Listening strategies: Improving listening speed

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

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

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

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/4seasons

Articles in this series:
Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed (this article)
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

What is listening ability?

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

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

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

Phonological awareness

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

Vocabulary and grammar

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

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

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

Listening speed

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

tīng lì = listening ability

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

Lack of listening speed

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

Wrong!

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

The solution is simple: Listen more

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

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

Quantity is king

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

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

Reading speed: Learning how to read ten lines at a glance

I think most students feel that they want to read faster. There might be many reasons for this, but mainly it’s about taking tests or being able to consume more text (for pleasure, at work or when studying). Personally, I want to read faster partly because it’s a requirement for advanced Chinese language tests and partly because I enjoy reading and want to read more books. The ultimate goal would be the Chinese idiom 一目十行, to read ten lines at a glance. This is of course a lofty goal, but let’s have it as a direction rather than a destination.

Taking Chinese language tests (such as the HSK) on advanced levels require a reading speed which is significantly faster than most learners achieve without specifically practising reading speed. The first time I took an advanced test in Chinese, I understood almost everything I read, but finished only half the questions, because I didn’t read quickly enough.. I’ve heard people describe their advanced Chinese tests in a similar way so many times that this can’t be an exception: Reading speed really is a major hurdle to passing advanced proficiency tests. Reading speed does of course also affect the intermediate level, but to a lesser extent.

Why am I reading so slowly?

If we want to read quickly, we first need to identify where we have problems and what skills we need to improve. Just practising reading faster in general will be useful, but it’s always more effective to analyse the problem a bit before starting. Here are some obstacles that might affect you:

  • Weak vocabulary: Not knowing enough words absolutely kills reading speed. Most people get stuck on words they don’t know, but even if you can learn to skip these words and still understand the gist, lacking vocabulary might be a major problem. Encountering characters you don’t know also required time even if you decide to skip them. See this article where I argue that learning lots of words is even more important than people generally think.
  • Weak connection between words and their meaning: If you see a word, need to think for five seconds and only then know the meaning of the word, then you have this problem. You’re not lacking the vocabulary (see point one), but the connection between the visual input and the meaning of the word stored in your brain is too weak.
  • Weak reading skill: Reading is a skill that can be practised like any other skill. Knowing ten thousand words is not the same as being able to read. Connecting things together and extracting meaning from vocabulary is something that requires practise before we master it.
  • Weak grammatical understanding of Chinese: I’m not talking about details in grammar here, but if you don’t understand how Chinese sentences are structured, it will be very hard to read quickly. On the other hand, if you know this, it will become fairly easy to figure out which parts are essential for understanding of a passage and which aren’t. This is absolutely crucial if you want to speed-read.

So, I know what the problem is, how do I solve it?

The first thing we should do when trying to achieve anything is defining what it is we want to achieve. The long term goal might be reading at the same pace as a fairly slow native speaker (around 300-400 characters per minute). This (or any) number is meaningless unless we know what speed you’re currently reading at. We also need to break down the goal into smaller, achievable pieces (I’ve written a series of articles on goal management).

Benchmarking

Select a text which is at a level you can comfortably understand and read a few pages. Count how many characters you’ve read and divide by the time it took to read the passage. For future reference, keep the text if it was longer than you read (I use books, so next time I want to benchmark, I simply continue reading where I left off the previous time). Benchmarking is helpful to keep motivated, because you can see that you’re actually learning something. This is not only useful when trying to increase reading speed, but is equally useful in almost any area.

Setting reasonable goals

Let’s say you ended up with 100 characters per minute. If you’re goal is to reach 300, you should know that this is not something you will accomplish overnight. We need short term goals and focused practise to gradually build up reading speed. Perhaps you can set a short-term goal of 110-120 characters per minute and try to achieve that. Then you increase gradually until you reach your target speed. The important thing here is that you set a goal which is achievable and that you can practise reaching. This is standard practise when setting short-term goals.

How to practise reading speed

Looks quite easy, right? Well, it isn’t, but there are a number of things you can try that will help. I’ve put these things roughly in order of importance with the most important method first:

  • If you don’t already read a lot, start reading more: None of the following advice is any use at all if you don’t practise. There are no magic tricks to reading speed, but there are things that can make practising more efficient. This will help alleviate all the problems described above.
  • Force yourself to read slightly more quickly than you normally do: Use a pointer of some kind (your finger, a pencil) and run it along the lines of characters at a specific pace and read at that pace. Time yourself to see that this speed is slightly faster than you normally read (perhaps +10%). If you miss words, skip them. The goal is to make your brain accustomed to reading more quickly. Another way of forcing yourself to read quickly is reading subtitles on TV, but that might not match your speed or your vocabulary.
  • Make sure you know enough words: What “enough” means here depends entirely what you want to be able to read quickly and why. If you lack key vocabulary on a reading comprehension test, you will have a problem, even if you can read words you know fast as lightning. Read more about plugging gaps in your vocabulary here.
  • Read a passage more than once: If you read a passage a second time, you can mark important words and become aware of the structure of the sentences and which parts where actually crucial to understanding. Read the passage again with these words underlined and practise pure speed when you definitely know all the words. If some words still slow you down, stop and practise them and read again.
  • Practise reading aloud: This might seem counter-intuitive, but works well if your reading speed is slower than normal speaking speed (this is quite likely if you’re not already a reasonably fast reader). I did a non-scientific estimate of the speed of news broadcasts and arrived at a speaking speed of about 200-250 characters per minute. Of course, pronunciation in itself isn’t necessary to practise reading speed and it might even be counter-productive after you’ve reached a certain level. If you want to learn to read faster than speaking speed, you need to stop sub-vocalising. Also note that it’s perfectly possible to be able read Chinese without being able to speak it, so if for some reason you don’t care about pronunciation at all, reading aloud isn’t a good idea.

Speed reading and taking tests

I said above that there are no true shortcuts when it comes to reading speed, but there are some things you can do in order to read faster if you have an exam tomorrow and it’s too late to increase speed in general. These methods will be familiar to anyone who can read quickly in their native language, so I’m not claiming to present something new, just making sure everyone knows these practical tricks:

  • Don’t read linearly: Just because a text is written in a certain way (usually from left to right and top to bottom), it doesn’t mean you have to read it this way. Read headings first, so you know what you’ll expect. Read the first and the last sentence of a passage first, they usually contain lots of information. Also, read the questions before you read the text.
  • Don’t re-read immediately if you stumble on a word: This requires practise, but if you encounter a word you don’t know or a sentence you didn’t really get, don’t re-read it immediately. Finish the paragraph first, because it’s quite likely you’ll understand the difficult automatically because you know the rest of the content. Even if it isn’t automatic and you have to go back and re-read the tricky sentence, you still stand a better chance of understanding it if you know what comes after.
  • Don’t read sentences you don’t have to read: If you read the questions first (which you always should), you might figure out halfway through a sentence that this isn’t related to the questions at all. Skip the rest of the sentence and try to find where the text starts talking about things you really need to know.
  • A caveat for tricky language tests: Some tests will deliberately try to trip you up. It might look like a passage is about something or that someone’s opinion about a topic is in a certain way, but then in one key sentence, that is turned upside down. This in not very common in natural texts produced in natural situations, but it does occur in some proficiency tests. Thus, skimming through a text to find something which is related to the question and then taking that as your final answer might be extremely dangerous.

The road is long, you’d better start walking now

If you want to be able to read quickly, it will require a lot of practise. Even if you use all the accumulated wisdom of the internet (I’ve tried to highlight what I find most useful here, see further reading for more), it will still take many, many hours to achieve high reading speed in Chinese. Reading speed is mostly about exposure and volume, combined with conscious and targeted practise. If you’re having problems passing that proficiency test, don’t wait until two weeks before the exam and start practising reading speed. You need to practise now!

I don’t have all the answers

Even if I have tried a number of different ways of improving reading speed in different languages, I’m not in any way an expert. I’m sure there are useful things I haven’t brought up or that I can be explained in a better way than I’ve done here. I would love to hear what you have to say, especially if you have something I haven’t mentioned which has been useful for you. Share and enjoy!

Further reading, references and credits

Speed reading on Mind Tools
How to read faster 101
Imron’s post in this thread on Chinese Forums
This (entire) thread, also on Chinese forums
Speed reading on Wikipedia