Learning Japanese through audio (… and some tips on what to avoid)

Learning Japanese through audio (… and some tips on what to avoid)

This post is contributed by Matt. He has a blog which has a mixture of Japanese related content, such as; living in Japan for a few months, Japanese events in the UK, and tips on learning Japanese.  Japan and Japanese culture have always been a huge interest to Matt, so the aim of his blog is to share his love of Japan with others, as he is keen to help other people discover how wonderful Japan and its culture are.


When learning a language there are a lot of elements to take in; grammar, vocabulary, the writing system (or systems in the case of Japanese), listening skills and pronunciation.  There are certain methods and resources that are very effective, but everyone learns differently.  In my case, for example, I tend to remember a word better if I have listened to it, rather than read it.  So in this article I would like to cover some audio resources that I have found useful, and also give a few tips on areas where I went wrong.

Anime and films

This area was an interesting one for me, in that as a child I grew up watching a lot of anime and movies in Japanese with English subtitles. At the time I wasn’t actually studying Japanese, I was just enjoying the programs.  However, after watching a few I did start to learn a few words and phrases, though some of them, such as それは秘密です (That’s a secret), are perhaps not that useful in everyday conversation.

But still, the point is just by watching anime and movies in Japanese I was picking up some words without intentionally trying to learn the language.  The other benefit that comes from this is that by hearing so much Japanese in a variety of contexts and styles you tend to pick up the pronunciation faster when you start to learn.  In Japan, a lot of native people complimented me on having a natural pronunciation of words.  I attribute this to having heard so much of the language as a child.

Of course, I am not going to say that you should try and learn Japanese solely with anime or movies, as depending on the show, they may use slang or strange terms that aren’t used in everyday Japanese.  For example, I am a big fan of Rurouni Kenshin (anime & live action), but due to the time period in which it is set, his way of talking is quite historic and not used in modern Japanese, such as replacing です with でござる. Though, I must admit, I still like it.

Audio apps

A lot of apps have the option of audio speech, which reads out a passage or selection of text,  and this is a feature certainly worth making use of.  A good example being Hello Talk.  As I am still learning kanji, when I receive a message or reply in Japanese, I will often use the play audio feature to read the message aloud, so that I can hear what the kanji is and how it is pronounced.

I have also found the NHK Easy Japanese News app (on Android and iOS) to be a great listening and learning resource.  In the app you are able to read short news segments about happenings in Japan; generally each is around three paragraphs long.  The written text is often a good way to learn new vocabulary, but also get to grips with some kanji as well.  All of the kanji has furigana above it so you can read them even if you don’t know the actual kanji.  A key feature is that you have the option to play the audio for each article, so that you can practise your listening skills, and again get an idea of how any kanji you haven’t seen before sounds.

JA Audiobook (which I believe is only on Android) is another great app for practising listening skills, as the app contains several short audio books with accompanying text to practice your reading, and all of the kanji have furigana above them.  At the end you can also take a quiz on each story to test how well you have understood them.  I am using one of the stories as a performance benchmark, I listen to it every couple of weeks to see how much more of it I understand.  Being able to understand a little more each time is quite a rewarding feeling.

Mistakes I’ve made so far

Since starting out on my path to learn Japanese I have fallen into a few pit-holes along the way that I feel are worth pointing out, in the hope it helps other people to avoid them.

App overload!

One of the first things I did when I decided to learn Japanese was grab my tablet and download as many Japanese language learning apps as I could find.  My logic being that the more things I had, the faster I would learn.  However, while it’s good to try lots of different resources to find which works best for you, it’s probably a bad idea to download them all at once.

I ended up with three full home pages of Japanese language apps…  A sight which made things look very overwhelming and confusing.  Having so many ended up being counterproductive, and focusing on just a few key ones is a much better approach.  After all, you don’t really need 10 different apps just to practice kana.

Don’t keep putting Kanji off!

I cannot stress this one enough… The sooner you can start chipping away at kanji, the better.  Initially, when I saw any kanji I would run for the hills.  But the fact is you need to learn them, and there is no point putting it off.  When I used to write messages in Japanese I would only use kana, but now I try to use the correct kanji as it makes blocks of text much easier to view, and also gets me gradually remembering more kanji.  The sooner you get familiar seeing it the better.

Sadly I haven’t found any magic trick to make kanji easy to learn, it’s just a patience game of writing them out and practicing them till I remember.  One point to note though: Don’t just look at them. Writing them out is a much more effective way to remember them.

Don’t try to rush it!

Being full of enthusiasm and with my mind fully set on returning to Japan, I figured that I would study in all of my free time, every day, and fly through learning x amount of kanji a week.  However, trying to learn so much in such a short space of time just does not work unless you have a natural ability to store information at an intense pace.  In my case, I have realised it is much better to simply take my time to make sure that I practice and remember what I have learnt.  There is no point looking at 100 kanji in a day if your brain won’t remember any of them the day after…

Avoid romaji!

This isn’t a mistake I made as I was already aware of it, but feel it’s worth mentioning to anyone who is starting to study Japanese.  Kana is really one of the first things you should start learning (alongside a few others), once you know it then that’s what you should be using.

This is also something to keep in mind if you buy a textbook that only contains romaji.  A textbook where all of the questions are written out in romaji isn’t really going to help you practice your reading skills, and you might even be tempted to write answers in romaji too, meaning you’ll lose out on writing practice as well.

Conclusion

As I mentioned before, everyone learns in different ways so it’s up to the individual to find the way that best suits them.  But hopefully by making you aware of some of the areas where I went wrong or wasted time, you can make your learning experience more efficient and enjoyable. Good luck!

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