How to Improve Your Japanese Listening
Always wanted to learn Japanese but unsure of where to start or are searching for that magic trick that will help you boost your Japanese ability? Save weeks and maybe years on doing the research and learning by trial and error through our experiences. Our four-step series will cover Japanese how to improve your vocabulary, reading, listening, and speaking. Each section will provide free and easy to access Japanese learning resources; additionally, tips and tricks on how to improve your studying habits. The guide is designed for those who want to achieve Japanese fluency without having to spend 10,000 dollars or more on full-time Japanese lessons.
We know how difficult learning Japanese can be, so we are making this guide in hopes that it will be useful for you and something that you can refer back to as you progress through you learning. A guide like this is something we wished we had when we started out. We think we would have been able to study smarter if we had had access to these materials.
The best way to improve your listening is to simply speak more Japanese!
Great news for beginner Japanese learners - things are pretty simple for your first year. Pretty much any exposure to Japanese is good exposure and the more you use it, the more you will improve. Whatever keeps you motivated and interested in using the language is probably what you should be doing as a beginner student up until you reach a low-intermediate level. Your listening skills will also naturally improve the more time you speak Japanese.
The extrovert advantage
One thing I have noticed is that people who are extroverted tend to improve their speaking and listening at a much faster rate than those who introverted. People who really love Japanese culture and love talking to Japanese people about Japanese culture, comedy, and anime are the one-two combination that tend to improve super quickly. From a Westerner’s stand point, this article is designed for people like you and I who like Japanese culture and want to learn Japanese but whose life destiny may not be to live in Japan our whole lives.
The benefits of having a teacher
I am an introvert and only like speaking to others when I feel there is something important or useful for me to communicate. Also, I am a bit sensitive when the other person doesn't understand what I am trying to say. I feel bad when the other person has to repeat the same thing over and over again because of my lack of ability.
If you are similar to me, I find that having a teacher is really beneficial because since I am paying them for their time, I lose that sense of guilt and I feel comfortable asking them to repeat the same thing. This has helped me to get over the beginner’s hurdle and towards a daily conversation level of Japanese. Once you reach this, the guilt or bad feelings tend to go away.
Another benefit that comes with having a teacher is that you can ask them to adjust their speaking speed; you can also ask them to pronounce words with emphasis on the first letter because as a beginner student, you often cannot differentiate between the words and a whole sentence of eight words may sound like one long word that never ends!
Example with no emphasis : doomoarigatougozaimasu
Example with emphasis : DOmo | ARIgatou | GOzaimasu
When speaking to a friend, you may feel uncomfortable asking them to speak this way and they may not enjoy it - especially when they speak your language. If you are having this challenge, consider finding a Japanese teacher.
Make non-English speaking Japanese and foreign friends
When I first started learning Japanese I was surrounded by four groups: English speaking foreigners, English speaking Japanese, non-English speaking Japanese, and Japanese speaking foreigners. As a beginner student, you are probably surrounded with the first two groups, but the sooner you can surround yourself with the last two groups the faster your speaking and listening will improve. One thing i’ve noticed is that foreigners will probably understand your Japanese better than Japanese people initially.
I guess the point I wanted to make here is that speaking Japanese is not purely limited to communicating with Japanese people. Speaking to foreigners who cannot speak English is really fascinating because you get exposure to a foreigner who is not familiar with English speaking culture and for some weird reason, feels more authentic since we do not share the same culture cues. Also, for people who feel pressure with speaking to someone in Japanese or have had experiences where the Japanese person was impatient with you, speaking with a foreigner in Japanese may be an approach that will help you to build more confidence.
But won’t I pick up bad habits from foreigners?
Some might say that you can only learn to speak natural Japanese by speaking to Japanese people that you may pick up incorrect Japanese from non-Japanese. I agree 99% with this statement; but as a beginner student, the biggest hurdle is to remain motivated as opposed to learning perfect Japan. Speaking accurate Japanese is something you can worry about after you can communicate and not before that.
To sum things up, the best way to improve your listening is to simply speak as much as possible in Japanese.
Preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test? Here is a technique to improve your test taking listening skills
I am proud to admit that I was able to pass the JLPT N1 test on my first try; however, the areas I really struggled with was the reading and listening sections. The grammar and vocabulary is predictable, so as long as you know a lot of words and grammar patterns, you will have no problem passing those sections. But the reading and listening sections, are different in that they test your actual understanding of the content. My challenge with the listening section was that I found the content boring, so I had a hard time focusing. Which meant I had trouble processing the information in time to answer the question because if you do not answer quickly, you are going to miss the next section.
Here is the method I used to pass the N1 listening section. The method simply involves playing an audio track at 1.25 - 1.5x the speed of the original audio. In the test case example, I purchased a test preparation book for the listening section and used software to speed up each track and I listened until the point I could clearly differentiate each word at 1.25 the speed. By training your ears to listen to audio tracks at 1.25 - 1.5x the original speed, listening to things at 1x start to seem like listening to things in slow motion because you brain is used to operating at a higher frequency level and speed.
Mobile Options for speeding up the audio track
- Apple podcasts has this feature built into its software
- Youtube has the speed adjustment option in the settings gear of each video
Desktop Options for speeding up the audio track
Look up on Google for “software to adjust mp3 speed” to find software or websites that will help you to convert the speed of MP3 files.
- There is a free open source software called Audacity which allows you to control the speed of an MP3 track and was the one I used to use.
- I have not tested this website, but this site claims to do the same feature audiotrimmer.com
Hey, Japan Switch students! Remember that in addition to the CD that came with the book, you were sent a link to an MP3 version of the files with the 2nd week of onboarding email. You are welcome to download these tracks and convert them to a faster speed.
Listening can be deceptive!
There are several big challenges that you will face when improving your listening skills that you do not experience when improving the other elements of language.
The first challenge is that your improvement in your listening skills is totally subjective because there are no visual graphs or indicators of how well you are performing. With areas like grammar and vocabulary, you can say that you understand 200 words, all the particles, or 100 kanji; but listening is more vague and is something you will have to gauge on your own!
The second challenge is that you will almost absolutely overinflate your Japanese listening ability and think you understand more than you do. Since you can only use context while you are listening, you may believe you understand 50% of conversation, but in reality, you might only understand 20% and your brain makes up the other 30%. It is similar to when an expert is explaining a complex scientific concept and you are like “I think I understand what you are getting at” - but you really don’t.
The third challenge is that there are no free resources like the apps we introduced in our other posts about improving your Japanese that will not support you when you do not know the answer for something. Your only options are to pay for lessons, use the one listening program I mentioned, or find an extremely patient Japanese speaker. Additionally, for those who are interested in Japanese movies, animes, or listening to music in Japanese, you will need a native speaker to confirm that what you think you heard is in fact what was actually said.
Interested in Lessons in Tokyo?
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Since listening is subjective, you have to test your ability with a black and white format if you want to know your real score
Since listening is subjective you have to test your ability with a black and white format if you want to know your real score.
One simple way to test your ability is to take JLPT listening quizzes. You listen to the audio, answer the question and then check your results. This is a more concrete way to test your listening skills because you either know the answer or you do not. I would also recommend making a note of questions you were not confident with. Rather than checking the answers for these questions, I would listen to the audio again until you are sure about your answer.
Luckily, I found some legal content online on Youtube by NHK.
Japanese Listening Practice for N5 - no answers unfortunately
Japanese Listening Practice for N4 - answers included
Option 2: Purchase the test preparation workbook for your Japanese level. Click here to go to the website of the official test maker and see the workbooks they offer. These workbooks contain the audio and answers from previous year’s test.
Confirming with your teacher or Japanese speaker
If you are speaking with someone who can speak Japanese and English, you can test your listening skills by having a person confirm what they said in English. If what they said was 90% similar to what you thought they said, then you win and what you thought is correct. I would not consider 40 - 70% understanding as real comprehension. There have been situations where are a 70% understanding would have caused a mistake on my part.
I would like to also add that if you live in Tokyo and are looking for the most affordable Japanese lessons in Tokyo, feel free to check out our Japanese school, which offers Japanese lessons in the morning and provides quality teachers and excellent materials for 25 - 50% less than other Japanese schools. Make the switch to using Japanese at Japan Switch Tokyo.
The extrovert dilemma
I have seen this phenomenon in outgoing foreigners where they would talk, not understand what the other person said and then just move on to the next topic; which left the Japanese speakers sharing apprehensive glances.
It can be a bit of a blow to the ego to realize your listening skills aren’t that good. But this realization will light the flames to practice more, and also reduce the amount of awkward moments when the person is waiting for an answer and you are laughing at their supposed remark.
For a while I overestimated my Japanese abilities. It was an “oh my god!” moment when I realized that my listening was much worse than my speaking and from there I have really focused on becoming a better listener.
The subtitle dilemma
You will definitely overestimate your listening skills when watching programs meant for native speakers and not learners - even when watching with subtitles. The reason you probably feel you understand more than you do is because you have context to guide you. You can watch what the people are doing, facial expressions, and other aspects to guess as what they are saying.
This does not mean you should not watch programs in Japanese - watching programs is great for keeping your motivation strong! However, from a pure time in versus output, if you want to improve your listening skills you should practice with a Japanese speaker, take tests, or use programs designed to improve your listening.
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Goal setting for listening
This is a hard one to recommend to everyone because everyone has their own unique styles of learning. Some people learn several hundred vocabulary and then move on to listening while other people learn better organically through a lot of listening. You need to find out if you are visual or audio learner first before determining what goals to set.
As a beginner student finding interesting content to listen to is tough. You could listen to music and watch dramas or anime to help you get more exposure to the Japanese language. However, your only option for practicing your listening is to listen to the audio tracks of CDs, mp3 tracks, or Youtube videos; which are often too hard, sometimes boring and repetitive. With that being said, I have found an good solution (the only downside being that it is not free) - FluentU.
FluentU is a company that has searched the internet for real world video content in the language you are trying to learn and have categorized those videos for learners based on their level. Examples of video types include movie trailers, music videos, and news.
They also transcribed and added subtitles for all video content even when the original version lacked it. You can also click on a word in the subtitle and the definition in your native language will appear along with example sentences. You can transfer these words to a quiz feature that will allow you to study the words you learned from the videos. The price used to be 15 dollars, but the basic feature is 10 dollars a month and the premium feature is 20 dollars a month - has quizzes, flashcards, and an SRS feature that we introduced in the vocabulary learning section.
Here are 3 Youtube videos for beginner students:
Update 1: I have found one free alternative to FluentU and it is called captionpop that has a search feature to help you find videos in the language that you are learning that have subtitles in your native language. I like how they sort the videos by channels and feature some very famous youtubers. The downside compared to FluentU is that they do not provide translations for individual words and it lacks the quiz, flashcard features as well. However, according to this reviewer, he recommends using the free captionpop instead of FluentU basic plan because the video content is more interesting and free. Please note that his review is for the Chinese version of FluentU.
Like I mentioned above, as long as it is in Japanese, it can be used as a learning resource. As your skill level moves upwards, you need to adjust the level of what you are listening to. Something challenging but not too challenging is where you should study.
But you don’t have to be in study mode 100% of the time. You’ll also benefit from just listening to Japanese when your doing chores or other simple tasks. You probably already do this anyways, just replace it with something with Japanese.
For these types of moments, you are best using podcasts. Below are our recommend podcasts which can be used as background noise or for studying.
Nihongo con Teppei is a great podcast for intermediate learners. In this podcast Teppei only uses Japanese. The idea behind the podcast is that the more you listen to in Japanese, the more you will be able to express yourself in Japanese. While there may not be transcripts for the episodes, you can watch them on Youtube, where you have the option of turning on Japanese subtitles. There are currently 233 episodes, a wide range of random topics. Teppei often speaks slowly and repeats himself, so it’s good learning material.
Another podcast you can listen to is Happa Eikawa. While this is actually aimed at Japanese people who want to learn English, it can also be used to study Japanese. There isn’t a Japanese version of the transcript. However, there are questions of the day, answers, summary and phrases of the day. All of these include the English and Japanese translations.
Here are a few other ones I recommend:
https://bilingualnews.jp/ - This podcast is half in English and half in Japanese. Bilingualnews is a lot more informal than “News in Slow Japanese”, where the hosts chat about news unscripted. There is an app that gives you access to the transcripts, but only the first three episodes are free.
https://www.ajalt.org - “Real World Japanese”. These are short conversation videos on various topics such as hobbies and travel plans.
https://www.nhk.or.jp/radionews/ - You can listen to NHK news on either normal, slow or fast.
Did you know that it is harder to speak to native speakers than native speakers women in general?
This has personally been my experience, but may not apply to everyone. I have found that it is much harder to understand Japanese men than women, and this is especially so in the areas of Japan that use a more gruntorial way of speaking like Kansai. Most men have a lower tone voice than woman and because of that it is much harder to hear the sounds of individual sounds when men speak. Additionally, the older than man is the harder it usually is to understand them as well. Join a conversation with a group of men and you will totally understand what I mean.
Turn up the volume or use headphones
Similar to how it is harder to hear the lower tone of Japanese men, you will find that you will have to watch TV at a louder volume than your native Japanese counterparts. The reason for this is similar in that it is harder for you to pick up the individual sounds and syllables. Another difference is that you will find it much easier to watch and listen to things using headphones than speakers, the reason is the same in that the quality of sound is much higher or easier to hear when using headphones.
There was a lot of awesome information in this blog post about how to improve your Japanese listening skills. I hope you found something that you will be able to implement immediately. If you loved the post, please share it on social media or with your friends. Since there was a lot of content, I will summarize the key points for you below.
- Speak as much as possible and your listening will naturally improve. The more people you speak with, the more you can train your ears. Also remember that men are often harder to understand than women based on the pitch and tone, but if you can find a patient male friend, they are a keeper.
- Finding good and interesting content as a beginner learner is tough, so expose yourself to a mixture of level appropriate to practice your listening skills and highly interesting content in Japanese to keep you motivated.
- You are not limited to using Japanese with native Japanese, there are many foreigners you could be speaking Japanese too. If you are in Tokyo, there are a ton of foreigners from many different countries here.
- Controlling every conversation you are in is a great short term approach to learning Japanese, but will negatively affect your listening in the long-term
Best of luck with your Japanese studies!
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Natasha Henriksson and Tyson Batino
Natasha is pursuing a bachelors towards Japanese Language and Culture. She enjoys travelling, visiting temples, and eating elaborate snacks she finds at conbinis. So far her favourite snack has been a mini chocolate bar called “Black Thunder.” Without sounding like an advertisement, she guarantees you will like it.
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