Learning Chinese through audio books

Image credit: Jeff Daly
Image credit: Jeff Daly

I have learnt English to my current level without ever having lived in an English-speaking country. I attribute this mostly to very large amounts of input, mostly in the form of books. When I was around 20, I figured that I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read, so I started listening to audio books as a complement to reading normally.

It took a while to get used to it, but once I had established the proper habits, I consumed a few novels a week, adding up to as much as 100 books per year.

In order to listen to enough Chinese, you need long-form content

In last week’s article, I talked about the importance of using long-form over bite-sized content when it comes to building volume. To summarise, it’s very hard to listen to enough audio if you only listen to snippets, you need longer programs or audio books to increase the amount of listening at an advanced level.

This is actually easier than it sounds, since by keeping to the same resource, many factors remain constant (such as speaker and style) or at least similar (e.g. content). Variety is good, but it also requires more effort to cope with. You can read the entire article here.

As promised, I will now talk about using audio books to learn in particular.

Listening to audio books in Chinese

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I found it much more difficult to apply this kind of massive input method to learning Chinese. There are many reasons for this. To start with, I don’t feel that there is a big difference between reading and listening to a novel in English, whereas in Chinese, the difference is huge.

This isn’t because my listening ability is bad, but because written Chinese is much more distant from colloquial Chinese than written English is from spoken English. There are many words that are only used in writing, abbreviations or contractions that make more sense if you see the characters and a very large number of near-homonyms. This makes listening to an audio book considerably harder than reading it, given roughly equal listening and reading competence.

Another factor is that in English, there are many authors who write in a very simple style. In other words, you can be a world-famous author while still writing in plain English, indeed some authors are famous at least partly because they do this (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene come to mind).

I have not found this to be true in Chinese literature. Instead, it seems that highly held works of literature are linguistically more complicated, referential and “fancy”. Also, many Chinese novels have strong dialectal streaks, which can make it even harder. This is true for some English novels as well, but I’ve rarely found this to be a problem.

Listening to a Chinese novel written with an unfamiliar regional flavour is a bit like giving the audio version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to an intermediate learner of English. Good luck!

The reason I’m saying all this is because you shouldn’t be disappointed if you’re an intermediate learner and find audio books difficult. They will be, probably for a long time. I suggest proceeding with audio books only if you can already understand most of the Chinese you hear around you in an everyday setting.

Selecting the audio book that is right for you

There are a number of factors you should keep in mind when selecting an audio book. Since many of these vary a lot, you might need to try several before you choose one to actually stick with. This essential, do not just choose one randomly and dive in, because it might be many times harder than it needs to be.

Here are some important factors to consider:

  • The book is of course the most important factor. Try to find a book that interests you and which isn’t too literary or contains too much dialect you don’t understand. I suggest modern fiction in a modern setting.  Ask Chinese friends for recommendations. I have written about how to ease yourself into reading novels in Chinese, and the same principles apply to listening to novels as well.
  • The narrator is also extremely important. The most common “problem” is that the narration is too dramatic, which means the narrator changes volume, tempo and style according to the requirements of the story. This can be very hard to listen to! I recommend narrators that are as close to normal relaxed reading as possible. This might be less interesting for native speakers, but it’s easier for non-native speakers to listen to.
  • The setting is sometimes important. It will be much harder to understand something set in an unfamiliar time or place, so choose something which is as familiar as possible. This probably means a modern setting, which also increases the likelihood that the language is suitable.

I haven’t listened to enough books to be able to suggest a good book which is also relatively easy to follow, but the most suitable book I’ve listened to so far is 病毒 by 蔡駿. It’s a thriller/horror story (not very scary though) in a modern setting. There are also two sequels if you want more.

How to find audio books in Chinese

There are many ways to find audio books in Chinese. You can of course buy and/or download them from a number of websites (just search for the book title plus 有声书/有聲書, but the best way is to use one of the many apps and sites that stream audio, usually for free. This allows you to try many books before you settle on one you actually want to listen to.

Here are some apps/sites I’ve used:

Note that you can usually save streamed audio pretty easily, but that’s not something I will describe in detail here, but check this article in Wired:

Download MP3s from Streaming Music Sites

There are also many browser plugins that allow you to download streamed media.

How to listen to your first audio book

Now that you have selected an audio book, it’s time to start listening. But how? Here are my suggestions:

  • Combine text and audio – When you first start out, it helps a lot to have access to the text version of the book. This can make it easier to get used to the book. This is of course provided that your reading is up to par, but I think reading a book is still easier than listening to it for most students.
  • Listen more than once – There’s nothing wrong with listening to the first chapter a couple of times. You probably need less re-listening after that, but feel free to do it as much as you feel necessary to understand the gist of each chapter. This is the easiest way of increasing understanding, but if you find it too boring, don’t do overdo it.
  • Don’t give up – Listening to a novel in Chinese is not easy. It takes practice both getting used to the book, the narrator, the story and even audio books in general if you’re not used to it already from listening to books in English. As usual, the more you practise, the easier it becomes.

Conclusion

Audio books are a great way of learning and the best kind of long-form content I know. Have you listened to any books in Chinese? Please post a comment and share your experience. If you liked the book, please give some more information so that other readers can listen to the book too!

Bite-sized learning isn’t enough to learn Chinese

wot
This is what I read when I want to read something familiar that never ends. I’ve read about 4000 pages so far, still twice that to go. It’s the traditional translation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

I’m a big fan of bite-sized learning, because it’s easier to fit short periods of studying into your daily schedule. It’s also much less daunting to face a few sentences than it is to face something that takes at least an hour to get through. It’s hard to get started and you might end up not doing much at all. If the learning material is chopped up into smaller pieces, though, it’s easier to get started. Smaller pieces decrease the risk of choking. This is true for text as well as audio, which is the focus of this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese:

Chinese listening challenge, June 10th to June 30th

Why bite-sized learning isn’t enough

At some point, however, you have to learn to chew longer sections of text and audio. There are two main reasons:

  1. It’s part of what you might want to do with your Chinese or part of what other people require of you.
  2. It’s the only way to build enough volume.

Let’s look at number two more closely. To reach a good level of listening and reading, you’ll need to spend thousands of hours listening and reading Chinese, and that is very difficult if your studying consists only of five-minute dialogues and short social media messages. Getting through a year’s worth of food takes a while if you’re only allowed to nibble.

Bite-sized learning is good, but it’s sometimes harder than the alternative

Staying with the same material for a long time comes with some advantages apart from the fact that it’s easier to build volume. For instance, you get used to the way the content is written or spoken, and you get used to the topic(s) discussed.

Compare reading a novel spanning 250 pages with reading 25 short stories of ten pages each. I would argue that reading the novel is considerably easier, especially if the short stories are written by different authors and not collected in an anthology with a common theme.  The same is true for audio content, so it’s easier to understand and follow a two-hour interview than 24 five-minute interviews. You get to know the interviewed and the interviewer.

Long-form content is crucial for immersion

This is great, indeed necessary, if you want to immerse yourself in Chinese (especially if you create your own immersion environment). Constantly skipping between different topics, speakers and narratives is exhausting and can’t be maintained for very long. Thus, if you want to listen and read a lot, you need to find material that is both suitable for slicing up into small pieces, but also content that you can stick with longer.

Finding the right balance can be tricky, because as I have written elsewhere, you need diversity, too (Listening strategies: Diversify your listening practice). I think this is similar to studying content at different difficulty levels. You should study difficult things, but you have to realise that you can’t do that for very long, so you need easier material for when you’re not at 100%. Diversity works the same way, so you want as much diversity as possible, but not so much that you burn yourself out.

Low intensity and low diversity vs. high intensity and high diversity

For example, when I listen to or read Chinese these days, I have a high-intensity mode and a low-intensity one. The high-intensity mode means that I listen to wide variety of content, usually selected more or less randomly on 凤凰FM. The speakers are unfamiliar, the content is often new and I have very little idea of what it’s about before I start listening. The same principles can be applied to reading.

The low-intensity mode means that I listen to and read things I’m already familiar with. The extreme case is of course to listen or read something I’ve already been through before, that’s for when I don’t want to study actively at all and just want something to listen to. More commonly, though, I want something more interesting than that, and then I aim for longer content that I can stay with for a long time. For reading, this means novels or series of novels; for listening it means audio books, something I will write more about in an upcoming article.

Preparing for rainy days

What’s worth noticing here is that it requires an effort to build up your library of low-intensity, long-form listening and reading material. Reading a novel or a series of novels isn’t easy and relaxing when you start, but it might be when you’ve done it for a while. If you don’t listen and read enough, you won’t have old material to revisit. This means that you need to make an effort to get these projects going and you need to prepare in advance. I’ve written much more about this here: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps.

Finding suitable material

So, where do you get this kind of material? For beginners, it’s almost impossible. Extensive reading and listening, which is what we’re talking about here, is only possible if you can already understand most of the content and it’s very difficult to create such material for beginners in large quantities. You need a certain number of words and basic grammar to be able to say or write something interesting.The only thing I can recommend is what I usually recommend if you want more reading and listening at a beginner level: get more textbooks slightly below your current one.

Once you reach an intermediate stage, though, there are more resources available:

Even if you can’t find material which suits you perfectly (you probably won’t), you can still follow the principles I discussed above and reap some of the benefits. One way of doing this would be sticking to the same topic, although by different writers/speakers. Find news reports about the same event from many different channels, gather and read material about a historical event from different sources, find interviews with the same person done by different reporters.

If you can’t keep all the factors constant and find material at a suitable level, try to keep at least some of them constant. If you want to activate the language you learn passively, you can also summarise the material you have read or listened to; this is one of the best ways I know of improving writing ability in particular.

For advanced learners, it’s easier since you can start using audio and text meant for native speakers. It still requires effort to find the books you want to read and the programs you like listening to, but it’s easier than for beginners and intermediate learners. If you think it’s hard to find anything, ask native speakers for help, preferably someone who knows you a bit or has similar tastes. See also:

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

Conclusion

Learning a language is a complex task and you need practice of many different kinds. In general, spend as much time you can with diverse and challenging content, but realise that you will not be able to do that for very long before tiring.

Using long-form content is an excellent way of reducing the energy you need to learn Chinese. You save that energy by not having to familiarise yourself with the speaker/writer, style and content every time you start learning. This should make it easier to spend more time exposed to Chinese, which should be the main goal!

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!