How to Practice Listening in Japanese (effective exercises)

As a Japanese learner one of your primary goals is undoubtedly being able to understand the spoken language. Whether you want to understand media such as anime, announcements at the train station, have a casual conversation, or conduct a business negotiation in Japanese, effective listening is a cornerstone skill. Developing the skill of listening in Japanese takes lots of practice and if you are wondering how to practice, fortunately there are effective techniques and exercises that you can do to continuously improve.

Japanese listening practice is carried out via a cyclic process to incrementally develop listening ability by first practicing segmentation of connected speech, followed by intensive practice to develop accurate decoding ability, and finally meaning building practice for full comprehension.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that listening and understanding spoken Japanese is hard (for a non-native speaker). Before we get into the tactical elements of listening practice, I think it’s good to understand what listening is. Language acquisition researcher and proficient Japanese speaker, Michael Rost, explains it perfectly.

Listening involves of a number of complex, interrelated cognitive processes which must occur simultaneously within fractions of a second for a message to be interpreted correctly. Comprehension at a minimum relies on correctly assigning meaning to sounds, interpreting supra-segmental features such as stress, rhythm, and intonation to understand the speaker’s intended meaning, and use of background, situational, and linguistic knowledge.

Michael Rost [1]

Now on to the tactics. Listed below are high level descriptions of listening exercises that you can do to practice listening in Japanese and build your aural comprehension skills. The list progresses from segmentation, to decoding and finally to meaning building. The listed exercises will seem overly simplistic and obvious, but I will describe the nuances of each that make them highly effective.

Let me underscore that building listening skills through practice needs to be thought of a cyclic process, not a linear one [2]. As you graduate to more challenging material, even though you will mainly be focusing on meaning building, you will still need to constantly be working on your decoding and segmentation skills as you learn more vocabulary, grammar, and expressions.

Japanese Listening Practice Exercises:

  1. Transcribe sentences in writing
  2. Listen at reduced speed
  3. Replay recordings multiple times
  4. Paused listening
  5. Listening while reading a transcript
  6. Staged listening
  7. Take notes while listening
  8. Message reconstruction
  9. Message response

The first 6 types of exercises listed above all work together and are mutually supporting. They are to develop your segmentation and your all-important decoding skills. Decoding is the process of taking an audio signal, in the form of a set of acoustic cues which have to be translated first into the sounds of the target language and then into words and phrases in the listener’s vocabulary and then into an abstract idea [3].

Let me emphasize this, decoding is the crux of Japanese listening. Japanese is very dissimilar to English, so it takes a lot of hours of practice to build this skill. You need to reach a high level of accurate and automatic decoding ability so you can free up your mental resources to focus on meaning. Psycholinguistics professor, John Field, says it best in the following quote.

expertise in listening is assisted by the ability to decode connected speech in a way that is automatic and accurate. This (a) gives the listener confidence in their ability to shape sounds into words and (b) releases attention that can be switched from basic processing to deeper issues of meaning.

John Field [3]

If you are an absolute beginner, the first thing you need to practice to develop your Japanese listening skills is segmentation of connected speech. What this means is being able to distinguish word boundaries and where sentences start and end in a stream of input. When you start learning Japanese, typically you will start by learning some basic words and grammar which will be used to formulate sentences.

In order to work on segmentation you will need a to know a minimal foundation of words and grammar that you have learned in advance. The best place to build your foundation is through the Genki textbook series. I write in detail about Genki here. One of the great things about Genki is that it is an integrated learning resource that provides listening practice all throughout as you work your way through the books and learn more and more Japanese.

Transcription: An Underestimated Listening Practice Exercise

With a bit of a foundation in place you can work on segmentation, which is a transcription exercise. When you hear sentences in audio form, perhaps from a recording or spoken by your Japanese teacher, you write them down word for word. Segmentation might seem exceptionally basic, but it is something that never really goes away.

Even at an advanced level, for example, when you encounter speakers whose pronunciation is not clear or even just conversational Japanese infused with a lot of colloquialisms, it can make it hard to catch anything even if you do actually know most of the words. I find certain Japanese television shows and Youtubers to be this way, and I still find myself needing to focus hard to catch and segment words.

Getting back to transcription, it is highly effective and yet is quite possibly the most overlooked exercise in Japanese listening practice. If you want to improve your listening skills, do a lot of transcription. Be sure to pick short pieces of content that are at your level. At your level means you know most of the words and grammar that are spoken.

Even if you come across a sentence you don’t understand, as long as you are able to accurately transcribe it in writing, you have a shot at decoding it’s meaning. Even if you can’t identify the meaning of certain words, you can write them down based on their sound. Once the sentence is in written form, you can look at each element and try to glean the meaning by dissecting its components.

When transcribing, I find myself playing certain sentences or even just words over and over again until I can catch the sounds accurately. The most painfully hard words to catch are often 外来語 (gairaigo), which are foreign words pronounced using Japanese phonetic sounds. It’s honestly a bit frustrating trying so hard to identify a word and finally realizing the word is actually an English word that you know!

Reduced Speed Listening, Replays and Paused Listening

Listening at reduced speed is an obvious exercise, but it has a few purposes. One is the case in which you mostly understand the words and grammar, but you are just slow at decoding and need more time to process. Another is when you don’t know a lot of the words and need to slow the input stream so that you can more accurately hear the pronunciation of each word and transcribe with high fidelity.

There is yet another purpose of reduced speed listening which I discovered by accident. I used to listen to native level Japanese content on YoutTube at 0.75x playback speed. One day I started listening to a Japanese podcast that was well within my level, Nihongo Con Teppei. I listened to it at 1.75x playback speed (the speaking speed is slower than average to begin with). But when I went back to the native level content, I found that I was able to listen to it a regular speed. Listening at a faster speed to something I completely understood acclimatized me to a faster pace.

Multiple replays of a recording is another obvious practice exercise. But in this case, you are not necessarily reducing the input speed, rather you are giving yourself multiple attempts to catch what you couldn’t initially, and you also have the added benefit of being able to focus on different parts of a sentence on each playback.

Paused listening is exactly as the name suggests, you pause a recording at various intervals. The intervals should be short, maybe just a few seconds for a transcription exercise. Another type of paused listening is random pausing, in which you pause at random times and have to repeat the last three words you heard.

You can also pause, for example, after every sentence to ask yourself, “did I really understand what was just said?” You can also try translating the sentence to your native language. This is where we are starting to do meaning building, which is discussed below. You can even take it a step further by trying to anticipate what will come next based on what you’ve heard so far.

Listening While Reading Along with a Transcript

Listening while reading along with a transcript is incredibly powerful. There has even been some research that points to its effectiveness. One study found that students who practiced listening while reading along with a transcript, improved their listening skills more than students who practiced just by listening or reading alone [4]. 

I have certainly made good use of this form of practice. With the transcript in front of you, you never miss a word. There will be cases when you will not be able to recognize a word when spoken, but you will recognize it in its written form, which makes listening with a transcript the link between listening and reading.

To be able to read a transcript, you need to be able to read Japanese, which means reading kanji. I have written about the importance of kanji here and how to read your way to Japanese proficiency here. But back to listening, I do recommend that when you listen to a piece of content for the first time, you just listen first. Don’t read the transcript right away. The transcript comes in as part of staged listening.

Japanese Listening Practice via Staged Listening

This is my favorite way to practice listening. It can be used at any level. It is quite versatile in that you can combine the various practice methods mentioned above. Below is one way in which staged listening can be carried out. You can of course tailor the process to the way that works best for you.  

Staged Listening Process:

  1. First, listen for gist. Then, write down what you think you understood.
  2. Replay the recording multiple times.
  3. Use paused listening. Repeat each sentence aloud and self-check your understanding.
  4. Replay while reading along with a transcript.
  5. Seek help from a native speaker if there are any areas you don’t understand.

Staged listening, and all other listening practice for that matter, will work best when the material is at your level. As mentioned above, at your level means that you understand most words and the overall meaning of sentences, but the rest is just above your level. Context and multiple exposures will help you to acquire the pieces you didn’t yet understand. This is what the input hypothesis is about.

The best place to go to find listening practice material at your level is It’s an amazing resource not just because of the large library of content for every level, but it provides you with a great staged listening process for each piece of content. was instrumental in rapidly raising my level from beginner to upper intermediate. I owe so much to it. No learner should be without it.

Note Taking, Message Reconstruction and Message Response

Now on to meaning building which means that as you listen, you are (a) adding to the bare meaning of what a speaker says by drawing upon outside context and upon what has been said so far; and (b) selecting relevant information from what a speaker has said and building it into an overall discourse pattern [3]. In other words, you are getting down to what the speaker is really trying to say.

This is where Japanese listening becomes much more rewarding, you are focusing on true comprehension of a speaker’s message as they are delivering it. But how can you be sure you have really comprehended? This is where traditional listening comprehension questions can serve a purpose. The ways to check your understanding are to take notes, reconstruct the speaker’s message, reflect on it and respond to it.

Taking notes is the most obvious and seems like an easy thing to do, but it does take practice. You need to continue to focus on what a speaker is saying as you write notes on what was just said. This is a skill in and of itself. You won’t necessarily be doing it in live conversations with people, but you will need to do it in other situations.

If you are planning to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) there will be listening comprehension questions on long-form audio content. You only get to hear once, so you’ll need to take notes so you don’t forget what was said. And perhaps your goal is to attend university in Japan. If that is the case, then note taking while listening is critical.

Besides JLPT preparation materials, a great place to get listening comprehension questions is from your Japanese teacher. For example, have your teacher tell a story, or play a short recording for you. Then have them quiz you with listening comprehension questions. If you get any wrong, it’s important to discuss with your teacher how you arrived at your answer.

Listening comprehension questions leads us to the next skill which is reconstructing the speaker’s message with your own words. Again, this is a good activity to do with your Japanese teacher and a way to link your listening practice with your speaking practice. When recreating the message, the most important thing is to restate the main point.

The main reason to use a teacher, particularly a native speaking one, is because problems of meaning building are often closely related to an individual utterance or an individual context [3]. Sometimes, even if you hear and understand all the words, it still does not make sense. So, if you get tripped up, your teacher is there to explain. The best place to find your teacher is on italki. I have written all about the benefits of italki here.

And finally, message response. This is an activity in which you discuss the content that you listened to verbally, e.g., with your teacher or language exchange partner, or write a personal reflection about it. You can summarize what you heard (message reconstruction), and then take it further by stating your feelings or opinion on what was said. I write about where to find a language exchange partner here. And I write about a great place to write in Japanese and get free support from native speakers here.


[1] Rost, Michael. (2001). Teaching and Researching Listening. Longman. Cited in [2].

[2] Holden, William. (2008). Extensive Listening: A new approach to an old problem. The University of Toyama.

[3] Field, John. (2009). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Chang, Anna and Millett, Sonia. (2014). The effect of extensive listening on developing L2 listening fluency: some hard evidence, ELT Journal, Volume 68, Issue 1

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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