Of the four core language learning skills – listening, reading, speaking and writing – I’ve found listening to be the toughest to crack. For long periods during the five years I’ve been learning Mandarin, mastering Chinese listening felt like an impossible task.
Yet I’ve now reached a stage where listening when conversing with native speakers and enjoying podcasts on familiar topics often requires minimal effort to the extent that I sometimes forget I’m listening to a foreign language at all. In this blog I’ll outline five steps which hold the keys to developing solid Chinese listening comprehension skills.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
If you’re new to learning Chinese you’re likely to have unrealistic expectations about the degree of time and effort required to get good at listening. It’s worth addressing this from the start because unrealistic expectations are one of the main reasons why people quit learning Chinese. Many learners become frustrated when they realise their progress is slower than they expected or than when they studied languages more closely related to their mother tongue.
A Spanish adult who decides to take up Italian for the first time may be able to comprehend around 50-70% of conversational vocabulary from day one. Were the same learner to take up Chinese however, it might take several years of studying for half an hour a day to get to the same starting point. There are no cognates, all the vocabulary is new, as is the phonetics and writing system. Progress will often seem imperceptible. Learners who aren’t psychologically prepared for this challenge will start to question whether there is something wrong with their ears and become demotivated.
2. Train Your Ear
The first thing all new learners should do is become comfortable with Chinese phonetics and the romanised pinyin alphabet. Before memorising any vocabulary you should make sure you can distinguish between components that sound similar, such as zhi and ji; shi and xi. You should also get comfortable identifying the tones when spoken clearly in isolation and in pairs (though don’t worry if you can’t make out every tone of every word when spoken at natural pace).
In addition to the huge number of homophones (distinct characters which are phonetically identical) many Chinese words sound similar to learners despite actually being worlds apart to the native ear, for example: 吃 and 车，or 里 and 力. To overcome this, the most successful learners I’ve interviewed dedicated a substantial amount of time at the start of their studies exclusively to studying the phonetics. They did this by listening to the individual phonetic components on repeat and spending hours immersed in content they didn’t understand, purely with the goal of getting used to the sounds. This benefited their pronunciation and accelerated their listening progress.
3. Expand Your Vocabulary
From the start your main aim should be to continuously expand your passive vocabulary, i.e. the number of words you can instantly understand without needing to pause and think. Think of how familiar the word 你好 seems when a Chinese person greets you. Your brain needs less than a split second of processing time to understand it. To become really comfortable with Chinese your brain must become capable of automatically processing tens of thousands of Chinese words and phrases spoken at a natural pace with the same degree of efficiency.
As you encounter new vocabulary you should start saving the most useful words and phrases and commit to a daily habit of reviewing them using a space repetition system. Your chosen system should include spoken audio as well as the pinyin and characters. Hack Chinese provides audio for words and sentences you review and Anki has a feature where you can add an audio file to each flashcard. Initially you should set small goals: memorise your first 100 words or phrases before expanding to 500, 1000, 2000 and beyond.
4. Repetitive Comprehensible Input
As you learn your first few hundred words and characters you will be able to start enjoying simple but interesting listening content intended for learners. You’ll need to find your sweet spot in terms of difficulty level: some learners can tolerate up to 20% unknown words whilst others panic if they miss more than 5%. Whatever your preference, listening will be very challenging and you may find it hard to maintain concentration for long. The ideal content to begin with is therefore short clips (lasting no longer than five minutes) that use simple, conversational language. They should ideally include subtitles or a transcript so you can easily look up unknown words.
Good sources for this kind of material include LingQ’s mini stories, Du Chinese and graded readers. As you progress further you can start tackling conversational podcasts aimed at learners such as LingQ’s Mandarin Podcast and Mandarin Corner videos on Youtube. I recommend first working your way through the audio and transcripts, pausing and replaying until you’re comfortable that you have a solid understanding of each clip (active listening). Then you can create a playlist of audio files and play each clip on repeat dozens of times while completing other tasks (passive listening).
5. Immerse & Converse
Whatever content you choose to consume and whichever learning strategies you adopt, you’ll need to sustain a daily habit of active and passive listening for a long period of time. Whether you’re in China or not, creating an immersive Mandarin environment for yourself is vital. The better your listening skills get, the less effort it will require to spend time with the language. My main form of listening input now involves playing my favourite Chinese podcasts whenever I’m walking, driving to work or doing activities that don’t require full concentration.
Conversing with native speakers is also a great way to retain new vocabulary and accelerate your listening progress. If I practice using a new word in a conversation I’m much more likely to retain it as part of my active and passive vocabulary than if I rely on flashcards and listening material alone. Moreover conversations tend to be more comprehensible than listening content because they take place on topics chosen by you and native speakers will often amend their language to suit your level. All of the most efficient Chinese learners I’ve met spent a lot of time from an early stage engaging with native speakers at every opportunity.