I often watch the Japanese TV news but I have a lot of difficulty in understanding it. The vocabulary is too advanced and the sentences too complicated and too quick for me to follow.
NHK offers a service for learners like me: it’s called News Web Easy. Every weekday, three or four stories from the day’s news are presented in simplified vocabulary, read slowly and clearly by a woman in an easy-to-understand voice. There’s a good variety of interesting topics. All of the kanji are glossed with furigana, and you can click on underlined words to see a definition.
After you have listened to and read through the easy version, you may then feel brave enough to click on 普通のニュース futsuu no nyuusu—the “normal” news clip. Of course this is much easier to understand once you know exactly what the story is about.
It’s interesting to compare the two (the easy and the normal versions) and see what changes are made. A big part of it consists of replacing “Chinese” or Sino-Japanese vocabulary with native Japanese vocabulary. For example, instead of 変化 henka, they might use the Japanese verb 変わる kawaru to mean “change”. Similarly, if they want to say that someone has been arrested, instead of using the word 逮捕 taiho, they substitute 捕まる tsukamaru.
This confirms something from my own experience: that native Japanese words are easier to learn, easier to remember and easier to understand than their Sino-Japanese equivalents. But why should this be? After all, the Japanese words are usually longer and more “complicated” looking than the Chinese loan words. Strangely, I think that this is a big part of the reason.
Typical Sino-Japanese vocabulary is bisyllabic, with words consisting of two simple syllables (drawn from a restricted set of possible syllables). This very simplicity has the effect of making the words less distinctive and memorable, and leads to lots of homophones. For example, 成功 seikou means success, but there are numerous other words, such as 製鋼 精工 性交, with the same pronunciation. Was the newsreader referring to success, steelworks, Seiko watches, sexual intercourse or something else? Usually the listener is just expected to figure it out from context.
There is another way, however: Japanese TV routinely captions its programs with Japanese subtitles. Not just news, but all sorts of general entertainment – if someone on screen is saying something, you can read it on screen. So even if you are not very proficient at understanding spoken or written Japanese, the fact that both are available can be a big help.
I recommend News Web Easy to learners at about level N4 or N3 who struggle with understanding normal Japanese news broadcasts, and would be interested in following current events while learning lots of good topical vocabulary.