The Game-Changing Language Learning Advice That Eased the Pressure

My first post about learning Japanese talked about how I switched schools to earn an associate’s degree in Japanese, but I don’t think I mentioned that the new school term starts a month later than the original one. I was excited to use the extra time to focus on what I need to improve the most: vocabulary. 

Especially if I’m going to take the JLPT in a couple years, I’ll need to know thousands of vocabulary words, including kanji and conjugations, so I wanted to get started on that right away. But I was nervous because, while memorizing new words is technically straightforward, I found it difficult to learn and retain the meanings, even when I was learning new English words as a kid.

Hoping to find tips to help with this issue, I did a little research about learning new languages and stumbled on this 5 Weirdly Powerful Tips on Learning a New Language You Probably Never Thought Of article. It totally changed how I’m spending this month before class begins.

Instead of using the extra time to memorize vocabulary, I decided to simply:

Listen.

In my article about watching Japanese Dubs on Netflix, I said I want to focus on content made for children because it would be easier to follow, but this article took my theory one step further. The author says that when we’re learning our native language as babies and children, we spend the first few years not talking — we’re focused purely on listening. That’s how we naturally learn our first language.  

This simple fact shocked me. I’d never thought about it before, but it makes sense that the listening phase is the critical first step of learning a language. I thought I should know more vocabulary before I started watching TV in Japanese, but when I read this advice about listening, I realized I didn’t have to know everything.

I can listen at any level.

So I stopped worrying just start watching. 

Here’s what I’ve discovered after watching at least an hour of TV in Japanese each day for the last few weeks. 

たのしいです。 (It’s fun.)

You’d think watching a TV show without understanding the dialogue would be frustrating, but it’s actually a super fun challenge! I discovered that not understanding the words isn’t the same as not understanding what’s happening.

I didn’t fully realize the truth of that statement, though, until a couple days ago. My husband asked me how my practice was going, and I surprised myself by describing the plot and some conversations in the episodes I’d watched that night. 

I’ve found that I can follow most episodes, even with my limited vocabulary, by inferring from context and visual cues. Full disclosure: I don’t go back and watch the English version, so it’s possible that some of my interpretations are wrong, but for the most part, I feel pretty confident that I’m picking it up. 

But this does have limitations, so it’s important to set expectations. For example, in one episode, a character goes on a date with a guy, and then we never see him again. It’s possible that his absence was explained in dialogue, but that’s something I wasn’t able to understand just yet. So I wouldn’t recommend watching a show you’re super interested in because that could get frustrating.

Multitasking doesn’t work.

Sometimes I listen to shows or movies (in English) in the background while I do other simple things, like creating a grocery list or tidying up a bit. If you’re more advanced, you might be able to do this. When I tried multitasking with Japanese shows, splitting my attention and listening without the visual cues didn’t work for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Watching TV shows in Japanese is fun, but it’s still a form of studying — that means it requires my full attention. 

I could probably get away with folding laundry while watching, since I can do that while looking at the TV, but that’s probably the only multitasking I could do at my current level.

Closing thoughts

This activity has made it easier to be patient and gentle with myself in this learning process, which is a wonderful benefit. I’m normally pretty tough on myself, but this has given me the freedom to just listen and enjoy it rather than putting pressure on myself to speak right away or know hundreds of words.

I do look up words while I’m watching sometimes, especially words that I hear multiple times in one episode, or words I’ve heard on other shows. I’ve created a list in my Japanese dictionary app, Takoboto, for words I learn in each show so I can review them if I want. Once school starts, I’m planning to make this practice a more active study method, and I’ll be posting the details once I have it figured out.

Right now, I simply enjoy the show and the process of actively listening.

Photo by Anthony Nielsen of ようかい sculptures in Kyoto, Japan.

Teena Merlan