Conversations in Noisy Places
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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Good advice – I wish someone had suggested that I should do this years ago, so I wouldn’t have had to get good at it solely by being in noisy places and listening to stuff. I will try doing this now and see if it makes any improvement on my listening anyway (I don’t have the best listening ability in English though, so it might just be that my ears aren’t that great!).
I wonder if there’s any genre of Japanese listening materials that would prepare you for when somebody is trying to tell you something that they don’t want the people around you to overhear, and so are not only speaking very quietly, but also using EXTREMELY vague Japanese, because I still have problems understanding that! I generally have to get my friends to spell things out for me, which I’m sure annoys them, hehe.
The thing that you didn’t really cover in this is dealing with the friend with a strong accent problem. Are there any ways that you would recommend getting exposure to different dialects of Japanese? Because my most difficult experience with Japanese was a few years ago, when I was able to understand almost all standard every day Japanese, when I first met my boyfriend’s parents. They come from Iwakuni, which is in Yamaguchi, but near Hiroshima, so they both have really strong accents. REALLY strong. When I first met them, I was really shocked and discouraged to realise that I only really understood about 30% of what they were saying. I would have thought that constantly speaking to someone who is also from the area (my boyfriend!) would have prepared me for it, but the difficult thing with learning dialects from Japanese people from an area with a strong accent is that they generally automatically make their Japanese as close to standard Japanese as they can, unless they are talking to someone who is from the same area, so it can be difficult/impossible to actually learn a dialect from them, even if they slip into it as soon as they are surrounded by other people speaking it.
So what can you do to get exposure to lots of different dialects? Kansai-ben is easy, as all you need to do to hear it is watch any Japanese TV with comedians in it. But what about the others?? The only way I’ve been able to get used to the few which I can understand well is by spending a significant amount of time in those areas, surrounded by people using that dialect…
Any ideas? :)
This is really good advice. That’s one of the reasons why I’m nervous to talk to my mother-in-law on Skype (have yet to do so). When I see her in person, I can understand her. But online, the volume of her voice is really low. My husband can understand her fine, but overhearing their conversations, I can’t hear anything (-_-). A skill to work on.
Hmm… and to think I had been going about this all wrong, insisting on having my door closed and my mom not watching Doctor Who while I’m trying to catch up on my Anki reviews… Well, the closed-door policy is not optional, since I read the sentence cards out loud, but it doesn’t need to be completely quiet after all…
I just wish my regular headphones didn’t look so silly. (I can’t afford Apple products (unemployed college graduate), so my laptop IS my “iPod”… and I use Windows Media Player, not iTunes since in my experience, iTunes is cancerous to non-OSX systems and non-purchased (i.e. Creative Commons) music collections.)
You can get perfectly good mp3 players for $30. I’m wondering how your headphones look silly – perhaps they three feet tall and shaped like cats? Again, you can perfectly good earphones for cheap, you don’t have to use apple products. I don’t consider them worth the extortionate prices, personally. I use my Samsung phone (about $60) as an mp3 player. The only problem with that is that it doesn’t display Japanese characters, but this isn’t much of a problem since I don’t really need to read the song titles.
And yeah, I hate iTunes too ;)