You are all ready to meet up with your Japanese friends at the local Starbucks. You’ve been practicing your spoken Japanese with your Skype buddies that you met on Mixi. You’ve been taking Japanese lessons and have always had great conversations with your teacher. You’ve listened to 100s of 1000s hours of TV shows on your Ipod. You usually wow your friends with your growing abilities. But a dreaded reality rears its ugly face.
You can’t keep track of the conversation
In Starbucks it is very noisy and you are having a difficult time hearing your friends voices over all the other commotion. Your friends are all talking at once. Friend 1 talks too fast. Friend 2 talks too low. Friend 3 is actually whispering to you because he is telling you about an embarrassing situation. Friend 4 comes from Aomori and has a very strong accent.
What happened? You look like a complete beginner. You’ve never had problems before with your conversational ability. You know for a fact that you are level 40+.
The real world of noise and distractions
Depending on where you are in your studies, I guarantee that you have either experienced the above or will experience it at some point. You realize that real conversations don’t take place in anywhere near ideal conditions. Your quiet classroom. Your quiet bedroom with Skype. These don’t exist in the real world.
You must get used to the places where you will actually be speaking Japanese.
Solving The Noise
This is something that takes practice. Your first thought is probably just to practice speaking a lot in noisy places. This would obviously give you experience, but it is too limited and time-constraining. That would be like practicing Japanese solely by attending class. The real solution is much simpler and falls into a 3-step process in which you will recreate the fated noise scenario.
Step 1: Make sure your Ipod is packing
This is relevant to listening in general and you have probably already been doing this. Fill your Ipod with dramas/comedy/variety shows/anime that have fast paced conversations with multiple people talking at the same time, and listen to it passively as much as you can every day.
Step 2: Lower the volume
Most people listen to their Ipod at a volume where they can hear it. Sounds pretty obvious. While this is important, the opposite is just as beneficial. Listen to your Ipod at a volume that is too low for you. By doing this, you will strain yourself to listen and understand what is going on. But as all things your powerful brain is good at, it is a master at adapting. It will get used to the lowered sound and will compensate by developing the ability to understand Japanese at a lower decibel.
This process does take time and I suggest starting off just slightly lower, and then working your way down with time. At my current stage, some people can barely hear what I’m listening to on my Ipod.
You can also try only using one ear-bud.
Step 3: Listen in as much noise as you can
First make sure you are using ear-buds while listening to your Ipod. You don’t want any kind of fancy headphones that are noise reducing and filter background noises. Then purposely listen to your iPod in noisy places where it is hard to hear, with as many distractions as possible.
At home, I often had one ear bud in my ear listening to low Japanese, while having full conversations in English with my family. This of course required an explanation to my family what I was doing.
My favorite noisy places are trains, cafes, and the crowded streets of cities. If you live in Japan, this is quite an easy task.
The best part about this listening method is its incredible side-effect. When you get good at listening to low volume Japanese in a noisy setting, when you finally go back to Japanese in a quiet place, the results are clear. To reference classic Japanese anime: it’s like training in 10 times gravity, then returning and fighting in regular gravity. I think you know the outcome.