both natively-English speaking countries,1 but as soon as I arrived, I struggled to understand the accent. It was pretty embarrassing to ask people to repeat things in my own native language, but the tones and pronunciations were different than American English, and even the way questions were phrased often differed. During the first week, I probably understood people only 60% of the time.

The good news was that after 3 months, I could understand Irish English 99% of the time. I only struggled when I met a stranger with a particularly weird accent (Ireland is small, but has many different, regional accents). The point is that I didn’t “study” anything, and had no measurable progress. Instead, I just got used to hearing it day after day.

When you thinking about it, learning to listen to Japanese language, or any foreign language, is basically the same thing only on a bigger scale. You have to hear it so much, you just get used to it. Spoken, conversational language is pretty simple when you think about it. The vocabulary is much simpler compared to written language, and speaking from experience, if you can pass the JLPT N4 comfortably, you pretty much know about 80% of the spoken, casual grammar by that point (formal occasions and writing are completely different). So, if you can’t understand spoken Japanese, it’s because you’re not used to it.

Studying will help you expand your vocabulary, which is always a good thing, but otherwise, if you hope to develop good listening skills and actually be able to engage in conversation with people, you have to get used to the language.

When I was a student in Vietnam many years ago, I made the typical expat mistake:2 I sheltered myself because of culture shock. I did improve my Vietnamese a lot after living there for 2 months, but I still couldn’t follow a conversation too well because I was too busy watching MTV Asia, which was the only channel I could watch from the hotel. Meanwhile, another student there did the opposite route: he avoided foreign TV and media, and just kept watching the Vietnamese TV shows. Not surprisingly his language skills far exceeded mine. He studied no more than I did (which wasn’t much to begin with…) but he had done the smart thing and forced himself to get really comfortable with the language.

Another example: a co-worker told me a story about someone who was a serious Japanophile, who would watch certain anime videos, and very carefully stop and rewind parts he didn’t understand. Over and over, until he understood them. This is an extreme example (and I am convinced that anime is a poor, poor method of learning Japanese), but I hear that it did help somewhat.

I spent a lot of time over the last couple of years watching Shimajiro cartoons with my little girl. JLPT N3/N4 people should be struggling with this show, which shows how even at a young age a lot of grammar we study as adults is already second-nature by age 4. Anyway, I like the show, and in our house it was usually the only thing to watch anyway, but it was helpful in reinforcing language listening. Nowadays, my little girl has graduated to Disney movies in Japanese (e.g. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc), so my language skills are being stretched once again.

To be honest, lately I am somewhat tired of listening to podcasts. It’s not that they’re bad, but it’s too easy to space out sometimes, and there’s nothing to “watch”, so I spend more time watching TV. Sometimes, I watch Japanese TV shows for free on Pandora TV, but often these can be quite racy and adult, so I while they’re funny, I always feel they’re a last resort. When you consider the Yogacāra Buddhist theories on the mind, you should be careful with how you “perfume” your mind. ;)

Anyway, the only way I’ll ever get any good at Japanese language listening skills is to simply get used to it. There’s no short-cut for me.

So, as I write this, I have decided to set aside my textbooks and flashcards for 1 month, and just commit to listen to Japanese as much as possible. My vow, for all you faithful and supportive readers out there, is to listen to or watch at least 2 hours of Japanese everyday. I can choose whatever I find interesting, but the point is I want to see if I can make a noticeable difference in one month, just as I did getting used to Irish accented English. I’ll post updates every Sunday just to keep myself on the level in front of readers. You guys are welcome to hold me accountable! ;)

Of course, one month isn’t enough, but I want to see as a personal experiment, if one month of dedicated listening can make a difference. Also, I want to be creative and make this fun for myself. The famous Japanese expert and nice guy, Tae Kim, talks about how you have to make it fun otherwise you’ll lose motivation. The key here is that I have to stop making listening a secondary priority, and really build it up. I’ll thank myself later. :)

So here goes!

1 Americans are frequently fascinated by the use of “Irish” (Irish Gaelic that is). Irish is the official “first language” of the Republic, and I saw it written on government buildings and offices a lot, but I heard it only spoken 3-4 times while living near Dublin. Each time, I had to turn my head twice to be sure I heard it. I did hear it all the time while commuting on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), because all the place names are announced in Irish and English, so, I could easily recite those by memory, but that’s about it. It’s very significant culturally, but in practical daily life, I got the impression it wasn’t very useful.

2 I encountered some very, very strange expats in Vietnam, and I’ve heard some strange stories about expats in Japan too. I hope I don’t end up like one of these people (and I hope I don’t act like one already! :-0 ). I heard good advice from a long-term expat in Japan though: don’t try too hard to “go native” either. You need a support group of people like yourself, but you also have to balance this with interacting with the natives. Balance is important in life. :)

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3 Comments on “Practicing Listening to Japanese, part 4: just get used to it, already!”

  1. Robert says:

    bit off topic. re note 1. Irish seems to me like English in Japan. There are a lot of signs in it and everyone has studied it in school as a compulsory subject and very few actually speak it, but most can remember more than they think. However there are a few areas where it is spoken in daily life (West Cork, Donegal, Connemara) and because it’s an official language it has to be used by sections of the civil service and is a requirement to be a teacher.

    I find with listening and speaking Japanese it takes time for my brain to engage. If I’m not expecting it or not concentrating I have moments similar to yours with my wife.
    The more immersive the environment the better. I do better in Japan. Recently having a house guest who didn’t speak English made it necessary to up my game! Maybe it’s time for “don’t speak English” days in our household again….

    good luck with your experiment.

  2. James des says:

    Doug san konichiwa

    A couple of months ago, for fun, I googled ‘japanophile’ and found your website and ever since then I have been following your blog, ( which is very pleasant a nd informative by the way ). The first blog I read, if I remember correctly, was about why you shouldn’t learn Japanese from your girl friend and it was very funny.

    I found this most recent blog of yours interesting and so I have some questions. What is Pandora TV and what was the simple question your wife was asking you ? The reason why I ask is because I presume that you speak decent Japanese by now. And what is JLPT ? You mention your daughter from time to time, is she a native English speaker learning Japanese ? or the other way round ?

    I thought it was funny that you mentioned that learning Nihongo by listening to anime clips is a poor method of learning because thats exactly how I was being taught. Actually, I recently and suddenly lost my language teacher. He is from Japan and was living in the US on a student visa. This past December he decided to visit family in Japan and upon his return to the US was rejected due to visa problems so long story short, learning through anime was his exact method used for teaching. I agree with what you are saying but I also found that for me, listening to anime was a great way to cut through the contemporary Japanese accent. But now days I have been reduced to listing to language courses on cd in my car. Its too bad for me because I really had some nice momentum with the learning and all.

    I appreciate what you said regarding the Buddhist theory on the mind and being careful of what you watch on TV. I was raised as a vegetarian Hare Krsna so I relate to this very much.

    Keep up the good work.

    James des

  3. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi guys:

    Robert: Ha ha ha, I know that feeling. If you’re not used to hearing it all the time, it’s hard to go from 0-60 right away. As for Irish, yup, I think you described the situation better than anyone.

    James des: Welcome to the JLR! I wonder how many other silent readers are out there (seems like a surge lately based on Google stats). Anyhow, I can’t blame you for taking advantage of the resources you have. From my experience, I found getting a diversity of resources is even better, and thankfully many such sources exist on the Web among other places.

    As for me, I speak Japanese poorly. I never lived there, and can only get so far despite my efforts. My daughter speaks Japanese first, but her English is catching up a lot now. :)

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