How much should you be able to understand?

I was wondering if anyone had any advice about listening practice, I’m trying to do more of this and I’m seeing improvement but it’s rare that I understand what I’m listening to 100%. It’s much harder to look up words than when I’m reading too so I can’t always check my understanding.

Is 80% a good amount to aim for? Am I still benefiting if I understand much less than that?


You just need to keep practicing, and eventually you’ll understand more and more. But you can’t give a baseline percentage of what you “should” be able to understand at any given level, because it depends on what you’re listening to.

I can’t understand 100% of a political news broadcast or a talk radio show about science, but I can understand 100% of many other things.

I wouldn’t worry too much about missing things, and just keep exposing yourself to spoken Japanese. It just builds up slowly over time.


When listening to a new language any percentage you understand is a sign of progress. It means that instead of hearing indistinguishable vowels and consonants thrown into the air you are able to recognize repeated patterns - it starts from two to three words, then your vocabulary and grammar knowledge starts to grow so you can actually understand the tense of the sentence and the role of each part of the sentence.
If what prevents you from understanding is just lack of sufficient vocabulary but there are instances you can guess what’s been said from the context, you’re in a very good place. Sufficient vocabulary takes time to acquire and as @Leebo wrote, it’s a matter of exposure, so the fact you don’t understand everything is actually a good sign that you keep exposing yourself to new words.

As for the practice itself, since you mentioned having a hard time looking for words you don’t understand - listening to songs and trying to transcribe them is a great way to practice. You can easily see the lyrics and it’s less annoying listening and writing over and over again. That way if you’ll be able to transcribe an entire song you weren’t familiar with just from listening it would help you when listening to a podcast.

There’s also a significant difference between watching people talk and just listening to audio, so you might want to practice just listening to audio as well as listening and watching without any subs.
Watching people interact with other people or objects while speaking about what they do would give you a lot of context and it would be easier to guess new words. Audio alone is much harder, so don’t let it discourage you, just combine different methods and levels of listening so you’ll maintain a good balance between challenge and success.
It means that what’s really important is not achieving a percentage of understanding but finding material that will match for instance 80% of your knowledge.
That’s essentially the difference between learning/practicing and having to deal with understanding a new language in the wild - learning is the only environment that you have total control on the material you’re exposed to, choosing the right material makes all the difference and allows progress.


It’s also worth pointing out that we often don’t truly understand 100% of what we hear or read in our own native languages. When I read a book and come across a concept that I couldn’t very well explain were I to stop and think about it, I don’t actually stop. I just keep going and I let my brain fill the gap. Eventually, as that concept comes up in other contexts, it slowly becomes more clear, while not precisely defined. We’re much more tolerant of having a vague understanding of something when it’s in our native language. If you understand what’s going on in the material you’re listening to, I wouldn’t fret too much about having only a partial understanding of it. You’ll definitely benefit from it. On the other hand, if you’re completely lost and have no idea what you’re listening to is about, it might be beneficial to scale back to something a little simpler.


If you really were to understand 100% I would say you weren’t challenging yourself enough.

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What are you listening to?

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Thank you all for your advice, I guess I just needed reassurance that I was going the right way about this.

@dwainetrain I’ve tried a few different sources, I do fairly well with NHK news easy reports and get the gist of anime without subs, but I barely understand anything when I try podcasts. I’ve noticed a lot of improvement in understanding Japanese lyrics recently.


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