Chinese Listening Practice: Why and How to Get Started
Has this ever happened to you?
You proudly say something in Chinese to your friend.
They reply, but you don’t understand their answer.
Awkward situation ensues.
Well, don’t feel bad. Being much better at speaking than listening is a common problem. I’ll help you address it by suggesting several concrete solutions that can amp up your Chinese listening practice.
One reason the above problem occurs in the first place is that many students (and teachers) tend to concentrate heavily on active usage of the language rather than passive understanding. This means that the teacher often requires students to be able to use everything they learn in class, failing to see that passive understanding is sometimes more important than active usage.
This means that if the students learns little or nothing outside class, they will end up with passive and active vocabularies of roughly the same size! In natural language acquisition, this is unheard of, because people always understand much, much more than they are able to use themselves.
Chinese Listening Practice: Why and How to Get Started
So, you can ask questions, but do you understand the answers?
Thus, many students who leave their home country to live, study or work in China feel very frustrated. Sure, they can ask for help, get their meaning across and sometimes even communicate more advanced concepts, but there is a problem: They don’t understand the answer! This is because natural language has a huge diversity in terms of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and the odds that the native speaker will reply with the exact same phrases you have learnt are very poor indeed.
If we want to avoid this kind of problem and be able to communicate in Chinese without having to ask the other person to repeat themselves half a dozen times, we need to increase two things: the amount of Chinese we listen to and the breadth of the Chinese we listen to. I will now talk about both these needs one by one, starting with quantity.
The more you practice listening to Chinese, the better
This is the first and most fundamental rule of Chinese listening practice: the more you listen, the better you will become. This sounds obvious, but few people actually live by this. What you listen to, how you listen to it, when you do it and so on are all secondary to the main goal of increasing the sheer volume.
Listening to anything as much as you can. Naturally, if you can find things that interest you and that you can mostly understand, so much the better, but not listening enough because you don’t have enough material available isn’t a good excuse.
Here are some ways you can dramatically increase the amount of listening practice in Chinese:
- Set an online radio station such as Online Radio Box on auto start on your computer
- Rip the audio from films, cartoons or video clips you’ve found online
- Make sure you always have enough audio material on your phone
- Listen while you walk, exercise, cook, brush your teeth and go to bed
- Log how much you listen to and try to beat your own high score
Increase Chinese listening practice without spending more time
When reading the above list, you might ask yourself if you can really listen to Chinese while doing other things? I have two things to say about this. First, being able to do more than one thing at a time is a skill that you can learn. I started out with audio books many years ago and found it hard to do other things at the time, my mind kept wandering.
After doing so for some time, though, I quickly learnt to focus on the audio as well as the other task I was currently performing. Naturally, this is also task-specific, some work better than others.
The passive-active Chinese listening spectrum
The second answer to the question about how it’s possible to combine listening practice with other tasks in our daily lives is that there are many different kinds of listening. If I tell you to practice listening ability, you might think of a language lab where you’re being fed listening comprehension questions from your textbook. This is indeed one way of practising, but it’s not the only one.
Let’s look at a few kinds of listening practice, starting with very passive ones and then gradually shifting to more demanding tasks:
- Background listening practice – Simply have audio on in the background. It doesn’t matter really what it is, but it’s of course good if you understand roughly what’s going on. You can also use audio you have already studied, such as your textbooks audio CD or podcasts you have previously studied. Music also works and is much easier to combine with other tasks. Apart from hearing the intonation and rhythm of the language all the time, you will also hear a few expressions here and there. Since this doesn’t cost you anything in terms of effort, it’s free learning.
- Passive listening practice – Listen while doing something else, but that something else is still the main focus. For instance, if you want to lose some weight and become a healthier person by jogging, why don’t you take your audio with you? Sure, running might have been your main motivation, but you can still listen while you do it. If you are distracted by an extremely rare species of beetle crawling along a nearby twig, that’s not really a problem.
- Active listening practice – Same as above, but now the main task is the listening. This means that the types of task you can do alongside this are very limited, so if you want to hunt beetles, you should save that for later. You can do many things to increase the activeness of your listening, for instance by shadowing the audio (repeating in your head what they are saying), mimicking (repeating aloud what they’re saying) or translating to your native language (in your head or aloud). If this is too hard, just do it with single words, phrases or however large chunks you can handle.
- Deliberate listening practice – This means that you challenge yourself to your very limit. You choose audio material that are actually too hard for you, but because you focus completely on the audio and give yourself plenty of time, you can still manage. This time can be used listening more than once, looking up words, reading about the topic in your native language, glancing at a transcript or whatever. I like transcribing difficult audio, so if you pick something that has a transcript, try to write down what you hear and see how close you can get to the written version!
There are of course innumerable variants of the methods mentioned above and as you can see, this is a spectrum running from passive to active rather than four distinct methods.
Finding the sweet spot
If you want to listen a lot, you should try to find the sweet spot in that spectrum that allows you to live your life and still listen to as much Chinese as you can! If listening practice proves too demanding and stops you from performing your other tasks (biking, shopping, cleaning), move further towards the passive end of the spectrum. If you feel that you’re doing just fine, do the opposite and strive to listen as actively as you can.
Naturally, the more you process the audio you hear, the more you learn. Background listening is useful, but it’s not as useful as deliberate listening practice. However, the latter is very demanding and no-one can do that for more than short periods of time, so it’s unrealistic to do that all the time. Just move as close to the active part of the spectrum as you feel comfortable with, without losing sight of the primary goal: listen as much as possible.
What to listen to
As I said in the beginning, there are two things you should do: increase quantity and increase diversity. We’ve looked at how to increase quantity, so it’s time to have a look at how we can increase diversity by discussing sources of listening material and then how they can be used. This will be sorted according to language ability.
Chinese listening practice for beginners
The main problem as a beginner is that native material is way too difficult, even material created for children (except perhaps some songs to learn numbers or similar). This means that you will have to rely on material produced for you specifically:
- Your textbook and the audio that comes with it
- The audio to other beginner textbooks you can find
- Podcasts targeting beginners
- FluentU: FluentU has produced its own video Chinese language immersion courses, which are designed for beginners but still show real-life situations.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Chinese listening practice for intermediate learners
Listening to Chinese produced for native speakers is still fairly difficult, but you should be able to do this with some scaffolding (transcripts, dictionaries, familiarity of topics and so on). Still, you can use all the sources mentioned for the beginners above as well. Apart from that, here are some suggestions:
- Start listening to (and study) lyrics to songs you like
- Films, dubbed or otherwise, with or without the video
- Fables, legends or stories found online
- FluentU app: FluentU’s smartphone app has an intuitive audio player that lets you listen to dialogues on the go with interactive transcripts. Check out all of the videos, flashcards and audios marked as “Intermediate.”
Chinese listening practice for advanced learners
As I said, the better you become, the easier it is to find suitable material. Try your best to find things you really want to listen to, otherwise you will find it hard to keep motivated. Here are some examples that might or might not suit your personal preferences:
- TV shows, with or without video, such as 鏘鏘三人行
- Podcasts created for native speakers, such as Skeptoid Chinese
- Radio stations, online or offline, provide a wide variety of audio
- FluentU: FluentU has scoured the internet for fun, native-language videos (eg. music videos, commercials, mini-dramas) that are great for advanced learners as well. Browse the videos in the “Advanced” and “Native” categories.
Quantity matters, but variety does too
While it is important to listen a lot, it’s also important to listen to many different sources. This is because different people speak differently and that being able to handle different kinds of words, dialects and ways of speaking is essential if you want to understand what people say to you. In general, the more different people you have heard speaking Chinese, the better chance you stand to understand the next person speaking to you.
Other resources for Chinese listening practice
- Listening strategies: Diversify your listening practice: a post I wrote which contains links to more detailed information on the four kinds of listening along the passive-active Chinese listening spectrum.
- The Question of Chinese Language Podcasts: a wonderful post by Dave at ChineseHacks offering options for native language audio (and video) content.
- How to improve listening comprehension: a great all-around post at Yearlyglot.