Recently I had the opportunity to visit a relative in Arizona who had Dish Satellite TV (http://www.dish.com), and happened to contain a single channel of Japanese broadcast TV.
At first I thought that it was cool such a channel could be seen in America, but after all in the age of the internet nearly any type of content can be seen online, usually in higher quality. I had also heard about Japanese channels many years back so it was nothing new.
But after leaving this channel on for a few hours and watching it off and on I realized what a treasure it was for someone studying Japanese.
The first reason is that a great deal of the programming on this type of channel is linked to daily life, or at least to the daily culture of Japan. Some of the shows I came across include one about a upcoming election, where each candidate gave political speeches, one about old schools in the country that were becoming abandoned due to the lack of local students to attend, one about a teacher of debate classes in middle school, one about helping recover after the Fukushima disaster, and of course things like typical daily news and weather reports.
Though there are people like newscasters and talk show hosts that may talk a little more exaggerated or polite than the average person, if you are lucky you will find a station with shows that interview everyday people (as some newscasts do), and you get to hear what ‘real people’ sound like. The less scripted the better.
Either way, whether you goal is to improve your conversation skills, or up your comprehension to be able to live in Japan someday, watching random shows on a Japanese broadcast channel will be much more beneficial than watching a movie, series, or cartoon in Japanese.
Now, one might point out the fact that if you knew what to look for, you could download a large fraction of these shows on the station, especially if they were popular. But I’d argue that even if that were so, there is a another major advantage of watching a satellite TV broadcast.
When using a language to communicate in real life, you pretty much have to go with the flow and interact as things occur. In other words, you can’t really choose your situations exactly and have to be open to being able to both comprehend and express yourself in unexpected situations.
In that sense, I like using Satellite TV for foreign language learning (especially when there is only a single channel) because it forces you to engage with the content presented to you, whether that’s a topic you are familiar with or not. When downloading your own content piecemeal, there is a high level of bias as you are more likely to download and listen to shows about things you are already familiar with, further increasing your knowledge in those specialty areas. Put another way, limiting yourself to a single channel with programs based a country’s daily life and culture makes you more well rounded about that country. And if you are someone who are trying to be fluent in that language, or learn to appreciate that country’s culture, that is a very valuable thing indeed.
Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be Satellite TV, it can be any broadcast, even one you find online. But the trick is to make sure it has a wide range of shows, especially those related to daily living. It’s OK if there is a soap opera or dramatic series once in a while, but that should be ideally less than 20-30% of the overall content.
At first, it may be hard to watch a channel like this and keep concentration for long stretches of time, but it’s OK to just glance now and then and phase your attention in and out as you do other tasks. This type of context switching itself is good practice since you will train yourself to quickly grasp the gist of an unfamiliar situation.