Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice

Image credit: Tony Clough
Image credit: Tony Clough

If you look at what methods work well for learning Chinese (or any other language), you will see the word “immersion” over and over. The analogy is straightforward: Chinese is like water and learning the language is like learning to swim. You don’t learn to swim by reading about it, you learn by getting wet, by immersing yourself, as often and as much as possible, but not so much that you actually drown.

Many students mistakenly believe that going to China equals immersion, but it can be easily demonstrated that this isn’t true. You can create an immersion environment in your home country. It’s also perfectly possible to go to China and stay in an expat or tourist bubble, thus only coming into contact with slightly more Chinese than your friends at home. The only significant difference between immersion at home and abroad is that it takes more effort at home.

Improving listening ability through immersion

This month’s challenge is about improving listening ability, so in this article, I want to focus on the listening part of immersion. Listening ability is a tricky beast. While there are some things to say about how to improve, it’s much more about exposure than anything else. You learn to understand Chinese by listening to Chinese, preferably with varied input from different speakers and, once you reach an intermediate level, with different regional accents.

Now, humans are not machines, so most of us can’t just program ourselves to listen to Chinese for six hours a day for months or years. If we could, our listening skills would sky-rocket and all other skills except handwriting would be dragged up along with it. I’m not going to focus on why it’s hard to “just do it” for such an extended time. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to overcome the problem of enabling yours to listen to as much Chinese as you ought to.

Three steps to enable yourself to listen to more Chinese

  1. Finding suitable audio
  2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese
  3. Playing the long game

1. Finding suitable audio

I have already discussed the first step in several articles, so let’s look at an overview here before we move on to the more interesting second step. In essence, “suitable” means “comprehensible” and “interesting”. Here’s what I have to offer in terms of finding resources:

2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese

One thing I have learnt on my journey towards a better understanding of how to get things done is that controlling the environment is easier than controlling one’s own behaviour, and that it’s usually more effective. If you want to do something a lot, say an hour or two every day, the first step you need to take after finding audio is to make sure that it’s really easy to listen to it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always have audio available – This is super important. Wherever you are, you should have Chinese audio available to listen to. In the bathroom, when out on a walk, when you learn your friend will be 15 minutes late or when you miss the bus. If at any point you realise that you could have listened to Chinese, but can’t because of a practical problem, you make an angel cry.
  • Transfer audio in advance – If you don’t stream audio, you have to transfer audio to your smart phone in advance (even if you stream most of it, you should still have audio files just in case). Make a habit of managing your audio! Every Sunday (or whatever), check what audio you have available, and if it isn’t enough to last you at least two weeks, transfer some more. Additionally, keep a folder somewhere in the cloud where you store audio you can download to your phone if need be.
  • Remove distracting audio – I have already said that you should make it as easy as possible to listen to Chinese, but it also follows that you can do the reverse, i.e. making it harder to listen to audio in any other language. If you listen to a lot of audio in your native language, it might be tempting to listen to that instead. Make it harder to access! You might not want to make it impossible unless you want to go 100% Chinese, though.
  • Solve any technical issues – This involves bad audio players, faulty earphones or slow connections. If you’ve made an effort to find audio and make sure it’s available when you need it, it doesn’t make sense if fail because of technical issues. Have an extra pair of earphones available (they can be really cheap, you’re only going to use them if your primary pair breaks or if you forget them), buy a separate, cheap mp3-player just for Chinese.

3. Playing the long game

It you have succeeded with the first two steps, you’re still not home and dry. The real difficulty lies in keeping this up for weeks and months. Sure, you can vary the amount of Chinese you listen to, but if you study full-time, you have no excuse for allowing it to drop below an hour a day. That’s not easily achieved, especially if you have to create the immersion yourself by finding audio and then making it accessible.

I have two pieces of advice for making it easier:

  • Vary the difficulty level – 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. Re-listening to old audio is a great way of lowering the difficulty. Read more about this here.
  • Make learning social – I like challenges, not because I like competing against others (I don’t), but because it gives me a clear and public goal. It makes me accountable and it’s easier to study when I’m doing it with others. This is why I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, so if you’re like me, you should definitely check it out. Other ways of making learning social is to find study partners, talk about your learning on social media and so on.


Listening to enough Chinese audio isn’t easy. It requires preparation and some discipline. However, the whole process can be made much easier by following the advice I have offered in this article. When I fail to listen as much as I want, it’s seldom because I don’t want to, it’s almost always because I have failed a seemingly trivial step such as transferring audio from my computer to my phone. that really shouldn’t happen! I hope that by discussing this issue, you will stand a batter chance at listening to as much Chinese audio as you should. Good luck!

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

wotI don’t know about you, but I know started reading novels in Chinese way too late. This was partly because I thought it was scary and more difficult than it actually was, but also because I lacked a good approach and a strategy to overcome the difficulties reading native material implies.

Looking back at how I learnt English, it strikes me that there is a powerful way of getting used to reading novels in a foreign language, namely to reread something you have already read before and like a lot, but now you read in the target language.

Comprehensible input

We have perhaps left the times when comprehensible input was a buzzword, but it’s still a useful concept when talking about listening and reading. Simply put, it means that you have to understand what you read in order to benefit from it (input should neither be too easy nor too hard, but just above the level of the student).

However, it’s often misunderstood to mean that you have to understand everything that is said, which is definitely not true. In my opinion, you need to understand the gist, because without that, you’re just looking at pretty symbols and if meaning is not involved, I doubt there’s much point (or indeed pleasure) in reading. Understanding the key message is enough, it’s okay if you don’t understand all the adjectives, adverbs and descriptions of people and places. Dialogues tend to be important.

There are many ways of making incomprehensible input comprehensible. As independent language learners, we can’t really make use of some common methods such as creating word lists, creating interesting preparation tasks, substituting difficult words for easier ones and so on, because they typically require a teacher. However, one very effective way of reducing the difficulty of a text in Chinese is if you’re already familiar with the content.

Not ready for a novel yet?

The method described in this article works for all lengths of texts. You can read a short news article in English first and then read the same article in Chinese. Another place to check out is the Marco Polo Project, where enthusiasts translate articles from Chinese into various languages (mostly English).

Read the Chinese translation of a novel you have already read and liked immensely

I started learning novels in English with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. This was when I was twelve and realised that it took ages for the translator to translate new books into Swedish; I simply wasn’t prepared to wait that long. I had read a few books and wanted more, but rather than wait a year or so, I decided to read the series in English. To reduce the shock, I decided to read from the beginning, including the books I had already read in Swedish before.

This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Reading a few books in English covering what I had just read in Swedish was a really good way of being able to read novels in English even though my English really wasn’t up to the task at the time. The fact that it then took the author fifteen years to finish the series (or, rather, for him to die so someone else could finish it for him) isn’t my fault.

Why is it a good idea to read the Chinese translation of a book you have read and like in English?

  • You know for a fact you like the book. Naturally, you should choose a book you want to reread, perhaps something you read and loved a long time ago and want to experience again. Action-packed adventure novels are great. This guarantees that you’re motivated to read. No-one can recommend books to yourself better than yourself. If you choose a book I have read, you might simply not like it, which will severely reduce your motivation to read it.
  • You have already read the book, so you know what it’s about and you know what’s going to happen. Your task is to see how this is expressed in Chinese. You will not encounter characters you don’t understand, a setting that makes you confused or subtleties in the plot you overlook, because you know most of this when you start reading. If you’ve forgotten, you can always read a summary online (Wikipedia is your friend). If your Chinese is already quite good, you can skip this step and re-experience books you’ve mostly forgotten but don’t really wan to reread in English.
  • You avoid regional, dialectal and stylistic language, as well as cultural references you might not get. Normally, I would say that reading about culture in a rich and varied language is a good idea, but it can be overwhelming for someone who has never read a novel in Chinese. For instance, wuxia novels that take place in ancient China aren’t written in a language you can transfer directly into your everyday Chinese and many novels set in modern China are sometimes written with a certain style that might not be familiar to you at all. Of course, you need to learn about these aspects sooner or later, but you will have enough of a challenge facing the basic language of the novel. Simply put, reading a translated novel is easier.

Thus, reading your first novel in Chinese turns from impossible to merely difficult. It will take hard work to get through (depending on your current level, of course), but it’s definitely easier to do it this way than choosing random book your Chinese friend recommends to you.

A few words about the language in translated novels

You should be aware that some translations aren’t very good (in fact, some are terribly bad). I don’t mean that they are bad in the sense that the translator fails to capture the soul of the original novel and used another language to express it expertly, instead I mean that the Chinese in the translation is not good. This is probably because the translator was paid too little and just rushed through, translating sentence by sentence, sometimes even word by word. Therefore, when reading some translated novels, you can feel the English behind the sentences. Obviously, this is bad for us as readers, especially if we want to learn Chinese along the way. That translated novels will not sound exactly like first language novels is kind of obvious and I don’t think that’s a problem, but at least the language should be natural and correct.

The best way of checking this as an intermediate learner is to simply ask a native speaker, preferably one who reads a lot, and see what they think. Remember, you’re not really interested in the quality of the translation; what you want to know is if the Chinese is good or not, so just let them read a few pages and ask what they think about this as potential reading material. If you buy books online, there are usually previews available you can use for this.

Also, note that reading your first novel in Chinese is about reading practise. It’s about understanding words, piecing them together into sentences and get the general idea of what’s going on. This is not the time for memorising sentence patterns and detailed studying of syntax.

What novel to choose

This might be obvious, but choose a novel that is interesting for what happens or because who’s in it rather than because the way it’s written. Action, mystery, adventure and fantasy stories are all very good.

In order to close the circle,I’m now rereading The Wheel of Time in Chinese. Obviously, it isn’t my first novel in Chinese, but it’s still interesting to return to a series I never finished as a teenager, now in a new language. I don’t think Robert Jordan is a great writer in general, but I am interested in the plot. The curiosity over how the series ends keeps me motivated to read the next page. It remains to be seen if it keeps me motivated through ten thousand pages, but it’s worked well so far!

The importance of knowing many words

Some things I write about here are generally accepted as being good or advisable, but there are areas in which I don’t agree with “received knowledge” regarding language learning. One of these areas is vocabulary. Any teacher, student or researcher will of course agree that vocabulary is very important, but few of them will go as far as I will in this direction.

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Vocabulary is not merely king, it’s god emperor of the universe

Before I explain the slightly controversial part about my approach regarding vocabulary, I’m going to discuss three reasons why a broad vocabulary is so important. Most of these will be obvious, but when your read through the list, consider how much difference the size of you vocabulary actually matters (we will return to this later).

Without grammar, very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.

– David A. Wilkins (1972)

Knowing many words will…

  • …greatly increase your reading and listening comprehension
  • …enable you to communicate even if you know only a little grammar
  • ..accelerate your learning in general, because you understand more of the language you’re exposed to

Of these, the first and the third are by far the most important effects. The second one should be obvious to most people, so let’s ignore that for now.

Knowing many words will accelerate your learning

Learning can be likened to a huge web with interconnected nodes. If your knowledge of Chinese is such a web, the more densely connected that network is, the easier it will be for you to add new nodes. As you approach a new piece of vocabulary, you will more often than not be able to relate it to something you already know. Perhaps you already know the individual characters or you might have seen similar constructions before. Thus, learning many words is an auspicious spiral which leads to an even more extended vocabulary.

Vocabulary and reading/listening comprehension

Knowing lots of words is essential if you want to make sense of anything produced by a native speaker. If you only read and listen to textbooks, you’ll feel quite safe because the authors will choose words they know that you have studied previously, but native speakers don’t do that. Even if you don’t understand the sentence pattern used or every word, if you can catch enough words, you can usually piece together what’s being said to you or something written in a book.

Do you want a sketchy map of the country or a high-resolution, full colour photo of your back yard?

So, everybody agrees that it’s important to know lots of words, big deal. I, however, believe that it’s really important to know lots of words. I prefer to have a sketchy map with lots of blank spots, but that will cover a large area, rather than having highly detailed knowledge about my back yard.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I prefer learning 1000 words with their approximate meanings and without detailed knowledge about usage and semantics, rather than learning 100 words and be able to use them perfectly in any situation.

Why? Go back to the list above and look at point one and three (point two is relevant as well, but again, that’s pretty obvious so I won’t bring it up). If you know 1000 words and hear a conversation, you are quite likely to be able to pick something up. If it’s an easy conversation, you might even be able to understand exactly what’s going on, never mind that you would never have been able to produce the same sentences correctly yourself. If you only know 100 words, however, I’m quite convinced that you wouldn’t have understood anything at all, regardless of how well you know those 100 words. This principle is scalable: knowing 5000 words approximately gives you access to a lot of written or spoken Chinese, but 500 words does not.

The more you understand, the more you will learn

This ties in with the point that a broad vocabulary enables you to learn more. The key concept here is that you will be able to understand a larger part of what you read or hear, and every time you understand something being said or something written, it becomes an opportunity to learn and an automatic way to review that piece of vocabulary (see this related article about listening speed). However, if you don’t understand enough to do that, listening or reading might be next to useless, at least for the purpose of vocabulary. Read more about comprehensible input in this article.

Using a strategy like this, I frequently listen to something being said to me, and even if I’ve never heard it used before, I can still understand it and think to myself “Ah, so that’s how it’s used!” or “Oh, so you can have that as a verb too, cool!” Of course, you could learn these things from listening to your teacher or studying your textbook very carefully, but I consider this to be the wrong approach. You need many words much more than you need to know those words perfectly!

A caveat for advanced students

There comes a point in your Chinese career when it’s time to abandon the strong focus on quantity, but I would say it’s at a fairly advanced level. For instance, when I learn new words in English, I have to study how to use the words and really know them, because these words aren’t words people use every day (or indeed at all). If I don’t learn how to use them when I look them up the first time, it’s likely that I never will.

However, as long as you’re learning words that are in common use (I would say up to 5 000-10 000 or so), you definitely don’t need to focus very much on how to use them. Learn as many as you can instead and then focus on those that turn out to be difficult, useful or interesting. If you expose yourself to the language enough and pay attention, and then practise a lot, you will eventually learn how to use the words you’ve learnt. Build your vocabulary base as broad as possible and feel how the positive effects reach all areas of your Chinese studies!