Learning Japanese is hard. It takes a long time to slog through all the characters, learn thousands of new words and reprogram your brain to think in a totally new way. Sometimes it seems like you’ll never make it out of the textbook and into the real world. The key is practice, but the secret is finding material at the right level that makes you want to practice. Material that you enjoy so much that you forget that you’re practicing at all.
Not all practice is created equal. According to Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, thousands and thousands of hours of deliberate practice are required to master a complex skill like playing a musical instrument, or speaking a language. In the phrase “deliberate practice”, the adjective “deliberate” is just as important as the noun “practice”. What’s important isn’t merely the hours, but the quality of the hours. An effective hour of deliberate practice is an hour during which you are actively engaged in the skill you are practicing, and reflecting on your performance.
Furthermore, the practice shouldn’t be too hard, nor too easy. I could listen to Russian podcasts all day tomorrow, but they’re too hard. I wouldn’t learn anything new or reinforce anything old because I have no framework to build on when it comes to Russian. More dangerously, if you’ve already reached the intermediate level in Japanese for example, reading children’s books might give you a confidence boost but it won’t help you improve. When you engage in deliberate practice, you should be practicing at a level that is beyond your comfort level, but not so difficult that you can’t understand anything and get discouraged.
One great way for intermediate learners to get in their hours of listening practice is by watching TV. It’s fun enough that it doesn’t feel like studying, and you can learn a lot of stuff that isn’t covered in the textbooks, both language and content wise. Here are five of my favorite TV shows for practicing Japanese listening.
Nep League is a team quiz show that covers Japanese, English, and for lack of a better phrase “pop-social studies”. Quiz shows, in general, are great for intermediate learners because all of the questions are displayed on the screen so you can read along as you listen. That means you can kill two birds with one stone and get bonus reading practice along with your listening. Many questions also use pictures, maps, and videos to give background information, which provides useful context that makes understanding easier.
Nep League specifically is a great show because the content is useful and interesting. To call it easy would be misleading for a Japanese learner, but many Japanese viewers might consider most questions to be common sense. For example, common Japanese categories include “words that are embarrassing if you can’t read them” and “commonly misspelled words”. Even if you can’t answer the questions yourself, you might be able to understand the answers, and pick up new words. As an exercise in deliberate practice, try to guess whether you think the answer a contestant gives is correct or not in the split second before the buzzer goes off. The English questions might be too easy, but at least for me, they’re a great confidence booster after I get crushed in the kanji writing round. Finally, there are the pop-social studies questions. Which does Japan have more of, convenience or cleaning stores? What percentage of Japanese 20-somethings use a picture of their pet as their smartphone wallpaper? Has the divorce rate in Japan gone up or down since 2004? Watch Nep League to find out.
Q sama is Nep League for pros. The Jeopardy of Japanese TV. This quiz show (Q is for quiz) features famous Japanese TV personalities and covers a diverse range of topics including English, Japanese history, world history, and science. What sets Q sama apart is the creative format of both the questions and the show itself. Contestants compete to climb to the top of a giant staircase and are eliminated in twos and threes as the show goes on. An episode’s questions commonly reveal a themed ranking, such as top fifty world heritage sites or most influential leaders. At the question level, there are video problems such as “guess the famous person first visiting Japan”, and the “drop challenge”, where the contestant who selects the incorrect option from a field of ten pictures falls to the bottom of the staircase. Q sama is a great all around quiz show that will put your Japanese and your general knowledge to the test.
Why did YOU come to Japan is a classic. Just like the title suggests, the hosts hang out in Tokyo or Kansai airport and interview foreigners about why they are visiting Japan. When they find someone of sufficient interest and patience, they follow them around for a day. Like the quiz shows above, this show features a significant amount of subtitling, especially when the foreign interviewee is speaking. This show is also of interest as a window into how Japan views the rest of the world, as well as Japan’s interest in how the rest of the world views it. Plus, if you’re familiar with the show, you’ll be better prepared for when they interview you!
Igekami is Japanese journalist who hosts a show explaining, or rather teaching, current events. It has a very “classroom” atmosphere where he explains and asks the other actors questions to check if they’re following along. I thought he was a professor until I googled him. This format is intended to make complicated topics easy to understand for regular Japanese people, which makes them easier to understand for Japanese learners too. The show usually focuses on a recent event or trend, usually international, often controversial. Past topics include the TPP, Religion in Japan, ISIS, Yasukuni Shine, and national symbols of Japan such as the flag and the national anthem. This show is a great opportunity to learn about Japanese current events and the Japanese perspective on various international affairs.
Saving the best for last, Hayashi Sensei brings up the end of the list. Starting off as a cram school teacher, Hayashi Sensei became a minor celebrity after his catchphrase “ima desho” (今でしょ) from an advertisement for his school went viral. Now he’s famous for the breadth of his knowledge, and appears on all kinds of shows, especially quiz shows. He’s also a regular host on Nep League.
In this show, various contestants challenge Hayashi-sensei with unusual facts. For example, “chocolate is a fermented food like natto or beer”, or “there’s a lake in Canada with frozen bubbles that explodes if drilled and lit on fire”. Next, he dramatically hits either the “I know it” button or the “first time hearing it” button. If he knows it, he’ll try to explain, and the challenger will judge his explanation. Otherwise, the challenger explains and the fact receives the “unknown to Hayashi-sensei” certification. Like Q-sama, this show teaches you general knowledge about Japan and the world, as well as Japanese. There are plenty of visual clues and it’s heavily subtitled, not only the facts themselves but also the main points of Hayashi-sensei’s explanations.
When you first start out making the jump to native materials, it’s always a challenge. Don’t get discouraged! Find shows that you can understand at least a little of and watch them regularly. As you become familiar with the format of the show and the ways the hosts and frequent contestants speak, they get easier to understand. Do you have a favorite show that’s interesting and easy to understand? Share it in the comments!