Japanese Listening Done Right

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Listening is often an overlooked skill. A lot of time is spent gorging on vocabulary with SRS or some other kind of word drilling system like Memrise. But, in order to become a fluent speaker you will need to listen well, so that you can respond quickly in conversation.

So it is a critical skill, and it might seem easy at first, especially for native English speakers. Most of the sounds you find in Japanese can be found in English (or a very near equivalent). But, you’ll find there are some things that you have to listen for more specifically in Japanese. You need to train your Japanese ear in a way.

Listening tends to come in stages. At first, you’ll need to master the different sounds in Japanese. For instance the difference between yuki and yuuki. One is usually a man’s name (Yuuki) and the other is usually a woman’s name (Yuki). Although I’ve known more than one guy named Yuki.

After you get the sounds down pat, it’s important to start to master words and collocations. Certain mora combinations can be quite difficult to hear, like 俳句(はいく)as in a haiku poem. The first couple of times I heard it, I thought they were talking about hiking (hike is ハイク in katakana) because it pretty much sounds the same. But, it collocates with different words of course. So, you have to use context to understand what word is being used.

Finally, you have to be able to put all those words and sentence fragments together to build an overall understanding of what the conversation is about. This is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed. It’s not something you can memorize your way out of. But, there are some key strategies that can make the task a lot easier for you.

Sounds

I maintain a handful of useful courses on Memrise, and from time to time I get some complaints that the audio doesn’t match the kana. Some users swear they are hearing something completely different to what they think it should sound like. But, in most cases, the sound is correct, they just haven’t trained their ears yet.

At first, you almost literally can’t hear the difference between some sounds. If you weren’t born in Japan, you probably grew up listening to a very different way of speaking which obviously sounds quite different. It just takes some time to get used to.

There is actually some scientific evidence to back this up. It turns out that your ability to distinguish between certain sounds solidifies around 18 months. At this point, some Japanese babies stopping being able to tell the difference between the r and l sound.

Don’t worry though, with regular practice, you will be able to tease out the differences. You just have to train your ear to listen for the differences. There are numerous good listening books that walk you through this process – Choukaiga Yawai Anata (You with weak listening) is one that a few have recommended to me. This was a pretty big problem for me when I first started studying. And I have to admit I occasionally still get tripped up by it, but it does get easier.

Bigger pieces

After working on the different sounds, you of course need to glue those sounds together to make words. And learning common collocations and phrases can also help you anticipate what is being said a lot easier. These word chunks can easily be practiced with your favorite SRS, like Anki or Memrise.

Some things to keep in mind for words is that the length of vowel sounds is a lot more important than it is in English. In English, vowel sounds can change a lot depending on the accent and a lot of English speakers will still be able to understand. But, not so in Japanese. You have to be dead on with vowels.

The accent of some words can be a little tricky as well. When you hear a word for the first time, you will want to take note of how the word is said. This is where shadowing can be extremely helpful. There are numerous textbooks with listening material to practice with in this way or you can pick up something online at FluentU for native materials or JapanesePod101 for learning materials. If you are not familiar with how to shadow, FluentU has an excellent article that walks you through the process.

Overall comprehension

So, you have mastered the individual sounds and the words. Now you have to put it all together for overall comprehension. At first glance, this might seem like something you don’t even need to bother with. If you know all the words, you can understand the piece as whole right? Well, it’s not that simple. Overall comprehension uses a different part of your brain.

You might think that you listen to every single word someone is saying, even in your own language, but in fact you really aren’t. You are using a variety of techniques consciously or not to piece together the overall meaning of the conversation. There are two basic skills the language learners can use to improve their comprehension – bottom up and top down.

Bottom up basically involves you using the words and phrases that make up the listening to get the main idea. That is, you are assembling the main idea from all the little bits and pieces of the listening. This can, at times, be a little inefficient. It might take more time than you have to understand what is being communicated.

So, to speed things up, you need to combine this with top down techniques. When you are taking the top down approach, you think out what could possibly be communicated in the situation. For instance, if it is a mother and daughter talking, there are only a certain number of things that they could be talking about.

This range of possible conversations narrows even more if you are given more details like where the conversation is taking place, what happened before the conversation took place etc…

In your native language, you do this automatically without thinking about it. However, when you first start learning a new language, these skills don’t naturally make the jump to the new language. You kind of have to re-learn how to do it.

You need both skills to help you understand quickly and easily though, so it is important to practice both regularly.

If you want to perfect your basic listening skills, it is important to listen to a particular piece repeatedly until everything clicks. This will help you get the nuts and bolts of listening, aka bottom up skills, down. But, you should also take some time to listen to a wide variety of material and try to predict what is going to be communicated in the listening.

When doing this kind of listening practice, the key is to get the main idea not every word. So, it is perfectly okay to simply listen for fun and see how much you can get from it. This is especially important the higher you go, but it is always a balance. You will always want to pick out a few words here and there to practice.

Of course after you are done listening, make sure to use what you heard. Tell a friend about what you learned in Japanese or write a summary and post it on lang-8. It’s important to digest what you have learned as much as you can.

Listening Practice

How do you practice your listening? Do you know a good source of listening material? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Tim February 24, 2016, 3:34 am

    Excellently explained, Mac. With very little time to do any sort of study, I am always talking about having to improve my listening. Because the transition between hearing what is said and understanding what is meant can be quite tricky and a real uphill struggle.

    One method I am hoping to engage more is to find Japanese TV shows that my wife and I can watch together. We recently watched through 結婚できない男, which surprisingly I thoroughly enjoyed. But I kept finding myself distracted by the sub titles (a necessity at my level). Any advice, other than watching something through a second time, for being able to really hone in on the language while simultaneously checking your understanding through reading the subs?

  • Michael Vogt February 24, 2016, 9:43 am

    You write:
    There are numerous good listening books that walk you through this process

    I have a hard time finding good listening books. Could you mention some which you think are good?

  • Benoit PHILIPPE February 24, 2016, 11:27 am

    I recently bought from the “Speaks Japanese” collection “どんどん話せる!日本語会話フレーズ大特訓必須700 (Speak)” by Nobuko Mizutani, Tomomi Tanahashi, Anita Gesling, Kayo Okamura. This beginner level book comes with 2 CDs and most sentences are relevant for everyday conversation. I try to listen to the sentences first without looking at the text and see how much I can get.

    Another exercise I want to try is to write down the dialogues from the text book we use in class and see how much I can get just from listening.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 25, 2016, 2:33 pm

      Looks like a great book. Thanks for suggesting it. It has phrases for all levels? N5~N2?

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