The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese

I think listening ability is the most important skill. Good listening ability accelerates your learning and will have a positive effect on other areas in a way that isn’t true for any of any of the other skills.

This is why I’m currently running a listening challenge that will last until October 31st, read more here!

As I have argued elsewhere, improving listening ability is mostly a matter of practice; you need to listen a lot. In this article, I want to suggest some resources to make that easier.

What should you listen to? If you’re new to studying Chinese or don’t spend most of your time dealing with online learning resources, it might be hard to know where to look and you might just choose something at random.

What should you listen to?

I have now collected more than 260 resources for learning Chinese, all sorted and tagged for your convenience. In this article, I’m going to introduce the best free listening resource collections available. Here, “resource collection” means a site that offers a large number of episodes or shows, so each of these potentially offer hundreds or even thousands of hours of material!

This is what I did to generate this list (you can generate a similar list or get the full list by heading over to Hacking Chinese Resources yourself):

10 best free listening resource collections

Below, I have listed the best ranked resource collections, along with a direct link to the collection, a short introduction written by the person who submitted it and a link to the resource so you can vote/comment on it if you want to. If you have other resource collections, please submit them! If you need an invite, let me know!

Please note that some of these resources may have paid subscriptions, but I have made sure that a substantial and useful part of them is free. For instance, many of the podcasts have paid content, but they have to have free audio to be listed here. Also note that the ranking here only partly reflects my own opinion, most of the votes come from other members.

1. 锵锵三人行 (advanced, submitted by Zoe, vote/comment)

锵锵三人行 is my favourite TV program. It’s also one of the best ones for language learners, mostly because of its focus on talking, availability of transcripts and variety of both guests and topics. This should be a key component of any immersion effort, but you probably need to be upper intermediate or above to benefit. This show has been aired every weekday for decades! 我爱窦文涛!

2. Viooz (advanced, submitted by Julien Leyre, vote/comment)

What funner way to practice listening than watch a good movie? Ok, I can think of a few, but admit it’s right there towards the top of the list. This link has a wide range of movies, from Chinese classics to recent releases, available through free streaming, in Mandarin, and with subtitles. Enjoy!

3. 慢速中文 Slow Chinese (intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

A great resource collections with over 100 episodes, all with transcripts. The audio is, as the name implies, rather slow, which makes it more accessible than more rapid, native content. The episodes themselves are quite interesting since they deal with cultural topics and you will learn more than just language from listening to Slow Chinese. I haven’t used this podcast a lot myself, but what I have seen is pretty good.

4. Popup Chinese (beginner/intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

Popup Chinese has a huge library of lessons for different levels and most of it is available for free (although you need to sign up). There are also vocabulary notes and so on, but I consider the actual audio the main point. Overall a very good podcast!

5. CSLPOD (beginner/intermediate/advanced), submitted by me, vote/comment)

CSLPOD offers a large library of audio for all levels and the audio is available for free (you can subscribe for some other services, such as vocabulary explanations, sentence drilling and some exercises, but I consider the free audio the most important resource. One important feature is that when the audio is played, the appropriate portion of the text is highlighted, making it a lot easier to follow. There’s also a translation freely available for each podcast. Overall a good listening resource!

6. 悦读FM – 倾听文字的声音 (advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

I just found this site and it looks great. It offers a large collection of articles read aloud, with subtitles. They are all pretty short, meaning that they are suitable for intensive study as well as extensive learning (just keep a bunch on your phone).

7. PPS TV player (intermediate/advanced, submitted by kdgbalmer, vote/comment)

PPS.tv is an online source of Chinese TV episodes and films. Great for finding input content to improve comprehension and listening ability.

Nearly all of the Chinese shows have Chinese subs as standard. There are also a large number of Western shows/films so if you want to watch something you already know the story of but with Chinese subs/dubs this might be helpful.

On the front page there’s a link to download the PPS Player. This desktop application makes it much easier to navigate their huge library of content. Apps are also available for Android and iOS.

If looking for more basic content check out the animations in the 我的小儿卡通 section。喜羊羊与灰太狼 is one of the more accessible shows – it’s also one of the relatively few homegrown Chinese shows (rather than Japanese).

Important: PPS is region locked to China so if you are outside China you’ll need to VPN into China! There are also unlocking apps available on Android.

8. Melnyks Podcast/Audio Course (beginner/intermediate, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This website offers theme-based, progressive and easy online lessons. Audio course with full PDF transcripts, worksheets, mobile apps, videos and more. From what I can see, the first 100 lessons are for free, but you need a subscription after that. I tried two episodes (1 and 100) and they are pretty good. The major benefit with this podcast compared with others is that it’s progressive, meaning that each lesson build on the other, it’s not just random lessons put on the same page.

9. Skeptoid: 民间神话背后的科学根據 (advanced, submitted by me, vote/comment)

This is the Chinese version of the popular Skeptoid.com podcast that deals with urban legends and myths from a scientific perspective. The Chinese version is well-produced and the content is translated and presented in a praiseworthy manner. The content is fairly difficult and will be too hard for anyone below an advanced level. Skeptoid Chinese combines interesting material with good language, a very rare combination indeed!

10. Chinese online short story collection (intermediate/advanced, submitted by me, comment/vote)

This is a great repository of short stories for beginner and intermediate learners. Some of them also have audio and all have translations to English and word lists! I would be a bit careful with trusting their difficulty ratings, though, I checked some stories that were meant to be beginner-intermediate that were definitely too hard form most students in this range. Still very good resource, though.

More resources

I intend to keep posting summaries like this one to highlight the great resources we have collected on Hacking Chinese Resources. Don’t forget that you can make more specific searches on your own! If you don’t want advanced resources, try checking listening resource collections suitable for beginners!

The Grand Listening Cycle: Improve your Chinese listening ability

Over the years, I’ve built up a simple but yet powerful cycle of listening activities that provides most of what I need. This series of exercises contains everything from test-like listening comprehension to very active (and demanding) listening for details, as well as long-term retention, vocabulary building and sentence mining.

Enter: The Grand Listening Cycle

Let’s go through the steps quickly to give you the general idea:

  1. radioBenchmarking – Find something interesting to listen to (this is of course highly individual, but exactly what to listen to is beyond the scope of this article). If it’s longer than a few minutes, break it down into several parts (you can do this on the fly). Pretend that you’re taking an exam and listen through the audio material once and note the results. This works as a kind of benchmark. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, but if you understand nothing, you should choose something easier. If possible, choose something that comes with a transcript.
  2. Grinding – Put the audio on your preferred audio device and listen to it as much as you can. Put it in a folder called “new” or similar. I usually don’t stress it and sometimes leave the audio file on my phone for weeks before I do anything else with it, listening to it perhaps a dozen times. Gradually, you will start understanding the recording in detail, even though there will of course be gaps.
  3. Transcribing – Now that you are familiar with the audio. Do your best to produce a transcript. The best way to do this is using Audacity, because you can pause, easily find where you were last time and loop the same section of the audio file over and over (hold shift and then click play). You can also reduce the rate of speech, which is awesome. If you encounter a new word you really don’t know, write Pinyin. Check your transcript against the official version (or ask a native speaker to help you if you don’t have a transcript). Checking a complete transcript for errors is relatively easy for native speakers.
  4. Studying – Go through the transcript you have produced just as if it were a normal textbook. Look up key vocabulary, extract cool sentences and learn useful sentence patterns. Do not try to learn everything you don’t knowUse SRS for anything interesting you find.
  5. Reviewing – Move the audio file to a new folder (“review” or something else that contrasts with “new” above). Depending on your energy level at any particular time, you can now choose to 1) listen to something in the “new” folder (demanding) or something in the “review” folder (much easier). The more  you listen, the better, but since you should have a pretty good grasp of the audio already, you don’t need to listen all that often. When you do, it functions as review of everything you’ve learnt from that clip.

If you’re not really clear about what background, passive and active listening are and why they are all essential, you might want to read these articles, describing each concept in detail:

Applying the grand listening cycle

You can use this cycle for any kind of audio material, including songs, news broadcasts, films, TV shows, lecture recordings, interviews or anything else you can think of. Naturally, you can and should have many cycles going at the same time. A while ago, I focused a lot on news broadcasts, typically only a few minutes long. I usually downloaded around four of them and took them all to the grinding phase at the same time, transcribing them one at a time whenever I felt ready.

Learning to understand spoken Chinese is mostly a matter of practice and I’ve found that having fixed and regular routines helps a lot. You could set a quota for each week or commit to a certain number of minutes of completed material, but you should be aware that this cycle takes a lot of time to complete for any audio above your current comfort level. The reason that it takes time and is demanding is that you’re constantly pushing yourself, the best way to improve quickly!

Using Audacity to learn Chinese (speaking and listening)

I have briefly mentioned that I use Audacity quite a lot (Recording yourself to improve speaking ability), but the more I use the software, the more I realise how awesome it actually is. Audacity is your best friend when it comes to recording yourself, mimicking others, manipulating recordings, managing media and recording things you aren’t supposed to record. It’s also free of charge and can be  installed on most operating systems.

In this article, I will introduce several useful functions and show how they can be used to learn (or teach) Chinese. However, this isn’t meant to be a manual of how to use Audacity, so even though I will show you how to do certain things, please refer to the official website for help and support. I’m a language teacher and learner, I learn only what I need to learn about the technical details.

Audacity can be found, read about and downloaded here: Audacity (official page at SourceForge)

The basics

audacityBefore we get into any details, let’s look at what Audacity is. This is from the official about page:

  • Record live audio.
  • Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
  • Edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files.
  • Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
  • Change the speed or pitch of a recording.
  • And more! See the complete list of features.

This is what we will look at in this article:

  1. Recording from any source
  2. Enhancing the recording
  3. Repeating or slowing down the audio
  4. Mimicking and recording
  5. Saving, editing, and exporting

This is a video I recorded of these six steps. It contains only sparse commentary, so read the rest of the article for more details. Obviously, you can do much more than this with Audacity, this is just a small demonstration.

Record from any source, record what you hear

Audacity can be set up to record anything you hear from your computer. This might be different depending on your operating system, but the general idea is to set Audacity’s input to “stereo mixer” or similar. WHen you press “record”, Audacity will register anything on your computer’s line out. Thus, if you find it hard to extract audio from a YouTube clip or from a movie you’re watching, use Audacity!

I use Linux and for me it’s a simple matter of changing the input settings in Audacity. If you use other operating systems, you can start here or simply search for “Audacity record playback” + [your operating system].

Audio recording enhancement

Apart from this, Audacity is your best friend when it comes to editing and manipulating recordings of various kinds. I sometimes record lectures or similar. I typically need two things to handle this kind of recording:

  1. Noise removal and compression
  2. Cutting and editing
  3. Automation

The first part is very complicated and I guess there are people who are actually earning their living from enhancing sound files, but we can do some basic but yet very effective things with Audacity. Noise removel is mostly a matter of trial and error, just use the function in the program and try different levels (the default ones to start with, obviously). Audacity’s compression function allows you to change the intensity of the recorded audio, removing high spikes and distributing the rest of the sound in a neat way.

Cutting and editing is fairly straightforward. Since you can actually see the audio, it’s a lot easier than trying to record from recordings or whatever else people do if they don’t know about Audacity or similar programs.

Automation is fairly complicated and I don’t know even a single percent of what there is to know, but I still want to point out that there is something called “chains” in Audacity that allows you to apply the same functions to any number of files. For instance, if you record twenty lectures in the same environment, you can use the same noise removal and compression settings for all files and you can apply these functions to all the twenty recordings with just one click. You can even make Audacity save the results as new files in the file format of your choice.

Using Audacity to mimic native speakers

Mimicking native speakers is one of the most powerful ways of acquiring good pronunciation in any language. However, it’s not always practical to do so. If we listen to a YouTube clip, the interface simply doesn’t allow us to repeat exactly what we want to repeat and even if we have a sound file, it would take ages to use a normal media player to be able to mimic a few minutes of speech.

In audacity, this is fairly easy:

  1. Import or record audio
  2. Select the part you want to mimic
  3. Click play and only the section you want to play will be heard
  4. If you hold down shift while clicking play, the section will repeat

This is useful because it isn’t very easy to mimic native speakers at their normal rate of speech, not even for advanced learners. Just listening to the same sentence a dozen times before even trying is good start.

The next step would be to record your own voice over the voice of the native speaker. After having practised until you can read a sentence or passage, simply hit record and Audacity will play the audio while recording your voice. You can the mute the original audio and evaluate your own recording. More about this below.

If you’re interested in either mimicking or the 蔣勳 clip seen in the video, I suggest you read Jacob Gill’s article about how he used that very same clip to improve his pronunciation (we did this at the same time, although I didn’t finish the entire clip and didn’t publish anything about the results).

Slow down the rate of speech without changing the pitch

Some media players can slow down the speed of the audio, but while doing so, the pitch also drops. Thus, we all sound like drunkards at half speed and like smurfs on illegal substances on double the speed. Audacity has a function called “change tempo”, which allows you to change the speed without changing the pitch. This allows you to slow down the rate of speech to a level you’re more comfortable with. Obviously, if you slow things down too much, you will get weird results.

Recording yourself

One very good way of improving your pronunciation is to record yourself. This fulfils several purposes at once:

  • You can share the recording for comments and feedback
  • You can listen to the recording yourself (this is actually very useful)
  • You can use it as a benchmark and see your improvements later

These concepts have already been discussed in more detail in other articles, namely Recording yourself to improve speaking ability and Benchmarking progress to stay motivated. However, there is one more aspect of recording yourself I think is worth mentioning:

How do you use audacity?

Do you have any favourite functions? Do you use audacity to learn or teach Chinese in a way that I haven’t mentioned here? Leave a comment!