Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The grand listening cycle: Improve your Chinese listening ability

radioOver the years, I’ve built up a simple but yet powerful cycle of listening activities that provides most of what I need. This series of exercises contains everything from test-like listening comprehension to very active (and demanding) listening for details, as well as long-term retention, vocabulary building and sentence mining.

Enter: The Grand Listening Cycle

Let’s go through the steps quickly to give you the general idea:

  1. Benchmarking – Find something interesting to listen to (this is of course highly individual, but exactly what to listen to is beyond the scope of this article). If it’s longer than a few minutes, break it down into several parts (you can do this on the fly). Pretend that you’re taking an exam and listen through the audio material once and note the results. This works as a kind of benchmark. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, but if you understand nothing, you should choose something easier. If possible, choose something that comes with a transcript.
  2. Grinding – Put the audio on your preferred audio device and listen to it as much as you can. Put it in a folder called “new” or similar. I usually don’t stress it and sometimes leave the audio file on my phone for weeks before I do anything else with it, listening to it perhaps a dozen times. Gradually, you will start understanding the recording in detail, even though there will of course be gaps.
  3. Transcribing – Now that you are familiar with the audio. Do your best to produce a transcript. The best way to do this is using Audacity, because you can pause, easily find where you were last time and loop the same section of the audio file over and over (hold shift and then click play). You can also reduce the rate of speech, which is awesome. If you encounter a new word you really don’t know, write Pinyin. Check your transcript against the official version (or ask a native speaker to help you if you don’t have a transcript). Checking a complete transcript for errors is relatively easy for native speakers.
  4. Studying – Go through the transcript you have produced just as if it were a normal textbook. Look up key vocabulary, extract cool sentences and learn useful sentence patterns. Do not try to learn everything you don’t knowUse SRS for anything interesting you find.
  5. Reviewing – Move the audio file to a new folder (“review” or something else that contrasts with “new” above). Depending on your energy level at any particular time, you can now choose to 1) listen to something in the “new” folder (demanding) or something in the “review” folder (much easier). The more  you listen, the better, but since you should have a pretty good grasp of the audio already, you don’t need to listen all that often. When you do, it functions as review of everything you’ve learnt from that clip.

If you’re not really clear about what background, passive and active listening are and why they are all essential, you might want to read these articles, describing each concept in detail:

Applying the grand listening cycle

You can use this cycle for any kind of audio material, including songs, news broadcasts, films, TV shows, lecture recordings, interviews or anything else you can think of. Naturally, you can and should have many cycles going at the same time. A while ago, I focused a lot on news broadcasts, typically only a few minutes long. I usually downloaded around four of them and took them all to the grinding phase at the same time, transcribing them one at a time whenever I felt ready.

Learning to understand spoken Chinese is mostly a matter of practice and I’ve found that having fixed and regular routines helps a lot. You could set a quota for each week or commit to a certain number of minutes of completed material, but you should be aware that this cycle takes a lot of time to complete for any audio above your current comfort level. The reason that it takes time and is demanding is that you’re constantly pushing yourself, the best way to improve quickly!

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  1. Timo says:

    Great article! Another really quick and cool way for systematically acquiring and learning new comprehension material, especially of the “everyday speech” kind is this:

    1) Get Subs2SRS
    2) Choose an episode of your favorite Chinese/Taiwanese drama
    3) Have Subs2SRS process the episode and tell it to also capture screenshots for every line
    4) Batch crop the screenshots so that only the subs show
    5) Change the deck’s properties so that only the cropped sub + audio shows on the front of the card (of course if you’re really good at reading you may want to put the subtitle on the back of the card only)
    6) Go through the deck, add new vocab / grammar bits to Pleco / Skritter /Anki as needed. Not all lines will be captured correctly by Subs2SRS, so bad or useless ones can easily be deleted (depending on the timing of the subs and how precisely you adjusted the setting usually between 10-15% but still leaves a lot of great stuff)

    Now you have a ton of new material you can learn piecemeal. And when you’ve learnt everything, time to watch the whole episode again.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sounds cool! However, listening becomes very, very passive if you’re okay at reading and have the characters on the front. I think the best way to practise listening is to actually focus on the listening, so having text is usually not a good idea. It should be there if you need it, but it shouldn’t be there by default. Fortunately, this is pretty easy to get around because you can either just not look at the screen (just listen) first or you can create cards (in some programs) that reveal the answer in parts.

      1. Timo says:

        Yeah like I mentioned, if you’re good at reading, you can simply put the accompanying subtitle for the dialogue line on the back, not the front. In any case, it’s there as a failsafe to check against any potential misheard words – a luxury you mostly don’t have when you’re purely transcribing from other audio-only material without any existing transcription, so I think it’s especially good for beginners and intermediate learners.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Yes, I’m convinced of the overall soundness of the strategy you suggest. I wish I had thought of something similar when I first started learning Chinese. Do you know if this method has been described in detail somewhere else? If not, would you be interested in contributing to an article or something about this? You probably know the practical details much better than I do and my knowledge of the method would be mostly second hand. I’m sure readers in general would be interested in trying this out, though!

          1. Timo says:

            Hi Olle,

            The basic idea and use of subs2srs has been mentioned and discussed on Chinese Forums several times over the years, that’s where I originally got it from – unfortunately I can’t find the biggest thread on it anymore. However the limitation always was that subs2srs needs one L1 and one L2 subtitle file, but separate Chinese subtitles in text format (SRT) are pretty hard to find for any Chinese media. So I simply modified the approach, using the subs2srs screen capture feature to capture the hard-coded Chinese subs that accompany almost every Chinese-language TV programme these days.

            I’d be happy to provide you with a more detailed explanation with how-to screenshots and so on if you think it would be helpful or interesting. I’ve only been using the method for a few weeks now so I can’t say anything to its efficacy, and the results largely depend on how well timed the external (i.e. English) sub file is to the audio, but when it works, it works extremely well.

            Anyway, the end result looks like this plus audio:


            This is from the first episode of In Time With You and I got about 1,400 cards out of it. The actual usable amount will probably be lower, because you have to throw out all the useless stuff as you go along i.e. cards where either audio and/or subs were not captured correctly, one-word responses, etc. but it’s still a lot of material to work with.

            1. Olle Linge says:

              I think that the legality of the method isn’t a problem; as long it’s not nuclear weapons or something like that, a method itself is seldom illegal, so as long as we avoid directly linking to illegal material, we should be okay. People could after all get hold of subtitles in two languages legally. Just leaving that bit out and allowing people to figure out for themselves how to deal with it should be okay.

              Since you have only used the method for a few weeks, how about just recording a few notes about your experience for now and postpone thinking about an article a bit until you feel that you really know the method and have more to say about it’s efficiency? It seems to me that an article would be more interesting if the author has a more in-depth knowledge about how it works, especially if people start asking questions. 🙂

              1. Timo says:

                Sure, let’s do it like that then. I’ll send you an email sometime in the future when I feel a got a good grasp about the whole thing and perhaps I’ve also come up with a few variations on using it by then.

    2. Alastair says:

      “2) Choose an episode of your favorite Chinese/Taiwanese drama”

      Any tips on where to find Chinese videos with both Chinese and English subtitle files?

      1. Timo says:

        There’s a fairly dedicated fandom that regularly translates the most recent Taiwanese and Chinese dramas. Simply googling for some recent popular series together with “+subtitles” “+torrent” etc should provide ample results but of course it’s a pretty grey area legally (though basically the same as what anime fansubbers have been doing for decades)

  2. David Feigelson says:


    Your approach seems to be taking something you enjoy listening to and making it completely not fun anymore. I guess if the goal is to increase vocabulary, then the deconstruction approach is highly useful. I’ve found that if I listen to something enough, words start to reveal themselves naturally (but extremely slowly). When you deconstruct audio by breaking everything down on paper, you circumvent the auditory senses and use the intellect instead. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of listening?

  3. Scott says:

    This method sounds great, the only adjustment I would make for my own use is to use audacity before I put the audio on a listening device and listen repeatedly. This way I can focus on repeating the parts I don’t really understand, which is much harder to do on the go. After I’ve done this I can listen ‘extensively’ while I’m jogging or doing the dishes. I find it annoying listening to the same piece of audio but constantly being unable to understand patches here and there. It’s often due to unknown vocabulary but I also find that news broadcasters in Taiwan often speak in a really elided ‘slurred’ way. Not that I have a right to complain about people slurring their words (I’m Australian).

    Also the only other thing I like to do differently is to turn my audio into a speaking exercise. I think dictation is really helpful but can never be bothered to do it. Instead I just like to periodically summarise the audio by talking to myself.

    I’ve been reading a lot of literature about TESOL methods lately that recommends training learners to use background knowledge ‘top-down processing’ to become better listeners. Have you found that this is a valuable strategy worth training at all or is it simply a case of if you have the necessary background knowledge then you can automatically apply it?

    Great article!

  4. lucie says:

    Brilliant advise.
    How many times would you say you listen to each clip in total, including the new and review stages?
    i have started doing this with useful podcast websites i have found and also with youtube/bilibili videos from individuals/vlogs etc. I am wondering how often i should listen to it on review before moving on from the audio?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I don’t think there’s a specific number to recommend, but two reasonable limits are: 1) when it gets boring and 2) when you know it by heart, whichever comes first.

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