Tips To Improve Japanese Listening Comprehension

In this lesson I’d like to talk about a concept of language learning that I didn’t figure out on my own, but that I learned it from a rather successful polyglot. This idea provides the basis for the tips to improve your Japanese listening comprehension that I want to share with you today.

To give a high level summary of this concept, I’ll tell you people speak in syllables, not in words.

To be more specific, they don’t speak words the way they are written when engaging in normal conversations. The reason is because the sounds of words change when they are strung together in a complete sentence. Let go into more detail now.

Learning A New Language – Slowly

I would say that the vast majority of people learn a new foreign language using textbooks or audio that has been slowed down so that it’s easy to understand.

Both of these are useful for learning new words and getting started with the language, but it can create a problem for the learner once they hit the intermediate level and begin using more advanced materials where people speak at a normal rate.

What can happen is that when the student encounters a sentence full of words, they naturally assume that the correct way to say the complete sentence is to speak each word, one after the other, at a rapid pace.

After all, they learned each word individually so a sentence is just adding the words together, right?

Well, not exactly.

Unfortunately for the learner, the sounds of words will often change when they are used in a complete sentence.

This is something that (luckily) happens more often in English than in Japanese, so I will illustrate this concept with an English sentence before moving on to how we can use this knowledge to become better Japanese listeners.

Speaking In Syllables (English)

Let’s say that you have a friend who makes animals out of towels, like they sometimes do in certain fancy hotels.

You see him pick up a towel and then ask him the question:

“What are you going to make with that towel?”

Now, assuming you were in the process of learning the English language, and you had already learned all of the above words in isolation, you would most likely be able to understand the sentence just from reading it.

If you then read the sentence out loud on a word by word basis it would sound like this:

As an English native, you no doubt feel that this sounds weird, even though it’s technically correct.

If a person talked to you this way, you would understand them, but you would know that English isn’t their first language because that’s not really how natives speak.

A native would actually say the sentence like this:

The point I want to make is that the second audio example is phonetically realized as this:

“Wha-dar yu gonna may kwi-tha tah-wel?

You will notice a few interesting changes that occur when words are put next to each other in this particular example.

The first thing is that the [t] sound at the end of the word “what” gets changed to a [d] sound, and that [d] sound actually fuses into the following word “are” to form [dar].

The word “going to” gets changed to something that sounds more like [gonna].

The ending syllable of “make” gets fused with the following word “with” to form a [kwith] sound. So, the two words “make with” sounds like [may-kwith].

The ending [t] in “that” gets dropped since the following word also begins with the same sound, and “that towel” turns into [tha-tah-wel].

The point I want to make is that learning a language on a word by word basis can actually be quite deceptive because the way that something sounds will often change depending on the surrounding words in a spoken sentence.

And just because a word sounds a certain way in one situation, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always sound that way.

Speaking In Syllables (Japanese)

To a certain degree, this situation where the sounds of words change when they are combined with others in a sentence occurs in all languages.

Luckily for you, it’s not to a very large degree in Japanese.

Due to the way that Japanese is structured, almost every single syllable is comprised of a single consonant and a single vowel – and in that order too!

This actually makes the language pretty consistent, but there are still some situations where it will sound different when you hear a native say something, when compared to how it looks in the written form.

All of the things you learned in Section Two will apply here in Section Three as well.

Here are the sounds that will change, or occur when one word ends and the next one begins:

  • Some vowels will sound like they are long.
  • There will be multiple stop sounds right after one another.
  • The pitch accent patterns of individual words will change to an overall sentence pattern.
  • Certain vowels that are normally voiced will become silent or semi-silent.

We are going to cover these things in the following sections and then see some examples of each.

Now that you are aware of why things sound differently when people speak naturally in Japanese, you should be able to decipher them better.

It Sounds Like An Elongated Vowel

As I’m sure you remember the Japanese language only has five separate vowels. That means that there are going to be a decent amount of times where the ending vowel of a word is the same as the beginning vowel in the next word.

A very common example of this is the everyday phrase “See you tomorrow” in Japanese.

The way you say it in Japanese is with the word “again” which is また and the word “tomorrow” which is あした, and you do so in that order as well.

  • See you tomorrow!
  • また あした!

First of all, there aren’t normally spaces between words in written Japanese, but I put them in for this example so that you can clearly see where one word ends and the next one begins.

Secondly, I don’t want to get into any grammar rules for Japanese right now since this course is entirely focused on sounds. If you’re new to Japanese, then don’t worry about the word order at this point.

I just want you to listen to how these two words sound when they are used in this phrase.

Now if you learned these two words separately, then you might be tempted to put a short silence in between them.

  •  また あした
  • [ma-ta- … -ash-ta].

But people usually combine these vowels and it sounds like a single long word, as in [ma-taa-shh-ta].

As you can see, I’ve underlined the part that sounds as if it were one long vowel, when it’s actually the same vowel sound from two different words.

This example illustrates how two separate words can sound as if they were one word in natural spoken conversation.

But you have to be careful that you don’t assume that all concurrent vowels between words will make it sound like a single word.

You may remember back when I talked about long vowels that sometimes the vowel is reiterated.

A very common example of this is when Japanese people say “I think such and such a thing.”

  • I think it’s a dog.
  • いぬ だ と おもいます  。

The point to pay attention to here is the と おもいます part. Even though the first mora ends with an [o] sound and the next word begins with the same [o] sound, it actually does not sound like a single long [o] vowel.

The point I want you to get from this section is simply the awareness that sometimes concurrent vowels between words will make it seem like a single sound, and sometimes the sound will be reiterated.

It Sounds Like a Stop Sound

There are actually relatively few situations where a stop sound occurs between two words. This is because (for the most part) no stand alone words begins with a stop sound.

However, there are a couple of things that can get added unto words that create a stop sound between them.

The most common one is when you are quoting someone. In Japanese this can be done by added って to what was said.

  • He said “hello.”
  • かれ は 「こんにちは」 って。

The thing to notice is that there normally isn’t a stop right after the word “hello” but a stop sound gets added when you are quoting it.

What can then happen sometimes with stop sounds in full sentences is that there can be multiple stop sounds really close to one another and it makes the whole sentence sound pretty weird to an English native since we don’t normally have that type of thing.

  • Take the book with you.
  • ほん を もって いって。

The もって いって part is a little tricky for beginners to get used to. There are occasionally sentences that have even more of these types of stop sounds in quick succession, which again, take focused listening and practice to really get down.

What if we combine these two examples?

  • He said, “Take the book.”
  • かれ は 「ほん を もって いって」って。

I find that the best way to get a handle on these types of situations is to listen to them repeatedly, and then think of it like you would the beats of a song.

Listen to the rhythm and flow of it, and try to replicate that aspect of it without worrying too much about the meaning behind the words and such.

Then once you’re comfortable with saying it yourself, you can focus more on fully understanding the English translation and how it all matches up.

It Sounds Like a Silent  Vowel

If you remember the rule for the silent or semi-silent vowels from Section Two of this course, then you can probably already guess how it works in this part as well.

The rules are pretty much the same. If the [i] or [u] vowel occurs between two of the unvoiced consonants, then it will become either completely silent, or mostly silent (like 90% or so).

What this means for sentences is that if the final sound in a word is [i] or [u], and the beginning sound of the next word is [k], [s], [t], or [h] then the vowel will most likely become quiet.

  • I lost it.
  • なく しました。
  • When was it built?
  • いつ たてられました か?

I actually had a rather hard time finding examples of this situation, which may be a good indicator that it doesn’t happen all that often.

That’s good news for us!

It Sounds Like a Different Pitch Accent Pattern

As I mentioned before, Japanese words have a pitch accent in a similar manner to the way that English words have a stress accent.

The pitch of each mora will raise, stay the same, or fall depending on the pattern. See how the pitch moves in the words below.

But when words are placed together in a sentence, their pitch pattern can change depending on which word it is right next to them.

Usually this will be the word that comes right before it, since the location of the pitch might already be in a high or low position that the new word was going to move towards.

As you can see, the pitch accent pattern of でした changed based off of the word that came right before it.

This pitch wanted to go low and stay low for でした. Since the first example がくせい had the pitch high, it fell down on the し mora in the word でした.

But since this pitch was already low in the second example, there was no need for でした to change.

This situation can get a little tricky since the pitch accent patterns you learn in isolation don’t always hold up in full sentences.

But with a combination of pitch awareness, a lot of exposure and practice, it should become easier for you to notice and then replicate yourself.

The Big Takeaway

At the beginning of the lesson I talked about how most beginners study individual words in Japanese, which causes some comprehension problems later on since the way they sound can change when they appear in a sentence alongside other words.

I still think it is good to look up the meanings of new words when you encounter them, but the big takeaway from today’s lesson is to always study new words inside the structure of a full sentence.

Even better would be to get several different sentences that use the same word, so that you can get a lot of exposure to how it gets affected by the surrounding sounds.

The concept of learning new words this way is something that I am going to go into more depth on in the next lesson.

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