Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese listening strategies: Problem analysis

The first step when solving any problem should be analysing the problem we face. If we want to find an efficient method of getting around a problem, defining the problem is not only helpful, it’s absolutely necessary. Without a proper analysis, we risk targeting something else and/or apply inefficient methods. In this article, we’ll look at analysing problems related to listening ability.

This article is part of a series of articles focusing on listening ability, read the introduction here.

Articles in this series:
Problem analysis (this article)
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Listening resources
Problem analysis

Before we can improve anything, we need to know what to improve. Sure, improving in general is a good idea, but focusing on the weakest links in the chain first yields better results. So, what skills are involved in listening comprehension? Or, in other words, what types of problems may we encounter when trying to understand spoken Chinese?

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/forwardcom

Five categories of problems

  1. Lack of phonological awareness: The Chinese sound inventory contains many features that aren’t present in most Western languages, including tones. Not being able to distinguish between these sounds and tones will cause problems. This isn’t merely a problem for beginners, because advanced learners also have to cope with regionally accented Chinese, people with different voices and intonations and so on.
    Symptom: Chinese sounds like a stream of gibberish and you can’t figure out where one sound stops and the next starts. Tones are enigmas and you find it very hard to distinguish between minimal pairs such as zh/z, b/p, n/ng. If someone asks you to write down what syllables someone is saying (the pronunciation, not the meaning), you have no clue.
  2. Lack of vocabulary: This is a problem which faces most new learners in everyday conversations and (almost) everyone once we start listening to material produced by natives for natives. Native speakers have a large vocabulary and to fully understand what we hear, we need to know quite a number of those words. Thus, simply not knowing the words is, I think, the most common problem. This problem can of course be alleviated somewhat by guesswork and extrapolation, but if you’re after deeper understanding of something, that won’t be enough.
    Symptom: If you think that you could write down what’s being said in Pinyin, but still don’t understand what’s being said, then your phonological awareness is good enough, but your vocabulary isn’t broad enough. Check this about the importance of knowing many words.
  3. Lack of speed: Listening speed is the pace at which you can understand spoken language, provided that you know the words. Being able to do do this is usually the result of huge volumes of practice (i.e. immersion). There is no substitute. See my article discussing listening speed in more detail.
    Symptom: If you can understand a passage after hearing it many times or at slower speed, it means that you have the necessary phonological awareness and a broad enough vocabulary, but you still lack the listening speed. Immersion is what you need in your case; quantity is king.
  4. Lack of motivation: The first three categories all dealt with listening ability as a skill, but ignoring psychological and emotional factors would be overlooking an important part. If you aren’t motivated to listen, it doesn’t really matter what other methods you choose, simply because you won’t use them.
    Symptom: You know what your problem is, you might even know how to solve it, but you just can’t get around to actually listening to more Chinese. This might be either because you’re using the wrong material (which you find boring) or because you’ve set unrealistic or unproductive goals.
  5. Lack of understanding: If you find that the above four factors aren’t a problem for you but you still find listening hard, then the only remaining explanation is that your understanding of Chinese in general is too weak. This might be because of a lack of cultural understanding, grammar or different ways of thinking and expressing opinions. Even though this is a serious problem for many learners, I don’t consider it to be a part of listening ability, because it could equally well apply to reading ability. I will not discuss this further in this series, but it still deserves mentioning.
    Symptom: None of the four areas above present any serious problems, at least not with the audio you’re currently tackling, but you still don’t understand what’s being said. This means that your problem is not related to listening at all and the solution should therefore be sought elsewhere. Exactly where would depend on what problems you have, but going through the audio with a teacher or helpful friend would be a start.

A more complicated (and complete) picture emerges

The above analysis makes it look like listening comprehension problems are easy to untangle, but that’s of course not the case. It’s likely that all of us have slight problems in all areas and that the situation changes over time. The problems we have are probably the results of our studying background, meaning that if you’ve spent several hours a day watching dramas in Chinese, listening speed won’t be a big problem, but if you never read anything at all, vocabulary will definitely become a huge problem once you approach more advanced Chinese.

Knowing where the problem lies is the first step towards solving it. The rest of this series of articles will be focused on discussing ways of practising listening ability. It won’t be sorted according to the analysis in this article, simply because most methods cover more than one category. I will, however, refer back to this article when pointing out strengths and weaknesses with various strategies.

Here’s a concrete plan of action for anyone who feels that they’re listening ability is not up to par:

  1. Pick some target audio you want to understand. Be realistic here, pick something which is within reach.
  2. Can you write down the syllables in Pinyin? If not, then you need more practice with phonological awareness. Find a native speaker or teacher and practice hearing and producing the differences between tones and sounds. It might also help to ask either a teacher who speaks your native language or an advanced second language learner to explain the differences.
  3. Can you write down the syllables, but still can’t understand what’s being said? Then it’s likely that you’re vocabulary is too weak. Check this article for more about having a broad vocabulary. In essence, knowing many words will boost your performance in every area, so listening ability is perhaps not your main problem.
  4. Can you understand the dialogue, but only after listening several times or at lower speed? Then you probably just need more exposure to Chinese. Put Chinese web radio on autostart, load your phone with podcasts, listen to Chinese music, turn any activity you can into a listening opportunity. Also check this article: Listening ability, a matter of practice?
  5. Do you know all of the above, but can’t get yourself to actually do something? Then your problem is probably in the realm of motivational, social and psychological aspects. You might have set unproductive goals or you might not yet have found audio you enjoy listening to.

These are of course not meant to be complete and thorough discussions of how to solve these problems, but merely an attempt to help you analyse your current situation. In the rest of this series, we will be looking at various methods and strategies to improve listening ability. Stay tuned!

Update: I have added a fifth category which should have been there from the start, but was overlooked. Thanks to Anton and Sara for pointing this out. The analysis is now more complete and therefore hopefully also more helpful.

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  1. Matt says:

    Great post! Looking forward to the rest of this series. My problems are listening speed and to a greater extent lack of vocabulary. I’m watching what should be fairly simple material right now, the anime series Naruto, and I’m just amazed by how many words I don’t know, usually upwards of 50 each episode–and my vocab is already nearly 8,000!

  2. Federico Smanio says:

    I have the same kinds of problems as Matt’s
    I definitely need a larger vocabulary and I lack listening speed though I sense I am not bad at phonological awareness.
    And I don’t lack motivation as I use every minute of spare tame to study chinese!
    At the same time I realize I should spend more time practising listening but then there are homeworks to do… so I need to improve my practice schedule as well.
    I will try to learn from this series.
    Thank you.

  3. Sara K. says:

    I too look forward to future articles in this series.

    I haven’t done a proper experiment on this, so I can’t conclusively say this, but I feel listening speed and reading speed are connected. Thus, in my mind, I think of there being three different speeds – character recognition speed, audio recognition speed, and language comprehension speed.

    Character recognition speed only applies to reading – it’s how fast you can identify a character. Audio recognition speed only applies to listening – it’s how fast you can identify the sounds. However, language comprehension speed applies to both reading and listening, and in my opinion is the same skill – how fast can you mind extract the meaning from the characters/sounds you have already identified.

    Right now, I think my bottleneck for both reading and listening is the language comprehension speed. My solution to both problems is to keep on practising both reading and listening – fortunately, the progress I made with reading seems to be bleeding into listening and vice versa. In fact, I think my language comprehension speed might have almost caught up with my audio recognition speed, and if it surpasses it I will have to do more specific work on my phonological awareness. I also know that the vocabulary skills I build through reading also make listening easier, so that’s another bleed-over effect. Perhaps there should be an entire article about the connections between reading and listening…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Excellent analysis, Sara! I think what you say is absolutely true and I will mention this when I write about listening speed. The reason I treat them as entirely separate here is that the recognition parts are completely different and should have close to zero overlap. Having successfully recognised the words at a proper speed, though, we still need to fit these words together to form a meaningful whole.

      1. Sara K. says:

        One thing which complicates identifying sounds at a high speed is that, generally, the faster people talk, the less clear their enunciation. For example, when I speak English at a high speed *without* consciously keeping my enunciation clear, I …

        * often leave out the intial ‘h’ (I say ‘ere’ instead of ‘here’)
        * often combine sounds together, even if the sounds are in different words (i.e. ‘doncha wannit’ instead of ‘don’t you want it’)
        * often leave out medial ‘w’ sound (I say ‘flaer’ instead of ‘flower’)
        *and this list would be really long if I included everything

        So far, I haven’t paid much attention to the shortcuts Chinese speakers use when they talk at a high speed, and right now I don’t think that’s my biggest problem with listening. However, I know eventually I will need to consciously study how Chinese speakers change their pronunciation when talking at a high speed in order to improve my listening skills.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          This is disckussed in The Phonology of Standard Chinese albeit not at great length. I have spent serious amounts of time transcribing audio and if you’re after a practical approach, I can recommend that. When you listen to a sentence dozens of times with a transcript, you’ll find lots of peculiarities with pronunciation and tones. It’s hard to write down or categorise, but I’m quite sure it helps.

          1. Nick Miller says:

            Transcribing speech became much less stressful for me after I resolved that it’s OK to rely on subtitles at first, especially when listening to fast informal speech. Some words and phrases are nearly impossible to transcribe in pinyin, unless I’m already familiar with the vocabulary. I used to become frustrated when I transcribed films and dramas, because the speakers used many contractions. I couldn’t hear what was written in the subtitles, no matter how much I slowed the audio down. I didn’t have enough vocabulary to guess from context, and I wasn’t confident enough in my phonological awareness to know whether I could trust my ears and write what I heard (“are they really pronouncing 他 as /ha/? Am I losing my mind?”). I wasted a lot of time listening for sounds that I was never going to be able to hear.

            Once I listened a few times while reading the subtitles, I was able to understand without looking at them. And, I was more likely to understand the vocabulary when it came up in other media.

            You might have encountered this already in your phonology work and in The Phonology of Standard Chinese, but articles such as this one about contractions helped me quite a lot. I haven’t seen any non-academic articles about contractions in Chinese though.

            1. Lili says:

              i don’t really understand..

  4. Anton says:






    1. Olle Linge says:

      我當然不介意,這應該是第一次有香港同學用中文留言,我感到很榮幸!至於「聆聽速度」,請看 Sara 的留言,她將這種能力分成兩個部分:一是認出聲音的意思,二是將這些意思合併成有意義的語句。我不是完全同意你對「語感」的想法。如果將速度放慢而聽得懂,我不覺得問題在於「語感」這方面,反而在於「聆聽速度」上。也就是說,對我而言,語感跟速度無關,比較是跟深入理解語言更深層次的含義有關。你最後的句子所提到的「語感」就是了。

      看你與 Sara 的留言,我就發覺了這篇文章缺乏一個滿重要的部分。我本來把「語感」包括在「詞彙」裏頭,但看你們的留言考慮之後,我就認爲應該是分開的。就是說,瞭解某種語言不只是跟上述的因素有關,因爲還有一層較深入的含義。學習者也必須掌握這個才能夠完全聽懂此語言。

  5. Mark Schow says:

    I agree with Sara K. with the one addition that there is a moderate overlap between character recognition and audio recognition when using books that have both characters and pinyin and when watching tv/movies that have character subtitles. I find this overlap helpful.

    My question is how long I should listen to the same passage before moving on. Should I make sure I can understand every word chosen or should I be moving on once I understand 90%?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you should vary your listening strategies as much as possible. For instance, I’m currently spending quite a lot of time transcribing news broadcasts and I aim for 100% comprehension. However, I also listen to streamed radio without ever replaying anything.

      I think that as long as you understand something, it’s okay. The problem with low rates of comprehension is that it’s very hard to listen to something you don’t understand for an extended period of time (it becomes very boring).

      I also find it quite useful to return to old audio material now and then (i.e., keep all the podcasts you’ve listened to in a separate folder and review them now and then).

  6. David Feigelson says:


    I don’t see the connection between listening and reading that Sara makes. Reading is 100% controlled by the person. Listening is 100% reactive (including conversation). I agree with her that for a language learner there can be a large lag between hearing and understanding. Some Chinese people tell me they know every word in a sentence said by a native English speaker, but they do not know the meaning of the sentence. Fundamentally listening is a different skill than reading– even the way the mind tries to extract meaning is different, in my opinion.

  7. laurenth says:

    Hello Olle,

    I’ve read this very insightful article several times and, finally, I devised a test that uses your method as a benchmark to assess my own (disappointing) listening comprehension and establish a diagnosis.

    If anyone’s interested, it’s in my language learning log, message # 352.

    Thanks for your help and the inspiration, Olle.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi! Very interesting reading. i think many (most) learners face the same problem as you do. It’s the case for me now as well sometimes. It’s very rare that I don’t understand what’s said after listening several times and listening just one extra time usually increases comprehension quite a lot. There are many reasons for this, of course, but i still feel that I simply haven’t listened enough and that this is what keeps me mack.

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