Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind

listening-chart
If you listen a lot, most of it will have to be passive listening. The proportions here are somewhat arbitrary, but passive listening will take up much more time than active listening.

In last week’s article, I discussed three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice. In short, you need to find interesting audio you can understand, you need to make it easily available and, finally, you need to find a way of maintaining your listening habits for a long time. That last step merits a more detailed discussion!

Improving listening ability in the long run

I have learnt Chinese for seven years now, and I know how hard it is to keep up listening practice while being busy with other things. I mentioned the key to success in last week’s article, but there simply wasn’t room to explain it properly. This is what I wrote:

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.

Listening a lot is difficult, not because it’s hard to listen in itself, but because it’s not easy to find the amount of listening material you need and manage it properly. You should find audio that is comprehensible, but as we all know, what is comprehensible varies.

If I’m well rested, I can understand more difficult audio than when I’m tired. Therefore, you not only need audio suitable in general, you need to be able to adjust the audio to your current state. This is related to what I have written about studying according to your current productivity level.

I sort my audio into two categories, let’s call them “hard” and “easy”. I recommend that you create actual folders on your computer and/or phone. Feel free to use more than two categories if you want, but I’ll keep it simple here.

Category #1: Hard

Audio in this category is for active listening. It’s audio you need to focus on seriously to understand. If you listen more than ten or twenty minutes, you start feeling tired. Because of this, the bulk of the audio you listen to and therefore the audio you need to have available is not going to be in this category.

I currently  listen to 白鹿原 by 陈忠实 and it falls firmly in this category for me. I find this audio book very hard to follow and I need to focus 100%, otherwise my thoughts start flying all over the place and I lose track of the story. I typically listen 10-20 minutes each time, usually when talking a walk. I can’t do anything more complicated at the same time, I need all my concentration on the audio.

Naturally, what you think is hard depends on your proficiency level. Beginners will find it hard to listen to new chapters in their textbook, intermediate learners will struggle with learner podcasts mainly in Chinese. Advanced learners will struggle with anything they aren’t used to already.

If you don’t understand much even when you concentrate 100%, you should put the audio in a third folder called “too hard” and leave it there until your listening ability has improved.

Category #2: Easy

The audio in the “easy” category is for passive listening. It needn’t be extremely easy, but it should be the kind of audio you can keep up with for extended periods of time, preferably even while engaged in other tasks at the same time (nothing too complex, I mean things like cooking, driving or doing the laundry). Since you can listen for long periods of time in

many situations, you need much, much more audio in this category. The more the better.

I put two types of audio in the “easy” category:

  • Audio I have already listened to before and found interesting
  • Audio I can understand without concentrating too much

For the purpose of the listening challenge, I use the advanced lessons from ChinesePod and a few radio programs I’ve already listened to. Since boredom is a real problem here, focus on audio you find interesting. If you’re a beginner, it will be very hard to find audio to put in this category, it will have to be things you have already listened to. For intermediate learners, everything you have listened to already plus intermediate podcasts will work. For advanced learners, things are as usual much easier.

Moving audio from “hard” to “easy”

Part of the reason I use a system like this is that it’s easy to move audio around. If you have studied something in the “hard” category for some time, it won’t be feel difficult anymore. What most students do then is to forget about it and move on to the next challenge. Don’t do that. Instead, keep the audio, but move it to the “easy” category. This is essential for beginners and intermediate learners since this will be your main source of easy audio. It also means you get to review what you have learnt. If the “easy” folder becomes too crowded, remove things you find too easy, boring or both.

Are you listening enough?

The more you listen, the better. The more diverse your listening is, the better. As I have discussed here and in previous articles, passive listening will have to make up most of your listening practice. This isn’t because it’s better than active listening, it’s because it’s the only way you can listen enough while still living a normal life. Passive listening is for all that time when you can’t concentrate 100% on the audio. Make sure you have enough Chinese audio available!

RTI, my favourite radio station

As soon as my Chinese level was good enough to understand normal, spoken Chinese, I started listening to native radio stations. At that time, I was living in Taiwan (and have now returned, but that’s a different story) and just used normal, analogue radio, but later I also tried a number of online radio stations. Today, I almost exclusively use one, RTI, or Radio Taiwan International. In this article, I will introduce you to RTI and how to use it to improve your Chinese.

Note that what I write here is relevant for people who don’t have any specific interest in Taiwan as well. Apart from learning Chinese, you can also broaden your horizons. In addition, this article is not only about listening to this particular radio station, but listening to radio in general,  something I highly recommend (see the list below).

First, though, I should tell you why I like RTI:

  • A broad variety of radio programs (gardening, pop culture, politics, singing lessons, drama, news, story reading, finance, travelling, food, history, talk shows)
  • Authentic content (most programs are natural and non-scripted, so language use is natural and relaxed)
  • News with transcripts (daily publication of more news that you can listen to, all with subtitles)
  • Freely available online (both as a stream and as mp3-files for individual programs)
  • Extensive archives (with old episodes of most programs, making it easy to listen to a series of programs in one go)
  • Heavy focus on speaking (there is some music, but not much, which is excellent for listening practice)

Note that this is a Taiwanese radio station, so the speaking is Taiwanese accented Mandarin. However, this radio station is suitable for any learner, simply because you should diversify the Chinese you listen to regardless of where you’re currently learning. You don’t need to speak like this, but you need to understand it. The website exists in two versions:

Chinese radio for background and passive listening

I have had this radio station on autostart every morning for close to two years. This way, I have to actively do something to not listen to Chinese. Sure, I can turn off the sound if I really want to, but a normal morning still contains Chinese. After getting to know the hosts who have programs roughly at this time, it’s a pleasant way of waking up.

Here’s a direct link to the RTI live stream:

If you want some suggestions for what to do when listening passively or why it’s good to have Chinese in the background, please check my article series about improving listening ability.

RTI for active listening

One really good thing with RTI is that it provides large amounts of read news reports with transcripts. Here’s where you can find the transcripts:

Recommended programs

Here’s a short list of programs I like and that I think other people might find interesting as well. If you want to see a list of all programs (with downloadable versions of older episodes), click here. I should mention that I listen to these programs live most of the time. It’s much more convenient to just have the radio on in the background all the time rather than actively having to download the audio. Still, always having a bunch of programs on your phone or mp3-player is essential (keep reading about this here: Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem).

  • 為人民服務-楊憲宏時間 (Politics) – This program is based solely on discussions between the host and one visitor. The programs are fairly long and they have time to explore topics thoroughly. Topics vary a lot, but are mostly political in some way.
  • 十分好文摘 (Literature) – This is one of the best programs on RTI. It contains one story each episode, and as the name implies, it takes roughly ten minutes to finish. The stories are often interesting and would be excellent as the basis of an advanced or upper-intermediate textbook focusing on listening ability.
  • RTI劇場 (Drama) – As the name implies, this program features drama in Chinese. I find that the acting is sometimes quite different from what I’m used to in the west and so is the language. Good practice anyway and sometimes interesting stories. 
  • 音樂M.I.T (Music) – Music in Taiwan is a good program if you want to keep track of what’s going on in the world of Taiwanese music. Daily broadcasts with new music (and lots of talking about the music, of course).
  • 空中體育課 (Health) – This program is about health and sports, usually through interviews with scientists, authors and other people who have something to say about the subject. It’s not about current sport events and doesn’t report sport news, but rather focuses on health and physical activity in general.
  • 影音 (Video) – This is not a radio program, but rather a section of the websites that contain videos. I haven’t used this very much since I’m mostly after audio only, but I still wanted to include it here.

A few final words

For all the above-mentioned reasons, I think RTI is a very good source of learning for anyone from intermediate level and above. There’s plenty of audio on many different topics. There are lots of news broadcasts with transcripts. I personally find the diversity to be RTI’s strength, along with the availability and ease of access.

What radio stations do you listen to?

I want to broaden my horizons as well. What do you listen to? I’m particularly interested Mainland radio stations with more talking and less music, preferably about interesting topics (i.e. not only pop culture or talk shows). Please leave a comment below!

Listening strategies: Active listening

In previous articles we have already looked at two kinds of passive listening (the first article was about background listening, the second about passive listening in general). Now, the time has come to look at active listening, which is what I think at least traditionally is what people mean when they say that they’re practising listening ability. Active listening simply means that you actively engage all your faculties to try to understand and process the language you hear. To make sure that the processing is as complete as possible, we typically perform some activity which is not listening in itself, such as answering questions about the audio we just heard, taking notes while listening or translating the sentences we heard.

In this article, I will do two things. First, I will discuss the importance of active listening. I will argue that both passive and active listening are essential and that they should in no way be regarded as different methods where you should use only one.Second, I will discuss various strategies you can use along with some tips and tricks on how to vary your active listening practice.

If you want to skip the discussion about active listening and dive straight into some real exercises, click here to scroll down.

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

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/amiroff

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

Active listening and the 10,000 hour rule

I think most readers will be at least a little bit familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which basically says that in order to become expert in any given field, you need to invest 10,000 hours. For now, the number is not important, but to me, it’s quite obvious that the amount of time you practise is the main factor determining how much you learn. The number 10,000 is often misinterpreted and people think that simply engaging in whatever activity you want to get good at is enough.

Deliberate practice

That isn’t the case. The original concept refers to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, which in essence means that you’re actively trying to become better, challenging yourself and doing your very best to improve. For instance, simply going to class is not necessarily deliberate practice (depending on what you do in class of course). Background listening is definitely not deliberate practice and probably not passive listening either, although that depends on how passive it is and what you’re listening to. In general, difficult tasks forces you to be very active, so the more challenging a task is the, more likely it is to be considered deliberate practice.

Language learning isn’t like learning to play the violin

In my understanding, language learning is slightly different from, say, learning to play the violin. Languages has an input factor which is extremely important, but which simply isn’t there when we learn to play in instrument. Sure, we might become slightly more proficient at playing the violin by listening to other violinists or even music in general, but the determining factor is still how much we play ourselves, how many hours of deliberate practice we put in.

Not so with language learning. When we learn Chinese, listening and reading are more important than speaking and writing, depending a little bit on our goals and where we are at the moment in our Chinese learning lives. Still, deliberate practice is the quickest and most efficient way of improving, so if possible, we should strive to be as active as we can.

If deliberate, active practice is so great, why do I sing the praise of background and passive listening at the same time? Why don’t we invest all our time into deliberate practice?  Because we can’t. Various studies into deliberate practice have found that a few hours per day is all we can manage, after that we simply can’t concentrate and maintain the high level of mental processing required. In other words, deliberate practice is very demanding and leaves one exhausted. This is where passive listening enters the picture, because being passive is much less taxing and can be kept up for hours and hours. Thus, there is no opposing relationship between passive and active listening. You do active listening when you can and have the energy to do so. If not, then background or passive listening should be on the menu.

Exercises for active listening

The thing that turns passive into active is that we actively engage with the audio we hear. The easiest way to make sure that we’re doing this is to transform what we hear in some way. We’re not simply receiving information, we’re changing it and using it for something else. It doesn’t really matter exactly what we do, but here are some examples:

  • Participate in a challenging conversation – Having a conversation slightly above your normal level is definitely active listening. The transformation involved occurs when you’re supposed to take what you hear (input) and transform it to some kind of meaning in your head and then give it back to the the other person in an engaging manner (output). I think conversing with people on a level slightly above your current is the best way of learning, but since this is sometimes not practically possible, I have lots of other ways of achieving similar results.
  • Transcribe audio – This is something I’ve done a lot myself recently. Simply choose something which is reasonably difficult and do your best to transcribe what you hear, either using characters or Pinyin (I type, which I consider to be the golden middle way). Try to choose a source which has transcripts, because otherwise you’ll have to ask people for help if you fail to transcribe a certain section. I suggest using a program that allows you to see the audio file, which will enable you to select specific passages to play again. I use Audacity, which is free and available on most platforms. In Audacity, simply select a passage and hit shift+play, which will loop the selected audio.

  • Expanding transcription – This is really the same thing as above, but I want to point out that you don’t need to transcribe boring newsreels, you can transcribe anything you want, including films, cartoons, TV shows, music, podcasts and what you hear people say around you if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment. Again, TV, film and music work very well, because they are almost always transcribed already (find karaoke versions of songs). Cover up the subtitles, create your own and compare!
  • Take notes and/or write a summary – Pretend that you’re attending a lecture and that there’s going to be a quiz or test after it has finished. Take notes that cover the main points of what you hear (even if the content isn’t lecture-like at all). After you’ve finished listening (listen more than once if you want to), take you’re notes and write a summary. Post the summary on Lang-8 and have someone correct it for you.
  • Translate what you hear – You can either try to write it down, in which case you’ll need to listen a few times unless you have mad typing skills, or you can translate orally (try this and you know why interpreters typically work very short shifts). If you want to benchmark this or at least judge the outcome, try recording what you’re saying as well. You need earphones to do this, of course, otherwise you will hear the audio you listen to on the recording (you still have the original audio for reference).

As you can see, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but transforming the audio you hear into some other medium is excellent. There are many more ways of doing this than I have listed here. Do you have any methods or tips that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment!

But active listening is hard!

Yeah, that’s the whole idea.

If you try any of the above exercises with sufficiently hard audio, you will find that it’s exhausting. This is the whole point. Since you’re engaging every faculty you can to succeed with the task you’ve set for yourself, of course you’re going to feel tired after a while. Do you remember what it felt like to speak Chinese in the very beginning or have you just started learning? Then you know what deliberate practice feels like.

Gradually, studying will become easier. Deliberate practice means that you should keep doing hard things that require you to invest lots of energy, because that’s when you learn the most. Active listening is about challenging yourself, of pushing your limits. I will talk more about this in future articles, so stay tuned!