Whether you’re preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, an Oral Proficiency Interview, or just want to improve your linguistic skills, Japanese-language podcasts are a great way to improve your listening skills. Watching Japanese dramas and movies is also helpful, of course, as is listening to music. Podcasts’ lack of visual content, however, can help prepare you for when you’re on the phone with someone or taking a listening test, as you’ll be relying solely on your sense of hearing rather than using cues from the body language of the actors. Also, you’ll will have the opportunity to listen to a wider variety of topics than are discussed in songs.
To get you started, here are a few of the free podcasts I like for listening practice. These three cover general topics rather than being about specialized ones. Of course, the list is by no means exhaustive, and I welcome suggestions for further listening on general or specialized topics in the comments.
JapanesePod101 is meant for non-native speakers learning Japanese. Lessons are divided into levels from survival/tourist Japanese to advanced. While the beginner and intermediate levels have the most content, the upper intermediate lessons and advanced audio blogs help reinforce upper-level grammar and subjects. The audio blogs are particularly good for the advanced learner since they are conducted entirely in Japanese and include an after-discussion in Japanese about the topic and any difficult concepts or vocabulary. In addition, the conversations come with a script that can be downloaded on the website or viewed on your iPod or smart phone, which is a great way of reinforcing the vocabulary and learning the kanji for the lesson. Although you can listen for free, paid memberships with benefits are also available.
Suntory Saturday Waiting Bar Avanti
More advanced learners, especially those preparing for the N2 and N1 levels of the JLPT, may like this podcast since it focuses on natural conversations. Suntory Saturday Waiting Bar Avanti, which is a 10-minute section of the longer weekly radio show by the same name, features one conversation between 2-3 people each week. The guests and topics are quite varied–I’ve heard discussions of everything from the Tour de France to Sherlock Holmes from directors, writers, and restaurant owners. The conversation is introduced by the “mysterious gentleman” (謎の紳士), a bar patron, who orders a drink from the American bartender Stan, and the two talk briefly to introduce the conversation. Most of the topics don’t use a lot of specialized vocabulary–a conversation about Hitchcock’s films is more common than one about nuclear physics–but the conversations have a good mix of polite, formal, and casual speech and the participants have a variety of speaking patterns. (If you are living in Japan, the full radio show is aired on Saturdays from 17:00-17:55 on Tokyo FM most prefectures.)
NHK Radio News
NHK releases five podcasts a day: three 10-15-minute news briefs at 7:00, 12:00, and 15:00; a 45-minute summary at 19:00, and a 60-minute “news journal” at 22:00 JST. The news briefs highlight the major headlines throughout the day, weather, and the stock market; the longer podcasts cover the latest stories more in-depth and also have one or two human-interest pieces. As a supplementary exercise, I recommend skimming the headlines of a Japanese newspaper (either in English or in Japanese) before or after to consolidate your knowledge.
How to Listen
1. If you are using iTunes, you may need to make a Japanese iTunes profile. Don’t worry, you don’t need a Japanese credit card to do this, and you can have multiple profiles synching podcasts at once. Chic Pixel has a guide to setting up a Japanese iTunes account here. Otherwise, most podcasts can be streamed or downloaded from their own websites.
2. Listen when you can pay attention. For example, I like to listen on my walk to work and stretching at the gym, but I have trouble focusing on non-English podcasts while I’m cooking, editing photos, or sorting papers–anything that requires a lot of visual concentration or reading. Many of these podcasts are only 10 minutes, so blocking out some quiet time to listen to one or two a day is doable.
3. Find a podcast that entertains you. I know this sounds obvious, but if you don’t enjoy the podcast, you’ll put listening off. If you find a podcast you look forward to listening to, listening will be fun rather than a chore. Sometimes I have to take a break from the news podcasts, but the Suntory one almost always entertains me–and if I don’t like the topic this week, there’s always next week! (Incidentally, I really like listening to the national weather report in the NHK podcasts for some reason.)
4. Write down words you don’t know and look them up afterward. This goes double for the news podcasts, since you’ll probably hear them again.
Suggestions for other Japanese-language podcasts? Leave a comment with your recommendations!