For some people, the JLPT listening section is the least of their worries. However, don’t let your focus on difficult kanji and complicated grammar points pull your attention away from studying for the listening section. Even if you watch lots of anime or Japanese dramas, the test will be nothing like that at all. Here’s what you need to know for preparing for the JLPT listening section!
What Makes the JLPT Listening Section Difficult?
What makes the JLPT listening section so difficult is that unlike your favorite TV shows, you are being tested for very specific listening skills. It doesn’t matter how well you can keep up with your favorite character’s dialogue. Can you understand the relationships between people simply by the words they are using? Can you tell what is being done to whom by recognizing passive tense?
These are just some of the traps that take many confident JLPT test-takers down. Also, be aware that the structure of the questions are different. Some have multiple choice, others include illustrations, and some won’t have any visual clues at all! On top of that, the questions themselves tend to be quite tricky. Sometimes, the answer lies in something the speaker only gave a brief nod to that you may have missed.
The JLPT Listening Section by Level
The following is a summary of what you should know by level, directly from the JLPT website.
N5: The ability to understand some basic Japanese. One is able to listen and comprehend conversations about topics regularly encountered in daily life and classroom situations, and is able to pick up necessary information from short conversations spoken slowly
N4: The ability to understand basic Japanese. One is able to listen and comprehend conversations encountered in daily life and generally follow their contents, provided that they are spoken slowly.
N3: The ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to a certain degree. One is able to listen and comprehend coherent conversations in everyday situations, spoken at near-natural speed, and is generally able to follow their contents as well as grasp the relationships among the people involved.
N2: The ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations, and in a variety of circumstances to a certain degree. One is able to comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations and news reports, spoken at nearly natural speed in everyday situations as well as in a variety of settings, and is able to follow their ideas and comprehend their contents. One is also able to understand the relationships among the people involved and the essential points of the presented materials.
N1: The ability to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances. One is able to comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations, news reports, and lectures, spoken at natural speed in a broad variety of settings, and is able to follow their ideas and comprehend their contents comprehensively. One is also able to understand the details of the presented materials such as the relationships among the people involved, the logical structures, and the essential points.
What’s On The JLPT Listening Section?
You will see question that ask you to…
- Identify what a person is going to do or say next (Task-based comprehension)
- Pick out one specific key point from a dialogue (Point-based comprehension)
- Identify the main idea of a dialogue (Summary comprehension)
- Select the most natural response to what the speaker says (Utterance comprehension)
- Understand and respond quickly to a question (Quick Response)
- Follow along with the dialogue and answer questions without visual cues (Integrated Comprehension)
You may also have to:
- Listen to cues while following along with a visual guide or map
- Identify the relationship/positions of people based on keigo (polite/honorific) speech
How to Pass the JLPT Listening Section
Even if you watch lots of anime, it may not be enough on its own to help you pass the JLPT. Despite that one infamous instance when a dialogue for the 2009 N1 listening section was taken straight out of popular anime series Evangelion, I can guarantee you, it is highly unlikely to ever happen again.
Below I will introduce examples of each type of question.
Types of JLPT Listening Questions
Here, you will hear a dialogue between two people. The topic will usually involve an issue the speakers are trying to solve. Your job is to identify what they will do next to solve that problem. One key point to pay attention to here is passive form, especially when the speakers bring up a third person, such as their boss.
For example, a question may ask: What will the woman do next? Choices may include “Prepare the document” and “Ask the boss to prepare the document.” The answer will depend on whether the dialogue said “社長に頼まれた” (I was asked by the boss), or “社長に頼む” (I will ask the boss).
This question will ask you something you will only be able to answer by paying very close attention to specific points. These can be very easy to miss, as there is usually a lot of information in the dialogue, and you must keep up.
Here’s one of my favorite examples from So-Matome N3:
The question asks which woman is the speaker’s mother. The speaker mentions a number of things her mother has done recently in order to appear younger. Information includes dying her gray hairs, wearing flower-pattern clothing, and changing her glasses. This clue can be especially tricky!
The woman says 「メガネが小さいと老けて見えるじゃないかって言って。」(English:”She [mother] said small glasses makes her look old”.) It’s easy to only catch 「メガネが小さい」(“small glasses”) and miss the rest of the sentence. However, it’s the latter half of the sentence that holds the key to the clue! If you can understand that her mother thinks small glasses make her look old, and if you know that her mother is trying to look younger, then you can assume that the answer will be one of the women wearing large glasses. Combine that with the previous clues – no gray hairs and flower patterns – and you’ll arrive at the correct answer: 3.
These are tricky because you won’t have the choices in front of you. Instead, you must listen not only to the dialogue, but to the choices, as well. The key here is to take notes. I recommend practicing your note-taking skills before the test when doing sample questions. Learn what to jot down, and a short-hand system that works for you.
Also, don’t write notes in Japanese. Writing quick abbreviations in your own native language will cut time and potential confusion. You may also want to write out charts to track the speakers and their actions (for example, writing W for woman, M for man, B for boss, S-Comp for Sakura Company, etc.).
(Note: Summary Comprehension questions only appear on levels N3, N2, and N1).
Here you’ll see an image of the speaker and hear a short explanation of the situation, followed by three expressions the speaker might be saying. Your job is to select which expression is most appropriate according to their circumstance.
Here’s another example from So-Matome N3:
The arrow points at the cashier. The customer is leaving the store. Select the natural expression the cashier would say in this situation. (The answer is 3).
(Note: Utterance Comprehension questions only appear on levels N5, N4, and N3).
Here’s where watching anime and dramas may actually come in handy! Similar to Utterance Comprehension, here you’ll hear a short dialogue followed by three possible responses/reactions. Your job is to choose which response is the most natural.
This can be the most difficult question, as the dialogue tends to be longer, and you won’t even have the question in front of you. Your job is to pick out the summary of the dialogue (take notes!), then listen to the question and choices.
Here’s an example from Shin-Kanzen N1, along with the script and answer explanation:
(Note: Integrated Comprehension questions only appear on levels N1 and N2).
JLPT Listening Section Study Guides
Below I review the two popular study guides, So-Matome and Shin-kanzen, as well as one other I recommend. I really enjoyed all of these for this subject, and recommend whichever works best with your study style.
Shin-Kanzen Listening Comprehension Guide
Shin-Kanzen begins with examples of each type of question, then goes into short lessons breaking down necessary skills for understanding each one. This is a great way to develop your skills before delving into practice tests. Each chapter focuses on developing one key skill, such as recognizing similar words, tips for quick response, and how to pick out certain pieces of information.
Another thing Shin excels at is explanations. I find that most listening comprehension guides are too brief with explanations. If you’re comfortable reading them entirely in in Japanese, Shin-Kanzen is one of the best in that aspect.
So-Matome Listening Comprehension Guide
Like Shin-Kanzen, each lesson here also focuses on a specific skill, but in the typical So-Matome fashion. Explanations are concise, with brief English translations where necessary, and easy Japanese equivalents. (One of the first lessons in both the N1 and N2 guides are learning to recognize those pesky keigo and passive forms!)
You have one short lesson each day, with a mini practice quiz at the end of the week combining all the skills you learned.
The only thing So-Matome lacks is concrete examples of each question style like Shin-Kanzen has. While Shin-Kanzen explains each type and gives examples, So-Matome only has a brief description of each type in the preface.
This book is also less content-heavy than the other So-Matome books, and should take 5 weeks to complete. Take advantage of this to really hone in on those skills, and you’ll be ready to tackle any dialogue in no time!
Jitsuryoku Up! Kiku Listening Comprehension Guide
If you already feel confident in your skills and just want to skip ahead to practice questions, I highly recommend this book! I mentioned in previous articles that this was the series I used to pass N3 and N2 some years back. I still stand by it as a solid study series.
This book doesn’t go into skill development at all, but dives straight into sample question territory. You’ll answer many questions back to back, then check your answers. It includes scripts and brief explanations (in Japanese). There are vocabulary lists, grammar points, and expressions directly from the dialogue, as well as similar ones you may encounter.
Passing the JLPT Listening Section: General Tips
To pass the JLPT Listening Section, is imperative to know what to listen for and obtain that information quickly. Here are some general tips to practice during your studies so you can ace the listening section on the actual test!
Read the Choices First – But Not During the Dialogue
Try to speed read through the choices before the dialogue begins. But once the dialogue begins – stop! One common pitfall is trying to read the choices while the dialogue is playing, and missing important information! You won’t get a second chance to hear the dialogue, so don’t get distracted. Listen extra carefully and take notes. The question will still be there for you to read once the conversation ends.
Listen for Conversation Shifts
Sometimes the conversation will appear to be headed one way, until the speaker changes their mind mid-sentence! It’s not always obvious, so it’s up to you to catch that moment.
Listen for Subtle Clues
The clues aren’t always obvious. Many times the speaker will mention all the choices in the dialogue. Unless you catch the subtle clues, it can seem as if all the choices are correct! It is up to you to keep up with the speakers to figure out which choice they ultimately went with.
Listen for Passive Forms
As I mentioned above, another common trap is failing to recognize passive form. Was she asked by the boss to prepare the documents? Or is she going to ask the boss to prepare them? Pay special attention to these forms!
Listen for Company Names
Finally, some dialogues may only have two speakers, but multiple parties as the topic of discussion. A common situation may discuss two different companies with generic names such as ‘Sakura Corp’ or ‘ Fuji Corp’. I recommend including abbreviations for companies in your notes as well (S Corp, F Corp, etc).
Take Notes, Draw Charts, Use Symbols
Use a system for labeling speakers and other parties brought up in conversation. For example, M and W for man and woman, B for boss, Comp A and Comp B for company names, etc. Also, use abbreviations and symbols to save time (Y/N for Yes/No, check marks and X’s, etc.)
Use Process of Elimination
As the speakers are talking, you may also want to cross off the choices that are clearly wrong.
Study Spoken Grammar
Understanding grammar will determine how well you can understand subtle nuances. However, studying spoken grammar can be tricky. Most study tools focus on written study methods, such as flashcards and reading in context. For a refresher on grammar study tools I recommend, including those with audio, check my JLPT Grammar article HERE!
JLPT Listening Study Apps
This is the only app I will introduce in this article. I’ve recommended this series for other JLPT topics, and it has a great listening section, too. This series includes each level separately, so download the one for your level. (I’m using JLPT N1 Test.)
It has four listening categories. “Listening comprehension from different topics” includes example of each type of question. “Listening comprehension with keyword” focuses on those questions where the answer depends on catching one quick key detail. Next, “Listening comprehension and oral expression” includes questions where you must also listen to the choices (no visual aid). Finally, “Quick answer” focuses on questions where you must give the appropriate response to a sentence.
You can practice the first category for free, or upgrade for $5 to access them all. (If you already purchased premium for one of the other subjects, you won’t have to do it again.) Unfortunately, the app doesn’t offer explanations, although it will let you look back at the correct answers.
Unseen Japan’s Recommended Study Guides
Other Pieces in Our JLPT Series:
See the rest of Unseen Japan’s JLPT Study Series HERE!
Recommended JLPT Study Resources
- Official JLPT Study Guides: https://jlpt.jp/e/reference/books.html#book2012
- JLPT Self-Evaluation:https://jlpt.jp/e/about/candolist.html
- Practice Tests: http://www.jlpt.jp/e/samples/sample09.html