Learn Japanese by Listening (auditory learners rejoice!)

If you are primarily an auditory learner, then rejoice because you can learn quite a lot of Japanese just by listening. In fact, learning a language necessitates taking in a lot of input with audio input being particularly important. It’s going to feel so great to finally understand authentic Japanese materials in their native form but getting there will be a gradual process starting with input intended for beginners.

Listening in Japanese is vital for learning the language as it provides critical linguistic input with elementary learners focusing on scripted content made for language learning, advanced learners focusing on extensive listening of authentic materials and intermediate learners engaging with both.

One important point to clarify is that you can’t learn Japanese from zero just by listening to native level content. Language acquisition will not take place that way. You need to listen to content that contains comprehensible input that is at your level to slowly build up your acquisition of the language over time. Comprehensible input means that you can understand most but not necessarily all the content.

There are essentially two types of listening content, one is the aforementioned native content, and the other is content intended for language learning in which material is scripted and tailor made for language learners. If you are just starting out on your Japanese learning journey, it is this latter type of content that you need to focus on.

Language learning audio content is often structured in the form of lessons. New vocabulary and grammar are gradually introduced as you progress through the lessons. A given lesson will often focus on a particular grammar point and situation in which the grammar point is used. Associated vocabulary will also be introduced and care is taken to otherwise use mainly vocabulary and grammar that you will have covered in previous lessons.

Let me say that I think it would be a bit difficult to learn Japanese from zero through audio content alone, but there is one amazing collection of content that could allow you to do this which I will mention below. Otherwise, I would strongly suggest building an overall foundation in the language first, which includes learning how to read hiragana, katakana and kanji, I’ll also mention why this important a bit later.

Getting Started with Japanese Listening as a Beginner

The best place to build your foundation is through the Genki textbook series. One of the great things about Genki is that it is an integrated learning resource that allows you to work on all four language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. If you work your way through the two textbooks in the Genki series, you will be able to confidently approach just about any beginner and lower intermediate Japanese language learning audio content. I write in detail about Genki here.

Now to touch on the most amazing resource for learning Japanese by listening only which is none other than JapanesePod101.com. Its purpose built for Japanese learners and the only resource I know of where you can just listen and really learn Japanese. JapanesPod101.com has an exceptional library of content for learners at every level including those starting from absolute zero. I can’t recommend it enough.

In terms of absolute beginner Japanese content, there is other content as well, some of which is free. Below is a shortlist of content you can check out.

Japanese listening content for absolute beginners:

As you start learning Japanese through listening, at first what you will be doing is building your all-important decoding skills and approaching audio input via what’s called bottom-up processing. Decoding means analysing the sounds in the speech stream with a view to matching them to words, phrases and sentences [1]. Bottom-up processing is a process that builds smaller units into larger ones (syllables into words and words into phrases) [1].

Decoding is an important skill which needs to be developed through practice. This begs the questions: how do I actually practice listening effectively? What tactics do I need to use to improve my skills? To answer these questions, I write in detail about effective listening exercises and techniques to get the most learning benefit out of your audio content here.

There is one listening practice technique which I want to touch on here. The reason why I mentioned learning to read in Japanese earlier is because reading along with a transcript while you listen is a powerful way to improve your listening skills. Many beginner audio transcripts are written in romaji, but with increasing level, transcripts are often in Japanese only. And furthermore, it will actually be more beneficial to you to link Japanese speech sounds to Japanese script, particularly kanji. I write in more detail about the importance of learning kanji here.

Another thing to mention is the importance of listening to materials which are dialogues between two people. This is a way to link listening and speaking. Materials containing dialogues essentially become models which provide the vocabulary and expressions for conversing in a variety of situations [2]. This is exactly the type of material provided by JapanesePod101.com! And let me also mention that the best way to practice speaking is with a native speaking tutor, and the best place to find your tutor is on italki. I write about all the benefits of italki here.

Getting into Intermediate Level Japanese Listening

As an intermediate learner you will still always want to be working on your decoding skills and material that is designed for language learners, but you can also start dedicating more and more of your time to extensive listening and put your hard-earned decoding skills to use. You’ll probably find that you prefer spending time with both content made for learners and extensive listening (which we’ll discuss more later) [3]. Below are some resources for lower intermediate and upper intermediate Japanese listening.

Japanese listening content for lower Intermediate learners:

Note, there can be a bit of a jarring jump between beginner level material and more intermediate level material. This is another reason why I really recommend Japanesepod101.com. The levels are staged incredibly well; you never have to take too big of a leap to get to the next level. Plus, the grammar and vocabulary explanations are excellent!

Intermediate level listening is where we really start getting into meaning building and understanding a speaker’s overall message, particularly in longer form audio content. You will be using more top-down processing which is using context and co-text to help identify words that are unclear [1]. At first, you will be quite dependent on context and co-text to gain meaning and to compensate for parts of the message that [you] have not understood [1], but by continuing to also work on your decoding skills, you’ll understand more and more and be able to listen more freely.

Japanese listening content for upper Intermediate learners:

Extensive Listening for Advanced Japanese Learners

As an advanced listener, you should shift your listening practice mainly to extensive listening (EL) which entails listening to a large amount of texts that [you] can understand reasonably and smoothly with a high level of comprehension [4]. The goal of EL is to build your listening fluency, which in turn means building your listening speed [6]. Therefore, it is important that you continue to listen at your level so you can understand almost everything you hear.

Among other great benefits which I’ll mention later, with EL you will get exposure to more uses of grammar and words that you already know, and when you come across a word you don’t know, it will be easier to infer it’s meaning. We’ll also look at how to approach EL below, but first let’s look at a quote from Professor William Holden which sums up well why EL is most suitable for advanced learners.

More advanced learners… demonstrate more interest in extensive listening practice which involves using a wider variety of authentic materials. Since they are ready to engage in various types of real-life listening, this, rather than scripted material, is likely to be more useful in developing their listening abilities.

William Holden

Another benefit of EL is that you really get to take charge of what you listen to. But in order to get the biggest return on your listening investment, there are some guidelines that you should follow. Professor Rob Waring, who is big proponent of both EL and ER (extensive reading), and has researched these practices in detail, gives the following guidelines for selecting the right EL material [6].

How to select the correct extensive listening material for you:

  • Can I understand about 90% or more of the content (the story or information)?
  • Can I understand over 95% of the vocabulary and grammar?
  • Can I listen and understand without having to stop [the recording]?
  • Am I enjoying the content of the listening material?

You can see how the above points are all mutually reinforcing. If you can’t understand enough of the material, it’s hard to enjoy it. Conversely, even if you do understand, if its not interesting to you its also hard to enjoy. So, the enjoyment part is key. EL can’t be a chore. What you choose entirely depends on you.

At this point I won’t recommend what to listen to, instead I will encourage you to search for yourself, in Japanese, for podcasts, YouTube channels, news programs, etc. that you find interesting. And thanks to the digital age, its easier than ever to listen on your phone while on the go, cooking, doing housework, etc. So, take advantage of all the time you can to enjoy your listening.

Finally, I want to touch on two more big benefits of EL. We know that the goal of EL is to increase our listening fluency, but you can do even more than that with it. For one, if you listen to topics that you are not familiar with, you will be able to increase your world knowledge. You’ll not just be learning Japanese, you will be learning in Japanese! This is particularly rewarding.

Another thing that is very rewarding is listening to familiar topics in which case you can use your world knowledge to enrich the message of the speaker, and not just that, you’ll finally get the words from a native speaker for how to express yourself in Japanese on the topic. I love this! In the end, no matter what you choose, I am sure you will enjoy EL. Happy listening!


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

[2] Brady, Alan. (1994). Real World Listening in the Japanese Classroom and its Link to Speaking. 社会学部紀要第70号.

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

[4] Waring, R. (2010). Extensive listening. Rob Waring’s Websites. Personal website. Retrieved from http://www.robwaring.org/el (Cited in [5])

[5] Vo, Y. (2013). Developing extensive listening for EFL learners using Internet resources. Hawaii Pacific University.

[6] Waring, R. (2010). Starting Extensive Listening. Rob Waring’s Websites. Personal website. Retrieved from http://www.robwaring.org/er/ER_info/starting_extensive_listening.htm

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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