I know a lot of people who despite living in Japan, just don’t get the exposure to comprehensible input that they would need in order to really make significant progress.
This is a list of five free ways you can get started on increasing your input, and the best thing is that you don’t even have to be in Japan to use them.
1. rikai.com (or rikaichan plugin for Firefox)
Rikai is a website or app that allows you to read Japanese online by giving you a small pop-up window with the pronunciation and meaning of individual words. Assuming you have a minimal knowledge of Japanese grammar, this is much better than a translation program because it allows you to choose the most appropriate meaning for each word. A few minutes a day reading sites on topics that interest you is sure to boost your vocabulary and reading fluency.
This is not a radio station, but rather a website that allows you to learn vocabulary in context, using a spaced repetition system to help you transfer the words to your long-term memory (something that takes between 20 and 50 exposures to the word in context). Including text, pictures, audio, and a really fun practice system, this site makes it easy to study for just five or ten minutes a day.
3. iTunes Store
I finally got my hands on an iPhone recently, and one of the best things I have been doing with it is listening to all sorts of podcasts in Japanese. There is a huge range of material available for free at all levels, and listening to podcasts while commuting or exercising is one of the easiest ways to improve your listening comprehension (with the added bonus that listening will also help your speaking ability).
4. LingQ (pronounced ‘link’, I think)
LingQ is another website featuring a learning system. It is mostly free (you can pay to practice speaking with a tutor online or to have your writing corrected) and offers an easy way to read texts, listen to audio, and learn vocabulary. I always think of it as the grown-up, more serious version of smart.fm (see above). It takes more time and effort to use, but you will make more progress.
This is a site made by a friend of mine, and it is one of the best I have seen for learning kanji or vocabulary sets, particularly if you are studying for the JLPT or the Kanji Kentei (which I thoroughly recommend, more on that in a future post). The site is free and well worth looking around. It is not as pretty as some of the others, but the mechanics are solid.
I am very lazy, so I haven’t used these resources as much as I should have, but for anyone with some self-discipline, they should prove very useful to increase that all-important listening and reading input.