Listening strategies: Improving listening speed

Now that I have cleared the main types of listening (background, passive and active listening), it’s time to look at something which is common to all of them: listening speed. This is a concept I think is both simple and useful. I have talked about it briefly in the article about problem analysis, but apart from that I haven’t found any references to “listening speed” in the sense I’m using the word here on the internet. I don’t say I’m the first or the only one using the word like this, but I hope this article will increase awareness of the phenomenon and its importance for improving listening ability.

In short, listening speed is the speed at which you can understand spoken Chinese.

It’s analogous to reading speed and works the same way. For instance, both listening and reading speed are influenced by the difficulty of the language you’re presented with. While I’ve seen many articles and books about reading speed (I’ve even written one myself!), I’ve never seen anything about listening speed. That’s what we’re going to talk about today, but before we do that, let’s look at the other articles in this series:

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Articles in this series:
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed (this article)
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)

What is listening ability?

According to my article about analysing problems with listening ability, we need five things in order to be able to understand what we’re listening to:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2.  Vocabulary and grammar
  3. Listening speed
  4. Motivation and a wish to understand
  5. Understanding of language and culture

In this article, we will look closer at the first two in order to understand how we can achieve reading speed.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is simply knowledge about the sounds of Standard Chinese. The sound inventory is relatively simple compared with some other languages, because Chinese doesn’t have that many different syllables (about 10% of the number in English), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn. Some sounds might not exist in your native language (zh/ch/sh, z/c/s for example) and many learners feel that these are difficult to distinguish and/or pronounce. The same is true for tones. Being able to distinguish all syllables from each other is the most basic skill we need in order to understand.

Vocabulary and grammar

Once you can distinguish the syllables and tones used in Chinese, you can map these sounds to meaning (vocabulary or grammar). I prefer doing this with a combination of exposure and spaced repetition software. However, it’s not obvious what “mapping sounds to meaning” actually means. I think there are two ways we can understand a word:

  • Depth – We can understand a wide variety of usages and nuances, we can use the word in many different contexts accurately
  • Speed – We can map the sound to the meaning of the word quickly, which is the essence of listening speed

The first of these two is what people mean when they say “I know this word”. However, as we shall see, I think how fast you know that word is of paramount importance for listening ability. This is what I call listening speed.

Listening speed

Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean when I say listening speed. The first time I see a word in Chinese and understand its meaning, either because I can guess it or because someone tells me what it means, a link is created between the sound and the meaning. For example:

tīng lì = listening ability

Next time I encounter this sound, tīng lì, I might or might not remember its meaning. If I do remember it, the recollection is probably not instantaneous; let’s say it takes me five seconds to search my mind and come up with the correct meaning. (The figures I’m use here are wild guesses and are merely included to illustrate my thoughts.) Next time I hear this word, the recollection will be quicker, let’s say it takes two seconds. Then one second. Gradually, as our brains get used to connecting the sound with the meaning, the process is completed more and more quickly.

Lack of listening speed

Assuming that we can distinguish the sounds used in Chinese and that our vocabulary is broad enough, we should be able to understand anything said to us in Chinese, and if we just know enough words we should be able to pass the listening test on the advanced HSK, right?


Even if you understand all the words, your parsing of the sentence and it’s meaning might be too slow. If the speed at which you process the audio you hear is slower than the rate of speech, you will have a problem. By my own non-scientific estimate, news broadcasts are typically read at a pace of 3-4 syllables per second, which gives something like 2-3 words per second. Thus, if you require more than half a second to understand what these words mean, you will get lost very quickly. This is of course a crude example and the actual speed required is faster than that, because you not only need to understand all the words, you also need time to understand the sentence as a whole and how it related to the topic in general.

The solution is simple: Listen more

I think the solution is very simple indeed: Listen as much as you can. Each time you hear a word you understand, the time required to retrieve that word will decrease. If you’ve learnt thousands of words in Chinese, you need to listen a lot before you’ve heard all those words a significant number of times. Before you have, you will continuously run into problems with listening speed. Note that you have to understand what you hear for this to be effective. You’re training your brain to link e.g. “tīng lì” to the meaning of “listening ability”, but if your brain can’t make the connection, it doesn’t count (it might still be good for practising other things, though).

A very simple solution is to use an SRS which is capable of reading all the words for you (Anki, for instance). For the purpose of listening speed, it’s of course better to have the audio on the front of the flashcard (as part of the question), but if that doesn’t work with how you’ve set up your cards (let’s say you’re testing yourself on the pronunciation of characters), you can still add the audio to the back of the card (as part of the answer), which means you will still hear the sound each time you review the card and can associate it with its meaning. Listening to the words in context is of course even better, but SRS is a very good start and an excellent complement.

Quantity is king

The more you listen, the better. In this case, it doesn’t need to be very advanced or hard, just listen as much as you can. Listening to the same audio more than once is fine, but don’t overdo it, because the brain is very good at learning context, which means that you might understand words only in the context you’ve encountered them, but not in others.

Thus, the best way to improve listening speed is listening to audio you can understand and do it a lot. This is the main reason why I think passive listening is so important! Without it, our brains would simply not be able to parse audio quickly enough to allow us to understand the meaning behind the sounds.

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
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

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?

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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.