Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

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What languages do you speak? Do you speak Chinese? These questions are common and they both involve the word “speak”, even though they typically imply listening ability as well. We normally don’t ask about someone’s listening ability in specific languages, probably because it’s assumed that someone who can speak a language well can also understand it to a similar degree.

Assessing passive and active skills

I think this is true, but only up to a point. There are certain cases where people spend too much time on speaking and as a result neglect listening. The reason is probably that speaking ability is more highly valued and more obvious than listening ability, and it’s also easier to measure intuitively.

To assess someone’s listening ability, you almost need to design a structured test or at least be very active and ask control questions to verify that the listener understands what you’re saying and isn’t just pretending.

Speaking ability is hard to assess as well, but we can form an intuitive opinion about someone’s speaking ability very quickly, perhaps after just a few minutes conversation. However, as we shall see, it’s a lot easier to speak than it is to listen, because when you listen, you can’t control the language content to the same extent as when you speak.

Listening is hard

There are many reasons why listening is harder than speaking, but I’m going to focus on two major points here, one which is specific for Chinese and one which isn’t.

First, Chinese has a very small sound inventory (around 1000 common syllables) and the large number of homophones or near-homophones (words that sound the same or almost the same) in spoken Chinese makes it quite hard to understand. If you haven’t completely mastered tones, the number of perceived homophones sky-rockets.

Second, as I mentioned above, if you’re the one speaking, you can control the conversation, staying clear of areas you don’t know and steering the conversation towards areas you know. With just a few hundred words and some set phrases, you could probably have a conversation with someone and make it appear like it’s two-way communication, but in fact you don’t understand much of what the other person is saying except for the occasional keyword that you trigger on, use a few set phrases to express your opinion, improvise something using the words you know and then ask the other person a question in return.

This will work fine and you’re very unlikely to be found out except if someone is actively and competently probing your speaking ability. This mean that a video about how well you speak a language is pretty pointless, so if Scott Young just sent me a video of his proficiency in Chinese after 100 days, it wouldn’t have interested me much. However, after meeting him in person and talking with him in Chinese, as well as knowing that he also passed a formal exam (HSK4), I was quite impressed. A short video can give you a glimpse of what someone has achieved, but never more than that.

Listening ability is much more important than speaking ability

The problem with all this isn’t that I think a lot of people actively try to fake speaking ability or present themselves as being more proficient than they are, it is that it’s possible and you might even be doing it without realising that that’s the case. After all, impressing a teacher will give you a higher grade. This focus on speaking might make you skimp on your listening practise.

Don’t do it.

Speaking ability is important, but listening ability is essential. Speaking ability is mostly about using things you have already learnt, combining them together to communicate with others. This of course requires skill and practising speaking will help you do this more quickly and with less effort.

The problem is that you don’t learn many new things by speaking, you learn new things through listening, reading and/or studying. Of course, a conversation consists of both speaking and listening, but I’m convinced the listening part is actually much more important. Hearing mostly your own voice doesn’t teach you much.

Improving your listening ability accelerates your learning

The reason listening ability is so important is that it accelerates your learning in a way that improving your speaking ability does not. The more you understand of what’s said to you or what people say around you, the more you learn. This is very similar to the argument I’ve made earlier about knowing many words, which is indeed an important ingredient in listening ability.

Apart from this, I personally think that understanding what’s going on is more important for social integration than being able to express yourself. If you’re in a group of native speakers, it’s very hard to fit in or have fun if you don’t understand what people are saying; it doesn’t help much that your speaking ability is good, because what you say will be mostly monologues about topics you’re familiar with.

If your listening ability is very good, on the other hand, you can follow what’s going on and be a part of the group. Sure, your contributions to discussions might be limited in the beginning, but that will change gradually. In the meantime, you will learn a ton of Chinese just by understanding what the others are saying.

Writing and reading

Even though this article is about speaking and listening, most of the concepts here can be applied to writing and reading as well. In general, active abilities like speaking and writing are much more obvious to the listener/reader, whereas passive skills like listening and reading are more indirect. Still, a good reading/listening ability is the foundation of a good writing/speaking ability.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

No. It’s tempting to focus mostly on speaking when learning a foreign language. I know many beginners who spend a lot of time trying to say the words in the textbook, but very limited time trying to understand those words.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking from day one, I definitely think that’s a great idea, especially not if you have an immediate need of being able to speak with people where you live, but you shouldn’t allow that to overshadow your listening practice too much.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only knowledge which you can express counts. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, investing a lot of time in listening ability will give you better returns in the long run.

More about listening ability on Hacking Chinese

Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice

How and why to use television to learn Chinese

This is the first guest article by Luke Howard, whom I met on one of the Hacking Chinese meet-ups here in Taipei. He speaks Chinese well and when he told me that he relies heavily on watching TV to learn the language, I naturally became interested and wanted to know more. I don’t watch much TV myself, so instead of writing about this myself, I asked Luke to write about it. Enjoy!

Television is a valuable asset in the modern language learners toolkit. The medium provides a convenient way to enjoy large volumes of passive listening practice in a stress free environment.

foodThe combination of visual and auditory senses makes the medium accessible to the entire spectrum of Chinese learners, from the beginner through to advanced learners.

I have been watching television (and reading books) as the primary staple in my Chinese learning since I started nearly 4 years ago. With the exception of a 3 month experiment where I attended a University class, I am entirely self-taught. It’s the fun of learning in this way that brings me back day after day.

Watching television is a healthy part of any language learners diet. I hope that by the end of this article, you will have a desire to go out and explore the medium on your own terms.

Why learn from watching TV?

Whether it’s your primary source of study material or just complementary to taking classes, watching TV in Chinese provides an abundant source of native Chinese listening practice. By watching material that you find fun and interesting, your brain will absorb the material in a more efficient way.

Media sources

If you live in a Chinese speaking country, cable TV is usually affordable and provides the most efficient way to access large amounts of content with minimal effort.

For those inside mainland China, 优酷 ( and土豆 ( will service all your needs. Unfortunately, outside mainland China these sites can often stream too slowly to be useful.

If that’s the case, YouTube has a great deal of user generated content, as well as uploads of many popular television shows.

For those that have extra discretionary income, I suggest buying box sets of TV shows that you enjoy. I’ve used many times before, and they provide free international delivery if you meet minimum order requirements.

Gotchas and how to overcome them

1. English subtitles

Many box sets and online sources provide an option to display subtitles in English. However, when English subtitles are turned on, your brain will derive all understanding from them, and filter out the Chinese sounds you are hearing. This means they act as a crutch that should be avoided as much as possible.

2. Character recognition

Chinese subtitles, however, are a great asset. They let your brain associate the sounds of the language with their written counterparts. This will only work though if you already have a basic understanding of how Chinese characters are formed (radicals, components etc) and can recognise a small number of common characters. Hacking Chinese has some great articles to get you started on the character learning journey.

3. Losing the plot

Even in the beginner phase, it’s still usually possible to follow the plot and get the gist of what’s going on, just by using the visual imagery. Of course, you’ll miss all the subtlety, but if you choose shows that interest you, this rarely detracts from the enjoyment.

However, you will still occasionally misinterpret what’s going on for an extended period, causing you to lose an overall grasp of the plot. In these instances, I suggest going to English Wikipedia or (if it’s an older show already in box set form) to read the plot for the show.

Some people may even prefer to read these plot guides before watching the show in the first place. I see no harm in doing so.

4. Names

Names were one of the trickiest parts of learning Chinese for me, and you may or may not have the same experience. Since names are used frequently in television shows, having a strategy to deal with them is especially important.

I suggest using the plot descriptions, and pausing shows when names are used, to create Anki cards with names for each of the characters. Usually the main 3 – 4 character names will be repeated enough not to need this, but it’s very useful for all the rest.

5. Boredom

Boredom is kryptonite for TV based language learners. Learning Chinese with TV is a mostly passive listening exercise that only reaps benefits with massive exposure.

If you let even a little bit of boring content through your filters, it will compound and kill your motivation to keep watching TV at all.

Don’t ever fall into the trap of spending hours finishing a series you originally found fun but now find boring, all just so you can say, “I watched all of show X.” It’s not worth it in the long run.

rgAdd a dash of study

1. Spaced Repetition

Watching television is a natural “spaced repetition” system, in that high frequency words come up over and over again.

Still, in the beginner and intermediate stages it can be helpful to look up some of the interesting words that come up frequently in a show that you’re watching, and then add it to a formal spaced repetition system like Anki.

There are a number of Chinese language learners that I respect a lot who advocate the use of tools like subs2srs. Subs2srs is a tool which automatically cuts the subtitles for a show up into sentences and creates Anki cards for you.

Having tried this a few times, I personally cannot recommend this technique. It creates too many cards and after a while the amount of time I spend inside my SRS outweighs the time I spend in front of the TV.

Still, many other learners have had success using these tools, so your mileage may vary. If it sounds like your thing, consult the interwebs for an abundance of information to get you started.

2. Shadowing

Shadowing is a technique whereby you pick a character from a show you like, and mimic everything he says. Trying to get yourself sounding as close to the real actor as possible works wonders for your Chinese.

Shadowing forces you to focus on grammar and speech particles that your brain usually filters out, helps make you much more conscious of where breaks in speech and pauses between words should go, and provides good intonation and tone practice.

3. Complementary study

A balanced study regime is essential to be most effective in learning Chinese. Watching television is a passive learning activity, and you’ll find that when you hear words (or see them in subtitles) that you’ve recently learnt in a more active study session, your brain will hone in on that word.

At this moment, having seen the word in context, your brain will then decide it must be important to remember and strengthen the association.

Without complementing television watching with more structured learning activities, you’ll lose many of the benefits that come from watching television in Chinese.

Read more…

  1. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 1
  2. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 2