The chronicles of Burrito's bizarre adventure into Japanese.

The Power of Passive Listening

with 3 comments

Wouldn’t it be grand if there was a way to feed your grey matter a steady stream of 日本語 without having to focus all of your attention on SRS flash cards or trudging through fields of kanji and unknown vocabulary? Well, boy howdy, partner – do I have just the thing for you. Sort of. It won’t restore a chrome dome back to Fabio-esque levels of lushness and creepiness, nor will it transform you into the Ron Jeremy: Patron Saint of Bacon Grease, but practiced frequently, it could make a significant difference in your Japanese.

One of the first things I’m quick to recommend to a neophyte Nihongoteer is to stock up on interesting, spoken-word listening material of any kind. It makes little difference whether the material was written for preschoolers, or high school students, or neurosurgeons – at least, not when you’re just starting out and barely understand a word. The aim is to get a feel for the rhythm, the intonation and the pronunciation of the language without actively trying to pick out specific words and phrases. This is the practice of passive listening, a process which is quite self-explanatory and requires few details to put into action – and yet, is something that I feel many sorely neglect, especially in their young stages of learning, when simply getting used to the sound and “feel” of the language is so important.

On the other hand, even the more intermediate and advanced learners of a language can benefit from passive listening. Although I might (emphasis on might) have a pretty good feel for spoken Japanese now, I find that I can still benefit plenty from passive listening. For one thing, our brain is constantly looking for patterns in practically everything we do. After hearing the same word, same phrase or same grammar point several times, our brain is far more likely to put 2 and 2 together and make some sense of these things – or, at least, make them a heck of a lot easier to memorize in the future. Even if we’re not necessarily focused on what we’re listening to, these things are picked up naturally given enough repetition and exposure. Ain’t that grey mass impressive?

This is something anyone can do, at any level of language proficiency, during any task that allows it. During simple daily chores is a prime candidate (doing dishes, laundry, sweeping…), as is anything else that doesn’t require your full listening attention – use your own discretion. All you need is a portable audio device (commonly known in this era as… “Em Pee Three Player” or some such) with headphones/earbuds, any manner of interesting, enjoyable listening material (best if you can listen to it dozens of times over), and functional ears. Slap it on, crank it up and go about your business.

Where can you find stuff to listen to? One of the most accessible and plentiful resources are audio podcasts. My personal favorite podcast is 文化系トークラジオLife which covers a wide variety of topics, from popular culture, music and entertainment to politics, world news and culture, mostly from the perspective of a group of educated 20-somethings – enjoyable, fun and interesting! You may also use podcast indexing sites such as Podcasting Juice to search a wide collection of podcasts for practically whatever you may desire (unless that desire involves jello and wrestling chimps, because trust me, I looked.).

However, while podcasts are nearly infinite in their quantity and raw amount of listening potential, they’re also a very dynamic and fast paced beast by their very nature; as such, they’re not always the easiest thing to listen to passively. Luckily, for those seeking some familiarity, many classic stories have been translated into Japanese, and some fine folks have more than likely taken it upon themselves to read these aloud and put ’em on the Internet for your enjoyment. Chances are, your favorite old book, story or poem has been translated and recited in Japanese. Poke around in RevTK’s audiobooks wiki page, or try your luck at LibriVox. There are also plenty of goodies available on Youtube, Nicovideo and other video streaming websites, as well as TV streaming services such as KeyholeTV and TvAnts (two remarkable programs which deserve their very own post in the near future). Mileage may vary, but you’re more than likely to find something of interest.

I’ve put together a simple “starter deck” (if you’ll pardon the Magic: The Gathering dork lingo) composed of some of my personal favorite short stories, for those interested. Within you’ll find the following (complete with txt transcript, and links to translations/parallel text when available):

Oscar Wilde, “The Selfish Giant”
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Gloria Scott”
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove”

Roughly 340MB zip file located right over yonder: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=5UJPK283

If anyone is interested, I’ll gladly upload more audio books – just lemme know! As far as I know, these are all well within the realm of public domain, so I don’t think I have to worry about the FBI kicking down my door in the middle of the night by sharing these. Additionally, I’d appreciate any recommendations for good listening material!

Passive listening alone won’t take you very far, but when used in conjunction with active exposure. you’re sure to see some benefit.

To recap:

  • Passive listening is hella sweet. Get used to the “feel” of the language without actively trying to decode it; let it wash over you while doing other things.
  • Podcasts and audiobooks of classic literature are goldmines! Make the most out of your personal interests; listen to podcasts of interest to you, listen to translations of your old favorite literature and you can’t possibly go wrong.
  • I love abusing italics. I’m not a big fan of bold, though.

Some links which may be of interest:


Written by ritobito

February 6, 2010 at 11:55 am

3 Responses

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  1. i also use a website called “freshverse” for watching live streaming japanese television… they only have like 4 or 5 channels in their list that actually work, but they pretty much always work, and IMO are better quality than a lot of other sites i’ve tried.

    thanks for your recommendation regarding your “personal favorite” podcast, i always have trouble finding good ones that don’t make me wanna stab one of the speakers ;P


    March 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    • I’ve used Freshverse before, I think. Pretty sweet site, and definitely higher quality than, say, KeyholeTV (not a difficult task, I know).

      Also, I’m actually thinking re-upping that audio pack in the near future to make a few revisions. May or may not happen – I think more likely is that I’ll just upload a second “volume” next week or so with a new batch of interesting stuff. Still, I think it’s a good place to start! (I need to take my own advice and listen to them more, though – I blame Starcraft 2 beta for hogging up my time lately…)


      March 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

  2. i’m grabbing that compilation you made too, saves me a lot of time searching for new materials to listen to, woot


    March 26, 2010 at 8:16 pm

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