How I fixed my listening comprehension

I used to have a really hard time understanding spoken Japanese, despite being (at the time) fairly comfortable with reading. I remember thinking I could improve by watching anime with Japanese subtitles, but if there was any benefit it must have been pretty minimal, and I realized eventually that I was just giving myself more practice reading, but when I tried watching without any subtitles at all, I just got frustrated and confused.

Fortunately I happened to hear about Subs2SRS around that time, which is a really cool tool that turns videos into flashcards by reading subtitle files. I didn’t exactly want to add a whole new SRS routine into my study routine, so I came up with a low-impact method that helped me out a lot in just a short amount of time.

#1: Pick the show you’re going to watch

You’re going to want to pick something that’s around your reading level. The goal is to bring your listening up to parity with your reading level, and you don’t want to be spending too much time puzzling out the text on each card when you check your results.

It’s also worth mentioning that anything that helps ease the process is good. For example: you could watch a show you’ve seen before with English subtitles, so you have an idea of what’s going on and don’t get totally lost, or you could watch an anime that was based on a manga you’ve already read.

The most important thing is that the show you watch should be interesting. You’re going to have a hard time staying engaged with something you’re watching just because you heard it was easy. Pick something you actually want to watch and don’t worry too much about it.

#2: Find (or make) a flashcard deck for it

This can be a bit tricky but it’s not that bad. In many cases the hardest part is just sourcing Japanese subtitles. Once you have all the necessary files, you can download Subs2SRS here. The manual should have everything you need in order to make your decks. Alternately, you can download a bunch of premade anime decks from here.

Whether you download or make your own, I really recommend you keep your card format as simple as possible. On the front, an image with an auto-play audio clip; on the back, the Japanese text line. You don’t need any special formatting or processing to make this work. It’s a pretty simple process, so don’t waste time trying to make the perfect card template.

#3: Watch an episode of your show

Nothing too special here. Watch an episode start to end without pausing to look up words or grammar. It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed at first; we’ll be reviewing this material later. Just try to pay attention for stuff you do understand.

When you watch anime with English subtitles, your brain has no reason to try and understand the spoken Japanese in the background, and as a result you’ll never develop that skill no matter how many hours you put in. The simple act of moving outside your comfort zone can shift you into almost a kind of survival mode, where you’re forced to start understanding the material just because you’re suddenly out of your depth.

#4: Study the material

The next step is to go through all the cards that correspond to the episode you just watched. Repeat the following steps for each line:

  • Listen to the audio clip, using the image on the front to remind you of context
  • If you understand it, suspend it immediately, otherwise flip the card
  • Compare the sentence on the back to the audio clip you just heard
  • Replay the audio as you read the sentence. Try to identify areas that are difficult for you, such as slurred sounds or fast speech. At this point, feel free to look up words or grammar that you didn’t understand on your first watch.
  • Pass the card

For a demonstration of the process, check out the video below.

Repeat this process for each card until you reach the end of the episode. It’s a good idea to set your new card limit to something very high (or use the custom study option) so you can get through them all in one go. Don’t worry about overloading yourself with reviews; more on this in the next section.

It’s fine to watch a few episodes back to back and then go through all the cards afterwards, but I do recommend that you do the watching and reviewing on the same day. Without the context in your short-term memory, you might have trouble understanding certain lines that wouldn’t normally give you trouble.

#5: Review

For typical anki flashcards, I’m a firm proponent of “always review every card you have due”, but if you’re blazing through hundreds of cards per episode, you’ll probably have a hard time sticking to a regimen like that.

Here’s what I suggest instead:

  • In your deck options under “Lapses”, set your “New Interval” to 40%, so pressing “Again” won’t reset your card all the way to zero
  • Do as many reviews per day as you want to, but never zero
  • Press “again” if you feel like seeing the card soon would be helpful, otherwise press “good”
  • If you ever feel like you’ve got a good grasp on a card, suspend it
  • Use a card retirement addon to set your cards to automatically suspend themselves when they reach a certain interval (I used three months)

If you’re the kind of person that like keeping anki decks around forever, resist that urge in this case. The point of this method is to give you a way to smoothly and easily quiz yourself on audio cues. It’s not to serve as a brain backup or keep you fresh on rare vocab. The end goal for a deck using this method is for you to complete it and never touch it again. By suspending cards that you’ve mastered, you essentially give the deck itself an expiration date.

#6: Be free

Don’t feel like you have to do this for every show you ever watch. This method is ultimately just a way to give yourself a little kick into gear. If you ever catch yourself thinking “I could probably learn more by watching another show instead of revisiting this one”, follow that instinct! The ultimate goal is to leave flashcards and tools behind and make the language your own.