Advice for moving past textbooks

Lately I’ve been studying hard for the JLPT, but in studying I’ve definitely noticed I need to increase my listening comprehension abilities. This has definitely been humbling in that vocabulary has become less of a problem and it’s more all the other parts of a sentence that are throwing me off. Like, why did they end those sentences with さ, etc. Or all the different uses of こと, and my brain can’t understand quickly enough to keep up with the conversation.

I could pause every sentence and figure it out, but also spoken language is just so different from all the written language I’ve been studying. I’d have an easier time reading a college textbook than listening to middle schoolers speak it feels like sometimes.

Does anyone have any advice for making the transition from judging your progress on textbooks to judging your progress on actually understanding conversations. Because right now it feels a little overwhelming.

The JLPT textbooks were making me feel grounded and showing me some semblance of progress but now I feel like I still don’t understand hardly any daily Japanese even post N3.


This is going to be a personal (and possibly very hot take) on the process of learning Japanese:

You don’t learn Japanese by studying Japanese. This includes but is not limited to: Grammar textbooks and websites, vocabulary lists, spaced repetition and flashcards, kanji memorization textbooks and websites, and JLPT prep material.

None of those things will teach you Japanese, either in isolation or combined.

What actually teaches you Japanese: interacting with native material. This includes watching television, movies and anime, reading novels, light novels, and manga, playing video games and visual novels, and speaking and writing with natives.

That isn’t to say there is no value in anything from the first group. These tools are not the language ACQUISITION part though; these tools are the PREP for acquiring Japanese. They act as the highways upon which the native materials travel to reach a point of understanding.

Many people mistakenly believe that study, as in textbooks, websites and flashcards are the meat of the study, and that native materials are the test that is being studied for. That thinking is backwards.

Reading native Japanese material is a skill. Understanding and participating natural, spontaneous native Japanese conversations is a skill. Writing in fluent Japanese is a skill.

The way to improve any skill is by repeatedly practicing it. Olympic swimmers do not read copious amounts of material on the act and art of swimming - they spend thousands of hours in a pool. Competitive marksmen don’t spend nearly as much time studying the ballistics of marksmanship as they do on the range.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying Japanese and a few dozen hours actually participating in the language and don’t understand anything and I can’t figure out why or how to improve further” is the most common complaint here or anywhere.


I don’t think there is any big secret here, the best thing you can do for your listening comprehension is listening a lot. At first that can be a bit overwhelming, because you might barely understand anything and it feels like you aren’t making any progress, but you’ll have to trust that your brain is working things out in the background. We like high level thought, figuring things out, but that’s not where language learning happens.

Personally I used to mostly listen to things I already knew, primarily because that meant I could listen to it with half an ear while doing something else and even if my mind wandered off I wasn’t lost afterwards. At first I used the audio of shows I had already seen, later I listened to audiobooks of books I had already read.
Find something you enjoy listening to, or for the start at least don’t hate, and listen a bunch c:


As been pointed out by others, there are no secrets to listening comprehension besides listening to a lot of Japanese. That being said, there are easier and harder native materials out there and so my suggestion is to go for something easier to make the transition less harsh.

On the most difficult scale of things, are spontaneous conversation on complex topics, using terminology. It’s unpredictable and lots of vocab might be completely new to you.

Podcast can be pretty difficult as well, due to the unpredictable flow of conversation, jokes et.

For these reasons, I find that listening to professional voice actors, doing roles, to be much more accessible. They speak with clarity, and usually a bit slower than normal conversation + there is a certain logic to lines as part of a story that allows you to cling onto something when you miss part of what was said - the context of the story becomes the clue to help you keep up.

Slow-paced anime is of course a way to get some listening practice in, but there are always the visuals here that is a bit of a cheat code frankly. I would suggest audio dramas, but I know few people are that interested in them, even if there is an endless range of stories in any genre you could want.

In the end, whatever you choose to listen to, just do it A LOT, and eventually your ears will get better at understanding what’s being said.


Listening gets easier the more you practice it, simply as that :slight_smile: Iknow is an app that has a sentence trainer option, where you hear a sentence and then have to type it (or you can choose a review system where you have to put the words in correct order). I struggled a lot in the beginning but doing this daily, after a month or 2 it has gotten a lot easier.

But these sentences are very clearly spoken, watching Japanese media and listening to Japanese while spoken naturally is another level. Not sure if I will ever fully master that, but I keep practicing.

1 Like

If you want to split up the “casual spoken language does some things differently from written language” part of the problem from the listening skills part, manga is a good source of the spoken styles in a written format I think.


I think the trusting the brain is working in the background is the scary thing.

1 Like

Well, it looks like you learned English fairly well! You’ve already done 1 language, and everything seemed to have worked out naturally, so just rinse and repeat.

I don’t know if you speak another language already, but assuming you don’t -
The secret to learning a second language is: Learn your first language, and then learn another. So you’re already more than halfway to being bilingual. That probably means you can afford to put a little faith in yourself and in the process :slight_smile:

1 Like

For listening comprehension specifically a good idea is to listen to stuff that also has Japanese subtitles you can follow. That way you can align what you already know from reading with what you hear.

Other than that, listen more, but try to make sure the stuff you listen to is mostly comprehensible so that you’re able to recognize the words and not just listen to the “noise” of the language (which I did a lot when I was younger and understood next to no Japanese, but insisted on watching anime with subtitles).


Haha I guess that’s true. I think Japanese has unique blocks to native content in the kanji and and the way grammar uses the same words for many many different meanings. It can be hard to read subtitles with out a high level of kanji.

Well, I’ll just keep listening through the uncomfortable not knowing.

1 Like

I know, Japanese feels like it has a lot of noise in native spoken language. I guess I’m piecing through that. It might take listening multiple times to hear it, to break it apart, understand it, and then actually be able to watch normally.


I recommend for listening practice to watch Komi Can’t Communicate on Netflix specifically, for 2 reasons:

Netflix has Japanese closed captioning for Komi, which is rare
You can adjust the playback speed on Netflix (I’ll explain why this is important later)

I recommend Komi specifically because it’s a slice-of-life anime with clearly spoken vocabulary that is mostly simple. It’s a 4/10 difficulty on JPDB, which is perfect for someone having just finished a textbook.

Komi-san wa, Komyushou desu. – Vocabulary list – jpdb

I’ve directly linked the vocabulary by frequency list JPDB provides for Komi, so you can pre-game the show by making your own Anki/flashcards/SRS of your choice with any vocabulary you need to brush up on.

Getting back to the adjustable speed: Go ahead and watch season 1 of Komi with the Engish subs first, since this will be your first foray in. After you’ve completed season 1 with English subs, go back and rewatch with Japanese subtitles - at 1.25x speed (25% faster). You might panic a bit doing this, but it passes quickly, especially because you’ve already watched it once with English subs and will know what is going on, and having hopefully studied some of the vocab ahead of time.

After about 3 episodes of the increased speed, you’ll adjust and it will sound normal. Increasing the playback speed serves a vital role in language learning - it reduces the interval between known words, unknown words that appear more than once, as well as the interval between known and unknown sentence patterns. It also increases your aural processing ability (this is what allows you to determine if a familiar sound is a word you know or a homophone, detect pitch, and detect double vowel and double consonant sounds).

It’ll also increase your reading speed because those Japanese subtitles will be flying across the screen.

If you have the Yomichan plugin, you can mouse over a Japanese subtitle on the screen, and it will pause playback for a moment and pop up a translation of that word.

Once you’ve watched a half season of an anime at increased speed and then put an episode on at normal speed, it will sound like slow motion at first - that’s a great thing! From that moment onward make it your goal to watch all Japanese TV at 1.25x speed, and after a sufficient period of time, up it to 1.5x speed, which will sound like ludicrous chipmunk speed at first, but you’ll adjust again and it will sound fine after awhile.


ooo… That’s actually a really interesting idea.

I’d personally recommend watching Terrace House. It was a huge help in stepping up in my listening and comprehension for a few reasons, namely it being mostly dialogue that occurs on the daily. No crazy special anime moves, no nutty detectives or doctor jargon… just normal, daily use Japanese spoken by normal Japanese people. I couldn’t care less about reality shows, but this show did wonders for me in terms of my Japanese.

Hmmm based on listening to native speakers for a couple of weeks I would say it just feels more normal than shows make it sound. As in, people mix up grammar when they talk, fill in gaps with tons of なんか, etc.

I guess listening to natural Japanese is kind of important to the JLPT as well.