Actively listening to and working with spoken language that challenges our listening ability is probably the best way to improve listening ability. It is also the most demanding form of practice. Sure, we can spend hours and hours doing background or passive listening, but remember that these are useful not because they are better than active listening, but because they are much better than no listening at all. We can’t challenge ourselves constantly, it’s simply too demanding.
However, challenging ourselves is what we should do as much as possible (meaning, as much as we feel that we can cope with). In this article, I’m going to discuss ways of approaching challenging listening material. We need this not only if we want to challenge ourselves, we also need it if we can’t find material at our own level, a problem which is quite common.
In other words, how do you approach spoken Chinese which is above your current level?
Before we go into that, though, I’d like to connect this article with the rest of the articles in this series about listening comprehension. Here is a list of all the other articles:
Articles in this series:
Deliberate practice and i+2 (this article)
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)
Using scaffolding to overcome difficult challenges
The i in the title of this article refers to Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, which basically says that we we can advance from our current level (i) to a more advanced level (i+1) through comprehensible input. A similar theory about learning comes from Vygotsky (psychologist, founder of cultural-historical psychology), who regards learning as a building project. To reach a new level, scaffolding (help from the teacher) is used and the student can manage more difficult tasks. Gradually, the scaffolding is removed and the student can manage these harder tasks independently. The process is then repeated.
I think comprehensive input is essential. We need to listen to Chinese which is challenging, but that we still understand. Finding suitable material is quite hard, especially if you’re on your own and below the advanced level (in which case finding suitable audio is easy). Still, if we use scaffolding, we can enable ourselves to understand audio which we normally wouldn’t stand a chance to understand. This is what I call i+2. Normal i+1 is what I recommend for passive listening, but it is possible to understand i+2 if you use the proper aids and scaffolding.
Tips and tricks to understand i+2
Here are some tactics I’ve used to understand audio which is actually too hard for me. I have used them separately and in various combinations. This list is sorted so that the first types of scaffolding gives you just a little bit extra support, whereas the later ones give you quite a lot. Choose what you find appropriate. Combine, experiment.
- Keep to topics you have already studied – If you’re new to the formal Chinese common in news broadcasts, don’t start your listening adventure with an article about financial legislation. Pick something which you are relatively familiar with in Chinese. If you feel your sports vocabulary is okay, then choose sports related articles. Then slowly expand from there.
- Read about the topic in English first – Find a topic you can read about in English before you try in Chinese. News broadcasts are of course perfect for this purpose, because as long as you choose major events, there will definitely be English versions of the article, perhaps not on the same website, but you’ll find it on Google News.
- Read headlines for context and keywords – Nothing is harder than understanding something completely without context. If you read the title and headline(s) before you start, you stand a much better chance of understanding. Headlines also contain keywords, so make sure you understand these. Note, however, that headlines in Chinese newspapers are notoriously difficult, so don’t worry about them too much if you don’t understand them (but do check the words).
- Pre-listen – Put the audio on your phone and listen to it passively when you have some spare time. Do this for a few days before you tackle the audio properly. This means that you will be familiar with at least the outline of the recording. If you understand nothing at all, you’re doing i+3 and should perhaps try something else.
- Listen more than once – Even when listening actively, it’s hard to get everything the first time. Listen again and again until you get it. You can either repeat the entire recording or just repeat the parts you find difficult. Gradually, you will be able to home in on the parts that really cause you problems or are new to you.
- Read the transcript, look up words – Make sure you pick audio that has transcripts. If you’ve ripped a TV show or something similar, there might be subtitles you can read. Many news sites also provide both audio and text versions of the same article. Read the text and make sure you know the vocabulary. Then listen again. I use RTI news for this.
These are some of the approaches I use when I listen actively, along with some of the suggestions I made in the article about active listening. Gradually, you will feel that you no longer need as much scaffolding. You can move into areas you’re not so familiar with, you don’t need to listen to the audio as many times as before, you don’t have to glance at the transcript as often. This means that you’re slowly accommodating to the requirements of i+2 and that it will soon be i+1, meaning that you can understand it, but that that it’s still more advanced than your current level.
Teachers can prepare students for harder challenges by doing some of the work for them. If you teach someone else listening comprehension, but find that the material is too hard, consider helping the student with providing scaffolding according to the above suggestions. For instance, you can prepare a word list beforehand or write a short outline of the content to help the student.
Slowly build upwards. If you keep at the same level and remove scaffolding, you will feel that you improve. If you tackle ever harder content, you will need an equal amount of scaffolding all the time, but your level will nevertheless increase. Which one you prefer depends on how brave you feel. I suggest tackling as difficult challenges as you can when you listen actively, but if you fail or become frustrated, perhaps you should step down and try something slightly easier. If it’s still too much, abandon active listening for the day and move to passive or background listening instead.