By far one of the most difficult, yet most critical skills to learn for a language is the ability to listen clearly. I have studied Japanese over the years, but especially the last couple years in preparing for the JLPT certification test. I’ve spent a lot of time expanding vocabulary and reading, but I discovered recently just how poor my listening skills are, despite being married to a Japanese woman.
I took a mock JLPT test for Level 3 recommended by Mr. Belton and his excellent blog on Japanese resources. The mock test book has two tests in it, including a nice listening practice CD, so Sunday night I took the test, and to my surprise failed miserably. Some sections, like Kanji and reading comprehension I did well on, because I have been practicing those so much, but sections like grammar and listening I totally bombed. Grammar, especially particles, proved to be much harder than I thought, so I am using a Grammar practice book also recommended by Mr. Belton above, in conjunction with Anki.
But what about listening? I realized that no matter how much memorization and practice you do on vocab and grammar, it doesn’t help much listening, and if you can’t listen to Japanese, you can’t converse and your skills are very limited. Listening is truly a difficult skill to acquire, and takes quite a bit of practice. My wife and I talked about that a lot yesterday, and she told me a story about a celebrity who moved to Japan a while back, and started watching a lot of Japanese TV, especially jidaigeki (時代劇) or historical (read: samurai) dramas. The result was that they could converse well in Japanese, though some of the vocabulary they used was kind of outdated (from watching too many samurai dramas). ;)
Nobody’s perfect I guess, but it tells me that the only way to improve Japanese listening and conversation is to just listen, listen and listen. The celebrity above had to listen to Japanese for years to get any good at it. My wife said when she first lived in the US, she had to watch years of English TV before she really “got it”. So, listening is the hardest skill to acquire, and has no shortcuts.
But how can you develop a routine to listen to Japanese? I tried watching dramas at home, but with work and parenting, my schedule is chaotic and it’s hard to develop a routine. And I can’t watch dramas on DVD at work, but I realized earlier today that I could listen to streaming media instead. After poking around the Intertubes for a while, I found a nice directory of Japanese language media, mostly news. I like watching Nihon Terebi News (NNN) in particular, since that has a full 20-30 minute news episode each day. Japanese news is pretty difficult to understand, since the language is pretty formal and lots of difficult terms, but I realize that it has a few advantages:
- The content daily is unpredictable, so you have to just listen, rather than contrive what they’ll say.
- The topics vary quite a bit, as do the events, so you get a good variety, instead of just getting used to listening to one topic.
- The speed is pretty fast, so you get used to listening to a normal speed of talking, rather than language lessons which intentionally slow things down.
Further down the list is Seebit TV, a more local channel in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture,** seems to run all day with programs, so you might get a better variety from that one. I am listening to some of each while working. :)
Now, this does not replace actual study through things like JapanesePod101.com, but it helps supplement this with some good, intensive listening practice. Since I setup an Outlook reminder daily to listen to the news, I can do this while working but keep exposing myself to Japanese.
So, once again, my wife is the bodhisattva who helps point the way for me.* Thanks dear! :)
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. More content posted here.
* – Actually she got tired of me mis-interpreting what she said, even with simple questions.
** – Home of Naoko-san and her excellent blog.