“The tones! Oh god not the tones!”
“Which ‘shi’ did you mean this time?”
“What was that? Another !@#& chéngyǔ?!”
Chinese listening is possibly the hardest part of a language which is already filled with dastardly tricky elements.
Many learners, especially those with little or no background in tonal languages, find Mandarin particularly difficult to understand in audio form—and unfortunately it’s not just the tones that make it hard.
A number of other features, including the large number of homophones in Mandarin, and the cryptic sayings (chéngyǔ) used in common speech conspire to make listening an exercise in frustration.
But luckily, there is a way that learning to listen to Chinese can be fun, informative and relatively easy: Chinese radio online.
Online Radio Opens Up a Whole New World of Chinese
While you may not live in China, Taiwan, Singapore or anywhere else where it’s easy to catch radio broadcasts in Mandarin, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, access to Chinese radio stations is now just a few clicks away.
Across the internet there are hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese radio stations that you can stream from.
These stations cover a wide range of topics—from news headlines and music, to politics and much more. And thus they provide a brilliant access point for Chinese learners who want to practice their listening skills from the comfort of their home.
So what exactly makes online Chinese radio so good for learning Mandarin?
5 Reasons Online Chinese Radio Is Great for Learning Mandarin
1. Chinese Radio Is Spoken Very Clearly with Correct Tones
As I mentioned earlier, the five tones in Mandarin are probably the single largest factor that makes accurately listening to Chinese difficult. The good news is that Chinese radio station announcers and speakers generally speak very clearly, and with correct tones.
Unlike everyday Chinese speakers that you would bump into on a busy street, radio speech is much more grammatically and tonally precise. Part of this is due to government focus on teaching people Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) and its associated tones as opposed to more regional derivatives.
At street levels in China, especially in cities outside of Beijing and its immediate surroundings, there are also a large number of pronunciation irregularities and local slang—but radio is much more standardized.
Most national Chinese radio stations that you can listen to online avoid such localized pronunciation, and, as such are a great source for listening practice.
2. Online Chinese News Radio Broadens Your Vocab
While textbooks and conversations teach you a lot of vocab, they still only scratch the surface of the Chinese language and its extensive vocabulary. One great way to extend your vocab is by listening to a Chinese news radio station like CRI News. In addition to keeping you informed about happenings in China and the world, you can learn a great number of a new words.
Especially in areas like geography (Chinese words for countries and major landforms), politics (Chinese names of leaders, organizations and groups) and of course pop culture, Chinese news radio is full of new words which most learners are unlikely to come across elsewhere. Furthermore, listening online is especially good for this purpose, as audio can be easily paused, allowing time for unknown words to be looked up in a dictionary.
3. Pop Radio Stations Are a Fun Way to Connect with Chinese Slang
While we have talked about how most Chinese radio stations generally stay clear of “slang” vocabulary for a number of reasons, the opposite is true for Chinese pop radio stations.
A large selection of such stations can be found online, and in addition to putting you in contact with a wide range of contemporary Chinese pop and rock music, they also provide a valuable window into Chinese youth culture.
A good example of one such station is Shanghai Media Group’s FM 101.
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FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
4. Online Radio Will Teach About China
After a few years of learning, you should hopefully be able to understand at least most Mandarin Chinese. This being said, many learners sadly still know very little about China itself. Even if they have spent time living in one of the large coastal cities in China, they often still have very little contact with the so-called “Real China.”
Short of spending a large amount of time in a home stay with a Chinese family, one of the best ways to experience a more authentic China is through radio. By listening to these broadcasts online, especially local stations like Urumqi People’s Broadcasting Station Group or cultural programming like Voice of China, you can gain a broader perspective on what life is like in distant regions of China, as well as keeping abreast of Chinese political and economic news.
5. Different Radio Stations Will Help You Learn Chinese Regional Accents
While most large, government-run national radio stations in China are broadcast in clearly-spoken Putonghua, if you are looking for a listening challenge, consider checking out some regional private radio stations.
Yes, the accents may be more difficult to understand, but in actual fact, training your ears to both identify and understand these regional accents can be quite rewarding and useful. Things like knowing the peculiar use of 没得 (méi de – no) in place of 没有 (méi yǒu – no) in Sichuan or the dropping of the “h” sound in many Southern Chinese accents can be rapidly picked up, and the put to use by listening to these local radio stations such as Sichuan FM 98.1.
Tips for Making the Most of Listening to Chinese Radio Online
Chinese radio can be listened to in a myriad of different ways, with each learner able to appreciate it in their own individual manner. That said, getting more out of Chinese radio is possible if you follow a few simple tips:
- Pause and look up words. Whenever you hear a word you don’t know repeated often, pause the broadcast, look up its meaning and then write it down.
- Jot down song titles. If you hear a Chinese song you particularly like, listen for its name, and then look up and learn the lyrics for it, so the next time you hear it (which you almost certainly will) you will understand more. Often online radio stations will show the name of the current song and artist—yet another benefit of listening via the web.
- Listen at different times. Listen to a radio station at different times of the day in order to get used to the voices of different announcers.
- Stay focused. Try to be actively listening for as long as possible. Don’t tune out and stop translating in your head.
Aside from this advice, it’s important to remember: If you don’t understand everything immediately, don’t be put off and don’t give up.
What Are the Best Chinese Radio Stations Online?
So you really want to get into practicing and improving your Chinese with radio, but you don’t know where to start? Well, let this be your guide:
International News: CRI (Chinese Radio International) News Radio
The largest state-run broadcaster in Mainland China, CRI delivers high quality streams in Mandarin of a number of different channels. Their news broadcasts are particularly good, and the international news coverage is very well researched.
Chinese Culture: CNR-1’s Voice Of China
China National Radio (CNR) is one of the best radio outlets for finding our more about Chinese topics. Their premier channel “Voice of China” is a great place to hear more about Chinese news, politics and culture, and to broaden your vocabulary regarding these topics.
Pop: Shanghai Media Group FM 101 Popular Music
Shanghai Media Group is the huge conglomerate that owns large amounts of both radio and television programming for the city of Shanghai. Given the city’s status as a blooming cultural and artistic hub, it’s a great place to tap into China’s vibrant popular culture.
Local: Urumqi People’s Broadcasting Station Group
Based in Xinjiang province, the “Urumqi People’s Broadcasting Station Group” is one of the more interesting Chinese provincial radio stations to listen to. Expect to hear lots of news from far western China, as well as some unique accents influenced by the Uyghur language, all easily streamed from their website.
Local: FM 98.1 – Sichuan
Home of spicy food, and what Chinese people tend to claim are the country’s most attractive women, Sichuan also has a rather interesting take on the Mandarin language. This central Chinese station is a good one for hearing about the happenings in cities like Chengdu and Leshan, as well as getting used to the unusual Sichuan accent.
Persevere, and listening to Chinese radio online will rapidly turn into the most entertaining part of Chinese learning that you have on hand. So what are you waiting for? Start listening today!
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