Listening is in my opinion the most important skill to focus on when learning Chinese. Listening not only provides the input you need to learn things like pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, it also allows you to understand more of what’s going on, giving rise to more learning opportunities and better integration.
As I have written elsewhere, listening is mostly a matter of practice: the more you do it, the better, and most students don’t listen nearly as much as they should. If you want to really learn Chinese in a reasonable amount of time, you need to make listening part of your life, not just something you do occasionally when you feel like it.
Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:
I consume an amount of recorded spoken audio that is probably sounds a bit crazy to most people (usually more than 30 hours a week, sometimes much more, but not limited to Chinese specifically), so in this post, I will share two methods you can use to listen more. Naturally, you don’t have to go all-in on listening and aim for 30 hours a week, but the strategies I will share here work if your goal is to listen 5 hours a week too!
Before we start, it’s extremely important that you make Chinese listening as easy and effortless as possible; any extra step required to get started can be catastrophic. Ask yourself this question a few times throughout an ordinary day: How long would it take you to start listening to something right now? Ideally, the answer should be a few seconds, but for most people, the answer is several minutes or that they don’t even know or can listening to something because they haven’t prepared. I explored this in more detail in this article, which I strongly suggest that you read or listen to (there’s a podcast episode too): 7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice.
Two approaches to extending the time available for Chinese listening practice
Now that we’ve made sure that it’s easy to get started with listening, it’s time to look at how to expand the time you have available for listening. This is not about freeing up more time in your schedule, however, but more about using the time you already do other things with to also learn Chinese. I have discussed this idea in the article Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time. The very short summary is that time has a certain quality, varying from high to low, when considering a specific activity, such as Chinese listening practice. By considering the quality of time over a normal day, you’ll find that a lot of it can actually be used for listening practice, even if conditions are far from ideal.
Let’s look at this in more detail and for listening practice specifically. We can then approach the problem from two directions. First, we can consider listening practice itself and see what things we are already doing and have to keep doing can be combined with listening. Second, we can consider what other things we want to or ought to do more of and that can be combined with listening.
Combining important or necessary activities with Chinese listening practice
Life is full of things that we have to do, and that eats up most of our time, such as eating, working, cooking, commuting, tidying up at home, walking your dog and so on. Traditionally, you wouldn’t consider any of this time as being available for learning Chinese, but if you read my article about time quality above, you know that you should at least consider it. In fact, many everyday activities can be combined with listening without too much trouble, although it might requite some practice before it works smoothly.
Here are a few examples that work without too much effort:
- Walking, running, biking and similar activities
- Household chores of various kinds
- Waiting for people and events (traffic jam, late friend, missed bus)
The amount of time spent on these activities every day will of course vary from person to person, but a rough estimate is that I spend around twenty hours weekly on these activities. Again, depending on your civil status and social situations, not all of this time will be available for listening purposes (you probably shouldn’t listen to a podcast in Chinese while eating with your kids, or or put your earphones on when taking a walk with your neighbour), but even if only half the time is available, it’s still ten hours!
Don’t worry too much if you think it’s hard to combine these activities with listening at first, this is largely a matter of practice. I wasn’t born with a good ability to listen while doing all sorts of things, it’s a skill I’ve gradually developed over the years. Also, even if you don’t listen actively all the time, listening can still be beneficial, something I wrote more about here: Chinese listening strategies: Background listening.
Making something else more worthwhile by adding listening
Another way to get more listening done is to pair it up with some other activity you aren’t required to do, but think you really ought to be doing. Say that you’ve found a radio show you want to listen to, but leading a hectic life, you might not find the time to sit down and just listen. Then why don’t you try to find something you can do at the same time, which will perhaps not be worthwhile on its own, but is ok when combined with the listening practice? You can do this with virtually anything, but here are some suggestions of varying degrees of seriousness:
- Gardening/replanting potted plants
- Reorganising drawers/cupboards
Actually, you can combine listening with almost anything that doesn’t require you to actively use your hearing. If you listen to recorded material, it isn’t very important that you understand or hear everything either, you can just play the same part again if something made you lose focus.
I’ve found this helpful many times to encourage me to get two things done at once. Have I been putting off tidying up in the basement? Well, let’s combine that with listening to a podcast. Or should I really be cook more to avoid having to buy lunch at work? Well, let’s make it more interesting by listening to something at the same time.
The strategy here is to combine two things that you are a bit reluctant to do and get them both done at the same time. Now you might think that the result would be that you’re now twice as reluctant do get these things done, but this is in my experience not the case. Instead, it’s more like two moderately interesting things done together boosts the combined activity so it becomes more interesting than any of the individual parts. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it really works!
Practice makes perfect: Challenge yourself
Like I said above, listening while doing something else is not something most people get used to instantly. If you try listening to Chinese while cooking and constantly lose focus on either task, don’t give up! I wasn’t particularly good at this when I started out, but now I can comfortably combine most tasks with listening to Chinese if I want to. You can also try to vary the difficulty of the Chinese you listen to, because obviously, it will be harder to listen to something complex why performing other tasks in parallel, whereas re-listening to your textbook audio from two months ago will be much easier. I wrote more about this type of adjustments here: How to adjust your Chinese listening to the right level
The best way to improve is to challenge yourself. How much do you spend on listening right now? If you think you spent two hours last week, see if you can do four this week. If you think you spent an hour a day, can you push it to an hour and twenty minutes this week?
Hacking Chinese Challenges is the perfect place to try this out! I run monthly challenges focusing on different aspects of learning Chinese, including listening, where the goal is to encourage people to lear more by building habits and friendly competition. The challenges are completely free. If you want to learn more about the next listening challenge, this is the article for you.
More tips and tricks to improve listening ability
Over the yeras, I’ve written many articles related to listening ability. They are all listed on the page dedicated to listening ability here, but I’ve selected five articles that are of particular importance when it comes to listening more:
- 7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice
- Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice
- Chinese listening strategies: An introduction
- Chinese listening ability, a matter of practice?
- The simple trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to
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