JLPT: Listening, the Big Headache

Listening in general is one of the most arduous skills to learn for a foreign language. After I started studying Ukrainian for fun, I soon found out how little I could actually follow in actual conversation. It has been pretty demoralizing.1

On the other hand, I have been studying Japanese for since the late 2000’s, and married into the culture, so I do have some conversational skills, but for level N1 of the JLPT exam that’s still not quite enough.

Case in point: in the months leading up to the 2022 exam, I have started using mock exams and other study guides, but to my horror I have so far been getting about 40% – 45% correct on the listening sections which is just barely a passing score. So while I may have a shot at passing the JLPT, it’s far from certain.

There’s no rational way to cram listening skills either: you either grasp the conversation, or you don’t. And the only way to improve your grasp of Japanese conversation is to get used to it through constant, constant exposure.

It’s like stretching a muscle. You can’t force it or rush it, you have to ease into it over time. Stretching a little at a time, until looking back you can stretch it much more than you used to.

Another way to look at is is from a classic Roger Zelazny story, Doorways in the Sand.2 At one point, the main character Fred, is listening to two aliens having a conversation about him in their native language:

At some earlier time I had slowly realized that the thing that would most have surprised them probably surprised me more. This was the discovery that, when I gave it a piece of my divided attention, I could understand what they were saying.

A difficult phenomenon to describe, but I’ll try: If I listened to their words, they swam away from me, as elusive as individual fish in a school of thousands. If I simply regarded the waters, however, I could follow the changing outline, the drift, pick out the splashes and sparklings. Similarly, I could tell what they were saying. Why this should be, I had no idea.

Language is weird, but I definitely have the same experience when listening to Japanese language podcasts: if I focus my mental energy on trying to discern one sentence, I lose track of the rest of the conversation. So, it’s more about getting used to the conversation as a whole, and as any music student will probably tell you, it takes time to tune your ear.

1 I haven’t stopped learning Ukrainian, but it has forced me to re-evaluate my methods a little.

2 Out of all his books, this one is definitely in my top 5 favorites.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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