NHK = JLPT Power… Most of the Time…

So I mentioned in my last post that I recently started paying for TV Japan, and it’s basically the best purchase I’ve ever made in my whole life, ever. Except for maybe like… a health club membership, but most of those are wildly overpriced anyway.

But onto the issue at hand: TV Japan. For those of you who don’t already know what that is, its an educational TV channel for Japanese living here in the states, and it’s basically just a rebroadcasting of NHK programs.  Sometimes the shows are live (like Japanese evening news airs every morning here, and Japanese morning news airs every evening) and sometimes the programs are pre-recorded and aired at more appropriate times, like Sunday night dramas, daytime television or documentaries. There’s virtually no commercials, except for one really annoying one where this little boy is singing the name of some food product over and over and over again in a super irritating voice… but they pretty much only air that commercial at night. There’s also one commercial for a Japanese moving company that will take all your stuff back to Japan for you if your company sends you home. In the grand scheme of things, two commercials ain’t bad, right?

So what does NHK stand for? 日本放送協会 (Nippon Housou Kyoukai), or Japan Broadcasting Corporation. It does NOT however, stand for 日本ひきこもり協会 (Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai), or Japan recluse society, as the Anime “Welcome to the NHK” would have you believe.  Side note: that Anime is great, so if you like obscure Anime with a really good story, check it out.  It’s also a novel and manga by Tatsuhiko Takimoto. Anyway, NHK is just a broadcasting company. It’s not a conspiracy to turn Japanese youth into Hikikomori (recluses).  Not like you really care about that right now anyway.

So, that’s NHK, a Japanese national broadcasting company. I could go into detail about the history of NHK, but you don’t really care about that right now, right? And I don’t really feel like researching. This post is supposed to be about the language learning benefits of watching NHK for foreigners, so why waste any more time than I already have on nonsense.

When I first started paying for NHK, let’s just say it was hard to understand. They speak fast. They talk about stuff that I don’t understand. And worst of all, they talk about stuff I don’t care about. For instance… how to milk a goat. Or how to harvest saffron. Or what rain looks like in slow motion. Or how all those rooftop gardens work in Tokyo. Bored yet? So am I. In fact, whenever I want to take a nap, I usually just turn on NHK and lay down and I’m asleep in minutes. But now I understand all these topics, I know how to talk about them and I even know how to read about them. Why, you ask? It’s all thanks to something awesome that happens on Japanese TV that doesn’t happen on American TV: they subtitle their own language, in their own language.

They probably do this for a few reasons, but the number one reason is literacy (kanji practice in other words). Most of you who read my blog probably already know that Japanese has somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 regularly used kanji that appear in newspapers, textbooks and official publications of that nature. For us, it sucks to learn them, but Japanese are surrounded by these kanji every day and they’re constantly bombarded by them.

When do we get to experience kanji? When we study, and that’s it. So what’s the benefit of NHK when it comes to learning kanji? We watch TV and while the people on screen talk, we can read subtitles and become familiar with all the kanji being used. It’s a weak second when compared to the experience of actually living in Japan, but it’s better than nothing. Also, since we are not Japanese (those of us who are not —  you could be Japanese, how would I know?) we don’t actually know all of the words being said on Japanese TV. Well, this poses a problem. We see the kanji, but we don’t know it, and we don’t know the word it’s being used with.  Well, that’s a roadblock, but it’s not the end of the road. Just watching NHK by itself will not make you magically good at Japanese, but it will fantastically augment your regular studies. So keep studying. When you learn a new word, you’ll hear it on NHK (assuming you’re studying from a worthwhile list) and you’ll make an association. It might take a second of lag time, but you’ll have one of those moments that feels so good: “aha! I know that word! I learned it yesterday! and OMG, there’s the KANJI for it at the bottom of the screen!! WOW, now I’ll NEVER forget it!” And you most likely won’t ever forget it, assuming you’re as excited as I would be. If you want, go look up the words you hear that you don’t know, although that makes this all take a very long time. To be honest, I think it’s better for your language skills to just skip over the words you don’t know so you can spend more time listening and picking up words you do know.

What shows in particular are good for this kind of practice? Pretty much all of them, but depending on your skill level it could vary. If you’re not that advanced, child oriented TV shows are best (Monday mid-day to afternoon).  If you’re a little better than that, then youth oriented news shows and game shows (Kids News or Wiz Kids TV) are probably good. If you’re a little more advanced than that but not quite top-notch (and honestly, I’m not top-notch so don’t go calling me arrogant) you should watch adult oriented daytime TV like “AsaIchi” (“Morning Market”) or other documentaries. They speak a little bit slower, and they talk about advanced topics in depth, but they use normal spoken Japanese. News shows are a different story. That’s all business vocabulary and keigo. Don’t avoid it, but don’t expect to understand it unless you’re N1 / N2 level.

Here’s the best part about NHK for learners of Japanese as a second language though: you can turn it on at any time of day, sit down and watch for 30 minutes, and you will definitely learn something. You might learn something you don’t care about or wish you never learned, but you learned. Isn’t that all that matters?

What does any of this have to do with N2 or N1? Well, if you’ve taken those tests, you know that the material is obscure to say the least. But if they throw a listening question in there about milking goats (and if you’ve taken the test you’ll agree with me, it isn’t impossible) I’ll understand, and I’ll get that answer right. How would I have ever thought to go study about goats in Japanese? Simple answer, I wouldn’t. But NHK told me to, and I did. So there you have it. NHK forces obscure knowledge into our brains, and it’s the same obscure BS that the JLPT asks us to know and understand. So use NHK. Buy it if you don’t have it, watch it if you do. NHK is pretty much the best tool you can ask for in preparing for the JLPT listening section. It’s on 24 / 7, its Japanese, its educational. What else could you want?

Oh, what’s that? You mean that random show that was on the other night where AKB48 played rock paper scissors with Ultraman for an hour while wearing skimpy outfits?


No, I didn’t learn anything from that. But I liked it.


One response

  1. Took the words out of my mouth. I have the same exact experiences with NHK. It does put you to sleep, it has a lot of boring things, but that is what they ask you on the test. One time I was watching how ants in a glass ant farm decide on which side to live on depending on the odor of other ants around them. Who would ever care about that? Either way you will definitely learn no matter what. I learned some new words using and heard them on TV JAPAN, and never forgot them since!

    December 15, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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