A poll I did a while ago showed that listening ability was the skill most learners struggled with. This is not obvious looking at Mandarin from the outside; one would have guessed that reading, writing or speaking would cause more problems. I think one reason listening is difficult is because it’s done at a fixed pace, unlike reading, speaking and writing where you can reread and take your time choosing how to say or write something.
Listening is also mostly beyond your control in that you have no say in which words the speaker uses. I’m sure most students have had the experience of asking questions in Chinese but having no idea what the answers mean. Reading is similar to listening in this regard, but there at least digital tools make it a lot easier.
Comprehension-based listening vs deep end immersion
There are two approaches to improving listening ability that are more or less the opposite of each other: graded listening and deep-end immersion. In the first, the idea is that you listen mostly to Chinese at your level or slightly above, which will lead you to a gradually improved listening ability. In the second, you throw yourself in at the deep end, on a level way above your head, and hope that you will adjust before you drown.
Both these methods have merit, so how do you know which one you should use?
In a comprehension-based approach, the focus is heavily on input that you can make sense of (sometimes with scaffolding). This is in sharp contrast to methods that focus on output and repetition, but it’s also very different from deep-end immersion in that it stresses the importance of understanding.
Since there already is a series about comprehension-based learning on Hacking Chinese, I will just link to it and then continue with the discussion about some of the limitations:
- An introduction to comprehension-based Chinese teaching and learning
- The benefits of a comprehension-based approach for teaching and learning Chinese
- A student’s guide to comprehension-based learning
So, if comprehension-based listening is so useful, why not only rely on that, then? One problem is that creating a comprehension-based path to fluency requires a great deal of help from other people, preferably competent teachers. There are some graded reading and listening content, but this will only cover a small fraction of what you need.
The reason this approach is more difficult to use from a practical perspective is that the material needs to be adapted to you personally, preferably live in a real conversation. What you listen to is decided by what you know already, mixed up with a few new things you either want to learn or really need to learn. While you can approximate this by using material targeted at a specific level, this is still hard to get right.
In summary, use a comprehension-based approach as much as you can. One reason for not doing so is that it’s hard to find good content. However, there is another important reason for diving in at the deep end, too.
Deep-end immersion: rewarding and demanding
From a practical point of view, deep-end immersion is easy. By definition, the material you listen to is not adjusted to your level and might not even be targeted at foreign language learners at all. An extreme example of this would be to try to learn to understand spoken Chinese just by watching TV or listening to the radio.
This is very easy to do and requires no help from a teacher. For this to succeed, though, you need an insane dedication and lots of time and energy. Most people can’t focus on something they don’t understand or find meaningful for long periods of time. But this is an extreme case; listening to difficult audio can be very helpful.
As I wrote in the article about triggering quantum leaps in listening ability, throwing yourself into a difficult environment can be really good for not just your listening, but for your Chinese proficiency in general. I have done this many times myself, always with good results.
To do this, you need two things: time and energy. You need to spend enough time to get used to the new difficulty, otherwise the effort could be mostly wasted. If you just attend a difficult class once, you’ll learn nothing, but if you stick with it for a month or even a semester and adjust to the new requirements, you’ll be fine.
You also need energy, because as I said above, it requires serious concentration and much more time to prepare yourself if you want to be able to follow what’s going on. Listening to a lecture where you understand 50% of what’s being said is exhausting, whereas listening to something where you understand almost everything can even be relaxing.
How much time and energy you need depends on how difficult the new level is. Personally, I would never recommend a beginner to use adult native speaker level audio for listening practice, but I do recommend that you experiment a bit with more difficult content.
You should of course use both methods. At present, there isn’t enough graded listening content available to allow you to use a comprehension-based method fully without a lot of support (and probably not with that either). Use what you can get; it will be both motivating and helpful! Strive for quantity. The more the better. Listen for hours every day: when you walk, cook, exercise, fall asleep, drive, commute and so on.
However, don’t forget to challenge yourself when you have the opportunity. Try to get into a more difficult course, watch TV and listen to the radio, but limit your focus! Watch and listen to the same program to allow yourself to get used to it, and remember that you need time to adjust. Only do this when you feel motivated enough to be able to persevere.