How to pass the JLPT 1 – Part III

Okay, so long, long delayed, here is Part III of my “Studying for the JLPT 1” series of posts. If you’re just starting out, you can check the full table of contents over in the first post.

Compared to the previous two posts, this is a relatively shorter entry, covering only the listening section. I had originally wanted to talk about the kanji and vocabulary section as well, but if I waited until I got everything pulled together, it would probably be another two weeks before this went live, so rather than make you wait, here’s what I’ve got done so far.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section, or else e-mail me directly and I’ll do my best to answer them.

random image for j00r enjoyment

A random image for your pleasure because photo-less posts make me sad

Okay, let’s get started.


Of all the sections to study for on the JLPT, I probably have the least to say about listening. In large part this is because I have lived in Japan for a long time and have ample opportunity to hear and speak Japanese on a daily basis, and as a consequence, didn’t really do much to “study” for the listening section.

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that you can’t “cram” for a listening test – either you genuinely have the ability to listen and comprehend spoken Japanese or you don’t. You can’t “fake” it, though you can certainly nudge your score up a little (little!) bit by employing some test-taking strategies which I’ll talk about later. But for the most part, if you want to do well on this part of the test, you’re going to need to boost up your listening abilities and that is going to take some time. So even if you only dedicate a couple of months of dedicated studying to the other sections of the JLPT, unless you already have extensive exposure to spoken Japanese, you’ll probably want to start studying for this section much earlier (especially if you live abroad).

Before we get into the studying methods, there is one more thing I feel I should clarify for those of you who have never taken a listening test before. The purpose of taking a listening test is not to catch and comprehend every single word with 100% accuracy. I’ll repeat that – your goal is not 100% listening accuracy. In reality, even in our own native languages, we rarely hear each and every word people say – people mumble, external noises interfere, we get distracted, people stammer, stutter and insert meaningless noises like “ahhh”, “ummmm”, “like”, etc. What happens is that our minds automatically fill in missing gaps and meanings for phrases we fail to catch (and discard unimportant information) based on the context of the listening situation and on the surrounding sentences and words (for example if someone says “Like, I’m so sick of this, I can’t [mumble] it any more, you know what I mean?!” you can probably figure out what the [mumble] is even if you didn’t hear it and you automatically ignore the phrases “like” and the entirety of “you know what I mean?” because they are unimportant). So striving for 100% accuracy in terms of listening comprehension is an endeavor doomed to failure because you can’t even do that in your own native language and if you attempt the same on a listening test in a foreign language you are very likely to garner a miserable score.

The post continues after the jump…

So if the object is not 100% listening and comprehension accuracy, then what is the goal? The answer is simple: your goal is to comprehend just enough to answer the question in front of you correctly. In order to do this, you need to be familiar with the general structure of spoken Japanese, be able to grasp the context of a conversation/situation, have a sufficiently deep vocabulary to enable literal comprehension to occur and most of all, be able to “keep up” with the pace of Japanese as spoken by native speakers. You can accomplish these two things via a combination of what I term passive and active studying (my terms, not sure if this is an official distinction or not). The exact details of passive and active studying differ slightly depending on whether you are currently living in Japan or abroad, and I’m sorry to say that if you are living here you probably have a bit of an advantage (and if you look at the published statistics for the listening scores broken down by in-country test-takers and foreign test-takers in past years, you will see this advantage dramatically reflected), but it’s nothing you can’t overcome provided you’re sufficiently dedicated. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Passive studying is just my way of saying you listen to things, but you don’t actually say anything back that can influence what comes next. I characterise things like TV, radio, train announcements, songs, etc. as all forms of “passive studying” because they’re going to be the same whether or not you’re listening to them. Another important characteristic of “passive” listening is that (in general), you don’t get another “bite at the apple” so to speak. If you miss what is said, that’s that, there are no repeats. (Of course with songs you can play them back but I’m not a big fan of studying using songs anyway, which I’ll explain below) Coincidentally, the listening test itself also shares all the same characteristics as “passive” studying sources.

If you live in country, you are literally surrounded by ways to passively study to improve your listening skills. First and foremost, just turn on the TV. Japanese TV often has shows that contain “hard-coded” sub-titles (generally in wacky, zany letters) that mirror what is being said at the time. This is useful in that the audio and the text are mutually reinforcing – the audio helps you with kanji you don’t know how to read, and the text helps you with parts of the audio that are unclear to your ear. The fact that there are visuals on the screen as well (some situation, joke, actor’s facial expression, etc.) helps you with your ability to discern context and use it to aid auditory comprehension.

If Japanese TV is not your thing, you can always rent DVDs at the store and put on the Japanese subtitles and the Japanese audio to achieve the same effect, and also has the added advantage that you can pause, rewind and replay at your leisure. Listening to the radio can also help, but it’s harder because there is no visual stimuli or sub-titling to aid in discerning context.

The other big source for passive audio stimuli is just the daily hubbub of life around you. If you ride the train or bus, don’t put on your ipod and zone out like 99% of the foreigners out there – actively listen to everything around you – the different train announcements, conversations of the people around you, station/urban announcements, etc. Train and station announcements tend to follow a set pattern which is useful for their structure and formality (and there are usually a few similarly-styled problems on the listening test). Drivers and conductors often make live announcements from time to time over the intercom which are extremely useful because they require you to catch and comprehend important information under less than ideal listening conditions. Additionally, live announcements generally have an inherent context provided (say if the train starts to pull away, then suddenly lurches to a stop and the conductor comes on and starts saying something, you can probably guess the context is related to the reason for why the train stopped), but still require you to listen carefully to discern the details (you know that they’re talking about the train stopping, but why did the train stop?).

You can also apply much the same rational for almost any other passive listening stimuli you are exposed to in your daily life as well: as anyone who has ever spent even a short amount of time in Japan can attest, this country is filled to the brim with all manner of announcements at all times of day and night and places where one might not even normally expect to find announcements (even the ATMs, drink machines and cross-walks talk to you). Some might even term it “noise pollution” (nay, scratch that, many have used that term explicitly), but for our purposes it’s a godsend. Unplug your earphones, start listening intently, pay attention to context, (write down sounds or as close of an approximation as you can for phrases/words you are unclear about or don’t know and ask someone later), and pretty soon you’ll start to be able to fill in the blanks and boost up your listening comprehension.

Now if you’re living abroad, this is not quite as simple a task as for those in-country, simply because many of the sources of passive native Japanese audio are not around. However, you can remedy this with a little effort and the magic of the internets. First of all, Youtube is filled to the brim with Japanese content and even a cursory search will turn up more tv shows, news clips, commercials and other Japanese-language programming than you will ever be able to make it through (or would sanely ever want to expose yourself to). Secondly, you can easily order things like Japanese DVDs, CDs and more from various retailers online, or if you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere with a Chinatown/Korea town, you can often find Japanese DVD sets and CDs sold in retailers in those areas as well (yes, I know it’s China/Korea town but they carry lots of Japanese stuff).

(As an side, I think this sort of goes without saying, but just in case – when I talk about watching Japanese TV/movies/etc. it’s important to note that I mean exposing yourself to a variety of different sources. And probably none of them should be anime, my friends. (although ironically a few years ago there was actually a listening problem on the JLPT 1 about an anime robot blasting off to fight off aliens threatening the earth, thisnolie). Seriously. I’ve got nothing against anime, but if you’re planning on actually passing the JLPT 1, the language you pick up watching the news or a serious movie/drama in Japanese is probably going to be a lot more useful than being able to say “magical crystal tiara” in a squeaky high pitched girls voice.)

Finally, you can always make a friend in Japan (which we’ll get into in a moment) and have them send you stuff. That’s how I (and perhaps I ought not be admitting this as it shows my age) used to get stuff done back in the era when there was no intarwebs, no skype, certainly no youtube and everyone still used VHS tapes. Write your friend, have them tape a few hours of random Japanese TV for you and then mail it over. Ahhh, those were the grainy, VHS-y days. These days they can probably just mail you a DVD/Blueray disc filled with .avi files. You lucky kids. You don’t know how good you have it yo.

(also, I used to walk to school uphill both ways in 6 feet of snow.)

Finally, before we move on to “active” studying, I’d like to say a special word about songs. A lot of people have said to me in the past that listening to songs in a foreign language helped them study. I guess this may depend on the individual – for me that has never been a useful way to study Japanese simply because a) people don’t talk like they sing, b) if you’ve ever looked carefully at the lyrics a song then you probably realised they would sound ridiculous if you actually spoken them seriously and normally due to the word choice and c) think about all the song lyrics you have gotten utterly and completely wrong in your life even for songs in your own native tongue – to this day, if you look up the lyrics to your favourite song you’ll probably find you messed up at least two or three different parts of it.

So even though I mentioned it at the outset of this section, your actual mileage with this particular form of “studying” may vary, but just like watching 26 hours of anime and calling it “studying” is sort of foolish, so too is putting Koda Kumi’s latest album on repeat for 8 hours and thinking it’s going to help your score. Listen to songs if you must, but don’t neglect other, much more productive, forms of passive studying.

Alright, so that’s that for passive studying. Basically if you’re in-country, just take your earphones out of your ears and listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re abroad, make the effort to lay hands on native-language programming which really isn’t that hard in this modern era since it’s all on youtube and the intarwebs.

So then, active studying.

The good news is, in my opinion, “active studying” probably is the most efficient and productive method of improving your listening comprehension. The even better news is, it’s the same whether you are living in-country or abroad, and is my way of referring to any method of studying where you need to produce output (usually spoken) that affects the flow of the conversation or what comes next. I guess that technically there are several ways of accomplishing this goal (for example, a Japanese video game where there is spoken dialogue and you must choose from one of several choices on screen and then what happens next changes based on your choice – obviously in order to know what to choose you need to be able to comprehend what is said), but for me, the primary one is a conversation partner.

As you may recall from the previous post on studying the grammar, I strongly recommend befriending a native speaker in order to aid you in your test studying efforts. When used properly (so to speak), a native speaker can help you accomplish in a much shorter time – and with a much greater efficiency and quality – what would normally take ages of self-study to achieve (with lesser results). Nowhere is this more true than when studying for the listening portion of the JLPT I.

There are many ways to find a native speaker to help you with your studies (usually referred to as a “conversation partner” in this context). If you are in-country it’s ridiculous easy – chances are, if you look visibly foreign, you already are being deluged with requests from people who want to speak in English with you. Otherwise, you can always post an advert in local international exchange organisations, go to “English conversation cafes”, post online (Craigslist Tokyo, etc.), ask your co-workers or friends to introduce someone (I don’t particularly recommend using your immediate friends/co-workers as conversation partners for reasons I’ll explain in a minute but it’s up to you), ask at your local community center, or even just strike up a conversation with someone at your local Starbucks, etc. (just try not to come off as creepy cuz some people use that as a pickup method in the bigger cities).

If you are abroad, it’s still not that hard to find a conversation partner, regardless of where you live. All you need is a little dedication. A good place to start if you live in a place with a university is to see if they have an international student centre – usually even the smallest universities have at least one or two Japanese exchange students who are by definition at least mildly interested in language study (otherwise they wouldn’t have undertaken the considerable difficultly required to study abroad in a foreign country). You can ask them to post up an advert seeking a conversation exchange. Otherwise if you live in a bigger city that has a Japanese embassy/culture centre/consulate you can always start there, or else again, place up an advert on Craigslist, etc.

Finally, there are many websites online where you can use Skype and so forth to chat for free with foreigners looking to improve their English in exchange for teaching you their language – there are quite a few Japanese users of these sites so you can look on there as well. The point is, even if you’re in the most remote area of the world, if you’re reading this you must have intarwebs access, and if you have intarwebs access you can easily find a native speaker of Japanese to help you with your studying.

So now that I’ve gone over how to find a conversation partner, how exactly should you “use” them in your “active” study? Well, the main thing advantages of using a native speaker are:

  1. Native pronounciation & speed
  2. Ability to answer any question you might have about language
  3. Ability to alter their response based on what you say

With regard to point number one, you want to get used to listening to native speakers of Japanese, especially how they speak and how fast they speak. In order to do this, I recommend you have a set of topics that you can talk about with them. You don’t want to meet up and then spend 30 minutes stammering on with short one or two line pleasantries about the weather. Think of a series of topics to discuss (this will get easier after a while once you start to learn more about each other and what you are interested in, etc.) and come prepared. Know what you want to say, and have questions you want to ask them, even if you don’t know exactly how to say everything fluently (which is after all what you’re doing exchange for). I suggest they do the same – you want to ramp up your ability to engage in a natural-speed conversation where genuine communication occurs with native-style conversational back-and-forth just like you would have when conversing in your mother tongue. It’s important to break away from the scripted one or two line stilted dialogues that fill most text books – nobody talks like that in real life so you need to develop the ability to catch, keep up with, and accurately parse large blocks of spoken information, and then respond appropriately with your own opinions/thoughts. Actually communicating (that is to say, actually having something to say and being genuinely interested in the information the other person has to share with you) is by far the best way to accomplish this goal in my opinion and makes this form of studying a lot less burdensome than straining to listen to some stilted dialog about the weather from a pre-recorded CD in a textbook, for example. So find something you guys are interested in, and start talking about it! If you’re at a loss for good topics in the beginning, I highly recommend introducing external stimuli – go to a museum together (it’s chock-full of interesting things to talk about, and you have visual context to help guide your conversation and allows you to point to something you can both mutually see in order to bridge gaps in your conversation ability and compensate for insufficient vocabulary), window shopping, engage in some activity (cooking classes, etc.), etc. Once you get more comfortable with each other and develop a sense of the other’s interests/background etc. you can then move on to sitting in cafes and doing pure-play conversation exchange (where the context is purely auditory based on what the other person says, and not necessarily external based on things you can both see).

As far as the second point, I recommend that just like with the spreadsheets of unfamiliar vocabulary or highlighting kanji you don’t know, etc. you start to keep a list of things you want to know how to say “naturally” in Japanese. Even now I still do this – I have no trouble communicating in my daily life, but there are still times when I know that the way I am saying something is “not quite natural” – I mean, it gets the point across, but I know a native speaker would say it a different way. So I write those things down and I ask some of my friends/native speakers about it when I get the chance. I recommend you do this as well with your conversation partner – write what you want to say in English, then your best attempt to phrase it in Japanese, then ask them to help you with how to say it in natural Japanese. This is really helpful and will greatly improve your spoken fluency as well as general listening ability. The former may not be tested on the JLPT but is still a crucial skill for improving your Japanese.

When speaking with them, make sure to have a notebook or something to write down phrases they say, sentence snippets, words they use often that you don’t know, etc. and ask about them – then attempt to use them yourself later. This helps ensure that you take away something concrete from each session and if your conversation partner uses them a lot it’s highly likely that you will hear at least some of these sentences/phrasings during the listening portion of the JLPT.

The third point is not really something that you can “prepare” for, as it occurs naturally during the conversation process, but it’s a really big advantage of using a conversation partner for active studying. Communication is a two-way road and what you say and how the other person responds to what you say is what shapes the “flow” of the conversation. You want to pay attention to how your partner responds to you and how you can derive information from this. On the superficial level you will soon start to pick up relatively “unimportant” responses that often pop up in Japanese conversation (“なるほど” (“Oh I see”), “その通り” (“just as you said”), “そうですよね” (expresses agreement with speaker) etc.) I mean, if you’re sitting the JLPT I you should probably be familiar with these expressions, but it’s one thing to see them written on paper, and another to be able to catch them in a fast-paced conversation and know which ones needs to be discarded as unimportant, and which provide crucial information for the conversation, etc. (in my experience there are usually a few problems on the listening test in which the key to finding the correct answer hinges on the ability to catch a super subtle phrase like “そうね” which indicates they speaker agrees with a suggestion of the other person, or vice-versa, etc. If you miss this you won’t be able to correctly answer the problem, so you need to get used to how these small phrases are inserted and used at native speed.

On a deeper level, exposing yourself to how responses change based on speaker output will help familiarise you with commonly occurring “interaction patterns” in spoken Japanese. This is extremely helpful because it will serve as a “framework” from which you can “fill in” bits of the conversation you miss or words you don’t understand/the speaker mumbles, etc. We have this innate sense of “conversation patterns” in our own languages which are so important in our day-to-day communication and the more you can develop this in Japanese the easier it will be for you in the listening test. I’ve probably not done a good job of explaining this, but trust me – the more you speak with a native speaker (and I’m talking deep conversation, not just stuff like the weather, etc.), the more you will begin to notice that you can almost anticipate what they will say in response to what you say. When that day comes, congratulations my friend, you are well on your way to breezing through the listening portion of the exam :)

A few more words about conversation partners if I may: First, usually there is no pay involved in this – rather the general arrangement seems to be you teach them English in exchange for them teaching you Japanese. You can set this up however you want, but two patterns that work well seem to be 30 minutes spent speaking in Japanese (both parties) and 30 minutes in English (both parties), or else each party speaks in their foreign tongue (so you speak in Japanese, they respond in English), breaking this only when needing to explain something in greater detail. These each develop different skills – the former is probably the most useful pattern since it improves all listening/speaking aspects evenly, and the latter places a much greater emphasis on output (so develops your speaking ability) at the cost of a somewhat disjointed conversation flow. Secondly, as mentioned above, I don’t usually recommend using your friends or co-workers as conversation partners in the strictest sense since then there’s often a tendency to engage in too much fun stuff (with friends) or boxing yourself in to talking about the same boring topics and/or restricting yourself a bit because of your professional relationship (with co-workers). Also, conversation partners should be for focused, intense study. It’s completely fine to become friends and all (some of my best friends started out as conversation partners, including a few whom I’ve been friends with for years now, across two different continents) but make sure you don’t lose sight of your goal – to improve your language ability! Friends are for fun, and conversation partners are for study. Once you become friends, it might be good to move that relationship into the “friends” category and find yourself someone else to use for conversation practise. (In my opinion, anyway).

Finally, a lot of people suggest (usually with a grin) that one “ought to make a boyfriend/girlfriend” to practise conversation with. Yes….. I guess that’s true, but trust me when I tell you, that you emphatically do not want to treat your boyfriend/girlfriend (well, girlfriend in my case, sorry boys ;) ) as your personal conversation partner. Studying foreign language can be quite stressful at times, and remember, you’re here to pass a test which means sometimes focused, intense drilling down and asking people to explain grammar and other technical things which they may not be able to do so effectively (think about it – how well can you explain English grammar if pressed?). Conversation partners are there because they have the same goals and interest in foreign language as you. Presumably your significant other is there because they have an interest in you as a person, of which your differing mother tongues is but only a small aspect. It’s all fine and well to practise speaking with them and trying to pick things up naturally from your daily interactions, but I advise you not to do the “30 minute drills” or break out the memo pad each time you guys talk as discussed above, because that is no good for your relationship, believe me.

Okay, so that’s that for the active studying method, and studying for the listening section in general. The only other advise I have is to take a couple of the practise exams to familiarise yourself with the layout and types of questions, but I’ll get into that more in the test taking section in the next post.


Okay, that’s enough for now. Stay tuned for the next sections (kanji/vocabulary and practise tests) soon. Happy studying, and if you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below (or e-mail me) and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability!

Now listening to: BT – Every Other Way (feat. Jes) (Armin Van Buuren Remix)”

3 Reactions

  1. Anonymous

    Okay, good helpful stuff, although I just glanced through it and wanted to comment on the cute cat trying to pass the test. Also, loved the little toy on the picture of the day. More,more!!

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