Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

What languages do you speak? Do you speak Chinese?

We often let speaking ability stand for overall language skill and usually don’t inquire about someone’s listening comprehension, likely because we assume that if someone can speak a language well, they can understand it just as well.

Does this mean that speaking is more important when learning Chinese?

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode #191:

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Visible and invisible language ability

One reason people tend to value speaking ability higher than listening ability is that the former is visible, whereas the latter is often less obvious.

You form an intuitive opinion about someone’s speaking ability as soon as they open their mouth, but to assess someone’s listening ability, you need to actively probe their understanding, preferably through a structured test.

Regularly saying duì (对) or en (嗯) to indicate that you understand, and occasionally asking a question related to the general topic of the conversation does not show that someone understands everything that’s being said.

As we shall see, expressing yourself is easier than understanding what other people say. When you speak yourself, you can control the language you use, the topic you talk about and how quickly you speak, but when you listen, you lack that control.

Listening in Chinese is hard

There are many reasons why listening is harder than speaking beyond a lack of control over language, topic and speed, some of which are extra important for Mandarin. In this article, I listed three reasons:

  1. Mandarin has a timed sound inventory – This makes pronunciation and speaking easier once you know the sounds and tones. However, this also means many words sound similar, making listening tough. With around a thousand unique syllables, and even fewer if you haven’t learnt to distinguish tones, students often feel everything sounds the same. This is mainly due to Mandarin’s simple syllable structure, with no consonant clusters in the initials and few allowed finals.
  2. Listening in Mandarin is more context-dependent – The world’s languages differ in how they encode information. English words include a lot of often redundant information, so just by seeing the word “her”, you know both that it refers to a female and that she’s the object of the sentence. Languages like Latin are even more extreme in this regard. Chinese, however, is at the opposite end. If you hear the word 她, you need context to figure out if it’s the subject, object, or something else. This makes listening harder because the burden of decoding this information is on the listener.
  3. Mandarin comes in many forms – In China, Mandarin is often a second language, spoken with diverse accents and influences from local dialects. This creates a challenge for learners, who must navigate variations in pronunciation and vocabulary. The scale of China’s linguistic diversity, with over a billion speakers, amplifies this challenge, requiring learners to adapt to a wide range of spoken Mandarin forms.

All these factors make listening difficult, not in the sense that it requires a lot of skill or talent to master, but in the sense that there are few shortcuts and no substitute for tons of listening practice.

Why is listening in Chinese so hard?

Showing off speaking ability and faking listening comprehension

The paradox is that while listening ability is harder to learn, it’s also easier to fake. As mentioned, you need to probe actively to see how much someone truly understands, while their ability to express themselves will be immediately obvious.

This is why you should focus on your speaking ability if you want to boast about how quickly you learnt Chinese, but I’m much less impressed by a student who can rattle off native-sounding sentences but doesn’t seem to understand what the people say than vice versa.

Listening ability is much more important than speaking ability

The problem isn’t that I think people actively try to fake speaking ability or hide bad listening comprehension, but that it’s easy to focus on what’s most visible, especially if the environment encourages this.

Don’t do it; listening is more important than speaking!

Speaking ability is mostly about using things you have learnt to express yourself. This requires skill, and practising speaking will improve your ability to communicate.

Real communication: What it is, why you want it and how to get it

The problem is that you can only put new words and grammar into your brain through your ears (or eyes if you’re reading), not your mouth. You need to hear (or see) things over and over in different contexts to learn them; no amount of speaking will be a substitute for this.

Improving your listening ability accelerates your learning

Another reason listening ability is so important is that it accelerates your learning in a way that improving your speaking ability does not

The more you understand what people say, the more you learn. If you don’t understand anything, you won’t learn much, but if you understand some, you stand a chance to learn things you didn’t already know.

Compare two scenarios, one in which you invested a lot of effort into improving your listening comprehension, and one where you used all that time to improve your speaking ability instead, and you then listen to a conversation in Chinese. In the first case, you will understand more of what is said, and thereby also stand a better chance of learning something from the experience. Improving your listening ability gave you extra learning opportunities. In the second case, you might not be able to follow the conversation at all, and listening to it is largely a waste of time.

This is less likely to happen if you study Chinese in your home country and can perfectly control the difficulty of the listening materials you use, but if any listening you engage in is improvised or not tailored to your level, focusing on listening ability will accelerate your learning.

This is similar to the idea that learning many words is important because it opens up new learning opportunities. When you understand most of the words in an utterance, you can learn some of those you didn’t, but if you don’t know any, you probably can’t.

Learning Chinese words: When quantity beats quality

Understanding is often preferable to being able to express yourself

Apart from this, I think that understanding what’s going on is more important for social integration than being able to express yourself.

If you’re in a group of native speakers, it’s hard to fit in or have fun if you don’t understand what people say. It doesn’t help much that your speaking ability is good, because what you say will mostly be monologues unrelated to what other people talk about.

If your listening ability is up to par, on the other hand, you can follow what’s going on and be a part of the group. Sure, your contributions to discussions might be limited to begin with, but that will change gradually. In the meantime, you will learn a ton of Chinese by understanding more of what others say.

Is writing more important than reading?

Even though this article is about speaking and listening, most of the concepts here can also be applied to writing and reading. Active abilities like speaking and writing are more obvious to the listener/reader, whereas passive skills like listening and reading are more indirect.

Still, a good reading/listening ability is the foundation of a good writing/speaking ability, so if you want to build the latter, focus on the former.

For more about improving your writing ability, see 20 tips and tricks to improve your Chinese writing ability

Conclusion: Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?


It’s tempting to focus on speaking when learning a foreign language. I know many beginners who spend a lot of time trying to say the words and use the grammar in their textbooks, but limited time listening to those words in varied, communicative contexts.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with speaking from day one; it’s a great idea, especially if you have an immediate need to be able to speak with people where you live.

But you shouldn’t allow that to overshadow your listening practice. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only knowledge which you can express counts. You can focus too much on speaking, but there’s no such thing as listening too much!

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2014, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in April, 2024.

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  1. Hajo Quint says:

    Hello Olle,

    I fully agree with you. But I think this rule applies to all languages. I have been living in Denmark for more than 25 years and I speak almost like a native. I can be understood of all danes I have met so far. But sometimes it is hard to understand some them (it is the local accent/dialect). I am experiencing the same thing with my chinese wife. She can tell people what she wants to say, but she does not always understand what people telling because of not fully developed listening skills.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, you’re right, of course. I think most of what I write about is equally applicable to most, if not all, languages. I will probably try to broaden the scope of Hacking Chinese later or start a sister website or something. Understanding Danish is really hard, by the way. 🙂

  2. Rob says:

    Thanks for this, I have been trying to set some reasonable short-term goals and finding that I am poor at prioritizing, I was kind of throwing myself at the books without a clear goal. I spent a very long time studying through writing because I was good at it and because that was the common assessment method, but now that I am on my own, I have placed my priorities as follows:
    1) Useful Vocabulary Acquisition (then trying to reuse it day to day)
    2) Reading Comprehension
    3) Listening Ability
    4) Speech
    5) Singing (I really like karaoke and it helps to keep my interest alive!)
    6) Writing

    I was a little bit uneasy placing speaking so low but I realize that I am generally most interested in what others have to say for the time being and this is more important for my career path – to understand rather than voice my own thoughts seamlessly on the spot. In any case, most of the resources I use should improve two or three areas at once, but this is helpful for my strictness in benchmarking.

  3. 尹墨 says:

    In my experience most people who are able to learn languages fast and easy have two main features that enable them to their performance: They are great listeners and great copy cats. It seems like they are able to safe what they hear very fast and clear. They not only here the content of the spoken words but also the very sound and are aware of those like a musician is aware of the harmonies in a piece of music. At the same time they are able to reproduce the sounds they get form their sound memory with high accuracy. Those are treats that are highly dependent on talent but are improvable via dedicated training nonetheless. Future research will probably show that singers are much better language learners because they trained all those abilities.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I mostly agree, although it’s hard to specify what role training has here and what “talent” actually means. For example, even if it were shown that singers are good at picking up sounds (which wouldn’t surprise me in the least; maybe there already is research confirming this), it’s not necessarily because they are trained to do that, it could also be because people who are naturally good at doing it tend to become singers as well. That being said, it’s of course possible to train one’s ability to hear specific sounds in a language, and it seems likely that learning many languages also makes the whole process easier, but I have no research to back this up!

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