Listening comprehension in Mandarin is challenging, perhaps the most challenging part of learning the language. Many things need to come together to enable you to understand what someone says to you, and it all needs to happen at the rapid pace of natural speech.
The reasons why listening comprehension is hard can loosely be sorted into three categories: the listener, the passage that is listened to, and the situation in which the listening takes place. In this article, we’re going to have a closer look at the first category to try to identify what a good listener is like and how we can become one.
In doing so, we will cover four different areas:
- Working memory and other cognitive abilities
- Listening strategies and other metacognitive skills
- Prior experience and exposure to the language
- Emotional factors that influence listening comprehension
Beyond tīng bu dǒng, part 5: A guide to Chinese listening comprehension
This article is part of a series where we go beyond merely noting that we don’t understand something (tīng bu dǒng) to analyse why we don’t understand and by extension what we can do about it. While it’s recommended that you read or listen to the earlier articles before reading this one, I will refer to earlier articles when relevant. Here’s a list of the articles I’ve planned for this series so far. Article tittles without links have not been published yet!
- A guide to Chinese listening comprehension
- From sound to meaning in Mandarin
- Using what you already know to aid listening comprehension in Chinese
- Learning to process spoken Mandarin quickly and effortlessly
- Becoming a better listener as a student of Chinese
- Why is listening in Chinese is so hard?
- How to master different kinds of listening in Chinese
- Building an arsenal of Chinese listening strategies for every situation
- The best listening exercises to improve your Chinese
1. Working memory and other cognitive abilities
The goal of Hacking Chinese is to help you find better ways of learning Mandarin. This means that I normally focus on aspects of language learning that you can improve, rather than things you don’t have much influence over. For example, when discussing how to learn as much as possible from a general point of view, I focus how to optimise what you learn, how you learn and how much time you spend learning, but I don’t discuss age, because unless you have a time machine, you can’t change your age.
This made me think twice before writing this section, because while cognitive abilities have a significant impact on listening comprehension, there is no clear path open to improving some of them. For example, your ability to store and manipulate information held in your working memory has been shown to be linked to listening comprehension, but since there is no established way to improve your working memory, is it meaningful to consider it from the perspective of an individual learner?
I’ll leave that for you to decide, but I think that rather than ignoring these factors completely, it’s worthwhile to discuss them briefly, not because I have found a revolutionary way to improve working memory storage and processing, but because knowing about them can make learning less frustrating. It’s also worth pointing out that even if we all differ in cognitive ability, anyone can learn to understand spoken Mandarin. The only difference is that some things will be harder for some than for others. This is unfair, but pretending the problem isn’t there doesn’t make it go away either.
Working memory and language comprehension
There’s plenty of research linking working memory to both listening and reading comprehension, in one’s native language as well as in subsequently learnt languages (for an overview of L1 research, see Daneman & Merikle, 1996; for L2 research, see McDonald, 2006, and Miyake & Friedman, 1998). Regardless of your ability to store and process information in the short term, you have experienced what it’s like to be limited in this regard.
The clearest illustration I can think of is when a teacher says something in Chinese and asks you to say it back, without relying on any notes. This becomes exponentially harder with longer sentences, and teachers often overestimate students’ ability to perform this task. We explored this topic in more detail in the second article in this series, where we talked about bottom-up processing and chunking. To recap briefly, while we can’t improve our working memory, we can learn to make better use of it.
Working memory is especially important when listening, because unlike when reading, you can’t revisit something you missed or forgot. You need to be able to hold a mental representation of what’s being said in your mind while constantly adding to it and modifying it based on what you hear. All the things we’ve discussed in previous articles need to be done on a mental workbench, which is an apt analogy for working memory.
Having a bigger bench and working on it faster also means there’s more capacity left to attend to other things, such as using strategies, drawing on prior knowledge or background information, and much more. However, it’s also worth noting that this relationship is complex and not fully explored yet. It seems to depend on many factors, such as the age of the learner and what specific area of language learning we’re talking about. Furthermore, working memory is hard to test independently from other factors, which makes it even harder to untangle (see Juffs & Harrington, 2011).
As a learner, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed when listening to unfamiliar content. It’s okay to not be able to hold a long clause in your head while waiting for the final piece that will make everything come together. Listening to Mandarin as a beginner and intermediate learner is like trying to juggle eleven balls and only being able to catch one or two.
2. Listening strategies and other metacognitive skills
Whereas cognition is about thinking, knowing and understanding, metacognition is about thinking, knowing and reasoning about cognition. For example, you’re engaging in metacognition when reading this article, because you’re thinking about your own listening comprehension. Knowing about listening strategies you can apply when listening to Chinese is another kind of metacognitive skill. A final example is to apply what you have learnt throughout this article series to reason about your own listening comprehension to plot a path forward towards your goal.
As the word “skills” implies, metacognitive skills can be trained. Research overall shows that this is not just possible but can have a significant impact on your listening comprehension. This means that your ability to make sense of spoken Mandarin is not just determined by cognitive factors and your level of Chinese, but also what you think about when listening and how you approach listening tasks. This is encouraging, because while it can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to become a proficient listener in a language, learning about listening strategies and how to apply them is much easier.
I will devote an entire article to listening strategies later in this series, but here are five factors important for successful listening from Vandergrift et al. (2006):
- Planning and evaluation – Before you listen, consider why you are listening and what type of information you’re listening for. In real-life situations, this is often clear, but in simulated listening practice, it’s often vague. Make it explicit even when practising, and then try to keep this in mind when listening. Also consider what you know about the topic in advance, what the person might say based on context, and what words the speaker might use to say these things. As we discussed in the fourth article in this series, simply thinking about the right things can speed up processing!
- Problem-solving – To understand spoken Mandarin, you need to resolve ambiguities, fill in gaps and interpret what you hear based on what you already know. We already covered this at great length in the third article in this series where we discussed top-down processing. Maintaining an active attitude when listening, trying to use everything you know to get at the underlying meaning makes it more likely that you will understand that meaning. Do your best to focus on what you do understand and avoid getting stuck on what you don’t understand.
- Mental translation – As a beginner, it’s only natural to try to translate the Chinese you hear into English to make sense of it. This, however, is too slow to be of practical use and something you should stop doing as soon as you can. There is no magic trick to this, but trying to avoid it might help. Hearing words used in different contexts here is crucial, because as you become more familiar with the words, the need to translate diminishes as well.
- Self-knowledge – Being aware of your own ability, the difficulty of the listening task and how you feel about these things also make you a better listener. Taking these things into consideration can also help you in the long term, because as we shall see later in this article, how you think and feel about your own listening does influence your comprehension.
- Directed attention – Attention is linked with comprehension. As discussed in the previous article in this series, you can achieve more when you use controlled processing by focusing your attention on something you find difficult. If your mind drifts off and you start daydreaming about unicorns or suddenly find yourself focusing on the speaker’s eccentric earrings, comprehension will suffer. Thus, employing strategies that allow you to keep focusing on the task is important!
This is the result of work on the Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire or MALQ), which you can use to evaluate your own metacognitive strategy use, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a freely available version of this questionnaire. In case you find such a version, please leave a comment below to let me know!
3. Prior experience and exposure to the language
The most crucial factor for successful listening comprehension is also the most obvious one: prior experience and exposure to the language. It goes without saying that you can’t understand Mandarin if you haven’t heard it before, that a large vocabulary is better than a small one, and that being so used to tones that you don’t think about them anymore is better than not hearing tones at all.
In fact, this is so obvious that I’m not going to talk about it much here. In the previous article in this series, we looked at controlled and automatic processing, and concluded that one of the most important tasks as a learner is to listen as much as possible, thereby automating more of the processing. This frees up cognitive resources you can then use for other things, including the listening strategies we’ve already discussed.
Still, here are some things we do know about the importance of experience with the language:
- Vocabulary size – The more words you know and the better you know these words, the better chance you have of understanding spoken Mandarin. I’ve written more about the importance of knowing many words here: Learning Chinese words: When quantity beats quality. Naturally, you can still understand something even if you’re missing a few words, but then you need to rely on the strategies discussed above, and that will only take you so far.
- Phonological awareness – For listening comprehension to be successful, you need to be able to correctly identify sounds and tones in context, then build up to understanding based on what you hear (this is the bottom-up processing we looked at in the second article in this series). This requires familiarity with initials, finals and tones, as well as how syllables and words are structured. Of course, you don’t need to know these explicitly, but you do need to know them.
- Syntactical awareness – Like the phonological awareness above, you need to be familiar with Chinese grammar and how words, phrases and sentences work. This will allow you to use top-down strategies to figure out missing parts or guess what someone will say. For example, if your brain has identified two word candidates, but only one of them works in the sentence you’ve heard so far, then you can use this knowledge to figure out which word you just heard. Again, this doesn’t often happen consciously.
- Background knowledge – As we saw in the third article in this series about top-down processing, successful listening relies on knowledge outside the language itself. In that article, we discussed three types of knowledge: pragmatic knowledge (about how words are used and interpreted in context, beyond what they mean literally), discourse knowledge (about the structure of conversations in given contexts, such as a visit to a restaurant, interaction with shop clerk or a phone call with a superior) and world knowledge (about the world we live in, including culturally significant knowledge second-language learners might lack).
These are all built by exposing yourself to more Chinese in diverse contexts, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that successful listeners tend to have spent a lot of time engaging with the language. With the risk of repeating the obvious: listen more!
4. Emotional factors that influence listening comprehension
Finally, let’s have a look at emotional factors that influence listening. Sometimes, simply thinking that understanding is impossible will make you less likely to understand. When you feel anxious, concentration starts slipping and you can’t focus on what matters.
The most well-known take on this is Stephen Krashen’s “affective filter”, which is part of his Monitor Model. The idea is that emotions can act as a barrier to input, meaning that if you feel nervous, stressed out or even scared, less of the input is available for processing. It could also be argued that you have less capacity to process what gets through when you’re busy feeling bad.
Anecdotally, I think we can all relate to this. Listening to something from the comfort of your home is easier than trying to understand the same thing in a high-stakes test situation, and understanding what a cute person saying to you is harder than listening to a recording of the same utterance because you’re being distracted by something.
We don’t need to rely on anecdotes to see that emotional factors do in fact influence listening comprehension, however. There’s plenty of evidence that negative emotions can affect cognitive functions in general (see e.g., Diamond, 2013) and second-language listening in particular (see e.g., Karakus Taysi, 2019). These negative effects can be outweighed by adopting a positive attitude and trying to find enjoyable ways of learning (Dewaele & MacIntyre, 2014; Dewaele & Alfawzan, 2018).
This of course has benefits well beyond listening comprehension, because the only way you’re going to be able to listen as much as I suggest here and elsewhere is by genuinely enjoying what you’re listening to! Read more here:
Conclusion: Becoming a better listener as a student of Chinese
As we have seen, many factors determine how good a listener you are. A few of them, such as your working memory, are hard to influence directly, but others, especially listening strategies, can be learnt and applied more easily. Beyond trying to implement these strategies in your own listening, you should also pay attention to emotional factors and try to gradually build a capacity to deal with more demanding situations.
Even though I have said this many times already in this series and elsewhere, I also want to highlight the importance of practice. By listening more, you automate more, which frees up cognitive resources for other things. You also learn more words, more grammar and become better at processing the sounds and tones of Mandarin. While you can boost your listening comprehension in other ways, the best way to improve listening ability is also the simplest: listen more.
In the next article in this series, we will have a look at factors relating not to you as a listener, but to the language you’re listening to. Some of thesee factors are unique to Chinese, but others are not. By understanding how the listening material itself affects your comprehension, you can diversify your learning, but you also gain the ability to narrow down and focus on the type of content you struggle with the most. Stay tuned!
References and further reading
Daneman, M., & Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 3(4), 422-433.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, s. 135–168.
Field, J. (2009). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Juffs, A., & Harrington, M. (2011). Aspects of working memory in L2 learning. Language teaching, 44(2), 137-166.<
Karakus Taysi, E. (2019). The effect of listening attitude and listening anxiety on
listening comprehension: A regression model. Universal Journal of Educational
Research, 7(2), s. 356–364.
McDonald, J. L. (2006). Beyond the critical period: Processing-based explanations for poor grammaticality judgment performance by late second language learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 55(3), 381-401.
Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (1998). Individual differences in second language proﬁciency: Working memory as language aptitude. Foreign language learning: Psycholinguistic studies on training and retention, 339-364.
Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and researching: Listening (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Vandergrift, L., Goh, C. C., Mareschal, C. J., & Tafaghodtari, M. H. (2006). The metacognitive awareness listening questionnaire: Development and validation. Language learning, 56(3), 431-462.
Vandergrift, L., & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and learning second language listening: Metacognition in action. Routledge.
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