Once you have kanji at least somewhat tamed, reading is the easiest skill to develop to a high level. You can take all the time you need to get through a passage, no one is rushing you, you don’t need to depend on anyone else to talk to or correct your writing, and you can do it all day long if you like. And especially for those of us using extensive reading as the foundation for our studies (which, it hardly needs repeating, I strongly support), we will most likely arrive at a stage in our learning where reading is quite far advanced above the other three skills. Then when you try to listen to material that’s at the same level that you’re comfortably reading, it’s completely incomprehensible. This can be very frustrating! It’s like solving a Chinese puzzle with mittens on. The question then is, how can we use that reading skill to boost our listening skill?
Certainly massive immersion is foundational to listening skill. Listen as much as you can. Listening is something you can multitask, so take advantage of that. Going out for a run? Headphones in. Punching numbers in Excel at the office? Headphones in. Deep discussion with your significant other? Headphones in. (Kidding … maybe?)
But that’s a little random for our purposes here, and doesn’t really answer the question. How then can we focus our listening a little more closely? Here’s three simple things I’ve found to work well, in order of precision.
Firstly, you might remember I’ve previously mentioned incremental reading combined with audio. This SRS exercise will result in exceptionally complete comprehension and retention of short passages. A quick summary of the method: find a source for short passages where you have both audio and text. You can select passages that are quite difficult as long as you find them interesting, but don’t overdo it because the quantity of repetitions you’ll need for a passage that’s too far over your level will only result in you getting sick of it. Podcasts are perfect material. I like the audio blogs over at japanesepod101. Your card, then, will have the text on the front, the text with readings on the back, and the audio. Have Anki set to not play audio automatically. Reviews are done by reading the card and then listening. Feel free to look up as much as you need to while reading. Particularly unfamiliar words should probably be added to a simple vocabulary deck or an MCD deck. The reading should be fairly easy though, because the point is to bootstrap the difficult listening with the higher skill level of the reading. Grading can be done like any other SRS card.
That’s the most effective method in some ways, but the focus is quite narrow, and there’s a lot of setup required. It also has a fairly high burn-out risk.
Secondly, let’s consider a method for using Japanese subtitles. Now, just watching video with J-subs is something I have found to be not terribly effective. It does aid comprehension, and I’m sure if you could read at the same speed as normal speech it would be a lot more effective than it is for me. But as it is, it often ends up going by all too quickly to be much use. So what I do instead is put the text of the subtitles file in Learning With Texts. (You could just as easily use a plain text file – maybe put them in an e-reader program like iBunko – and make MCD cards for words or grammar points as needed.) The process then is to first watch the video without subtitles, then read through the text carefully taking all the time you need to understand everything, and then re-watch the video. This should be done without too much delay between, but a day or two is fine. You will notice a big difference in comprehension between first and second viewings!
For this method, the video must be reasonably within your grasp before reading the text, otherwise two viewings won’t be nearly enough. And if you’re anything like me, two viewings of anything is already very nearly one too many, no matter how good the material is. Also, it must not be too long, or it will take you all day to study the text, and you won’t be able to retain all of it. I find the 20 minutes of a typical anime episode to be pretty much perfect.
That might still be too much structure for your taste, so lastly let’s consider a method (that’s so loose it can hardly be called a method) that will let you take in the most volume of text and audio of any of these. For tadoku, it’s often recommended that you concentrate on the works of a particular author for periods of time, since you get used to their style and their selection of vocabulary. We can take advantage of this for listening as well. Most anime are based on manga, as are many dramas. So all you need to do is watch your favourite series, read through the manga (SRS as much or as little as you like), re-watch the series, reread, etc., until you’re tired of it, which is your sign to move on to something else. Very often the lines in the anime or drama are lifted directly from the manga, and even when they’re not, they’ll be in the same style and using the same set of vocabulary. Sometimes you can also find audio dramas (”Drama CD’s”) that are also based closely on the manga. ARIA in particular has a great many of these, so you can get a lot of listening immersion that’s all based on material you already know from reading. As well as ARIA, I like みなみけ and ひだまりスケッチ for this approach. Any simple slice-of-life anime or drama is a good bet for practical and realistic everyday vocabulary. But make sure to follow your interests! The brain is like a little kid faced with a plate of broccoli; very good at rejecting what it doesn’t enjoy. Luckily when it comes to language even the chocolate cake is nourishing!
I always remember something loafyi said in the #ajatt channel one day – something like “when I can recognize a word in listening, that’s when I feel like I really have it”. I’ve found this to be very true. I hope that these simple common-sense suggestions can help you to use your hard-earned reading comprehension to raise your listening to a similar level.