Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Triggering quantum leaps in Chinese listening ability

Image credit: Roey Ahram

Immersion comes with certain problems, which I’m sure that everyone who has tried it has experienced at some point. If you immerse yourself without knowing how to swim, you’d better learn how to stay afloat quickly or you’ll surely drown.

Fortunately, most of the time we can control what kind of immersion we do and to what extent; we don’t go swimming with the piranhas the first time. However, being in control is also a problem, because it gives you an excuse to stay at a level which is too easy for you.

The input hypothesis or i+1

According to linguist Stephen Krashen, in order to learn a language, we should expose ourselves to material at a level which is i+1, where i is our previously accumulated knowledge. Put simply, we should listen to or read Chinese which is comprehensible, but at a slightly higher level than our own.

The theory is that if we only expose ourselves to Chinese equal to our own (i.e. just i) we won’t learn very much. The same is true if the input is too difficult and we don’t understand anything (i.e. i+2).

This approach is easy to understand and intuitive for most people, but it’s also dangerous in that it will give us an excuse to avoid material we consider to be too hard. This is because it’s notoriously difficult to  pinpoint what this +1 really means. I’m convinced that it’s higher than most people think.

“It’s too hard, I don’t understand anything!”

I’ve said this to myself at least four times since I started studying Chinese. In other words, I’ve felt that I’m immersing myself in Chinese which is at an i+2 level or higher. This is because I’ve consistently picked difficult courses, courses that are actually on a level slightly too high for me (see Is taking a Chinese course that’s too hard good for your learning?).

The important thing is that each time I’ve entered a more challenging environment, I’ve had the feeling that I will drown and that there is no way I can understand Chinese being spoken that quickly and with that amount of difficult words.

However, each time I’ve adapted and learnt how to handle the situation. Sure, it requires hard work and some time, but it’s not that difficult! The thing is that if you don’t expose yourself to something difficult, you will never learn how to handle it. Using running as an allegory, if you only run five kilometres each time, how can you ever hope to be able to run a full Marathon? Of course, it will be hard every time you increase the distance, but it’s obvious that you have to do so in order to reach your goal!

Adapting takes time

If you increase the difficulty of what you’re listening to, either in class or somewhere else, it will take some time for you to adapt. Don’t be scared by the fact that it might feel like you don’t understand anything in the beginning. Listening ability is a lot about piecing together information stored in your brain fast enough to be able to understand what is said around you. Doing that requires practise. The most important thing of all is that if you don’t expose yourself to difficult Chinese, you will never be able to understand difficult Chinese. It’s that simple.

The crux of the matter is that it only feels like you’re at an i+2 level, whereas you’re in fact well within what you can handle, provided that you give yourself enough time to adapt. Listening for a few hours and saying that it’s too hard is not enough! Be patient, do your best and it will pay off.

A personal example

To illustrate what I’m talking about I’ll share a personal example. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I had studied Chinese for one year in Sweden. Most of my classmates had studied Chinese for about the same time, but in Taiwan, meaning that they were far ahead of me when it came to listening and speaking (but not necessarily reading and writing). I remember that my first day in class was horrible; how could I ever hope to understand what the teacher was saying? I understood only perhaps 50%!

Then, slowly, that number started to rise. It approached 100% well before the end of the semester. This was of course partly a result of studying, but just being exposed to language at a more advanced level was certainly an important part of it. The same thing happened in the subsequent semester (see Is taking a Chinese course that’s too hard good for your learning?).

I+3 and a warning

It might be possible to learn Chinese by exposing yourself to huge amounts of naturally produced Chinese by native speakers for native speakers, but I doubt that that is the most efficient method. It certainly requires more determination than most students can muster. I say this because if you really don’t understand anything, you’re probably listening to something which is really too difficult. However, if you understand lots of words without necessarily being able to understand the sentences, you should be okay.

A quantum leap forward

The reason I say that this is a quantum leap is of course that development usually occurs in big steps, not a gradual transition. If you always listen to things that are too difficult for you and keep making it more difficult as you learn more, it will be very hard to advance, but if you feel that you are comfortable with a certain level and then take a big step to another, more difficult level, then you will be able to adapt to that, master it and then you have the foundation to take another leap. This also enables you to rest and consolidate what you have learnt before moving on.

This progression also tallies well with courses, since most language schools and courses aren’t really structured for flexible changes between different courses within a single semester. Thus, try to find something which is a bit too difficult, stick with it for one semester, feel that you’ve taken a big step towards better listening ability and then repeat the same process again next semester (or the next semester after that if you don’t feel ready). Just don’t stay in the shallow end of the pool too long.


In summary, I think that it’s always worth experimenting with material which at first seems to be too difficult. More often than not, you will find that if you just give it some time, you will adapt to the new level. Don’t be dispirited by the fact that you only understand fragments of what is being said, if you persist, you will make progress. It takes some practise to know what really is too difficult, but until you know that, don’t be afraid of reaching a little bit higher than what feels comfortable.

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  1. Harland says:

    Bah, bunch of B.S. I was around I+2 this very evening, and it didn’t help me to learn anything.

    The “secret” is to study your ass off, like you admit to doing. There’s no substitute for that. You can be listening to I-1, I, I+1, I+2, and nothing will matter as long as you’re have the luxury of having time to study 4+ hours per day.

  2. Olle Linge says:

    @Harland: I’m sorry, but reading your reply I get the impression that either you read the article very quickly or you misunderstood most of what I wrote.

    “I was around I+2 this very evening, and it didn’t help me to learn anything”

    The idea is that if you listen to something which is too hard, it won’t be very helpful, so what you’re saying here is simply confirming one of the basic assumptions of the article. There are people who argue that quantity is everything and that your own level isn’t very important, but I’m not one of them. I do believe quantity to be the most important factor, though, as I’ve written about elsewhere.

    Also, one key argument in this article is found under the heading “adapting takes time”. One evening isn’t exactly a long time.

    “The “secret” is to study your ass off, like you admit to doing.There’s no substitute for that. You can be listening to I-1, I, I+1, I+2, and nothing will matter as long as you’re have the luxury of having time to study 4+ hours per day.”

    I have never said that there is a substitute for studying very hard (see the links both in this comment and in the original post). What I am saying is that it matters how you’re spending that time. That i matters is quite obvious. If you only study Chinese at a kindergarten level, you will never be able to read newspapers, even if you study for a thousand years. The trick is to see how advanced material you can use and still be able to adapt.

  3. Hugh Grigg says:

    Children begin listening understanding absolutely nothing whatsoever and go from there, so it ought to be possible.

  4. Olle Linge says:

    @Hugh Grigg: True, but that wasn’t what I meant. Parents (and others) use child directed speech or baby talk when talking to children, which is attempt to make the input more comprehensible. I mean, most children don’t learn their native language by listening to grown-ups talking among themselves or by watching news broadcasts. This might still be possible, I’m just saying that it isn’t the norm. 🙂 Also, bear in mind that what work for children isn’t necessarily the best way for adults.

  5. David Feigelson says:

    Olle, I think what Hugh Grigg is trying to say is that children follow their interests which is what adults should do too. If a child is interested in comic books, he reads a lot of comic books and they become very easy for him to read. If an adult is interested in women, he should talk to a lot of women, and they become very easy to talk to. Without following our interests it doesn’t matter if we are at i+1 or i+10, we won’t be very enthusiastic about what we are doing. And if there’s one thing I learned from Confucius it’s that wherever you go, go with all your heart.


  6. Olle Linge says:

    @David Feigelson: I agree completely, but I think this is a different topic and not very closely related to how difficult things you’re listening to. Of course, we need motivation to study, but that’s true for any aspect of learning Chinese, so such a comment would be equally valid for all articles on this website. 🙂

  7. Michael Bolger says:

    I agree that i+1 is the best way to practice listening, but it should be pointed out that Krashen’s theories have been widely discredited, so it would be unwise to read more into his research than the fact that listening to material a little above your level is a good idea

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think it’s a simplification to say that he has been “widely discredited”. As far as I know, the major complaint with his theories is that they are vague (i.e., it turns out to be impossible to define what either “i” or “1” means in this situation). I still think the principle behind i+ is sound and that most people who debate that do so from a scientific standpoint (i.e. they don’t necessarily think he’s wrong, just that his theory isn’t scientific because it’s hard to confirm/refute a statement which can’t be clearly defined).

      1. Michael Bolger says:

        To the best of my knowledge, even Krashen himself admitted that his broader theory was incorrect after studies showed that it didn’t work in practise [i.e. that input is ALL that’s required]

        i+1 is a decent idea, and is worth using all I’m saying is that it shouldn’t nnecessrily encourage further adoption of his ideas

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Well, to be honest, I find it hard to understand how someone can claim that input is everything in the first place. It’s so obviously wrong. 🙂 I mean, I know lots of Chinese people who’s understanding of English (written and oral) is excellent, but who can’t manage basic communication. If input were the only thing needed, these people would be able to speak English as well. It seems obvious to me that language learning has both an acquisition component (input works fine) and a skill component (actual practice is required).

  8. Francis says:

    Thanks for your articles!!

    Important part:
    The crux of what I’m saying, is that at any point in time, if one is really dedicated to learning Chinese (and actually like it), if learning Chinese ever feels like work, you should IMMEDIATELY change whatever aspect you’re studying and change to something else. If you’ve been working on reading, then switching to reviewing grammar for 2 days will often make you feel like superman and like you’ve learned a ton. Upon making the transition to vocabulary, reading a ton (with Skritter as an aid or chinese chrome extension which I got today), and then finally going back to writing, can be ridiculously efficient.

    Now that I’m more advanced, I’ve gotten significantly better at ascertaining which aspect at that time I need to work on, in order to set myself up to improve a different skill. I’ve made plenty of mistakes that cost me a couple of days.

    In any event, it seems that the different abilities of reading, listening, writing, talking (grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure) really need to be maturely self-determined at each step of the learning process. One has to be humble in learning all that one can from different sources and taking advice, and yet one also has have a personal arrogance about knowing what’s best for yourself to study, after having heard others’ advice.

    My experience:
    Though I haven’t systematically gone through your articles on my learning Chinese odyssey, I have enjoyed them quite a lot. I think one interesting phenomenon you might want to note is the importance of doing things at the right time (maybe you have already). (My experience: Last year, I did a 6 week BLCU summer course starting from nothing; this year, I started in 6 week B+ course, then after 3 weeks self-studying, skipped C and went into D, where we’re reading excerpted newspaper articles.

    Exactly as you said in this article, it only seems hard when you first get in, and then if you work hard, you can very quickly adapt. In both cases of skipping levels, I probably only understood 60% of the first day of class, but within a week, comprehension jumped to ~85%.

    The BLCU schedule is pretty much this:
    A level: pronunciation and basic communication
    B level: massive amounts of grammar, every class at least 5 new
    C level: Pile grammar together into paragraphs and ought to maintain conversations
    D level: Transition to newspapers, ought to be able to write an essay
    E level: Reading essays with ease and explaining similarly

    But at the A, B, C levels, I don’t think it’s possible to demarcate things so easily. For one thing, it quickly gets monotonous to every day learn 5 pieces of new grammar, simply because it’s so difficult to incorporate so much new info and newly creatable sentences. I’ve found that studying material that is NOT class material is frequently best way, for example, now that I’m in D and reading newspapers, I review grammar and it’s ridiculously easy to review and memorize, since I encountered (but only really understood it 75%) it passively so much in speech and reading.

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