Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind

If you listen a lot, most of it will have to be passive listening. The proportions here are somewhat arbitrary, but passive listening will take up much more time than active listening.

In last week’s article, I discussed three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice. In short, you need to find interesting audio you can understand, you need to make it easily available and, finally, you need to find a way of maintaining your listening habits for a long time. That last step merits a more detailed discussion!

Improving listening ability in the long run

I have learnt Chinese for seven years now, and I know how hard it is to keep up listening practice while being busy with other things. I mentioned the key to success in last week’s article, but there simply wasn’t room to explain it properly. This is what I wrote:

It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired.

Listening a lot is difficult, not because it’s hard to listen in itself, but because it’s not easy to find the amount of listening material you need and manage it properly. You should find audio that is comprehensible, but as we all know, what is comprehensible varies.

If I’m well rested, I can understand more difficult audio than when I’m tired. Therefore, you not only need audio suitable in general, you need to be able to adjust the audio to your current state. This is related to what I have written about studying according to your current productivity level.

I sort my audio into two categories, let’s call them “hard” and “easy”. I recommend that you create actual folders on your computer and/or phone. Feel free to use more than two categories if you want, but I’ll keep it simple here.

Category #1: Hard

Audio in this category is for active listening. It’s audio you need to focus on seriously to understand. If you listen more than ten or twenty minutes, you start feeling tired. Because of this, the bulk of the audio you listen to and therefore the audio you need to have available is not going to be in this category.

I currently  listen to 白鹿原 by 陈忠实 and it falls firmly in this category for me. I find this audio book very hard to follow and I need to focus 100%, otherwise my thoughts start flying all over the place and I lose track of the story. I typically listen 10-20 minutes each time, usually when talking a walk. I can’t do anything more complicated at the same time, I need all my concentration on the audio.

Naturally, what you think is hard depends on your proficiency level. Beginners will find it hard to listen to new chapters in their textbook, intermediate learners will struggle with learner podcasts mainly in Chinese. Advanced learners will struggle with anything they aren’t used to already.

If you don’t understand much even when you concentrate 100%, you should put the audio in a third folder called “too hard” and leave it there until your listening ability has improved.

Category #2: Easy

The audio in the “easy” category is for passive listening. It needn’t be extremely easy, but it should be the kind of audio you can keep up with for extended periods of time, preferably even while engaged in other tasks at the same time (nothing too complex, I mean things like cooking, driving or doing the laundry). Since you can listen for long periods of time in

many situations, you need much, much more audio in this category. The more the better.

I put two types of audio in the “easy” category:

  • Audio I have already listened to before and found interesting
  • Audio I can understand without concentrating too much

For the purpose of the listening challenge, I use the advanced lessons from ChinesePod and a few radio programs I’ve already listened to. Since boredom is a real problem here, focus on audio you find interesting. If you’re a beginner, it will be very hard to find audio to put in this category, it will have to be things you have already listened to. For intermediate learners, everything you have listened to already plus intermediate podcasts will work. For advanced learners, things are as usual much easier.

Moving audio from “hard” to “easy”

Part of the reason I use a system like this is that it’s easy to move audio around. If you have studied something in the “hard” category for some time, it won’t be feel difficult anymore. What most students do then is to forget about it and move on to the next challenge. Don’t do that. Instead, keep the audio, but move it to the “easy” category. This is essential for beginners and intermediate learners since this will be your main source of easy audio. It also means you get to review what you have learnt. If the “easy” folder becomes too crowded, remove things you find too easy, boring or both.

Are you listening enough?

The more you listen, the better. The more diverse your listening is, the better. As I have discussed here and in previous articles, passive listening will have to make up most of your listening practice. This isn’t because it’s better than active listening, it’s because it’s the only way you can listen enough while still living a normal life. Passive listening is for all that time when you can’t concentrate 100% on the audio. Make sure you have enough Chinese audio available!

RTI, my favourite radio station

As soon as my Chinese level was good enough to understand normal, spoken Chinese, I started listening to native radio stations. At that time, I was living in Taiwan (and have now returned, but that’s a different story) and just used normal, analogue radio, but later I also tried a number of online radio stations. Today, I almost exclusively use one, RTI, or Radio Taiwan International. In this article, I will introduce you to RTI and how to use it to improve your Chinese.

Note that what I write here is relevant for people who don’t have any specific interest in Taiwan as well. Apart from learning Chinese, you can also broaden your horizons. In addition, this article is not only about listening to this particular radio station, but listening to radio in general,  something I highly recommend (see the list below).

First, though, I should tell you why I like RTI:

  • A broad variety of radio programs (gardening, pop culture, politics, singing lessons, drama, news, story reading, finance, travelling, food, history, talk shows)
  • Authentic content (most programs are natural and non-scripted, so language use is natural and relaxed)
  • News with transcripts (daily publication of more news that you can listen to, all with subtitles)
  • Freely available online (both as a stream and as mp3-files for individual programs)
  • Extensive archives (with old episodes of most programs, making it easy to listen to a series of programs in one go)
  • Heavy focus on speaking (there is some music, but not much, which is excellent for listening practice)

Note that this is a Taiwanese radio station, so the speaking is Taiwanese accented Mandarin. However, this radio station is suitable for any learner, simply because you should diversify the Chinese you listen to regardless of where you’re currently learning. You don’t need to speak like this, but you need to understand it. The website exists in two versions:

Chinese radio for background and passive listening

I have had this radio station on autostart every morning for close to two years. This way, I have to actively do something to not listen to Chinese. Sure, I can turn off the sound if I really want to, but a normal morning still contains Chinese. After getting to know the hosts who have programs roughly at this time, it’s a pleasant way of waking up.

Here’s a direct link to the RTI live stream:

If you want some suggestions for what to do when listening passively or why it’s good to have Chinese in the background, please check my article series about improving listening ability.

RTI for active listening

One really good thing with RTI is that it provides large amounts of read news reports with transcripts. Here’s where you can find the transcripts:

Recommended programs

Here’s a short list of programs I like and that I think other people might find interesting as well. If you want to see a list of all programs (with downloadable versions of older episodes), click here. I should mention that I listen to these programs live most of the time. It’s much more convenient to just have the radio on in the background all the time rather than actively having to download the audio. Still, always having a bunch of programs on your phone or mp3-player is essential (keep reading about this here: Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem).

  • 為人民服務-楊憲宏時間 (Politics) – This program is based solely on discussions between the host and one visitor. The programs are fairly long and they have time to explore topics thoroughly. Topics vary a lot, but are mostly political in some way.
  • 十分好文摘 (Literature) – This is one of the best programs on RTI. It contains one story each episode, and as the name implies, it takes roughly ten minutes to finish. The stories are often interesting and would be excellent as the basis of an advanced or upper-intermediate textbook focusing on listening ability.
  • RTI劇場 (Drama) – As the name implies, this program features drama in Chinese. I find that the acting is sometimes quite different from what I’m used to in the west and so is the language. Good practice anyway and sometimes interesting stories. 
  • 音樂M.I.T (Music) – Music in Taiwan is a good program if you want to keep track of what’s going on in the world of Taiwanese music. Daily broadcasts with new music (and lots of talking about the music, of course).
  • 空中體育課 (Health) – This program is about health and sports, usually through interviews with scientists, authors and other people who have something to say about the subject. It’s not about current sport events and doesn’t report sport news, but rather focuses on health and physical activity in general.
  • 影音 (Video) – This is not a radio program, but rather a section of the websites that contain videos. I haven’t used this very much since I’m mostly after audio only, but I still wanted to include it here.

A few final words

For all the above-mentioned reasons, I think RTI is a very good source of learning for anyone from intermediate level and above. There’s plenty of audio on many different topics. There are lots of news broadcasts with transcripts. I personally find the diversity to be RTI’s strength, along with the availability and ease of access.

What radio stations do you listen to?

I want to broaden my horizons as well. What do you listen to? I’m particularly interested Mainland radio stations with more talking and less music, preferably about interesting topics (i.e. not only pop culture or talk shows). Please leave a comment below!

Vocalise more to learn more Chinese

Paying attention to what we’re doing is a prerequisite for learning efficiently. This is fairly obvious and based in the idea that the brain learns from actively processing what we see and hear. For instance, we will learn more from what our teacher says if we listen attentively than if we daydream. We will learn more from what we read if we focus on the text rather than the attractive person sitting across from us at the cafe. This isn’t rocket science.

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Therefore, one goal of learning efficiently is simply staying focused and paying attention. This is easy in some cases, but hard in others. There are many situations where we can increase our awareness fairly easily and thus become aware of a lot more than we otherwise would and, as a result, learn more. Vocalising, or saying something aloud, is one way of doing this.

In this article, I’m going to present three examples of vocalising that you can use to learn more from what you’re already doing without spending more time studying or making it significantly more difficult. They are all different, not only in form, but also in that you will learn completely different things.

Examples 1: Vocalise your daily life
Goal: Plugging gaps in everyday vocabulary 

This idea is as simple as it is cool. Follow these instructions:

  1. Starting from now, in order to touch something with your hands, you have to say it aloud in the target language
  2. Vary strictness and duration according to language level (see below)

Try it for ten minutes next time you leave the computer (otherwise all you need to know is “keyboard” and “mouse”). I did this myself and found that there were quite a lot of things around me which are very common, but which I still didn’t know how to describe in Chinese. I did the same with English and found that there were some words I didn’t know as well!

Depending on your language level, you can vary both the strictness of the rules and the duration of the game. For a beginner, it’s enough to be able to say “trousers” when dressing in the morning, but for more experienced learners, “button”, “zipper”, “pocket”, “belt” would also be necessary. Duration should vary according to difficulty, so my suggestion is that you stop once you’ve come across a certain number of words you don’t know, say five or ten. Then repeat the next day and see how much further you get. Think of this as a video game: How many days does it take until you’re able to reach breakfast? Work? Lunch?

If you want to make this really fancy, try describing not only what you touch, but what movements you perform to do this. This is very hard to do well, though, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for beginners. Learning basic words is much more important than learning how to describe movements of the body.

Example 2: User interfaces  in Chinese
Goal: Actually learn words used in smart phones and computers

The idea of using everyday electronic devices such as computers and phones to learn languages is about as old as these devices and I think many of you have already switched your phone’s language to Chinese. I’ve been running Linux in Chinese on my computer for many years and this is a natural part of any immersion program.

However, there is a big problem. Did you ever play games in a language you didn’t know as a kid? I did, and I quickly figured out which number in the menu represented “save game” and which was “load game”, even if the language was Japanese (which I have never studied and have no means of guessing). The same happens with computers and phones. The picture to the right represents what my right-click menu looks like if I click in this very area I’m now typing in.

The problem is that even if you don’t know any Chinese whatsoever, you can still cut, copy and paste text, because the letters are there. You don’t need to understand the characters. Even if there were no letters, you could still learn that the first one is cut, the second copy and the third paste.

The way around this is to read these words aloud when you use them. Talk to yourself! When you cut or copy, say jiǎn qiē (TW: jiǎn xià) or fùzhì, when you paste the text again, say zhān tiē (TW: tiē shàng). When you right click, say yòu jiàn, when you open a menu, read the text your clicking on. In essence, just like the first example above, read aloud whatever you touch with the cursor. Do this as much as possible, this is very intensive SRS indeed.

Example 3: Vocalising what you hear
Goal: Keeping focus on audio while listening passively

When we listen passively to Chinese, it’s sometimes hard to focus on what’s being said. When I’m out jogging, I typically listen to longer radio programs, usually some kind of debate or interview that goes on for at least half an hour. During this time, it’s easy for the mind to slip and start thinking about other things.

To stop this from happening too often, try repeating what the speakers are saying. This requires much more mental effort and is likely to give you a more lasting impression of the language they used. If it’s embarrassing or not suitable, try sub-vocalising instead (or, “say it in your head”).

Read more about this and many other tips and tricks for passive listening in this article: Listening strategies: Passive listening

Beyond these examples

These are merely examples and there should be many other ways of using vocalisation to help you focus on what you’re doing. Reading aloud instead of silently is just one additional example. If you have any other suggestions or thoughts, please leave a comment!

Listening strategies: Active listening

In previous articles we have already looked at two kinds of passive listening (the first article was about background listening, the second about passive listening in general). Now, the time has come to look at active listening, which is what I think at least traditionally is what people mean when they say that they’re practising listening ability. Active listening simply means that you actively engage all your faculties to try to understand and process the language you hear. To make sure that the processing is as complete as possible, we typically perform some activity which is not listening in itself, such as answering questions about the audio we just heard, taking notes while listening or translating the sentences we heard.

In this article, I will do two things. First, I will discuss the importance of active listening. I will argue that both passive and active listening are essential and that they should in no way be regarded as different methods where you should use only one.Second, I will discuss various strategies you can use along with some tips and tricks on how to vary your active listening practice.

If you want to skip the discussion about active listening and dive straight into some real exercises, click here to scroll down.

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

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

Active listening and the 10,000 hour rule

I think most readers will be at least a little bit familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which basically says that in order to become expert in any given field, you need to invest 10,000 hours. For now, the number is not important, but to me, it’s quite obvious that the amount of time you practise is the main factor determining how much you learn. The number 10,000 is often misinterpreted and people think that simply engaging in whatever activity you want to get good at is enough.

Deliberate practice

That isn’t the case. The original concept refers to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, which in essence means that you’re actively trying to become better, challenging yourself and doing your very best to improve. For instance, simply going to class is not necessarily deliberate practice (depending on what you do in class of course). Background listening is definitely not deliberate practice and probably not passive listening either, although that depends on how passive it is and what you’re listening to. In general, difficult tasks forces you to be very active, so the more challenging a task is the, more likely it is to be considered deliberate practice.

Language learning isn’t like learning to play the violin

In my understanding, language learning is slightly different from, say, learning to play the violin. Languages has an input factor which is extremely important, but which simply isn’t there when we learn to play in instrument. Sure, we might become slightly more proficient at playing the violin by listening to other violinists or even music in general, but the determining factor is still how much we play ourselves, how many hours of deliberate practice we put in.

Not so with language learning. When we learn Chinese, listening and reading are more important than speaking and writing, depending a little bit on our goals and where we are at the moment in our Chinese learning lives. Still, deliberate practice is the quickest and most efficient way of improving, so if possible, we should strive to be as active as we can.

If deliberate, active practice is so great, why do I sing the praise of background and passive listening at the same time? Why don’t we invest all our time into deliberate practice?  Because we can’t. Various studies into deliberate practice have found that a few hours per day is all we can manage, after that we simply can’t concentrate and maintain the high level of mental processing required. In other words, deliberate practice is very demanding and leaves one exhausted. This is where passive listening enters the picture, because being passive is much less taxing and can be kept up for hours and hours. Thus, there is no opposing relationship between passive and active listening. You do active listening when you can and have the energy to do so. If not, then background or passive listening should be on the menu.

Exercises for active listening

The thing that turns passive into active is that we actively engage with the audio we hear. The easiest way to make sure that we’re doing this is to transform what we hear in some way. We’re not simply receiving information, we’re changing it and using it for something else. It doesn’t really matter exactly what we do, but here are some examples:

  • Participate in a challenging conversation – Having a conversation slightly above your normal level is definitely active listening. The transformation involved occurs when you’re supposed to take what you hear (input) and transform it to some kind of meaning in your head and then give it back to the the other person in an engaging manner (output). I think conversing with people on a level slightly above your current is the best way of learning, but since this is sometimes not practically possible, I have lots of other ways of achieving similar results.
  • Transcribe audio – This is something I’ve done a lot myself recently. Simply choose something which is reasonably difficult and do your best to transcribe what you hear, either using characters or Pinyin (I type, which I consider to be the golden middle way). Try to choose a source which has transcripts, because otherwise you’ll have to ask people for help if you fail to transcribe a certain section. I suggest using a program that allows you to see the audio file, which will enable you to select specific passages to play again. I use Audacity, which is free and available on most platforms. In Audacity, simply select a passage and hit shift+play, which will loop the selected audio.

  • Expanding transcription – This is really the same thing as above, but I want to point out that you don’t need to transcribe boring newsreels, you can transcribe anything you want, including films, cartoons, TV shows, music, podcasts and what you hear people say around you if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment. Again, TV, film and music work very well, because they are almost always transcribed already (find karaoke versions of songs). Cover up the subtitles, create your own and compare!
  • Take notes and/or write a summary – Pretend that you’re attending a lecture and that there’s going to be a quiz or test after it has finished. Take notes that cover the main points of what you hear (even if the content isn’t lecture-like at all). After you’ve finished listening (listen more than once if you want to), take you’re notes and write a summary. Post the summary on Lang-8 and have someone correct it for you.
  • Translate what you hear – You can either try to write it down, in which case you’ll need to listen a few times unless you have mad typing skills, or you can translate orally (try this and you know why interpreters typically work very short shifts). If you want to benchmark this or at least judge the outcome, try recording what you’re saying as well. You need earphones to do this, of course, otherwise you will hear the audio you listen to on the recording (you still have the original audio for reference).

As you can see, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but transforming the audio you hear into some other medium is excellent. There are many more ways of doing this than I have listed here. Do you have any methods or tips that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment!

But active listening is hard!

Yeah, that’s the whole idea.

If you try any of the above exercises with sufficiently hard audio, you will find that it’s exhausting. This is the whole point. Since you’re engaging every faculty you can to succeed with the task you’ve set for yourself, of course you’re going to feel tired after a while. Do you remember what it felt like to speak Chinese in the very beginning or have you just started learning? Then you know what deliberate practice feels like.

Gradually, studying will become easier. Deliberate practice means that you should keep doing hard things that require you to invest lots of energy, because that’s when you learn the most. Active listening is about challenging yourself, of pushing your limits. I will talk more about this in future articles, so stay tuned!

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:
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)

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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?

Listening strategies: Background listening

Contrary to what some people think, I consider background and passive listening to be very useful, indeed necessary. Learning to understand spoken Chinese is about quantity to a large extent and even if we surely can immerse ourselves actively as well, this isn’t practical or possible for people who don’t study Chinese full time. Even for people who do, our minds can’t handle too much active studying anyway, so passive listening is useful in these cases, too.

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

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

Defining background, passive and active listening

The definitions I use here and in the following articles are my own and might not correspond to what other people use, but since I find them useful, I will stick to them from now on. There will be one article for each of the following types. Please note that I use these categories to facilitate a fruitful discussion, so the borders between the different categories are sometimes vague and ambiguous.

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Background listening (this article) means that listening is not the primary task you’re focusing on. If it is, then we’re talking about either passive or active listening. Background listening can be said to be a certain kind of very passive listening, but I don’t want to call it that because there are other important differences. It’s not simply a scale from least passive to most active.Here are a few examples of background listening:

  • Listening to podcasts while working
  • Having the radio on in the background while surfing
  • Playing a (non-language-heavy) computer game in Chinese

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

Active listening, finally, is when listening is the only thing you’re doing and you’re actively trying to learn/understand/develop as much as you can. Active listening is usually a form of deliberate practice, and as such, it is quite demanding. Here are some obvious examples of active listening:

  • Summarising a podcast
  • Transcribing a news broadcast
  • Taking notes from an online lecture

The benefits of background listening

Background listening is awesome mostly because it allows us to fill our days with hours and hours of Chinese, seemingly paradoxically without taking up much time. Let’s look at a typical day as a barrel (available time) full of rocks (tasks of various kinds, including work). Looks full, right? Well, it’s still possible to fit a large volume of smaller pebbles, sand and water into the same container. Passive listening is that sand, background listening is that water. Read more about the time barrel and how it can help you find more time!

Two things follow from this. First, background listening (and passive listening) isn’t meant to replace active listening. The boulders are still there, the water simply fills up the remaining space. Active and passive listening takes up time of completely different quality (see this article for an introduction of the concept of time quality and how it applies to language learning). I feel that many people who disown non-active listening do so because they think active listening is better. Using the analogy with the container above, this question is moot. It’s not a choice between two methods, you can and should use both.

Second, it follows that we should try to find listening material which fits between the boulders (if something is too distracting, it doesn’t fit, for instance, more about this soon). Using the analogy of water is a bit idealised, because obviously it requires more effort to fill the gaps than merely opening the tap. Living in China helps, but is no guarantee. Also, all kinds of audio might not fit equally well, depending on what major task you’re currently performing. What material you can use for listening will be discussed in a separate article.

About being distracted

I know that different people are distracted to a different extents by background audio. Personally, I can do anything with spoken audio in the background except writing in that very language. However, rather than simply saying “I can’t do this because it distracts me”, I want you to try different combinations. If you feel that radio is distracting you, how about Chinese music? If you really find that you can’t perform task A very well while listening to B, then don’t. Trying, experimenting and evaluating the results is the key here.

I also think that this is a matter of practise. The reason I can usually listen to audio whatever I do is because I have slowly built up the capacity for doing so. Before I started learning Chinese, I spent some serious time studying English and sometimes listened to one or two audio books every week (that amounts to 20-30 hours). I didn’t start that way, it was a habit (or a skill perhaps) I developed over time.

Background listening as an opportunity

A pertinent question regarding background listening is whether we can learn from something we don’t notice. If we are focused on reading e-mails or arranging our calendars, can we really learn Chinese at the same time?

I think the answer is twofold. First, no-one is fully focused on their work 100% of the time. There are always gaps. Thus, even if you don’t focus on the audio at all while reading an e-mail, you might listen to it briefly while switching between different e-mails, while copying text from one or when logging out of your e-mail client (please realise that this is just an example, it works equally well for any situation).

Thus, background listening turns into ordinary passive listening fairly often, albeit for very short intervals of time. The point is that the duration is so short that you’d never consider starting a podcast or turning on the radio, but if it’s already on, you will listen. I can’t offer more than anecdotal evidence for this, but I have the radio on all the time and even when I’m focusing on other things, I often notice words or sentences in the audio I hear, making mental notes about word usage, grammar, pronunciation and so on.

Can we benefit from something we aren’t even aware of?

The second part of the answer is more speculative. Our minds are very good at sorting information and we notice or are aware of only a tiny fraction of all the information our brains receive. However, the information thus “ignored” isn’t simply discarded, even if we aren’t aware of it’s existence until we need it.

For instance, your brain filters out information about how warm it is in the room or if there is birdsong outside your window. But if you ask yourself, you can still say if you’re too warm or if there’s birdsong outside your window (without waiting for the next chirp). Likewise, if the situation changes rapidly (such as if the birdsong suddenly stops), you will notice. Sometimes, we even pick up things which we aren’t consciously aware of at all. Have you ever found yourself humming the lyrics to a song and then found that the radio in the other room, which you thought you didn’t hear at all, plays the same song at exactly the same place in the lyrics? This has happened to me at least a dozen times.

The point of all this is that I think we register and hear quite a lot even if our minds are focused on something else, especially things that differ from what our brains expects to receive. Naturally, the more complex the material, the less likely we are to benefit. For example, I think we can pick up the sounds of a language this way, including tones, stress and syllables, but it’s much less likely that we will learn new words or grammar patterns. I don’t know how big an impact this actually has, but if you’re the sceptical kind, background listening is still a good idea for the other reasons given above. Let’s get started, shall we?

Getting started

Since background listening is about creating an audio source which is supposed to be there all the time, or at least as often as possible, it’s important that you go about creating such an environment in the right way. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make listening the default option (example: web radio on autostart)
  • Eliminate practical problems (example: always have audio ready, buy extra earphones)
  • Have different kinds of audio ready (example: music works better with some tasks)


I think the analogy with the container, the boulders and the water says it all. Background listening is excellent because it allows us to learn more Chinese even if we don’t devote much extra time.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a substitute for more active kinds of listening.Why choose when we can do both? Initially, it might require some effort to get started and fill that container, but it’s well worth it!

When solving a problem, the first step should always be to figure out what the problem is. Simply knowing that we don’t understand spoken Chinese at a certain level isn’t good enough, we need to know more than that if we want to improve. In this article, I discuss various ways of identifying and analysing problems with listening ability.