Learning Chinese through audio books

Image credit: Jeff Daly
Image credit: Jeff Daly

I have learnt English to my current level without ever having lived in an English-speaking country. I attribute this mostly to very large amounts of input, mostly in the form of books. When I was around 20, I figured that I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read, so I started listening to audio books as a complement to reading normally.

It took a while to get used to it, but once I had established the proper habits, I consumed a few novels a week, adding up to as much as 100 books per year.

In order to listen to enough Chinese, you need long-form content

In last week’s article, I talked about the importance of using long-form over bite-sized content when it comes to building volume. To summarise, it’s very hard to listen to enough audio if you only listen to snippets, you need longer programs or audio books to increase the amount of listening at an advanced level.

This is actually easier than it sounds, since by keeping to the same resource, many factors remain constant (such as speaker and style) or at least similar (e.g. content). Variety is good, but it also requires more effort to cope with. You can read the entire article here.

As promised, I will now talk about using audio books to learn in particular.

Listening to audio books in Chinese

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I found it much more difficult to apply this kind of massive input method to learning Chinese. There are many reasons for this. To start with, I don’t feel that there is a big difference between reading and listening to a novel in English, whereas in Chinese, the difference is huge.

This isn’t because my listening ability is bad, but because written Chinese is much more distant from colloquial Chinese than written English is from spoken English. There are many words that are only used in writing, abbreviations or contractions that make more sense if you see the characters and a very large number of near-homonyms. This makes listening to an audio book considerably harder than reading it, given roughly equal listening and reading competence.

Another factor is that in English, there are many authors who write in a very simple style. In other words, you can be a world-famous author while still writing in plain English, indeed some authors are famous at least partly because they do this (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene come to mind).

I have not found this to be true in Chinese literature. Instead, it seems that highly held works of literature are linguistically more complicated, referential and “fancy”. Also, many Chinese novels have strong dialectal streaks, which can make it even harder. This is true for some English novels as well, but I’ve rarely found this to be a problem.

Listening to a Chinese novel written with an unfamiliar regional flavour is a bit like giving the audio version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to an intermediate learner of English. Good luck!

The reason I’m saying all this is because you shouldn’t be disappointed if you’re an intermediate learner and find audio books difficult. They will be, probably for a long time. I suggest proceeding with audio books only if you can already understand most of the Chinese you hear around you in an everyday setting.

Selecting the audio book that is right for you

There are a number of factors you should keep in mind when selecting an audio book. Since many of these vary a lot, you might need to try several before you choose one to actually stick with. This essential, do not just choose one randomly and dive in, because it might be many times harder than it needs to be.

Here are some important factors to consider:

  • The book is of course the most important factor. Try to find a book that interests you and which isn’t too literary or contains too much dialect you don’t understand. I suggest modern fiction in a modern setting.  Ask Chinese friends for recommendations. I have written about how to ease yourself into reading novels in Chinese, and the same principles apply to listening to novels as well.
  • The narrator is also extremely important. The most common “problem” is that the narration is too dramatic, which means the narrator changes volume, tempo and style according to the requirements of the story. This can be very hard to listen to! I recommend narrators that are as close to normal relaxed reading as possible. This might be less interesting for native speakers, but it’s easier for non-native speakers to listen to.
  • The setting is sometimes important. It will be much harder to understand something set in an unfamiliar time or place, so choose something which is as familiar as possible. This probably means a modern setting, which also increases the likelihood that the language is suitable.

I haven’t listened to enough books to be able to suggest a good book which is also relatively easy to follow, but the most suitable book I’ve listened to so far is 病毒 by 蔡駿. It’s a thriller/horror story (not very scary though) in a modern setting. There are also two sequels if you want more.

How to find audio books in Chinese

There are many ways to find audio books in Chinese. You can of course buy and/or download them from a number of websites (just search for the book title plus 有声书/有聲書, but the best way is to use one of the many apps and sites that stream audio, usually for free. This allows you to try many books before you settle on one you actually want to listen to.

Here are some apps/sites I’ve used:

Note that you can usually save streamed audio pretty easily, but that’s not something I will describe in detail here, but check this article in Wired:

Download MP3s from Streaming Music Sites

There are also many browser plugins that allow you to download streamed media.

How to listen to your first audio book

Now that you have selected an audio book, it’s time to start listening. But how? Here are my suggestions:

  • Combine text and audio – When you first start out, it helps a lot to have access to the text version of the book. This can make it easier to get used to the book. This is of course provided that your reading is up to par, but I think reading a book is still easier than listening to it for most students.
  • Listen more than once – There’s nothing wrong with listening to the first chapter a couple of times. You probably need less re-listening after that, but feel free to do it as much as you feel necessary to understand the gist of each chapter. This is the easiest way of increasing understanding, but if you find it too boring, don’t do overdo it.
  • Don’t give up – Listening to a novel in Chinese is not easy. It takes practice both getting used to the book, the narrator, the story and even audio books in general if you’re not used to it already from listening to books in English. As usual, the more you practise, the easier it becomes.

Conclusion

Audio books are a great way of learning and the best kind of long-form content I know. Have you listened to any books in Chinese? Please post a comment and share your experience. If you liked the book, please give some more information so that other readers can listen to the book too!

Bite-sized learning isn’t enough to learn Chinese

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This is what I read when I want to read something familiar that never ends. I’ve read about 4000 pages so far, still twice that to go. It’s the traditional translation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

I’m a big fan of bite-sized learning, because it’s easier to fit short periods of studying into your daily schedule. It’s also much less daunting to face a few sentences than it is to face something that takes at least an hour to get through. It’s hard to get started and you might end up not doing much at all. If the learning material is chopped up into smaller pieces, though, it’s easier to get started. Smaller pieces decrease the risk of choking. This is true for text as well as audio, which is the focus of this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese:

Chinese listening challenge, June 10th to June 30th

Why bite-sized learning isn’t enough

At some point, however, you have to learn to chew longer sections of text and audio. There are two main reasons:

  1. It’s part of what you might want to do with your Chinese or part of what other people require of you.
  2. It’s the only way to build enough volume.

Let’s look at number two more closely. To reach a good level of listening and reading, you’ll need to spend thousands of hours listening and reading Chinese, and that is very difficult if your studying consists only of five-minute dialogues and short social media messages. Getting through a year’s worth of food takes a while if you’re only allowed to nibble.

Bite-sized learning is good, but it’s sometimes harder than the alternative

Staying with the same material for a long time comes with some advantages apart from the fact that it’s easier to build volume. For instance, you get used to the way the content is written or spoken, and you get used to the topic(s) discussed.

Compare reading a novel spanning 250 pages with reading 25 short stories of ten pages each. I would argue that reading the novel is considerably easier, especially if the short stories are written by different authors and not collected in an anthology with a common theme.  The same is true for audio content, so it’s easier to understand and follow a two-hour interview than 24 five-minute interviews. You get to know the interviewed and the interviewer.

Long-form content is crucial for immersion

This is great, indeed necessary, if you want to immerse yourself in Chinese (especially if you create your own immersion environment). Constantly skipping between different topics, speakers and narratives is exhausting and can’t be maintained for very long. Thus, if you want to listen and read a lot, you need to find material that is both suitable for slicing up into small pieces, but also content that you can stick with longer.

Finding the right balance can be tricky, because as I have written elsewhere, you need diversity, too (Listening strategies: Diversify your listening practice). I think this is similar to studying content at different difficulty levels. You should study difficult things, but you have to realise that you can’t do that for very long, so you need easier material for when you’re not at 100%. Diversity works the same way, so you want as much diversity as possible, but not so much that you burn yourself out.

Low intensity and low diversity vs. high intensity and high diversity

For example, when I listen to or read Chinese these days, I have a high-intensity mode and a low-intensity one. The high-intensity mode means that I listen to wide variety of content, usually selected more or less randomly on 凤凰FM. The speakers are unfamiliar, the content is often new and I have very little idea of what it’s about before I start listening. The same principles can be applied to reading.

The low-intensity mode means that I listen to and read things I’m already familiar with. The extreme case is of course to listen or read something I’ve already been through before, that’s for when I don’t want to study actively at all and just want something to listen to. More commonly, though, I want something more interesting than that, and then I aim for longer content that I can stay with for a long time. For reading, this means novels or series of novels; for listening it means audio books, something I will write more about in an upcoming article.

Preparing for rainy days

What’s worth noticing here is that it requires an effort to build up your library of low-intensity, long-form listening and reading material. Reading a novel or a series of novels isn’t easy and relaxing when you start, but it might be when you’ve done it for a while. If you don’t listen and read enough, you won’t have old material to revisit. This means that you need to make an effort to get these projects going and you need to prepare in advance. I’ve written much more about this here: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps.

Finding suitable material

So, where do you get this kind of material? For beginners, it’s almost impossible. Extensive reading and listening, which is what we’re talking about here, is only possible if you can already understand most of the content and it’s very difficult to create such material for beginners in large quantities. You need a certain number of words and basic grammar to be able to say or write something interesting.The only thing I can recommend is what I usually recommend if you want more reading and listening at a beginner level: get more textbooks slightly below your current one.

Once you reach an intermediate stage, though, there are more resources available:

Even if you can’t find material which suits you perfectly (you probably won’t), you can still follow the principles I discussed above and reap some of the benefits. One way of doing this would be sticking to the same topic, although by different writers/speakers. Find news reports about the same event from many different channels, gather and read material about a historical event from different sources, find interviews with the same person done by different reporters.

If you can’t keep all the factors constant and find material at a suitable level, try to keep at least some of them constant. If you want to activate the language you learn passively, you can also summarise the material you have read or listened to; this is one of the best ways I know of improving writing ability in particular.

For advanced learners, it’s easier since you can start using audio and text meant for native speakers. It still requires effort to find the books you want to read and the programs you like listening to, but it’s easier than for beginners and intermediate learners. If you think it’s hard to find anything, ask native speakers for help, preferably someone who knows you a bit or has similar tastes. See also:

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

Conclusion

Learning a language is a complex task and you need practice of many different kinds. In general, spend as much time you can with diverse and challenging content, but realise that you will not be able to do that for very long before tiring.

Using long-form content is an excellent way of reducing the energy you need to learn Chinese. You save that energy by not having to familiarise yourself with the speaker/writer, style and content every time you start learning. This should make it easier to spend more time exposed to Chinese, which should be the main goal!

Chinese listening challenge, June 10th to June 30th

listening-challengeOne of the goals with Hacking Chinese Challenges is to provide a motivational boost and a sense of direction to students, including myself, This means that I try to  arrange the challenges in such a way that if you participated in all of them, you will get a good mix of different kinds of practice.

Based on experience, I know that most students don’t spend enough time just reading or just listening. I don’t mean struggling through Chinese above your level, I mean aiming for sheer volume. At or slightly below your level is preferable.

Extensive listening challenge coming up

The previous listening challenge was held in March and set an all-time record for time logged: 1255 hours with 87 participants. Not bad! While it would be cool to beat that record, the most important thing is that you listen to more Chinese in June than you would have done without the challenge. This is what you should do:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the extensive listening challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  8. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on June 10th, so even if you can join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then.

Extensive listening means that you should listen as much as you can. It’s the opposite of intensive listening where you try to understand everything, stop if you don’t understand something and listen for details. Extensive listening is about breadth, quantity and variety. You probably do intensive listening in class and in real conversations, but you probably don’t do extensive listening enough.

What should you listen to?

Start by looking here:

  1. The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese I wrote this article in connection with the previous challenge. It’s a collection of podcasts, radio shows and much more. Note that I have excluded any paid resources in this post.
  2. Hacking Chinese Resources The resource section of Hacking Chinese currently contains 86 resources tagged with “listening”. Many of them are resource collections, where you can find hundreds or even thousands of clips. First select your proficiency level and then listening.

If you have other resources that aren’t shared here already, please leave a comment or contact me in any other way. If you want an invite for Hacking Chinese Resources so you can post your resources directly, just let me know. Just to be on the safe side, here are the basic recommendations I offered last time, sorted by proficiency level:

Beginner

Intermediate

Advanced

Setting a reasonable goal

Know what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 10 hours or so. If you know what you’re doing, you can easily aim for twice or three times that much. The winner last time listened for 198 hours! Personally, I’m going to aim for an hour a day, so 20 hours. I have lots of other things I want to listen to that aren’t in Chinese.

More about listening comprehension on Hacking Chinese

I’ve written many articles about listening ability and related topics, here are some of the most relevant ones:

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Preliminary challenge schedule for 2015

To make sure that the challenges cover all major areas, I have created a rough schedule of what challenges will be on for the rest of the year. I might change this somewhat and insert more specific or unusual challenges here and there (if you have any ideas, please let me know). Challenges in italics are preliminary.

  1. January: Characters
  2. February: Pronunciation
  3. March: Listening
  4. April: Reading
  5. May: Writing
  6. June: Listening
  7. July: Speaking
  8. August: Reading
  9. September: Characters
  10. October: Listening
  11. November: Writing
  12. December: Reading

Review: FluentU Chinese

04-23-15-11-58-39_250-250I remember what it was like starting to learn Chinese and I have since seen the same thing in students. When first starting out, everybody’s very enthusiastic and even though some parts of the language feel difficult, these challenges are there to be overcome and even repeated setbacks can’t really dent our ambition to learn more.

But it’s with language as it is with everything else in life, the sheen wears off, the dust settles and studying stops being the most exciting part of the day and turns into a part of normal life instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes boring, but it means that for most of us, we have to make an effort to make it interesting.

The obvious way of making learning interesting is to make sure that the content in interesting, but as anyone who has tried knows, immersion in Chinese isn’t as easy as it sounds. Reaching a level where you can read and listen to interesting content takes a long time.

This week’s article is an in-depth review of FluentU in general, with an obvious focus on Chinese. I think this new service can help you solve both the problem of finding interesting material and the problem of making it accessible.

FluentU Chinese

In a nutshell, FluentU is a service that uses video and audio to teach you Chinese. While doing so, you have access to a lot of scaffolding, such as subtitles, translations, pop-up definitions, useful player features such as looping and pausing. Added to this, there is a learning and review section if you want to actually learn the content of the media you watch and listen to. Overall, I think FluentU has come a long way towards solving the problems of boredom and inaccessibility of Chinese learning materials.

If you’ve never hard of FluentU before, I suggest you check out my brief video review below. I will discuss the service in more detail below in both text and images, but since this service is mostly about video content, I feel that a video review is in place:

Let’s dig deeper and see what FluentU has to offer learners of Chinese.

Using video to learn Chinese

The videos are the core of FluentU and what sets it apart from many other services, including most podcasts. Using video to learn has obvious advantages, such as being more interesting, engaging more senses and offering more information in general. The problem is of course that video is harder and more expensive to produce, so what FluentU has done is very clever: Turn existing videos into Chinese learning material. They also offer a growing library of videos created by the FluentU team, but more about that later.

At the moment, there are 2441 video and audio clips distributed over six difficulty levels, eight types of content and nine formats. Something to note here is that for each video, you can see how many words it contains, and, more importantly, how many of these words you already know. That means that the more you use the service, the better it will be at showing you clips where you know most of the content already.

You can also view or download a transcript of the dialogue and the vocabulary found in it.

screenshot43

This is what the main interface looks like. You can play the entire clip, loop selected sections or pause the video simply by hovering over the subtitles. The video interface works well and allows you to drill-down into any part of the content you didn’t understand. There are also some extra features that increase the usefulness a lot:

  • Screenshot from 2015-05-27 18:44:49Coloured time panel based on the subtitle content so you can easily find what you’re looking for
  • A loop function that allows you to play the same section over and over
  • The option to toggle Pinyin and translations on and off
  • Choose between simplified and traditional characters

Another great feature is the pop-up dictionary. This is not your average browser pop-up dictionary that simply gives you the CDICT definition and pronunciation of the character or word you hover over, it gives you much more than that. As the screenshot on the right shows, you also get a picture and the part of speech. The pictures are surprisingly well chosen to illustrate the specific words, although not always perfect. Still, this is as far as I know the largest dictionary that includes images

While we’re at it, let’s look closer at the vocabulary, because this is one of the areas where I think FluentU is outstanding. If you click the character or word, it brings up more information about it, like so:

screenshot45There are a couple of really cool things here. First, there are numerous example sentences with translation and audio. Second, some of these sentences have video, which is surely unprecedented in other Chinese learning materials. This means that you can actually watch how that specific word is used in other videos on FluentU! The only drawback here is that if there is no specifically recorded audio, a TTS (text-to-speech) function takes over, but more about this later.

A closer look at the content

As mentioned above, the content is partly from YouTube and partly created by FluentU. The former is very diverse and everybody should be able to find something. Most of the videos are very short, many of them less than a minute. This is good for bite-sized learning, but can also be quite annoying if you want something longer and more coherent. To address this problem, videos are also organised into courses, which focus on a specific topic.

The videos created by the FluentU team are of decent quality, both in terms of scripts, acting and recording quality. Of course, lower-level videos are a bit awkward at times, partly because the speed is reduced and partly because there’s only so much you can say with a limited vocabulary. Considering that it’s almost impossible to create natural-sounding material for beginners, I’m perfectly fine with this.

There is also an audio section, which works very much like the video section, except there is no video. The interface works the same way, you can look up words and toggle subtitles the same way. I do think the audio is useful, but it still feels much less unique than the video content.

Learning vs. just watching

If FluentU was just a service which added subtitles to YouTube clips in a neat way, I think it would have been very useful, but it would be very far from a comprehensive solution for learning Chinese. One step in that direction is the learning mode, where you can study the content of a video rather than just watch it. You can do it in any order, but I would strongly suggest you do the following:

  1. Select a video where you already understand a lot
  2. Watch it without subtitles a few times
  3. Watch it with subtitles in Pinyin or characters
  4. Turn on translations and check your understanding
  5. Study the vocabulary you find interesting or useful

If you’re a big fan of bottom-up learning, you can of course but the last step first, but I strongly advice against it since that is far removed from real-world listening. You learn to understand spoken Chinese by really trying to understand spoken Chinese.

screenshot42The learning mode consists of a series of questions where you’re supposed to pick the right translation, fill in the gap, type characters (with a built-in input method) and so on. You can also view the word in different contexts, just as you could with the pop-up dictionary in the video player. In general, this section of the site makes sure you’re actively processing the content, rather than just watching it. If you want that depends on your reasons for using FluentU, of course.

Flashcards, reviewing and spaced repetition

If you want to learn something, you have review it. FluentU has a built-in flashcard system based on a spaced repetition algorithm. They don’t disclose much about it, except that it’s based on Supermemo. In any case, it’s all integrated into the system so you can review words from the videos you have watched and so on.

screenshot49What I like most about the flashcard system is that it keeps everything in context. I have mentioned this several times already, but it’s truly awesome to be able to see the word used in different sentences and the videos in which they appear.

I haven’t used FluentU for long enough to be able to say how well the flashcard system works. If you have used the service for a longer period of time and have anything to say about it, please leave a comment! I’m a big fan of SRS in general, though, and it’s something I use daily myself, although not in this form.

The FluentU iPhone app was launched earlier today, so that should take care of the mobility issues, at least for iOS users.

Pricing

Considering that FluentU creates their own learning materials and really adds value to other people’s videos, it’s definitely something you should expect to pay for. A lot of manual work has also been done with the dictionary (pictures, for instance) and the overall experience is completely different from just watching videos with subtitles on YouTube. So what does it cost? There are three tiers (click here for actual details):

  1. Free ($0/month): You have full access to all functions, but for a limited amount of content. I see no reason not to try this if you’ve come this far in my review.
  2. Basic ($8/month): You now have unlimited access to the content, but some functions are not available, such as learning mode and flashcards.
  3. Plus ($18/month): You have full access to all content and all functions.

Is it worth it? Which plan should you go for? Only you can answer the first question, preferably by first checking it out and then choosing which plan to go for. The basic plan works well if you want this as a source of extra listening and reading material, the plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, so it depends on what you’re after.

Room for improvement

No review would be complete without bringing up a few points of concern. It should be clear from the above discussion that I think FluentU is great, so the following list is not meant to discourage you from trying it out, but if you think something I mention here is extremely important for you, you should take that into consideration:

  • Text-to-speech inadequate – The single biggest issue I have with FluentU is the text-to-speech (TTS). It doesn’t work. TTS is far from good enough to teach Chinese, especially beginners. Pronunciation is sometimes completely off, clipped, garbled or just wrong. This is not a problem when you watch videos, of course, but it is when you learn vocabulary. For more advanced learners, this might be okay, but beginners should never have to hear this. Here are some examples: 就是 (jiùshì), 想不到 (xiǎngbùdào), also note the missing tone sandhi), 還 (hái).
  • Doesn’t work in China – This should be fairly obvious since the service is mainly based on YouTube videos. You should be able to get around this by using a VPN, but from what I gather, that creates delays that are so serious that it’s not worth it. If you know more about this, please leave a comment.
  • Difficult to integrate – Some learners don’t want or don’t need a complete solution, especially if it isn’t complete (and no solution ever is). That means that being able to integrate FluentU with other ways of studying is important, but it’s not easy. For example, there is no way to export vocabulary. I don’t want to be tied to a web interface to review vocabulary. The iOS app is launched today, but I don’t have an iPhone.
  • Lack of structure and guidance – This comment is only relevant if you want to use FluentU as your main source of learning. Where should you begin? Should you learn all the words? No, you most definitely shouldn’t, but how do you know which to learn? If FluentU wants to become a complete solution for learning Chinese, it needs to guide learners more. Yes, being able to choose interesting content is great, but too much choice has its own problems.

As I said, none of these issues are serious enough to stop me from recommending FluentU, but for now, I can only fully endorse the basic plan, since I think the learning mode still needs work, especially with the audio. If you want it to activate the language you learn, then go for the plus plan, but be aware that the audio is far from ideal.

Conclusion

I think FluentU is a unique and valuable addition to the different paths to Chinese fluency. It has come very far since the early days and I’m sure most of the issues I mentioned above will be addressed in due time. In the meantime, I think anyone who is interested in learning Chinese through video content should check it out. Exactly what you think about the service and if it’s worth the money will depend on your current situation and what you need, but I think the basic plan should be attractive for most students who takes immersion seriously.

Have you tried FluentU Chinese? What do you think? Please leave a comment!

Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice

Image credit: Tony Clough
Image credit: Tony Clough

If you look at what methods work well for learning Chinese (or any other language), you will see the word “immersion” over and over. The analogy is straightforward: Chinese is like water and learning the language is like learning to swim. You don’t learn to swim by reading about it, you learn by getting wet, by immersing yourself, as often and as much as possible, but not so much that you actually drown.

Many students mistakenly believe that going to China equals immersion, but it can be easily demonstrated that this isn’t true. You can create an immersion environment in your home country. It’s also perfectly possible to go to China and stay in an expat or tourist bubble, thus only coming into contact with slightly more Chinese than your friends at home. The only significant difference between immersion at home and abroad is that it takes more effort at home.

Improving listening ability through immersion

This month’s challenge is about improving listening ability, so in this article, I want to focus on the listening part of immersion. Listening ability is a tricky beast. While there are some things to say about how to improve, it’s much more about exposure than anything else. You learn to understand Chinese by listening to Chinese, preferably with varied input from different speakers and, once you reach an intermediate level, with different regional accents.

Now, humans are not machines, so most of us can’t just program ourselves to listen to Chinese for six hours a day for months or years. If we could, our listening skills would sky-rocket and all other skills except handwriting would be dragged up along with it. I’m not going to focus on why it’s hard to “just do it” for such an extended time. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to overcome the problem of enabling yours to listen to as much Chinese as you ought to.

Three steps to enable yourself to listen to more Chinese

  1. Finding suitable audio
  2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese
  3. Playing the long game

1. Finding suitable audio

I have already discussed the first step in several articles, so let’s look at an overview here before we move on to the more interesting second step. In essence, “suitable” means “comprehensible” and “interesting”. Here’s what I have to offer in terms of finding resources:

2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese

One thing I have learnt on my journey towards a better understanding of how to get things done is that controlling the environment is easier than controlling one’s own behaviour, and that it’s usually more effective. If you want to do something a lot, say an hour or two every day, the first step you need to take after finding audio is to make sure that it’s really easy to listen to it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always have audio available – This is super important. Wherever you are, you should have Chinese audio available to listen to. In the bathroom, when out on a walk, when you learn your friend will be 15 minutes late or when you miss the bus. If at any point you realise that you could have listened to Chinese, but can’t because of a practical problem, you make an angel cry.
  • Transfer audio in advance – If you don’t stream audio, you have to transfer audio to your smart phone in advance (even if you stream most of it, you should still have audio files just in case). Make a habit of managing your audio! Every Sunday (or whatever), check what audio you have available, and if it isn’t enough to last you at least two weeks, transfer some more. Additionally, keep a folder somewhere in the cloud where you store audio you can download to your phone if need be.
  • Remove distracting audio – I have already said that you should make it as easy as possible to listen to Chinese, but it also follows that you can do the reverse, i.e. making it harder to listen to audio in any other language. If you listen to a lot of audio in your native language, it might be tempting to listen to that instead. Make it harder to access! You might not want to make it impossible unless you want to go 100% Chinese, though.
  • Solve any technical issues – This involves bad audio players, faulty earphones or slow connections. If you’ve made an effort to find audio and make sure it’s available when you need it, it doesn’t make sense if fail because of technical issues. Have an extra pair of earphones available (they can be really cheap, you’re only going to use them if your primary pair breaks or if you forget them), buy a separate, cheap mp3-player just for Chinese.

3. Playing the long game

It you have succeeded with the first two steps, you’re still not home and dry. The real difficulty lies in keeping this up for weeks and months. Sure, you can vary the amount of Chinese you listen to, but if you study full-time, you have no excuse for allowing it to drop below an hour a day. That’s not easily achieved, especially if you have to create the immersion yourself by finding audio and then making it accessible.

I have two pieces of advice for making it easier:

  • Vary the difficulty level – It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired. Re-listening to old audio is a great way of lowering the difficulty. Read more about this here.
  • Make learning social – I like challenges, not because I like competing against others (I don’t), but because it gives me a clear and public goal. It makes me accountable and it’s easier to study when I’m doing it with others. This is why I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, so if you’re like me, you should definitely check it out. Other ways of making learning social is to find study partners, talk about your learning on social media and so on.

Conclusion

Listening to enough Chinese audio isn’t easy. It requires preparation and some discipline. However, the whole process can be made much easier by following the advice I have offered in this article. When I fail to listen as much as I want, it’s seldom because I don’t want to, it’s almost always because I have failed a seemingly trivial step such as transferring audio from my computer to my phone. that really shouldn’t happen! I hope that by discussing this issue, you will stand a batter chance at listening to as much Chinese audio as you should. Good luck!

Chinese listening challenge, March 10th to March 31st

listening-challengeWhen I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges last year, I promised that I would arrange the challenges in such a way that if you participated in all of them, you would get a healthy mix of different kinds of practice. Based on experience, I know that most students don’t spend enough time just reading or just listening. I don’t mean struggling through Chinese above your level, I mean sheer volume. Slightly below your level is preferable.

Upcoming challenges: Extensive listening and extensive reading

Therefore, it’s time for two basic but very important challenges:

  1. Extensive listening challenge, March 2015 (this article)
  2. Extensive reading challenge, April 2015

The last extensive listening challenge was held in October last year. 139 participants listened to almost 1000 hours of Chinese audio. I’m sure we can break that record this time! Here’s what you do to join:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the extensive listening challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  8. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on March 10th, so even if you can join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then.

Extensive listening means that you should listen as much as you can. It’s the opposite of intensive listening where you try to understand everything, stop if you don’t understand something and listen for details. Extensive listening is about breadth, quantity and variety. You probably do intensive listening in class and in real conversations, but you probably don’t do extensive listening enough.

What should you listen to?

Start by looking here:

  1. The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese I wrote this article in connection with the previous challenge. It’s a collection of podcasts, radio shows and much more. Note that I have excluded any paid resources in this post.
  2. Hacking Chinese Resources The resource section of Hacking Chinese currently contains 86 resources tagged with “listening”. Many of them are resource collections, where you can find hundreds or even thousands of clips. First select your proficiency level and then listening.

If you have other resources that aren’t shared here already, please leave a comment or contact me in any other way. If you want an invite for Hacking Chinese Resources so you can post your resources directly, just let me know. Just to be on the safe side, here are the basic recommendations I offered last time, sorted by proficiency level:

Beginner

Intermediate

Advanced

Setting a reasonable goal

Know what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 10 hours or so. If you know what you’re doing, you can easily aim for twice or three times that much. The winner last time listened for 66 hours! Personally, I’m going to aim for an hour a day, so 20 hours. I have lots of other things I want to listen to that aren’t in Chinese.

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Preliminary challenge schedule for 2015

To make sure that the challenges cover all major areas, I have created a rough schedule of what challenges will be on for the rest of the year. I might change this somewhat and insert more specific or unusual challenges here and there (if you have any ideas, please let me know). Challenges in italics are preliminary.

  1. January: Characters
  2. February: Pronunciation
  3. March: Listening
  4. April: Reading
  5. May: Writing
  6. June: Listening
  7. July: Speaking
  8. August: Reading
  9. September: Characters
  10. October: Listening
  11. November: Writing
  12. December: Reading

How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
     
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

Learning how to ask for and receive directions in Chinese

directionsLearning to ask for and receive directions is a very useful skill that is usually associated with beginner language learning. It shouldn’t be, it’s much harder than that!

I remember when I started learning Chinese and we had one chapter the first semester about navigating a small town drawn in our textbook, complete with a post office, a bank, a school and a library. I remember that the listening exercises were really hard, but that didn’t matter much, because we soon moved on to other chapters.

Language isn’t just knowledge of words and phrases

In a way, I think asking for directions is a bit like counting in Chinese, i.e. it’s something you think you’re good at, except that you aren’t. This is because a language isn’t just knowledge, it’s not enough to be able to recall the words in Chinese, you need to be able to do so immediately without thinking. This can only be the result of practising.

The problem is that most people don’t practise much, unless they have a terrible sense of direction and get lost all the time in Chinese cities. When I first arrived in Taiwan after one year of studying in Sweden, I was really bad at both asking for and receiving directions! I don’t think I’m the only one who has been in this situation.

How to practise

Since asking for and receiving directions is important for all learners (including tourists), I’m going to offer some ways of practising this skill which go beyond your textbook:

  1.  Put away your smart phone – This is really important and applies to more than just asking directions. If you don’t use your brain to figure out how to do things in Chinese, you will never learn the language. Don’t use your GPS and interactive maps to find the way to your destination. This is a wasted learning opportunity! Turn off your phone and ask people around you. Using a smart phone is cheating and the only one who will suffer is you. Yes, it will take longer, but you will also learn more.
     
  2. Pretend you’re lost – Pick a place you know well, then walk a few blocks in one direction and ask someone how to get to the place you just left (or give them a landmark nearby). Listen to their replies carefully. Then ask another stranger the same question. Since you presumably remember the way you just walked, you already know how to get there, your mission now is to learn how to do that in Chinese. Ask as many people you want! Then walk in another direction and repeat the process.
     
  3. Practise with WordSwingAs a preparation for the above or as a substitute if you don’t want to or can’t do it for real, you can check out this activity over at WordSwing. It’s developed by Kevin and me, and is easy to use: you will hear directions in Chinese and you’re supposed to match the instructions to a figure describing how to walk. You need to answer several such questions to get to your final destination. You can also get the sentences written out, look up vocabulary, slow the speech down and much more. Try it out! Also, if you have suggestion for how to improve, just let me know.
     
  4. Navigating street view – If you want to simulate the feeling of walking through a Chinese city without actually being there, you can use the street view on a map service like Google (only Taiwan?), I Show China, City8 or Baidu. Naturally, you still need someone to ask or give directions, such as a language exchange partner or tutor. I’ve tried this myself and it works well. Once you’ve followed directions given to you, try to write your own and see if your friend ends up where you intended him or her to be!

Conclusion

In summary, don’t think you know how to ask directions in Chinese just because you have covered that chapter in your textbook. There is no substitute for large amounts of practice, and if you don’t get lost often, you can create these situations in the manners described above. If you have any other good ideas for improving, leave a comment!

Extensive listening challenge, October 2014: Wrapping up

This is the last day of the extensive listening challenge that was started three weeks ago. It was the first official challenge on the new section of this site: Hacking Chinese Challenges. In total, 139 people joined the challenge and listened to a total of 924 hours of audio. That’s amazing!

In this post, I want to to look at several things:

  1. How did the challenge go for you?
  2. What do you think about Hacking Chinese Challenges?
  3. What interesting listening resources have you found?

Let’s look at these questions one by one, but I want to mention now that there will be prizes offered for the third question!

How did the challenge go for you?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I have read many comments where participants say that they have increased the amount of Chinese they listened to this month enormously because of the challenge. That’s great!

extensivefinaloctI set the goal of listening for 25 hours, and as you can see in the graph to the right, I was losing momentum after the initial stages of the challenge (which I also mentioned in my progress report). It took a while to sort things out, but by moving more audio to my phone, I manage to listen a lot this week.

What does your progress look like? Did you reach your goal? If not, what would you change to make it possible next time? Not reaching your goal isn’t necessarily bad, you might just have set an unrealistic target. As long as you have listened to a lot of Chinese this month, you have reason to feel good about it!

What do you think about Hacking Chinese Challenges?

As I have mentioned several times, this is a work in progress. What can we do to make Hacking Chinese Challenges better? Here are some things that have come in so far, please add by posting a comment:

  • Possibility to view other participants’ statistics and activities
  • Leader board stats shouldn’t be rounded to whole hours
  • Leader board could (also) be sorted by % of goal accomplished

What interesting listening resources have you found?

Now over to the most important part of this article. I published an article with listening resources earlier (The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese), but I’m sure that you have some really cool resources that aren’t listed on Hacking Chinese Resources. Therefore, I’d like you to do the following:

  1. Write the name of a listening resource you like
  2. Write who it is for (beginner, intermediate and/or advanced)
  3. Write a short introduction (at least a few sentences)
  4. Post this as a comment to this article
  5. Two participants will win great posters from Hanzi Wallchart

To be eligible, I need your contribution before November 9th and you need to post a resource that hasn’t already been shared either here or on Hacking Chinese Resources. I’m looking forward to hearing about your listening challenge and what material you used!

Upcoming: Extensive reading challenge, November 2014

The next challenge will start in early November and will be about extensive reading. I will of course write more about this later, but if you want to sign up now, you can do so here.

Extensive listening challenge, October 2014: Progress report

listeningprogressoctThis month’s extensive listening challenge has been going on for about two weeks now, but there are still nine days left. I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about my own challenge and ask you for suggestions, ideas and general feedback. I’d also like to hear about your challenge!

If you haven’t joined the challenge yet, you can do so here. You can get a lot of listening done in nine days! So far, 133 people have signed up.

My progress so far

My progress so far is shown in the graph. As you can see, I started out strongly, but have slacked off a bit recently. I guess I’m not the only one? I can still reach my goal of listening to 25 hours of Chinese before the end of the month without killing myself, but as the graph shows, my current listening amount won’t cut it.

Practical problems with extensive listening

I feel that practical problems often stop me from listening. I have written an article about this (Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem), but I still fail to take proper action sometimes. I still listen, but not to as diverse material as I should.

For instance, my plan was to listen to 锵锵三人行, a linguistics lecture on YouTube and Skeptoid, but the result is that since I have all the episodes of Skeptoid available on my phone already, that’s where I’ve spent most of my listening time.

The other two are easily available online, but the little extra effort required is enough to steer me away to more easily available sources, mostly things I have already downloaded to my phone. As a result, I have only listened to a handful of 锵锵三人行 episodes and the first lecture in the series about linguistics..

Control the environment, not yourself

The effort required to start doing something is important. As I have argued before (Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps), it’s essential that we lower the effort for an activity while our energy levels are high. In other words, when you feel the most motivated to learn, you should prepare the listening material you know you’re going to need when you just want to listen to something later.

As soon as I have finished writing this post, I’m going to go to Listen to YouTube and download all the lectures as mp3-files and then transfer them to my phone. I’m also going to put 锵锵三人行 to open every time I open my browser. If you don’t listen enough, have you made sure to take the practical steps necessary to get started?

Hacking Chinese Challenges

This is the first official challenge we offer on Hacking Chinese Challenges and it would be great to hear what you think!

  • Have you encountered any problems?
  • Are there any bugs or glitches?
  • Have you thought of any features you think we should implement?

This is a work in progress and even if the challenge engine seems to be working for most people most of the time, there’s definitely room for improvement!

Your challenge

How’s your challenge been so far? Are you struggling with the same problems as I or do you have something else you want to discuss? Have you found any cool resources you want to share? Please leave a comment!