Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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!

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese transaltions? Check out my Patreon page!

Sign up for my free crash course in how to learn Mandarin:

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3 comments

  1. Jenny says:

    I actually was thinking about using chinese audiobooks to help with my reading. I’m chinese American and I can speak relatively fluently with my family but I my reading level is probably like elementary level. I’ve tried watching chinese dramas with Chinese subs. The problem is I get super into the drama and I just want to watch it instead of learn Chinese lol. I can understand like 60-70% of what’s going on but my vocabulary is not great so when they say things I don’t know I get so frustrated and paranoid I’m missing important plot points so I end up changing to watching with English subtitles. I figured if I read a Chinese book with audio to help me with characters I don’t know, that maybe I could learn to read without audio eventually. The only thing is I’m not sure where to start. I’d like a relatively easy but fun to read book. Do you have any recommendations?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think audio books, at least if we’re talking novels, will not be extremely helpful. They contain an awful lot of vocabulary that are mostly found mostly in novels, so if you have lots of vocabulary yet to learn from dramas, there will probably me a lot more in any novel, including formal/written/literary language. I think the difference between the written and spoken language in Chinese is much bigger when it comes to vocabulary than it is in English. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, just that it probably won’t be easy. 🙂

      Instead, I would suggest that you read with digital support. That makes looking things up a lot easier and you can spend more time actually reading. Read more here. As for particular book recommendations, I think that’s really hard. I probably don’t like the books you do. 🙂 You could always check this post where I write about some books I’ve read.

  2. alex says:

    hi , i am trying to learn a just a begginer, and i saw on youtube a little prince, 小王子 with english and pinyin and mandarin and if someone has a pdf please share a download link …
    i wil learn mandarin in next 100 years as slow as i am …and audio and i enjoy …

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