You have been studying Japanese for a little while now and you might have noticed… Your Japanese listening skills might feel a little behind your reading and speaking. You’re not wrong. Getting your Japanese listening chops can take a teeny bit longer to really level up but don’t worry - we’ve got you covered.
Today, we are going to look at advice and tips for beginners and intermediate learners AND, of course, the JLPT and how to stay sane and on top of your game during the listening section of the exam. I’m going to share with you all of the resources, tips, tricks, and study hacks that I have tried and tested personally or have had N1 and N2 friends and teachers swear by over the years.
Listening can seem rather intimidating at first as your brain is not yet used to the rhythms and patterns of the Japanese language. As with any language though, mastering Japanese is simply a matter of time and exposure. The more familiar you become with new sounds, new rhythms and speech patterns, and new words, the more your understanding (and subsequently, listening comprehension) will naturally evolve and expand. Some people, interestingly, find it easier than others to improve their Japanese listening skills. This is because it is more of a passive activity than producing sentences in a real-time conversation, or actively memorizing (what feels like) endless lists of kanji or grammatical rules.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Side note: This article is part of our extensive series on how to self study Japanese.
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Japanese Listening Tips for Beginners
So you’re just getting started. Where do you even get started when it comes to improving your Japanese listening?
First, try not to be discouraged if you are not improving as quickly as you had hoped. Stay in the moment and focus on WHY you are learning Japanese. At this point and (really) all the way through, what matters most is the fun you have discovering a new language!
1. Let the lady speak: Listen to female speakers.
Calm down. We are not trying to trigger anyone. What it comes down to is the gender differences which exist in spoken Japanese. Although the language has changed in recent years to make these differences less pronounced, they still exist to some extent and this can unnecessarily complicate Japanese listening practice. More and more, however, women are adopting gender-neutral forms of speaking. Gender-neutral terms are easier to understand and a softball for beginners to start honing their Japanese listening chops.
It is also said that male speakers have a lower voice which can, at times, make it harder to differentiate between sounds and words. Depending on the region of Japan and the age of the speaker, men can have a gruntier way of speaking which is sometimes really challenging to get your head around as a beginner. Later on, however, you are more than welcome to enjoy all the grunty goodness you can handle and it will be excellent training for you more advanced learners out there.
Another thing to note is that you should try to be careful when speaking with elderly people in the really early stages of your learning. It’s possible that they might use some outdated vocabulary or phrases which can be confusing when you are just starting out. Think of it this way - if you wanted to be an influencer, would the first person you model your speaking on be your grandmother? Maybe but probably not. You want to start with the communicative tools that are going to allow you to understand and develop relationships with people closer to your age range without sounding like you lived through the Meiji Era.
The other thing about listening to females is that it’s likely that the words they use can be less direct and more polite than some men. You will most likely imitate and use vocabulary you have heard during your Japanese listening practice, so it is a good idea to learn the most standard and neutral vocabulary first.
2. Pump it up: Turn up the volume or use earphones.
This tip might seem really obvious but in order to get your Japanese listening skills on the up and up, you need to make sure that you can clearly hear the speaker. If the volume is too low, you may miss important grammar points or misunderstand words (but make sure it’s not too loud so as not to damage your eardrums!). This is also why the listening section of the JLPT is always played so loudly during the exam.
If there are other distractions around, you can use headphones to drown them out. This will also help you get in the right state of mind to really concentrate and get into the Japanese listening practice. Passive listening is helpful but it is (sadly) not enough at any stage of the learning process. Actively listen when you’re walking to school or work. That means you pick a YouTube video or podcast or even some Japanese music. Idol music, for example, can be a great place to start as a lot of famous tracks can be easy to follow and romaji and translations are readily available all over the web.
Huh? What was that? Come again? What’d she say? Have you ever wondered why it sometimes feels like you are suffering from hearing loss when you listen to content in a foreign language? Or why do you need to play that Japanese drama on Netflix a little louder than you would need to than if you were listening to the same content in your native language? Or why is it that your native Japanese friend can hear that same content played at a lower volume without any trouble or subtitles?
Naturally, it can be a lot more challenging to hear and process a second language than your native tongue. One of the reasons behind this is that your brain simply cannot make guesses and predictions as it would normally do with your native language. In your native tongue, your brain naturally fills in the gaps based on a few keywords. For example, if you only heard the words ‘want listen new album Radwimps,’ your brain would use the contextual cues to determine whether it’s a question or statement and then fill in the missing pieces. You would then comprehend it as ‘Do you want to listen to the new Radwimps album?’ or ‘I want to listen to the new Radwimps album.’
In other words, we can understand almost everything we hear in our native language at very low volumes because of our high level of familiarity with the sounds and our extended knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. When we are listening to content in our native language, we don’t need to hear every word clearly or even every single word to understand the message. We can guess or even predict what the speaker is saying without needing 100% of the information.
When it comes to Japanese listening, however, this ability is far less developed and the amount of information necessary to achieve a decent level of comprehension is higher. We are also making a more conscious effort to keep track of everything that is being said. We are suddenly hyper aware of every sound we understand and every sound we do not.
So, how do you get around this? Easy. Do your brain a favor and help it process information a little more easily by pumping up that volume!
3. Stick with me, kid: Listen to the same person as opposed to many different people.
Everyone has a different way of speaking. It can be hard on your motivation levels when you are constantly modulating between ‘Wow! I can understand every word this guy/girl says’ and ‘I am not sure I have any Japanese listening skills at all based on this conversation.’
Rather than stressing yourself out with various speakers and having to adjust to a new way of speaking every time, it is usually far more beneficial to find one or two speakers to start with. Get used to the way one person speaks towards building a solid foundation for the leveling up that is still to come. Remember that listening is more than just processing what all the words mean and translating, you’re learning how to communicate, how to express certain ideas, what kind of nuance certain words carry, and so on.
As a beginner, you need to familiarize yourself with the changes that exist in spoken Japanese like any other language. It isn’t always like it is in the books. What you learn in your textbooks is often very different to how Japanese people actually speak. Take a look at the following:
食べている ー＞食べてる I’m eating
忘れてしまいました ー＞忘れちゃった I forgot
勉強しなければなりません ー＞勉強しなきゃ I have to study
It can take a little while to get the hang of it, so it really can be better to have the same person saying things the same way so you don’t get distracted by a new accent, pronunciation, or different intonation.
It will help you build up confidence and stay motivated. Once you become familiar with this person's way of speaking and are feeling confident, you can try challenging yourself a little by starting to add new people and mix it up. By this point, you should have developed your Japanese listening skills to be able to process a number of core phrases and topics. You will have an idea of what to listen for and how to explore and express relevant ideas.
4. Over to you in the studio: Listen to someone with a news announcer voice who speaks clearly.
When you are on the hunt for the right voice for your listening, a newscaster or announcer is a great way to go! It’s part of their job to speak clearly in order for others to understand them. Furthermore, they will likely use polite and proper Japanese, rather than casual or slang-filled speech. It is important to focus first on polite forms when you start since these are used most often when meeting new people.
In addition, news announcers emphasize words so every word is clearly separated and 3 words will not sound like one. On top of this, news shows in Japan also have captions or subtitles which can be very helpful once you can read some kanji.
Side note: Homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different kanji and meanings) can be tricky and take some getting used to. If the context doesn’t help you much, at least you can rely on the kanji to guess the meaning. Watching easy and short news can help you practice listening and speed reading.
5. A class above the rest: Japanese Language lessons @Japan Switch.
Learning a new language is difficult on your own. Learning a new language that is completely different from your native language might seem insurmountable at times. So, it’s vitally important to find yourself a good teacher that is flexible and understands you and your goals. Get yourself a teacher who can help you with anything that you’re struggling with and really work on your weak points. Japanese listening skills are only one part of the equation, and a good teacher can provide you with tips or advice that is grounded in experience and identifying what will help move your learning along.
In Japanese, there are so many words that sound similar or phrases with subtle differences that are challenging if you are only self-studying. Japan Switch has both affordable online and offline lessons that can fit into your busy schedule.
At Japan Switch, all teachers are friendly and dedicated to helping you reach the JLPT N3 level. The textbooks they use are designed to build communicative competence in a reasonable time frame. They have very flexible monthly plans so you don’t need to sign up for 1 year and pour cash into hidden or signup fees. You enter into a month by month contract, book private or group lessons either online or offline without any of the fuss. If you cannot make it to your lesson, they also offer one free make-up lesson so that you can pick another day in the month that works for you.
If you would like a free consultation and level check, take 2 minutes and book a time with one of the Japan Switch teachers 🙂
It can be also useful to have a teacher since they are more patient and willing to rephrase or adjust their speed to your level than your Japanese friends. Though if you have a friend who has the patience of a teacher, keep him or her around!
6. Let’s get personal: Talk with Japanese people 1 on 1 and not in groups.
One consistent theme you might have noticed so far is being selective about your input (at least where you can). There are several reasons for this but one of the main points is that controlling your input will help you to maintain motivation in the long term.
When speaking with groups of native Japanese speakers, people naturally tend to get excited, speak quickly, and talk over each other. They are also likely to use phrases that learners (especially people starting out and trying really hard to improve their Japanese listening skills) will find difficult to follow. If you speak one on one with Japanese speakers, rather than a group, they will more likely adjust their speech to your level, allowing you to get in some beneficial listening and conversation practice.
Also, if you are an introvert in the middle of a group of natives, it can be intimidating. The focus might shift away from it being a learning opportunity where you start to build healthy habits and towards one where you are just trying to survive the conversation.
7. Get wet: Dive into Nativ Shark.
Nativ Shark is a service that will help you reach fluency from the beginner level through a series of detailed lessons, a user-friendly interface and an engaging writing style. There is a huge focus on exposure to the language and it is tailored to your level from the get-go.
Their content is well thought out, relevant, and organized carefully so that you can improve every day without worrying if your textbook is out of date. On top of that, you can set deadlines for when you want to reach the level you are aiming for. They will create a study plan for you and help you to stay on track so that your Japanese listening levels up with the rest of your skillset.
Nativ Shark is a great all rounder in the self-study game but they are extremely useful for listening in that they have a lot (and we mean a ~lot~) of audio. You can listen to the dialogs from the lessons (both female and male speakers) and they include some extremely useful footnotes for those of you who want to know a little more. For those of you who have their hearts set on natural pronunciation, there is a pitch visualizer to help you see and mimic native accents. Their flashcards (great for drilling practice) also include voice recordings to help you get your pronunciation up.
Most Nativ Shark users say that it is great for understanding grammar in depth, improving your pronunciation and really getting used to everyday spoken japanese, which is also very important when you aim to improve your Japanese listening ability.
While it is not a free service, we think it is a worthwhile investment if you are really serious about learning Japanese and leveling up. Click here to learn more about whether NativShark is the right choice for you.
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8. Everybody gets an app: Find beginner-friendly content using software like FluentU who have a catered list of videos for beginners.
FluentU is also another great service to help you take your Japanese listening from ‘huh?’ to native level response.
To be precise, they actually have an app and a website. They provide learners with level-appropriate content on a variety of topics and focus areas to really help you hone in on refine your skills. There are plenty of videos focusing on using words in context. The same word is used and displayed in different content to help you grasp all the possible meanings. This is great for beginners since we tend to panic a bit when we see a word we thought we knew used in another context….
Their videos are using real-life content from Youtube such as news, talks, music videos, movie trailers, and so on. There is no need to worry about outdated content. They also add videos weekly so you always have something new to watch!
The website offers a curated library of content sorted according to your level so you don’t lose time browsing Youtube to find the right video with good subtitles. After watching the video, you will have access to flashcards, a language lesson, quizzes, and a vocabulary list. Their subtitles are great because they display definitions and images to help you memorize. You can also review the script after seeing the video, it makes it easier and entertaining!
9. Full screen: Learn Japanese on YouTube with channels like JapanPod 101.
This is one of your best friends when you’re studying Japanese. Content like this is specially made for beginners and will help you advance in your studies. This kind of content will explain grammar points, pronunciation, and other points that can be difficult to learn just by simply studying a textbook on your own. It’s important to not only try to be consistent and watch educational Japanese content every day (or as often as you can), but also great to use as a resource for review.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to remember to review. Just like anything - use it or lose it. You can study from the textbook and use videos to review content you’ve already studied on your own. Throw in a couple of videos before Japanese class and go over anything you don’t understand with your teacher.
There is a lot of content on Youtube that isn’t necessarily designed to be educational which can be helpful too. For example, vlogs are a great way to practice the present tense and see how people use everyday language. Recipes videos are great for understanding simple instructions. Film reviews can teach you adjectives. Check the comments if you are interested in learning how to express your opinion in Japanese.
As a beginner, you might feel that a lot of what is being said is out of your league, but YouTube is a great entry point for getting a feel for the nuance of Japanese. For starters, you can slow down the speed of the video if you need to. Then, experiment with captions on and off to see how much you can follow. Be careful with auto-generated captions though as they aren’t always accurate. If the captions are accurate, however, it becomes a lot easier to research new words in the dictionary. Play and replay the video, write down new words, do some shadowing and in no time your listening ability will improve.
Improve your Japanese Listening Skills for the JLPT
Tip 1: Listen to previous tests at faster speeds
A nice tip is to listen to the tracks 1.5 times faster. It may be quite overwhelming at first but there are 2 perks to this :
- You will get used to fast Japanese which will make you feel more comfortable whenever you listen to the news, movies, your friends, coworkers and so on. (Think of Goku in Dragonball Z wearing weighted clothes)
- You will take the fear factor out of the listening section in that the JLPT exam will feel slower.
Tip 2 : Understand the question types in advance
Understanding the question types in advance will help you to stay focused without wasting any precious seconds. On the test day, you won’t have any time to try to decipher the test format; each listening question is played only once and the questions are not printed on your test book. You must choose the right answer quasi-instantly or guess it, don’t leave any unanswered questions, and keep going.
Prior to the test, it is strongly recommended to familiarize yourself with the question types through the practice of several mock exams. You will also notice that the same patterns are used. There are roughly 5 patterns, in this order :
Task based comprehension
You will hear a short description of the situation, then the question, the dialog, the question again and you will have to choose between the 4 answers printed in your exam booklet.
Usually, the question is about what task one has to perform.
Point based comprehension
It has the same pattern as task based comprehension and you will be given time to read the answers before hearing the dialog.
Usually, the question is about the reason why one of the speakers is doing something.
In this case, nothing is printed on the test booklet, not even the suggested answers. So you have to focus well and try to take notes. Writing notes in your native language is fine.
The question as well as the suggested answers will be enunciated after you hear the dialog. The purpose of this type of question is to test your ability to get the main idea of a conversation.
Here as well, nothing is printed in your test book. You will hear a short sentence or a question and will have to guess what is the appropriate answer or the more natural reaction out of 3 suggestions.
The last set of questions is the most challenging. It is divided into 2 sub-sections.
- Nothing is printed and the dialogue is notably longer. There is a lot of back and forth and introduces a lot of useless and important details, i.e. red herrings. They try to confuse you with all the little unimportant details so it’s a good idea to take as many notes as you can.
- Nothing printed and a lengthy dialog. One question will be about what the male speaker does and the other one will be about the female speaker.
It’s quite hard to avoid daydreaming during this section! There were times when I caught myself thinking about my grocery list instead of focussing on the actual dialogue or question. If you are really serious about passing the JLPT, it’s not only your Japanese listening skills that need to be on point but it is also vital to improve your ability to stay focused for extended periods.
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Tip 3: Binge watch Japanese dramas!
As soon as you reach intermediate level and are taking aim at the JLPT N2, switch the subtitles from English to Japanese. This will improve your speed reading. Since the listening part focuses on daily life situations, dramas are perfect training for what you can expect to encounter in the exam!
If you use Netflix, you can download an add-on for your browser which is called Learning Language with Netflix. It displays the definitions of the words when you hover over them with your cursor and is great for new vocab! And the best part? It is completely free.
Later down the track, when you are heading for that fabled JLPT N1 certificate, you can knock it up a notch and challenge yourself further by turning off subtitles completely. If you’re not a big fan of J-dramas, pick your favorite American or French or else drama and try it with Japanese dubbing.
Japanese Listening Tips for Intermediate Learners
Once you reach the intermediate level you will gain more freedom and flexibility in your practice. You can start to pick more interesting content and expand your understanding of Japanese culture as a whole. Once your Japanese listening skills reach this point, you open yourself up to more books, films, and content - the stuff that is maybe a little scary when you’re just starting out.
Don’t worry too much if you find yourself plateauing, it’s always a temporary thing much like with any skill. Give yourself time and try to keep enjoying learning Japanese.
1. Use the Slow Down Feature to help you understand harder content.
If you’re an intermediate learner, you know the basics but maybe your listening still isn’t quite there yet. Use the Slow Down Feature on YouTube or Netflix so you can properly process the words you’re hearing. You don’t have to do it for the entire episode or film - just choose a scene here or there so you don’t feel like your sacrificing the entertainment factor for an educational one.
As you actively listen to your show or movie, you will feel more accomplished as understanding more and more of what you’re hearing. Native speakers talk quickly because there isn’t a regard for whether a language learner can understand what they’re saying - but it’s not a race. Your listening skills will get there in time if you put in the time necessary to level up. Don’t worry if you can’t understand native speakers at full speed yet and use technology to your advantage so you can get better!
2. Bring some male speakers into your Japanese listening practice.
Remember before how we said you should start by listening to female listeners? Well, congrats! You’ve advanced far enough that you should now start including some male speakers in your routine. Be careful about the age though. Remember that we said to try to avoid listening to men who are a little older (say, over 50) until you were a little more advanced? That still holds. That style of speaking, particularly men, is different from the modern Japanese you are likely to hear today among younger people around the city or in textbooks.
3. Listen to groups of Japanese speaking, rather than presentations or individuals.
By this point, you should have listened to plenty of individual speakers and presentations. You should be preparing to advance your level now by listening to groups of Japanese natives speaking. This will really help you move to the next level. By now, you have probably gotten used to textbook Japanese, but when listening to speaking groups, you will hear more natural ways of speaking. This is where you start to pick up how to start and end your sentences and can learn pronunciation a lot more naturally.
4. Watch videos instead of just listening.
While listening to a podcast or a recording can be quite confusing if you lack the vocabulary or get confused about a grammar point, watching videos can be quite helpful. Videos provide more context, through gestures, surroundings, and camera moves, and so on. It will help you understand better what happens when your listening ability is not quite there yet (but still on the up!).
If you are advanced, try to listen without subtitles or without looking at the screen. For example, wash the dishes while listening to a drama. This will help you with processing information in the exam even if your mind happens to accidentally wander to dinner plans or a grocery list like yours truly.
We hope this article has provided you with at least a few helpful tips to improve your Japanese listening skills. If you liked what you read, don’t forget to share it on social media and to recommend it to a friend who may need it.
Here is a quick summary of some of the points you take with you:
- Use level-appropriate content as a beginner in order to keep yourself motivated.
- As for the JLPT, listen to the audio from previous exams at 1.5x speed + know the format of the test well + binge-watch your favorite drama.
- Diversify what you use to practice as an intermediate learner, listen to male speakers, groups and don’t be shy to use the slow down button to level-up comfortably.
If you are looking for more articles on how to further your Japanese studies, check our other guides on kanji or take a look at some of the Japanese slang that might come up while you’re getting your Japanese listening practice in.
Good luck with your Japanese studies!
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