The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Japanese Listening
By Meridian and Natasha | Updated September 26, 2019
This article is part of our series of articles on how to learn Japanese.
Have you always wanted to learn Japanese but are unsure of where to start? Have you been searching for a magic trick that will boost your Japanese ability? Have you spent weeks and even years doing the research and learning by trial and error? If so, we invite you to learn through our experiences. Our four-step series will cover how to improve your vocabulary, reading, listening, and speaking. Each section will provide free and easy-to-access Japanese learning resources as well as tips and tricks on how to improve your study habits. The guide is for those who want to achieve Japanese fluency without having to spend thousands of dollars or more on full-time Japanese lessons.
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Improve your listening through speaking Japanese
Great news for beginner Japanese learners - things are pretty simple for your first year. Almost 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 until you reach a low-intermediate level. Your listening skills will also naturally improve the more time you speak Japanese.
The outgoing person's advantage
One thing we've noticed is that people who are sociable and outgoing tend to improve their speaking and listening at a much faster rate than those who are reserved. People who really love Japanese culture and want to talk to Japanese people about Japanese culture, comedy, and anime have the one-two combination that leads to faster improvement. This article is for people like you and I who enjoy Japanese culture and want to learn Japanese but aren't as naturally inclined to talk to virtual strangers.
The benefits of having a teacher
I (Tyson) am an introvert and only like speaking to others when I feel there's something useful for me to communicate. Also, I'm a bit sensitive to when the other person doesn't understand what I'm trying to say. I feel bad when the other person has to repeat the same thing over and over again because of my poor communication skills.
If you are similar to me, having a teacher is really beneficial. Since I am paying them for their time, I lose that sense of guilt and feel more comfortable asking them to repeat lesson points. This truly helped me get over the beginner’s hurdle and progress towards a daily conversational level of Japanese. Once you reach this, the guilt tends to go away on its own.
Another benefit of having a private teacher is that you can ask them to adjust their speaking speed. You can also ask them to place extra emphasis on the first letter of a word; beginner students often cannot differentiate between the individual words. 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 have this listening challenge, consider finding a Japanese teacher.
Make non-English-speaking Japanese and foreign friends
It's worth noting that speaking Japanese is not purely limited to communicating with Japanese people. Talking to foreigners who cannot speak English is fascinating and helpful because you get exposure to someone who isn't familiar with an English-speaking culture. For some weird reason, it feels more authentic to not share the same culture cues. Also, for people who feel pressure when speaking to someone in Japanese or had experiences where the Japanese person was impatient, speaking with a foreigner in Japanese can help you build more confidence.
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. A beginner student is likely surrounded by the first two groups, but the sooner you can surround yourself with the last two groups, the faster your speaking and listening will improve. Foreigners will probably understand your imperfect Japanese better than Japanese people.
Will I pick up bad habits from foreigners?
Some might argue that you can only learn to speak natural Japanese by speaking to Japanese people because you may pick up incorrect Japanese from non-native speakers. I agree 99% with this statement; but as a beginner student, the biggest hurdle is to remain motivated. Speaking grammatically accurate Japanese is something to worry about after you can communicate on a functional level.
To summarize, the best way to improve your listening is to simply speak as much as possible in Japanese, with anyone who will listen to you.
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How to improve your test-taking listening skills
I am proud to state that I was able to pass the JLPT N1 test on my first try; however, the areas I struggled with were the reading and listening sections. The grammar and vocabulary are fairly predictable. As long as you memorize a lot of words and grammar patterns, you will have no problem passing those sections. But the reading and listening sections test your understanding of the content. My challenge with the listening section was that I found the material boring, which made focusing really hard. This meant I had trouble processing the information in time to answer the question (yes, the sections are timed).
Here is the method I used to pass the N1 listening section: I played an audio track at 1.25 - 1.5x the speed of the original recording. I purchased a test preparation book for the listening section and used software to speed up each track, listening until I could differentiate each word at 1.25x the usual speed. By training your ears to listen to audio tracks at 1.25 - 1.5x the original speed, listening to things at regular speed feels like listening to things in slow motion.
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 “software to adjust mp3 speed” to find software or websites that will help you 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 second-week 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 don't deal with in the other elements of language.
The first challenge is that your improvement is subjective because there are no 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 inevitably overestimate your Japanese listening ability and think you understand more than you do. Since you can only use context when you are listening, you may believe you understand 50% of a conversation. In reality, you might only understand 20% while your brain makes up the other 30%. It's similar to when a subject-matter expert is explaining a complex scientific concept, and you say, “I think I understand what you're getting at” - but you don’t.
The third challenge is that there are no free resources that will support you when you don't know the answer to 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 said. (Subtitles aren't always accurate!)
Concrete testing of a subjective skill
Because listening is subjective, you have to test your ability with a black-and-white format if you want to know your real score.
Option 1: take JLPT listening quizzes. You listen to the audio, answer the questions, and then check your results. I recommend making a note of questions you were not confident with for further review. Rather than immediately checking the answers for these questions, listen to the audio again until you are sure about your answer. If you're still not getting it, you have your notes to lead you to additional review material online.
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 both the audio and answers from the previous year’s test.
Confirming with your teacher or Japanese speaker
If you know someone who can speak both Japanese and English, you can test your listening skills by having them confirm what they said in English. If what they said was 90% similar to what you thought they said, then you win! Less than 70% understanding should not count as functional comprehension. There have been situations where a 70% understanding would have caused a mistake on my part.
If you live in Tokyo and are looking for the most affordable Japanese lessons in the area, please check out our Japanese school. We offer Japanese lessons in the morning and provide quality teachers and excellent materials for 25 - 50% less than other Japanese schools. Make the switch to using Japanese at Japan Switch Tokyo.
We have seen a phenomenon among outgoing foreigners where they would talk, not understand what the other person said, and then move on to the next topic. This left the Japanese speakers sharing apprehensive glances.
It can be a blow to the ego to realize your listening skills aren’t that good. But you can use this realization to light the flames to practice more, reduce the amount of awkward moments, and prevent instances when the other person is waiting for an answer while you are laughing at their misheard remark.
Not that any of us have ever had those sort of experiences. Nope.
The subtitle dilemma
It's common to overestimate your listening skills when watching programs meant for native speakers when you're using the subtitles. The reason for this misstep is that subtitles give you additional context for guidance. You can already watch what the actors are doing, their facial expressions, and other aspects to guess as what they are saying, and subtitles fill in the inference blanks.
This does not mean you should not watch programs in Japanese. On the contrary, watching programs is great for keeping yourself going strong. However, from an input-output evaluation, you should practice with a Japanese speaker, take tests, or use programs designed to improve your listening.
Know anyone who has passed N1?
Want to escape the teaching trap?
Tyson is the director and a co-founder of Japan Switch and One Coin English. He has spent 15 years in Japan and achieved N1 in just 3.5 years. Listen in as he shares his tips to becoming successful.
Colten is the owner of Risu Press. He spent 6 years working in various industries in Japan and achieved N2. Tune in to hear more about his experiences and advice for living in Japan.
Goal setting for listening
This is a hard one for us to advise on because everyone has a unique style of learning. Some people can learn several hundred vocabulary in one sitting and then move on to listening, while other people learn better through a lot of audio programs. You need to determine what your specific learning style is before setting your personal goals.
For the beginner student, finding interesting content to listen to is tough. Yes, music, dramas, and anime will help you get more exposure to the Japanese language. However, your best (free) options for practicing your listening comprehension are CDs, mp3 tracks, or Youtube videos. There aren't too hard, but sometimes they can be boring or repetitive.
With all that being said, there is a good alternative (sadly, it isn't free) - FluentU.
FluentU has scoured the internet for real-world video content in your target language and 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 when the original version lacked it. You can 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 just learned from the videos. As of this publication, paying for a full year at one time costs you $20/month, whereas the month-to-month price is $30. Academic institutions can get discounts for multiple users on one account. FluentU has quizzes, flashcards, and an SRS feature that we introduced in the vocabulary learning section.
Here are 4 Youtube videos for beginner, intermediate and advanced students:
We have found one free alternative called captionpop. Captionpop has a search feature to help you find videos in your target language that have subtitles in your native language. We like how they sort the videos by channels and feature some very famous YouTubers. The downsides are that they don't provide translations for individual words and they lack the extra features like quizzes and flashcards. Still, it's free and will save you the time of searching out the videos on your own.
As long as your chosen content is in Japanese, it can have value as a learning resource. When your skill level moves upwards, you'll need to adjust the difficulty of your listening materials. Challenge yourself, but don't overreach yourself. Your goal is growth, not frustration.
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 something like this anyway; just replace your usual soundtrack with something in Japanese.
For these types of moments, we suggest using podcasts. Below are our recommended 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 this show is that the more you listen in Japanese, the more you will be able to express yourself in Japanese. While there aren't transcripts for the episodes, you can watch them on Youtube, where you have the option of turning on Japanese subtitles. There are over 233 episodes with a wide range of 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 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.
Bilingualnews - This podcast is half in English and half in Japanese. Bilingualnews is an informal show, where the hosts chat about news unscripted. They do have an app that gives you access to the transcripts, but only the first three episodes are free.
Real World Japanese - These are short conversation videos on various topics such as hobbies and travel plans.
NHK Radio News - You can listen to NHK news at normal, slow, or fast speeds.
Male vs. female native speakers
This is a personal experience and may not apply to everyone. We have found that it is generally harder to understand Japanese men than women, especially in the areas of Japan that use a more grunting manner of speaking, like Kansai. Most men have a lower register of voice than women do, and it can be much harder to hear the sounds of individual words when men speak. The older a man is, the harder it can be to understand him. Join the conversation among a group of men, and you will notice what we're talking about.
Turn up the volume or use headphones
You may also find that you have to watch TV at a louder volume than your native Japanese counterparts. The individual sounds and syllables can sometimes get lost in a broadcast. It might be easier for you to listen to TV programs using headphones rather than speakers. You can't necessarily upgrade the speakers on your TV set, but you can readily acquire a good pair of headphones. The quality of the output device makes a huge difference in your comprehension.
Here are some extra resources for you to practice your listening skills!
We gave you a lot of awesome information in this blog post about how to improve your Japanese listening skills, and we hope you found something that you can implement immediately. If you loved the post, please share it on social media and with your friends. Here's a summary to bring it all together:
- Communicate as much as possible, and your listening will naturally improve. The more people you speak with, the more you can train your ears. Remember that men are often harder to understand than women due to pitch and tone, but if you can find a patient male friend, keep him.
- Finding good and interesting Japanese content as a beginning learner is tough, so expose yourself to a mixture of level-appropriate material to practice your listening skills and personally-interesting content to keep you motivated.
- You are not limited to practicing Japanese with native Japanese. There are many foreigners you could be speaking Japanese to, too. If you are in Tokyo, there are a ton of foreigners from many different countries to interact with.
- Dominating every conversation you are in is a valid short-term approach to learning Japanese, but it will negatively affect your listening in the long-term
Best of luck with your Japanese studies!