Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps

We all experience slumps or periods when we don’t study much for some reason. This can be because the fun has gone out of it, because we’ve found other things to fill our spare time with or for a number of other reasons that are likely to be very individual.

When I talk about slumps, I’m talking about when you study less Chinese because of internal factors, so if you haven’t studied because you’re busy taking care of your newborn baby or surviving a one-man hike through the Amazon rainforest, you’re not experiencing a slump. Still, it’s important to realise that we usually have more time than we think, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/adrian_s/
Image credit: flickr.com/photos/adrian_s/

I wrote about the problem with slumps last week, arguing that slumps affect your learning more than flows, mostly because slumps tend to be long and draining whereas flows may be intense, but seldom last very long. I also said that the most important way of dealing with slumps is to prepare for them before they happen.

However, even though I think I explained the why, I didn’t really explain the how.After several comments about this both here on Hacking Chinese and on Facebook, I decided to expand the topic with another article focused exclusively on how to handle slumps in particular.

Productivity, time management and having fun

I have written three articles earlier that are all crucial to understanding how to deal with ebbs in motivation. For those of you who haven’t read them, I’ll summarise them as follows:

  • Study according to your productivity levelWhen studying and choosing between the many things you want to learn, you should choose a task that is as demanding as you can manage. This might sound obvious, but it has some really important implications. First, if you are too tired to learn something, your default solution shouldn’t be to stop learning, but you should learn something easier instead. Conversely, you shouldn’t waste productivity by doing things that require no effort at all when in fact you feel like you could conquer the world. Scale down or scale up depending on your current state of mind.
  • Have fun learning Chinese or else…The importance of enjoying yourself is something that really can’t be stressed too much, even when we’re talking about normal learning as opposed to learning in a slump. The logic is quite straightforward: Learning Chinese takes an awful lot of time and if you don’t enjoy it or find it interesting, it will be almost impossible to force yourself to do it. It would also be quite stupid. Find ways of learning that you like, or at least make the best of every situation.
  • The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think – The important lesson here is that accomplishing anything can be broken down into smaller tasks of various sizes. Some of them require serious planning because they are bulky and require a lot of space in your metaphorical time barrel (thes tasks are called rocks), some can be fitted in almost anywhere (pebbles or sand)  or even superimposed on top of other tasks (water). In order to fill your days with as much Chinese as possible, you should think about how to fill all those small spaces between the boulders. The picture below shows how to fill the time barrel.

timebarrelsHow to handle slumps

Now that we have looked at some of the key concepts involved, we can start talking about how to deal with the slump itself.

First, based on the article about productivity levels, it’s clear that we’re not going to accomplish anything too serious during a slump. Thus, anything that you consider challenging in anyway is probably not a good idea (you might still be forced to do it because of exams and so on, though), because you don’t have the motivation to see it through. To as large an extent as possible, stick to what  you already know.

Another option is to choose tasks that don’t feel much like studying at all:

Second, focus on anything you find interesting or fun for reasons that aren’t connected to learning the language itself (if you think learning the language itself is fun, you’re probably not in a slump at the moment and you’re reading the wrong article). Here’s some advice from the having fun article. If you already like…

There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:

  • Finding friends who share your interest
  • Reading blogs about the topic in question
  • Writing about what you like on a blog
  • Talking with friends about what you like
  • Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes

Third, if we look at the time barrel, it’s easy to see that the big rocks need to go. They require focus and represent major obstacles that you certainly don’t feel like negotiating right now. When you feel upbeat, go ahead, but during a slump, you should get rid of most or all the bigger, more draining tasks. Depending on how serious the slump is, you could also get rid of lots of pebbles. The point is that you should keep as much of the small stuff as possible. Here are some suggestions:

Sand:

  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese online
  • Reviewing vocabulary a few minutes at a time

Water:

Don’t conquer, consolidate

In general, I think that one common denominator for all the above arguments is that things you know already are less demanding than things you don’t know. Familiar things fit more easily in the time barrel. This means that you shouldn’t focus too much on adding to your knowledge in a slump, which could be likened to conquering new territory, but rather reinforce the Chinese you already know, which would be more like consolidating what you have already conquered. In essence, jump one rung down on the ladder of progress, go back to where you were half a year ago.

Naturally, this is easier the more advanced you are. If you can read comics with ease, but find novels hard, stop reading novels and go back to comics. If you find new comics too demanding, re-read old ones or continue reading a series you’re already familiar with. Re-watch your favourite Disney or Pixar films in Chinese.

If you have a serious slump as a beginner, you might have a different kind of problem. How serious are you about learning Chinese? Rather than studying, I think you should try to find ways to motivate yourself in general. What made you start learning Chinese in the first place? Return to that inspirational source or find others.

Focus on ways of learning that don’t involve studying

Another way to look at this is to highlight the difference between studying and learning. The first usually means that you focus on doing something in order to learn (i.e. learning is the main goal). Learning is then the result of studying (if you’re using an efficient method). However, studying isn’t the only way you can learn! Basically, anything you do that’s related to Chinese will improve your Chinese. Don’t think of studying Chinese as sitting in front of a computer looking up characters or doing grammar exercises in a book. During a slump, focus on ways of learning tat don’t involve active studying.

You’re not alone

Although I haven’t discussed it explicitly above, social factors are very important. You’re not the only one learning Chinese and neither are you the only person around in general. It’s much harder to motivate yourself if you’re doing everything alone, but if you allow other people to help you, it will be much easier. This includes normal social interaction with Chinese speakers as well as teaming up with study partners or discussing learning online. I have written more about this here: You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone.

weiyuchoumou未雨綢繆

This is a Chengyu that for some reason seems very common in textbooks but which use is quite limited (as is the case with most Chengyu). This is the definition from Baidu:

未雨绸缪,拼为wèi yǔ chóu móu,
绸缪:紧密缠缚;趁着天没下雨,先修缮房屋门窗,比喻事先做好准备工作。

In other words, you make sure the doors and windows are tightly fastened before the storm (rain) arrives, which simply means to prepare for an event in advance, to prepare for a rainy day. Or prepare for a slump before it hits you. This is my final and perhaps most important piece of advice:

Prepare for the slump before it hits you

The logic behind this is very simple: There are many things you can learn during a slump, but most of these require effort of some kind before you get started. To name a few examples, you can’t watch a Pixar film in Chinese if you don’t have it available, you can’t reread a comic book if you haven’t read any comic books, you can’t practice sports if you haven’t found a club, you can’t hang out with friends that you don’t have, establishing habits is much harder than maintaining them. And so on.

You need to find learning activities at all different levels and establish habits when you have the energy to do so, not when you’re in a slump. I review vocabulary daily because it’s a habit I have established over many years. It doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s just something I do. Establishing such a habit is hard, maintaining it is not (that’s part of the definition of a habit).

Lastly, even though this might be obvious, don’t overdo any task that will come back and haunt you later. This is perhaps most important when it comes to spaced repetition software. Some people binge study in programs like Skritter and Anki, but fail to realise that the hard thing isn’t to add lots of flashcards, it’s to maintain those words later. Instead of just adding lots of words, spend that time actually using Chinese instead (listening/speaking/reading/writing).

Conclusion

If you’re in a slump now, take a step back (or down) and follow the advice above. Try focusing on the fun aspects of learning and avoid forced studying. Hopefully, your motivation will come back soon. If you don’t have much to fall back on in terms of habits or leisurely activities, you’d better make that a priority after the slump.

If you’re not in a slump now, you should prepare for the storm now rather than waiting for when the rain starts pouring in through your leaking roof. I have provided a lot of things you could look into, but I’m sure you know better than I do what will work for you in a slump. You will still experience slumps, but hopefully they will be less severe!

14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the third part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share, but since I have covered most of the music I want to cover, I’m not likely to write more about it soon.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)

If you still want more music, you should be fine on your own. You can also check out this list from Chinese to Learn. It contains lots of songs with introduction to the artist, lyrics and so on. Also, don’t forget to check the comments to the other articles. There are some good stuff in there I simply don’t have room for (I don’t want to make these articles overcrowded).

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ba1969

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

10 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

黑豹 – 无地自容

There seems to be a number of fairly famous bands who made lots of good rock music roughly two decades ago. I find this much more agreeable than most modern rock music I’ve listened to. Also check out 崔健, who has already been mentioned in this article.

 

MATZKA – M.A.T.Z.K.A

Taiwanese reggae! This was the first time I heard someone singing in Mandarin with a Jamaican accent (which is obviously adopted when singing). The song contains some Taiwanese, but is almost entirely in Mandarin. 讚!

Yaksa – 末路

The intro says metal core, but the comments on YouTube says this particular song isn’t metal core, but that the rest of the album is. Since I don’t have a clue what metal core is, I’ll just avoid the debate. For the purpose of this article, it’s enough to say that this song is quite good and sounds like normal rock to my ears.

唐朝 – 封禅祭

More rock, but this time heavy metal. I have listened to a fair number of their songs and this one stands out. I find it clearer and more pleasant to listen to than the others. The lyrics are reasonably easy to hear as well (even though the singer has the characteristic metal touch).

韩磊 – 向天再借五百年

This ballad is about as powerful as it gets and feels very Chinese. Not necessarily favoured by the kids of today, but ask their parents!

万能青年旅店 – 大石碎胸口

This band is great. Pop with a touch of rock and perhaps a shade of jazz. Some songs are (almost) only instrumental, but others are suitable for language practice, such as this one. I like almost all songs on this album, which is called 万能的喜剧.

回聲樂團 – 巴士底之日

This is about as close as I can get to what I think of as modern “rock”. As such, it serves as a base for finding more music in this direction. I find it difficult to explain exactly why I like this particular song, but for some reason, I do.

1976 – 顏色

Post-rock. This is far from being the best post-rock produced in the Chinese speaking world (check Sugar Plum Ferry for instance). The problem is that most of this music is instrumental and thus not very good for language learning. If you have other suggestions, let me know!

盧廣仲 – 早安晨之美

Pop and about as 愚蠢 (stupid, silly) as it gets, but it’s still enormously popular (and, I admit, a bit catchy). I have a feeling this is the kind of music many like, but don’t own up to in public. Very clear Mandarin, here with on-screen lyrics.

草莓救星 – 想不到

Rock of the softer variety. Also has on-screen lyrics and relatively clear mandarin. I should also add that this music video is awesome, well worth watching even if you don’t like the music.

孙楠 – 拯救

I’ve always been a sucker for piano in pop music. That combined with the singers voice makes this otherwise not so memorable song quite memorable. Actually a ballad I like!

苏阳 – 贤良

I thought the beginning of this song was a bit boring the first time I heard it, but since it was recommended to me as being unique in several ways, I kept listening anyway. That was fortunate, because the song only gets better and better, not only as the song progresses, but also the second, third and tenth time listening to it. It’s some kind of folk song, but with modern elements. Don’t miss the lyrics (and the video).

Planet map/星球地图 (?)

I can’t really find any information about either the artist or the song, but it’s pretty good. It’s some kind of electronica/pop.

龚琳娜- 忐忑

This shouldn’t really be included on this list, simply because it’s impossible to use for language learning (or anything else for that matter). I include it for it’s weirdness and because it’s, for some strange reason, popular.

13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the third part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/sraburton

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

龙神道 – 心在指引方向

Reggae! Apart from this, also check out Matzka. Perhaps I’m not a great fan of reggae ordinarily, but I still find it very pleasant to listen to.

前進樂團 – 對不起我的中文不好

No list with music for learning Chinese would be complete without these guys. A song about not speaking Chinese very well and being misunderstood. Easy lyrics for everybody.

P.K.14 – 多麼美妙的夜晚

This is a recommendation from commenter Scott in my first music recommendation post and is some kind of indie rock. Thanks guys, this band is awesome!

果味VC – 超音速列車

Saying that this is more of the same stuff is a bit unfair, but there are indeed similarities, so if you like the above PK14, you might want to try this out as well. Thanks to Laurenth who mentioned this band in the comments to this article.

張宇 – 月亮惹的禍

More rock similar to 崔健 and 黑豹. Fairly mainstream, but still good. As I’ve said before, there’s much more out there if you like this. Clear pronunciation and easy to sing along with.

春秋 – 猎人

This is one of two worthwhile metal bands I’ve found (the other is 唐朝). I’m not a connoisseur of metal and these two bands sound quite similar to me. Both are good!

黄丽玲 – 失恋无罪

A mixture of standard Chinese ballad and rock song, which turns out okay. If you’re not into ballads, do at least listen to tho chorus before you dismiss the song entirely.



任贤齐 – 对面的女孩看过来

This song seems to be quite popular among Chinese learners, perhaps because it’s reasonably pleasant to listen to, is quite melodious and invites the listener to sing along. Not a personal favourite, but still deserves a place here.

蘇打綠 – 小宇宙

Pop performed by an artist who seem to be a model example of what at least Taiwanese girls like. What makes it stand out from the rest is the singer’s voice. The chorus is quite catchy, even though the verses are a bit boring.

熊寶貝樂團 – 年年

Peaceful and pleasant singer/songwriter pop. The text should be easy to learn, even though it might be slightly hard to pick up simply because of the softness of the singing in general.

Tizzy Bac – 俄羅斯輪盤

Happy and energetic pop with touches of more traditional instruments. This song made the list for its upbeat tone and the good feeling it generates.

張懸 –  寶貝

This song is cute and extremely popular. I include it because it’s a beginner friendly and simple (actually, I have to admit I like it, too, but I’m not sure why).

S.H.E – 中國話 (官方版MV)

Lastly, I’d like to include this song after Sara’s comment here. This isn’t really my cup of tea, but I have to agree with here that it should be included because 1) it deals specifically with learning Chinese and 2) it’s popular and if you’ll score thousands of points if you pull off the tongue twister in a KTV. Enjoy!

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the second part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/sraburton

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The Last Successor – 释放

The description gives this as progressive rock (which I’m not really sure I agree with) and power metal (which seems much more accurate). I had to search a while before I found any nice metal in Chinese, most likely because I don’t really enjoy the genre in English either.

伍佰 & China Blue – 單程車票

A bit silly, perhaps, but still full of optimistic energy. The text isn’t very hard, but it relatively long. Also a song which is easy to sing along with.

柯受良 – 大哥

This song was very popular roughly ten years ago. Pronunciation is distinctly Taiwanese, but still clear. I remember that I found the text quite difficult, but that was a long time ago.

那英 – 我的幸福刚刚好

This is a song I shouldn’t like, because neither do I like other songs like this nor do I like any other songs I’ve heard by 那英, this is the only one. I think it’s mainly because of her voice, so sexy!

范逸臣 – 國境之南

This song is from the Taiwanese film 海角七號 (Cape no. 7) and I find it beautiful because of it’s simplicity. The artist has made several other nice songs, but also lots of fairly nondescript pop.

鄧麗君 海韻

Teresa Teng (her English name) has been and still is very popular all over Asia. The songs are seldom exciting, but her voice is pleasant to the ear and her pronunciation is very clear. This is one of my favourites:

陳奕迅 – 十年

Quite mainstream, but still good. Pronunciation is clear and I like the lyrics very much, which makes this song nice to sing along with. This is my favourite KTV song.

Nuclear Fusion G – Space Exploration

This is some kind of industrial metal, fairly close to things I like a lot in English (KMFDM for instance). It’s not that good, but again, China is more diverse than you think. You probably need the lyrics to hear what this song is about, though.

刀郎 – 冲动的惩罚

I tend to dislike slow-paced Chinese music, but this song has something special. I like his voice and the lyrics is also quite clear. Not a song that I can’t stop listening to, but still worthwhile.

侃侃 – 滴答

This song is simple in every possible way, but therein also lies its beauty. Thanks to Hugh Grigg for this one, see his translation of the lyrics here.

王菲 – 但願人長久

More Faye Wong, this time a song I had to include because I think it’s the one song where she really manages to use her voice to perfection. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the text, it’s a poem in classical Chinese.

凤凰传奇- 月亮之上

Again, this could have been extremely boring, but because of the singers voice, it stands out. Rhythmical and suitable for singing along with. Unsure how to categorise this, but perhaps R’n’B with a local touch?

That’s it for now, I’ll be back later with more! Don’t forget to leave suggestions in the comments!

Study according to your current productivity level

In order to learn Chinese, there are a wide range of things we need to study. Some are very demanding (writing, active listening), some relatively monotonous (entering new vocabulary, reviewing old vocabulary), others aren’t actually studying, but still beneficial (finding suitable reading material, reading articles on Hacking Chinese), yet others are fairly passive and can be combined with other activities (background listening, passive listening). Perhaps the most overlooked kind of studying is that which doesn’t really feel like studying (listening to music, playing computer games, doing sports).

These all require different levels of productivity. Sometimes, we are full of energy and feel that we can do anything, but sometimes we feel listless and when we try to write an article or transcribe a dialogue, it simply doesn’t work.

If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it

In order to invest thousands of hours into learning Chinese, you need to either enjoy what you’re doing or be very masochistic. Not only does studying become a pain if you don’t enjoy it, but studies also show that being interested in what you’re doing and enjoying while you learn is of paramount importance for your study results. Therefore, if you planned to do something, but then figure out that you don’t have the energy required, you shouldn’t force yourself. Generating negative feelings in connection with learning Chinese is dangerous and counter-productive.

If you don’t feel up to it, do something else instead

However, just because you don’t feel up to spending an hour transcribing a dialogue or writing an article on Lang-8, that does not mean that you should play games on Facebook or idly browse the internet instead. No, you should instead try to find something else to study, something that matches your current productivity level. This is the true topic of this article. Maximising output is about being able to find something suitable to study for any given mental state or level of productivity.

If you have to do it anyway, choose the best time

Before delving deeper into different kinds of tasks and how to rank them according to productivity level, something should be said about procrastination. If you have tasks you really have to do, either because you think they’re essential to your language learning or because of curricular pressure, you can’t simply choose other tasks, at least not all the time. However, if you start with your assignment well on time, there’s usually enough time to allow some flexibility. If you just can’t concentrate on learning complex grammar right now, perhaps after lunch or before dinner will be better?

This is not an excuse to postpone indefinitely, it’s about knowing yourself. If you know that you become very tired after meals, don’t place heavy tasks like active listening or writing articles directly after lunch. If you know that you’re usually very productive for a few hours after waking up, try to use that time to get these things done instead. This is related to what I’ve written about time quality earlier, but is more closely related to your own emotional state, rather than external factors.

In essence, you should choose the task that most closely matches your current productivity level and mental state.

This means that you might have to do things you don’t feel up to sometimes, but that’s difficult to avoid if you have exams and homework assignments.

Productivity levels vary over time

Although people are certainly different in this regard, productivity levels vary over time, both in the short and long term. Personally, I know that I’m very productive before lunch (this article was written around eight o’clock on a Sunday morning) and after midnight. On the other hand, I know that time between lunch and dinner is much less productive for me, and the closer to five o’clock it gets, the more prone to procrastination I become.

Productivity levels also vary in the long term. If I’m busy with other things that require productive output of some kind, I have less energy left for demanding study tasks. If studying Chinese is the only thing I’m doing at the moment, this usually isn’t a problem, but it still might be. Almost everything in our might influences how productive we feel (particularly social life). Therefore, understanding yourself is necessary if you hope to optimise your studying.

Tasks requiring low productivity levels

Regarding tasks requiring low productivity levels, I think it’s important to always know what you’re going to study next. You can keep post-it notes on your desk or have a text file on your phone, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but having a list of things to study is necessary. Why? Because determining what you want to study requires productivity/creativity in itself! If you don’t have that, how are you supposed to know what to study? Here are a few things I can do almost regardless of how listless I feel:

  • Review vocabulary – Make sure to timebox if it’s hard to concentrate or if you feel tired
  • Edit vocabulary definitions – I routinely mark and update flashcards with new info, example sentences and so on
  • Find, download or manage audio – Do you have relevant audio on your phone? If yes, you can always get more.

If these things are too demanding or you find them too boring to cope with, then try the following (but don’t do this all the time, know yourself well enough to know when you’re procrastinating and when you are realistic):

These are just examples, of course. What you personally think is demanding isn’t something I can comment on, but the above examples are based on my own experience. For instance, music is something which makes me more energetic, so using music almost never fails. This might not be the case for you, but I hope you understand the principle.

The most important thing of all: When you feel tired, don’t stop studying, study something else instead

If you take one thing with you from this article, I’d like it to be this: The next time you feel tired while studying Chinese and feel like giving up, don’t simply put down the book and go on Facebook or similar. Instead, find something else you can study which is more suited to your current emotional state. It might be something which doesn’t feel very serious (such as music), but it’s still exposure to Chinese, something you need more of. In any case, it’s much better than doing nothing!

Why learning Chinese through music is underrated

I think music is widely overlooked as a way of learning languages. I often hear people say that music is good to learn languages, but how many of them practise what they preach ? It’s of course very hard to estimate how many songs I know in English, but I probably know several hundred (with lyrics). Listening to music is spaced repetition packaged in a way which makes it feel very much like playing (or singing or dancing) and not at all like studying. Learning those songs, I had no intention at all to improve my English, but considering how much language those songs contain, it would be very strange if they haven’t helped me learning English.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ba1969

In Chinese I know perhaps fifty songs. How many do you know?

In this article I intend to take you with me on my exploration of Chinese music. I will first talk about why I think listening to music is so good and then I will share some songs I like. In upcoming articles, I will share much more, this is just a warm-up.

I don’t like Chinese music! Really? I mean, seriously?

This attitude is quite common and I thought like that for several years myself. All the Chinese songs I had ever heard sounded roughly the same and were slow ballads about love, relying heavily on the singers voice and the lyrics. If you don’t understand the lyrics and don’t particularly like this genre, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that all Chinese music sucks. However, it wasn’t Chinese music that sucked, it was my ability to look for alternatives that sucked.

If you say there is no good Chinese music, you’re either ignorant or very, very narrow-minded.

How to finding Chinese music you like

There are a few things you can do to find Chinese music you like:

  • Search for “[any genre you like]” + “Chinese” on YouTube. You’re likely to find at least something, depending a little bit on what genre you search for. Here are some examples: reggae, hip-hop, trash metal, there’s lots of stuff out there just waiting to be discovered.
  • Pick any of the songs you already like and check the related videos on YouTube, which is likely to give you similar  (or the same) artists. Note that you might dislike one song, but then love the next by the very same artist, so don’t give up if you don’t find anything immediately. You can also look for related artists by searching on forums and on the internet in general.
  • Check music sites such as 一听音乐, 独立音地, 新茶锋潮. Also check this article (in English) about QQ Music.
  • Check one of the songs below. I have more articles in the pipeline with over 30 additional songs, so stay tuned.

Some effort is needed

Naturally, using music to learn is not effortless, because most people can’t just listen to music in Chines and absorb the words automatically. Some studying is required. Still, if you pick music you like, this is excellent practice, because you will automatically review vocabulary and grammar every time you hear the songs, not because you think you ought to, but because you like it. I suggest learning the chorus of the song first and leave the verses until later, because they are usually more complicated and repeated less often, which means that they are harder to learn.

If music is difficult to learn (probably because you lack vocabulary), you have to balance the gains from music against those from normal listening practice (see this article series). I think the main reason music is useful is because it requires time of a different quality than active listening practice. Thus, if it’s too hard, I would suggest focusing on really easy songs or wait with music for a while and focus on more important things.

Also, don’t forget that liking music is sometimes a matter of exposure. I have several songs I didn’t like at all at first, but that I have later started liking. Thus, don’t listen to a promising song once and then dismiss it, take a dozen or so and put them on your phone. Listen to them a couple of times and then remove those you don’t like.

Music helps you fit in: Karaoke/KTV

An added benefit of learning some songs in Mandarin is that you don’t feel completely at a loss when karaoke is on the menu. This is much more widespread in East Asia than in any Western country I’ve been to, and I felt fairly awkward in the beginning simply because I had had almost no contact with Chinese music and definitely didn’t know any song lyrics. In our native language, we can often learn songs simply by listening to them on the radio for a few times. This is much, much harder in Chinese. Focusing on music now and then not only makes learning more fun, it helps you fit in as well.

A word on pronunciation and grammar in songs

As you well know from your own language, songs don’t always contain grammatically correct sentences perfectly pronounced. Indeed, some songs are more like poems and use the language creatively. Some singers deliberately sing in specific ways to make it sound better or achieve certain effects. However, most of what you hear will still be useful Chinese and if you can hear what the singer is singing after seeing the lyrics, I wouldn’t worry too much. Obviously, you shouldn’t use this as your primary tool to perfect pronunciation, but I’d be surprised if anyone thought so.

If you are a beginner, be careful with pronunciation. You should know that even if tones are sometimes present in songs, they are rarely pronounced as they are in normal, everyday speech. Thus, I would advice against listening to lots of music before you have the basics of Chinese pronunciation down. Music is a very poor teacher of intonation and tones, so you’d better find a real teacher to learn that first.

Not enough? Check the other articles in this series:

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated (this article)
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

Enough talking, let’s hear some singing instead!

Matzka – 情人的眼淚

This is raw emotion. I seldom like emotional music, but I can think of few voices that could convey this lyrics better than his. The lyrics is relatively simple and the pronunciation is clear. One of my favourites.

崔健 – 一無所有

A rock classic which is actually quite good. Pronunciation is not clear at all and therefore not very suitable if that’s what you’re after. The lyrics is relatively simple and has been translated by Hugh Grigg here.

弦子 – 逆風的薔薇

As far as I know, this isn’t the kind of music she’s typically associated with (I’ve checked some of the other albums and didn’t like it at all). This song is quite good, even though her voice gets a bit annoying towards the end. The pronunciation is clear, but the language used is probably more suitable for intermediate students and above.

王若琳 – 有你的快乐

If you have a voice like this, you can’t make bad music. The pronunciation is relatively clear, at least if you’ve read through it once or twice before. She’s made several songs of similar quality, this is just one among many. You probably need to watch some ads before the song starts, sorry, couldn’t find a better version.

王菲 – 再見螢火蟲

Well-known in China (or in the West as Faye Wong) who has a marvellous voice, here used to create something darker and leaning more towards rock. Very good indeed. The lyrics is more difficult than the above songs. She’s made lots of good songs, but also a huge number of mundane and boring ones.

As I said earlier, there will follow several articles with more music I consider worthwhile. If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Further reading

Why Teach Chinese through Song (Hong Zhang)

Listening strategies: Passive listening

Most people agree that quantity is very important for improving listening ability (immersion, in other words). The previous article in this series started out by defining different listening modes and went on to discuss background listening in more detail. In this article, we will look more closely at a slightly more active way of listening, but which is yet passive in the sense that listening is all we do. In previous articles, I have defined passive listening in the following way:

Passive listening is when you focus on what you’re listening to, but aren’t doing anything apart from listening. Thus, it is much more active and requires time of a different quality than background listening. You might listen passively because you’re unable to be more active (see the examples below) or because you don’t want to for some reason:

  • Listening to podcasts while jogging
  • Tuning in to a radio station while playing a mindless game
  • Reviewing the audio material to your textbook while driving

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

Articles in this series:
Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening (this article)
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)

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/arinas74

The passive-active spectrum

Background listening is a simple way of filling our days with hours and hours of Chinese, but since we don’t pay particular attention to what we listen to while it’s in the background, we will of course benefit less from the language we’re exposed to. Passive listening, although still not the most active form of practising, means that we pay more attention to what we hear..

However, in this article I’m going to argue that there shouldn’t be a clear line between passive and active listening. I think passive listening is mostly the result of circumstances, i.e. you don’t do active listening simply because it’s not practically possible. If you heed my advice about using diverse methods to learn Chinese, you will find yourself listening to Chinese while jogging, cooking or drive to work, and so on. In these cases, all you can do is listen, simply because your hands are already occupied.

Basic passive listening

This what most people mean when they say passive listening. You have a radio program, podcast or something on and you listen and try to understand what they’re saying. The difficulty, length and content of the audio material might of course vary, but simply listening and trying to understand is a worthwhile exercise in itself. Let’s not forget that when we look at more fancy methods below.

Note that more active listening isn’t necessarily good. If we’re aiming for something close to full immersion, it’s impossible to spend 10+ hours a day listening actively (you’ll become exhausted very quickly). Before we go on to discussing how to make listening more active, let’s look at a few things you can do to lower the stress level, thus enabling you to learn Chinese at all times:

  • Listen to things you really like
  • Listen to music (which feels more relaxing)
  • Listen to something you’ve already listened to
  • Listen to audio at a lower difficulty level
  • Listen to topics you already know about in your native language

Making passive listening more active

Having looked at how we can lower the mental processing required, let’s now turn to how we can increase it to learn more. The more actively we approach the audio, the more we will learn. This does not mean that background listening is useless, it just means that it can’t be the backbone of our listening strategy (rather, it should be the flesh that makes up the biggest volume of our listening practice).

The problem is that it’s hard to make listening more active if you only have access to your brain and the audio you’re listening to. How are you supposed to do anything apart from simply listening if your driving, jogging or cooking at the same time?

In fact, there are quite a few things you can do:

  • Noticing – Repeat anything you find interesting, perhaps because it’s new to you or you find the expression useful. It can be anything from tones, words, phrases or grammar. If possible, repeat aloud to yourself. If not socially accepted, repeat to yourself in your head. Think of this as a mental bookmark you use to tell your brain that this is something important.
  • Shadowing – Repeat aloud what you hear immediately. This is fairly easy in your native language, but is very hard in Chinese, at least if the audio material contains reasonably natural speech. If you can’t repeat everything, repeat as much as you can, aiming for keywords. If you for some reason can’t repeat aloud, you can do the same thing in your head, but note that this is significantly easier than saying the words aloud.
  • Interpret – Translate what you hear as you hear it. This might be very easy or very hard depending on what you’re listening to and if you’re familiar with the content beforehand or not. Note that the idea here isn’t to produce a good interpretation as such, but to allow you to focus on the main points of what’s being said and summarise that in your native language.

Some of the methods above are very demanding and hard to keep up for long periods of time. My suggestion is to try them out for just a few sentences at a time. Between attempts, return to the basic passive listening mode of simply trying to understand and follow the audio you’re hearing.

Special purpose listening

This is another form of passive listening that I think is essential. The concept is simple: select something you find interesting or something you’re having problems with, then concentrate only on these parts in the input. You can focus on anything you like, but here are some examples:

  • Listen to the person who is not speaking (When you’re listening to a non-scripted dialogue.) This will teach you how to sound approving, non-committed, questioning, interested, encouraging, surprised, empathetic, angry, sad, curious and much more. You will notice that the sounds Chinese people use to convey these feelings aren’t the same as those in your native language.
  • Listen for third tones – If you’re having troubles with the third tone, try focusing only on these while you listen. Try to hear as many as you can, note how they change according to the tone of the following syllable. Note that the third tone is a low tone most of the time.
  • Listen for various ways of saying “yes” and “no”. In class, most people very quickly learn at least one way of expressing agreement and disagreement, but languages typically have a wide variety of words available to express this. While listening to a dialogue, pay attention to how people agree or disagree with each other.
  • Listen for certain syllables – Are you curious about whether syllables like “yin” should start softly (with something close to the “y” in “yam” in English) or with a harder sound (like in “east”)? Listen to different people speaking while focusing on this detail and you will soon find that both varieties are quite common.

Towards more balanced listening

Even though I’ve spent at least one article singing the praise of non-active listening, I still feel that active listening is where most learning takes place. The more we process what we hear, the more we learn. The problem is of course that this mental processing is fairly demanding (depending on the difficulty level of the audio) and we can’t hope to keep it up for very long.

In this article, I’ve suggested several ways of making passive listening more active. Follow the advice as much as you feel comfortable with. If you feel it’s too much, back down to simply listening and trying to understand. If that’s too much, you should perhaps change to easier audio.You could also use one of the several ways of how to make listening less taxing. The point is that you should adapt your listening to how much energy you currently have and how much you want to invest in listening. If you don’t feel up to the task, the solution isn’t to cut the audio out entirely, but rather to change to a more relaxed listening mode.

This concludes my discussion of passive audio, next time we’ll talk about the most active forms of listening which requires full concentration and a suitable environment. Stay tuned!

 Questions for discussion

  • Do you have other ways of listening more actively?
  • Do you have other suggestions for what to focus on?
  • Do you have any advice on how to increase listening volume?