Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Listen more and learn more by building a personal Chinese audio library

The best way to learn a language is through listening. It gives you the input you need to learn everything from the sounds and tones of the language to vocabulary, grammar and how these are used in context. If I were able to reach all students of Chinese with one piece of advice, it would be to listen more!

I have discussed the importance of listening for your overall proficiency in Chinese before, so if you want a more carefully structured argument please refer to the series of articles called Beyond tīng bu dǒng, especially part one. In this article, we will look at how to listen more, which is not as easy as it sounds.

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

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube and many other platforms!

In particular, we’re going to talk about why and how to build your personal Chinese audio library. With such a library, you will always have something suitable to listen to, no matter if you feel enthusiastic and want to listen to something interesting but challenging, or if you want something more relaxed to take a break from other activities or to accompany you on your commute, walk or run.

Without such a library, you will waste much energy trying to find things to listen to. You will often give up because finding something is too hard, or the things you find are themselves too hard. You will miss many learning opportunities, not because you didn’t want to learn, but because you weren’t prepared. So let’s build our personal audio libraries together!

Listening to more Chinese is simple advice but hard to follow in practice

Before we start building the library, we need to talk about why students can’t just “listen more”, and why this article isn’t two words long.

The advice to “listen more” is not complex at all, but that doesn’t mean that implementing it is simple.  There are two problems we need to overcome, which can be briefly summarised as “finding something suitable to listen to” and “getting things done”. This article is mostly about the first problem, but since they are closely related, let’s start by talking about getting things done.

Humans are not machines, so we can’t just program ourselves to listen eight hours a day. Changing habits is difficult, not just because it takes effort to establish new patterns of behaviour, but also because you might need to deconstruct old ones to free up time. I talked more about habits for learning Chinese in Habit hacking for language learners, but for the discussion here, it’s enough to note that changing behaviour is not easy.

It’s also worth noting that while doing something simple a large number of times seems easier than doing something very hard once, both are difficult, just in different ways. Compare climbing a wall with walking a thousand miles. Climbing is hard because each step is hard, which is what most people mean when they say that something is “hard”. Walking a thousand miles is also hard, but not because each step is hard, but because there are so many steps to take in total.

As I have argued elsewhere, learning Chinese is difficult more in the sense of walking a thousand miles than climbing a wall, and improving listening ability is the clearest example of this.

Is Chinese difficult to learn?

For general ideas on how to listen more, you can check 7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice, but here’s a summary:

  1. Get cheap, wireless earphones
  2. Always have audio available
  3. Have audio at a suitable level available
  4. Make Chinese the default option
  5. Commit to activities that involve listening
  6. Make Chinese the only option
  7. Create solid listening habits

All of these are important, but in this article, I want to focus on the third idea in that list: “have audio at a suitable level available”. The goal is to be able to use more time to listen but to do that, you need to have audio that works in a wide range of situations.

7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice

What is a suitable level for Chinese listening practice?

What Chinese listening material is suitable in terms of difficulty depends on many factors, such as your proficiency level, how much scaffolding you use, how many times you’re willing to listen, how much energy you have, how focused you are how familiar the content is, and much more.

The goal is to build a personal library of Chinese audio that always contains something suitable, no matter what situation you’re in. If you have the time and desire to listen, you should have something to listen to that isn’t too hard or too easy

This is not easy unless you have already reached an advanced level, and maybe not even then. When you first start learning Chinese, everything will be too hard, meaning that any content you come across will be incomprehensible without scaffolding. If this is your problem, I suggest you check out Beginner Chinese listening practice: What to listen to and how.

Beginner Chinese listening practice: What to listen to and how

If you’re not a beginner and just want recommendations for things to listen to, you can also check out The 10 best free Chinese listening resources for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners.

The 10 best free Chinese listening resources for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners

Comprehensible input and  Chinese listening practice

Learning is about connecting language form to meaning. The form can be written (characters, words, and so on) or spoken (sounds, tones, prosody). Meaning is the intended message behind a written or spoken language.

When it comes to listening, you learn something when you can connect something you hear with its intended meaning. Maybe someone says the name of your country and it leads your thought to your country. Great! Or perhaps you hear someone say zàijiàn to someone and you correctly interpret it as a farewell. Awesome! As your Chinese improves, you’ll be able to connect more and more of what people say with the underlying meaning.

The more such connections you’re able to make, the better. The connections needn’t even be new to be beneficial, so when you hear the same greeting the tenth time, you’re still learning something. You’re getting faster and better at parsing Chinese and connecting form to meaning. This improved processing frees up mental resources to deal with other, harder things.

Three might be a limit to how easy something can be, beyond which it makes little sense to engage with it from a language learning perspective, but that’s usually far away for most learners of Chinese. This means that most students should only add things to their personal Chinese audio library; there’s little need to remove listening resources because they are too easy, but you might want to remove them if you don’t like them.

How much of the Chinese you listen to should you understand?

This brings us to the important question of how much you should understand to get the most out of your listening practice, which is hard to answer. The truth is that there simply isn’t enough research into this area to be able to conclusively claim that a certain percentage is optimal, not even in very specific situations. There are also methodological issues, such as what it even means to understand 80% of something and how to measure that.

Still, I think it’s safe to say that understanding more is better. If you aren’t able to do the form-meaning connection I discussed above, you’re unlikely to learn much, so putting on a TV show where you understand one word in every other sentence is not ideal. Sure, you might learn something about how spoken Mandarin sounds, but you won’t learn much beyond that.

The more you understand, the more likely you are to learn new things

You don’t need to understand everything, but as a minimum, you need to understand enough to find what you listen to engaging and interesting. If you don’t reach that level of comprehension, you’ll quickly lose interest, because it’s extremely hard to focus on spoken language where you only understand a few words here and there, especially for longer periods. It’s hard to describe this in numbers, but if you get the gist of the Chinese you’re listening to, that’s a decent minimum level of comprehension. You can also listen to the same passage more than once to check if comprehension increases significantly the second time; if it does, the content is not too hard.

However, that’s a minimum level of comprehension, and for the majority of your listening time, you need to focus on Chinese where you understand much more than the gist. If your goal is to be able to learn entirely new words and grammar patterns, you probably need to understand almost everything! There’s plenty of research into incidental learning (which is what this is called) and extensive reading, and the numbers usually mentioned in the literature are close to 100%. The exact numbers don’t matter here, but the more you understand, the more likely you are to learn the new things you didn’t understand.

Adjust your Chinese listening to allow for comprehensible input

As already mentioned, many things influence how difficult something is. This means that you can lower the difficulty in different ways. This allows you to use Chinese listening resources that would otherwise be too hard. I discussed various ways of scaffolding your listening (and reading) in various ways in this article: 8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese listening and reading, and covered these methods for listening:

  • Listen more than once (as mentioned above)
  • Lower the rate of speech (by using software)
  • Use written support (such as a transcript)
  • Visualise the spoken language (by choosing resources with images or video)

It’s important to note, then, that how you listen can influence how difficult it is.

8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese listening and reading

Building a personal Chinese audio library

As mentioned in the introduction, the goal is to build a personal Chinese audio library that contains something for every occasion. If you’re tired on your commute on your way home from work, you should have something you’re able to and willing to listen to and make sense of. If you’re full of energy on a Sunday afternoon and want to listen to something truly interesting but extra challenging, you should know what to listen to as well.

And you should have something for all the situations in between these extremes too! Not only that, you also need to make sure that these resources are available when you need them, hence a personal library, as opposed to the resource collections compiled by others, such as Hacking Chinese Resources.

Building your personal Chinese audio library requires some management and preparation before you listen. If you find yourself on your commute, thinking that it would be cool to listen to something easy in Chinese, but you don’t have it easily available, it’s likely that you won’t listen, because finding the audio will take more energy than you have available. Thus, you need to build your library in advance, not when you need it. This is true in general, so make sure you prepare for rainy days in advance so you can avoid deep slumps and keep learning!

Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps

Build your library one resource at a time

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your audio library. Instead, it’s a long-term project where you keep adding resources as you find them. I suggest using a simple system where you sort, store or tag the listening materials based on how hard they are for you. Please note that this is not the same as how hard it is objectively speaking. For example, a tricky podcast episode in Chinese you’ve studied carefully and listened to many times is not hard for you anymore, and can be even easier than another podcast episode that has a lower level objectively (fewer difficult words, easier grammar, and so on).

Here are some categories you can use, either mentally or for a system of tags or folders if you prefer:

  1. “Explore” is for potentially interesting listening resources you don’t know where they fit, how hard they are exactly and what you want to do with them. I just keep a list of these in text format, so when somebody recommends something or I stumble upon something that looks interesting, I save it for later.
  2. “Challenge” is for listening resources that you can understand, but only with much effort. You might also need to listen many times to understand, or use other types of scaffolding, such as peeking at a transcript or lowering the rate of speech.
  3. “Comprehend” is for content you can make sense of largely unaided. This could be additional podcast episodes from a show you know is at the right level, the next chapter in the graded reader you’re working on or similar.
  4. “Consolidate” is for material you have already studied or listened to and know well. In general, don’t throw listening material you have already covered away unless you don’t like it for some reason. Instead, put it in this folder or tag it so you can listen again later.
  5. Enjoy is for listening resources that you truly enjoy, regardless of difficulty. This could be songs you like or any type of audio you thoroughly enjoy listening to. This is perfect for when you don’t want to study, but still want to engage with Chinese somehow.

I realise that this is overkill for most people, but I think that these categories can be helpful for mentally sorting and thinking about resources, even if you don’t have folders or tags corresponding to the bullet points in my list. For example, having saved a dozen Chinese songs you like might be good enough for the “Ejnoy” category, and subscribing to a range of podcasts and YouTube channels on different difficulty levels will take care of the categories “Challenge” and “Comprehend”.

The important thing is that you have suitable Chinese listening materials available, regardless of the occasion. When you have been building your library for a while, this should consist mostly of “Comprehend” and “Consolidate”. You probably have plenty of things to listen to if you want a challenge, but hopefully, you’ll also find listening content you truly enjoy!

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I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!

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