Usually when I talk about improving listening skills, I just tell people to (1) learn lots of vocabulary and (2) listen to lots of Japanese audio (NativShark Shadow Loops).
But what if we want a change of pace?
What if we want to sit down and study in a way that improves listening comprehension?
Then we can use the following audio breakdown method.
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:
こんど の やすみ に ドライブ に つれてって やろうか と おもってたら よてい が はいってる の か.
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. wife, Rei), 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, which is the real key to listening comprehension.
For example, in transcribing the sample I used for this post, I ran into some real trouble with this sentence:
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?
Be honest, you would!
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.
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.
But I have to mention that a much simpler way to improve your listening is to just use NativShark every day.
Good luck with your studies!