It used to be that if you were studying a foreign language in your own country, the only listening practice that was easily available to you was hearing your teacher or classmates speak, or listening to the CD that came with your textbook. The first Japanese textbook I ever bought actually came with a cassette tape, which was particularly irritating as it was 2006 and I didn’t even own a Walkman any more.
Then someone invented a website that allowed users to upload short videos for all the world to see. Fast-forward nine years and YouTube is one of the biggest sites on the planet, making it a veritable treasure trove of free online spoken content.
So whether you’re after language lessons, YouTubers who vlog in Japanese, or just want to try watching your cat videos in a foreign language, online videos could be your new secret weapon. The trick is just knowing where to look.
▼ “What are those rectangular plastic things anyway, iPhone cases?”
Millions of people follow vloggers on YouTube – independent video-bloggers who upload videos on just about anything: fashion, gaming, product reviews, or observations from their day-to-day life. If you already subscribe to YouTubers in your native language, adding some Japanese into the mix – whether it’s online language lessons, or Japanese YouTubers – can be a great way to squeeze in some listening practice.
The world of online videos in Japan used to be dominated by Niconico, but YouTube is now the fifth-most visited site in Japan, with Niconico down in 14th place. (This doesn’t mean Niconico isn’t still your language-learning friend, though – for more information, check out RocketNews24’s Tried-and-tested ways to learn Japanese while having fun!)
One great thing about watching foreign language videos online is, unlike regular TV, it’s easy to go back and repeat if you don’t quite catch something. Online videos also tend to be shorter than TV shows – it’s easier to squeeze a 10-minute video into your busy day than it is a 30-minute episode. Oh, and did I mention they’re free?
So let’s start as we mean to go on, with Step 1:
1) Watch language learning videos!
You can find “how-to” videos for just about anything on YouTube, and language learning is no exception. Compared to studying at home with traditional video media (language-learning software or DVDs, for example) the interactive nature of online videos is a clear advantage. If you don’t understand something in a YouTube lesson, you can comment on the video asking other viewers (or even the maker of the video!) for help. Here’s my top pick of Japanese lessons on YouTube:
Japanese for Morons
Self-proclaimed “King of the Morons” Victor has been making short videos entitled ‘Japanese for Morons’ since 2009, moving the series to a dedicated separate channel three years ago. Each lesson focuses on one word or short phrase, and videos are both annotated on-screen, and accompanied by a list of new words in the description. They’re short, informative, and there’s over 200 of them.
Victor also makes ‘JNEWS’ videos, explaining new vocabulary and phrases from news and current affairs in Japan. Here he is on the Tokyo Olympics and ‘omotenashi’:
Many of these videos are co-hosted by his energetic Japanese friend Tomoko, and seeing as in a lot of their videos, Victor speaks in English and Tomoko speaks in Japanese, listening to them interact is also a great way to get some bilingual listening practice in (more on that later). Tomoko also has her own channel now at tomoko tomoko.
This online learning site makes Japanese video lessons and listening comprehension exercises. A good section to check out is ‘Weekly Japanese Words with Risa’, which introduces new words and example sentences on a range of topics – from weather to falling in love. What I like about these videos is the explanations and commentary are mostly in Japanese, with just a little supplementary English. Here’s Risa on the topic of exercise:
Learn Japanese From Zero
This YouTube channel from YesJapan.com offers five-minute mini-lessons. ‘Japanese From Zero!’ is a book series, but the accompanying videos make decent stand-alone short lessons. You won’t actually hear much Japanese being spoken in the videos, except during example sentences – but think of them as five-minute grammar explanations, and they’d be a good supplementary resource for anyone self-studying or taking classes. Their ‘Japanese in 5’ series cheerfully rejects any idea you might have that you don’t have time to study Japanese, asking you to take just five minutes every day to study and practice.
▼ ‘Japanese in 5’
2) Watch bilingual videos!
Watching material made for language learners can be great, but at some point you want to start listening to material that’s made for native speakers. Japanese drama, anime and movies are of course great ways to have fun while sneaking in some listening practice, but listening to something that’s 100 percent in Japanese can be overwhelming at first. If you get lost and don’t know what’s going on, you probably aren’t enjoying yourself, and if you’re not enjoying yourself, chances are you’re going to quit.
If you’re looking for a halfway point on the road to Japanese immersion, watching bilingual YouTube videos can be a great way to make sure you understand what’s going on, while getting a decent amount of Japanese exposure. Think of it as Japanese YouTube with training wheels.
But the English lessons for Japanese people on her main channel Bilingirl English actually make really good Japanese listening practice, too. She’s talking in Japanese, but about English! And you know English! Here she is on different ways to say ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu‘ in English:
Victor and Tomoko (again)
There aren’t many places you can listen to a conversation between an English-speaker and a Japanese-speaker, with each speaking their own language. But the videos with Tomoko on Gimmeabreakman‘s channel give you just that – fast, natural speech, on current (often controversial) topics, subtitled and explained where necessary.
▼ Victor and Tomoko dissecting international travel advice.
Which brings me neatly onto my next tip…
3) Watch subtitled Japanese videos!
If the idea of watching a video in 100 percent Japanese seems a bit daunting, you might want to find videos in Japanese with subtitles. But not many Japanese YouTubers go through their videos and put English subs on everything (why would they?). There is one type of YouTuber that does this though: non-Japanese people who video-blog in Japanese. Here’s a small selection of YouTubers who make English-subtitled videos:
In his series ‘One Beer with Bobby’, TV personality and radio presenter Bobby Judo takes questions from Japanese people about foreigners and foreign countries, and answers them with “a little liquid confidence”. His Japanese YouTube videos are English subtitled, and he also speaks really clearly, too (must be that radio presenting practice).
Here he is on “Japanese that foreigners get tired of hearing” (hit that button for subtitles!):
If you want to watch videos in (mostly!) Japanese with English subtitles, YouTubers PDR-san and Mimei, or indeed their joint channel BaCouple, are a fun place to start for wacky, interesting videos about Japan-related (and non-Japan related) stuff. Here’s PDR-san on annoying things about Facebook (remember to click for subtitles):
A short list of other funny/interesting YouTubers who post subtitled Japanese or bilingual videos:
- Ken Tanaka’s helpmefindparents (of “But we’re speaking Japanese!” viral video fame)
- Rachel & Jun – the Interview series, for example.
- ComicalReina – sometimes subtitled, sometimes she just says everything twice for good measure.
- Ashiya, who makes bilingual videos in Japanese and Russian.
- and WhiteEnglishGirl, who raps and vlogs in Japanese.
4) Watch Japanese videos!
Of course, one of the best things you can do to gain listening practice using YouTube is to actually watch Japanese YouTubers. Unlike scripted TV shows, you (probably) won’t be hearing pre-written lines, so it’s a good chance to hear Japanese people speaking naturally – wherever you are in the world!
Here’s a brief selection of some main players:
Hikakin is probably the biggest Japanese YouTuber, with millions of subscribers and four channels including a dedicated gaming channel. His HikakinTV channel is a good place to start for taste tests and challenges, like this one of him enclosing himself in a giant bubble:
YouTuber Sasaki Asahi’s main channel is mostly make-up and fashion tutorials (these are subtitled in English), but she also vlogs in Japanese on her second channel sasakiasahiVlog. Here she is explaining how she made this incredible Ninja Turtles costume:
She also makes a regular renai soudan series with the hilarious HetareBBoy, where they give out dating advice in response to viewer comments and tweets. It’s a fast-paced, irreverent, agony aunt-and-uncle column for the 21st century:
Megwin makes odd, odd films every day, from pranks to travel to cooking. Here’s a recent video of him brewing coffee with Monster energy drink instead of water. As you do.
▼ This man definitely does not need any more caffeine.
If you’re looking for Japanese YouTube channels, the official YouTube Japan channel is actually not a bad starting point. Or you can do what I did once and work your way down this list of the 100 most subscribed channels in Japan.
▼ Fact of the day: Cooking With Dog is still the 11th most subscribed channel in Japan!
So whether it’s language lessons or vloggers, dating advice or verb conjugation, watching Japanese YouTube videos can be a great way to add a little more listening practice – or just a little more Japan – into your day-to-day life. The absolute best thing to do, though, is just to play to your interests! If you’re into cooking, fashion, cats, tech, pranks, sports, or slime, just go search for it. In Japanese, of course.
Do you watch videos online for listening practice? What do you find helpful, and what’s not worth bothering with? What did we miss out? Let us know in the comments!