I’m always looking for awesome (non-boring) ways to improve my Japanese listening. In this post, I’ll explain one of my new favorites–understanding every single word in a Japanese-only podcast.

How to Improve Your Japanese Listening Skills

How to improve listening skills in Japanese

I look totally lost in this photo.

Usually when I talk about improving listening skills, I just tell people to (1) learn lots of vocabulary and (2) listen to lots of audio lessons.

But what about when we don’t feel like listening to “lessons,” per say? What about when we want to listen to all-Japanese content that actually interests us?

At times like that we can use the following audio breakdown method. For my example, I’m using one of my favorite podcasts, Pete’s Mysterious Garage. However, this could also work with songs, anime audio, stripped YouTube videos–pretty much whatever interests you.

 Step #1 – Download & Install Audacity

Audacity is a super-amazing, free audio editing program.

It’s also a language learner’s best friend, and I’m about to show you why.

Step #2 – Open Audacity

Step #3 – Open Your Target Audio File

My audio file of choice is a podcast, so it’s in my iTunes folder:

Looking in there, I can see lots of scary Japanese titles. I want to look at this one about 弓道 (kyuudou; “Japanese archery”), because I was listening to it earlier, and I thought the interviewee had a cool voice:

Audacity then imports my audio file:

And now I can actually see this Japanese audio, which for some reasons already makes it a lot easier for me:

Step #4 – Zoom in on the Audio File

Let’s get to work on improving our Japanese!

First, I can hit “Ctrl + 1” in order to zoom in on the audio:

This allows me to get a visual sense of individual words and sentences:

Step #5 – Select Full Sentence Sections

Now I can start actually listening to sections of this audio file.

Then I can click and drag to select full Japanese sentences:

Now every time that I click the “Play” button, it will only play the selected audio. In other words, I can listen to this one sentence over and over again until I can hear every single word:

I can adjust the selection by hovering over the edges and using this finger-pointer guy:

Step #6 – Label Sentences

Now I’m going to test my listening skills by trying to transcribe this audio. I can do this by entering “Ctrl + B” or by going to Tracks –> Add label at selection:

A label track is generated, where I can try to write what is being said in the sentence:

Just keep clicking play as you slowly type out the sentence word-by-word:

Step #7 – Trudge Through the Entire Audio Track

…or just as much as you can bear until you get burned out, building up a huge list of labeled selections.

You can look up words you don’t know along the way, too, thus increasing your vocabulary. And I’ve heard of some people recording their own voice alongside of audio in audacity in order to improve their pronunciation (I haven’t tried it yet).

Pick Up on Details You’ve Been Missing

You may be surprised at just how difficult it is to transcribe Japanese audio. When I listened to the podcast that I’m using as an example, I estimated that I understood around 95% of it.

However, when I was trying to transcribe it, I realized just how many little details I’m missing when I simply listen to one of these episodes. For example, in this sentence:

When I first heard this sentence, I thought (assumed) he was saying つれていって (tsurete itte), but upon transcribing it (and listening to the same 0.3 seconds of audio ten times over), I realized that he was actually saying つれてって (tsurete tte), with no い (i), something I never normally do when I speak Japanese.

After confirming with my live-in expert on Japanese (i.e. fiance), this is really common. So maybe I should start mimicking this a bit to make my own pronunciation a bit more natural.

Only a few minutes of doing this, and I’ve already improved my listening, pronunciation, and overall Japanese. 

Imagine if I did this for a few minutes every single day. Or even just once a week or so. After a while, I’d probably get a lot better at listening, learn a lot of new vocabulary, and have a more in-depth understanding of some Japanese content that I find enjoyable.

Get Help from a Native Speaker

No matter how hard you try to listen to some sentence, you won’t be able to catch them unless you have a really good vocabulary. I talk about this a lot in the Hacking Japanese Supercourse, but the real key to listening comprehension is an awesome vocabulary.

For example, in transcribing the sample I used for this post, I ran into some real trouble with this sentence:

いやややや 別に気にしちゃいないよ
iyayayaya   betsu ni ki ni shicha inai yo 
No no no no. Whatever, I don’t care.

For the life of me, I could not catch the ちゃin this sentence, and I had to get Rei to help me. She immediately knew what it was, but I swear that that’s only from awesome vocabulary and super high exposure to the language.

We skip sounds like this in English all of the time, too, and it’s a nightmare for Japanese students of English much more than it is for us.

Listen to One Word 800 Times

When you have a word that is difficult to catch, you can select it and listen to it over and over again.

Audacity also has features like changing speed and tempo of audio tracks, but I usually just listen to difficult phrases and sentences over and over again, drilling them into my brain.

Skip Over Words You Can’t Catch

Sometimes it’s not your fault when you can’t catch what is being said. There was one part of this particular audio track where the interviewer was saying his name, but his voice was so quiet and muffled by the interviewees’ voice that neither Rei (a native speaker) nor I could make out what he was saying:

Part of good listening skills is being able to understand sentences even when you don’t catch one or two words.

We do this all the time in English.

If your boss (speaking your native language) used a big word that you didn’t know, you’d totally fake it and try to gather what he was saying using the words around it, right?

Or at least, that’s what I’d do!

Keep Finding Ways to Have Fun Studying

Part of me hates this study method, because it takes so much effort, and it’s so time-consuming.

But it requires such a high level of engagement with the content that I’m guaranteed to pick up new Japanese.

Sometimes “difficult” is a good thing, I suppose.

The main purpose of pursuing new and varied study methods like this is to keep being interested in your language studies and having fun with them.

Of course, if you manage your study investments, then this stuff is pretty much guaranteed to build up your Japanese skills up a lot over time, too.

Anyways, if I ever finish getting through this podcast, I’ll add the split up audio files to my free Japanese course.

Speaking of which, you can get access to that by signing up here…

You can also keep up with me/this site by following my personal profiles on Facebook and Twitter.

Good luck with your studies!



Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!


p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.