Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Listen before you read: Improve your listening ability

play-151523_960_720This article is about a very simple technique you can use to get more out of the study materials you have and improve your Chinese listening ability. As we all know, it’s hard to find good learning materials in general, even if you’re willing to pay for them, and finding good listening material is even harder, especially at a beginner or lower intermediate level.

I do my best to collect good learning resources, so if you don’t know where to start, you can either check Hacking Chinese Resources, which will give you more than you asked for, or check this article: The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese.

In this article, though, I want to talk about how and why to put the focus back on listening.

The beginner and lower-intermediate listening problem

While there is a fair amount of text resources available (see my favourite free resources here), there’s still not many good listening resources around. Yes, there are podcasts and audio courses, but as I said above, these are often problematic. There are two types of problems:

  • Too much English (or other source language)
  • Too much new content (making it hard to understand)

This leads to a situation where it is very difficult as a beginner or lower intermediate learner to listen enough. You can use your textbook’s audio files, because those become very difficult very fast. Podcasts are a good complement, but beginner episodes usually contains 10% Chinese and 90% talking about the Chinese in English.

Don’t waste good listening material

However, almost all listening resources come with text of some sort.

  • Textbooks have audio files matching the text in the book
  • Podcasts have transcripts of the dialogues (but seldom the small talk)
  • Reading apps sometimes have recorded audio

If you read the text first, use the transcript to support your listening or read along with the audio, you’re wasting good listening opportunities. We have already established that there are already too few of these, so this is not good!

Listen first, then read

Instead of clinging to text, what I want you to do is to listen first. There are several reasons for doing this apart from the fact that listening is often overlooked and that it’s hard to find good listening material.

Most importantly, I strongly believe that listening ability is the most important skill, especially if you live or plan to live in a Chinese-speaking environment. This is because gains in listening ability multiplies your ability in other areas.

If you understand what’s being said around you, you learn a lot. If you understand nothing, you learn little. The same is partially true for reading, but listening is much more immediate and not something you can escape easily, while avoiding reading signs, billboards and instructions in a foreign language can be all too easy.

If you read before you listen, you spoil the listening material, but if you listen before you read, you don’t necessarily spoil the reading material. And even if you do, there’s plenty more reading material anyway.

How to practice Chinese listening ability

As I’ve pointed out before, there are many ways of practising listening ability. In my opinion, the best way of improving listening ability is to spend lots of time trying really hard to understand what someone is saying to you. If you can’t manage in person, either because it’s impractical or because it’s too exhausting, then doing so with recorded audio is a possible substitute.

If you read a text and then listen to it, you don’t really get to practise trying to understand because you already know what they’re going to say. That’s not communication. Naturally, listening once at full speed might not be enough. Try:

If you want more about listening ability in general, check out my series about listening strategies:


So, the next time you find reading material with audio, listen to the audio a couple of times before you read the text. This is true for the next chapter in your textbook, apps you found or podcasts you use. It will be hard, of course, don’t expect to understand everything, but do make an effort to understand as much as you can. Then read.

The only exception to this is if you really need to focus on reading ability for some reason, such as when preparing for an exam, but this should be the exception. It’s also the case that there ought to be plenty of opportunities to read texts where there is no audio and you have no choice. In short, there’s too much reading as it is, so make sure you make the most out of the listening opportunities you have!

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  1. 亚历山大 says:

    I always do like this. Especially with the Chinese Breeze adapted readers which have mp3 files. What I do first is that I listen to the whole book and try to understand what is the story about. I may do it twice or three times, although it takes time. Then I read the book several times (the stories are usually short). Finally I listen again.

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