Have you ever had the feeling that, after speaking with someone for a long time and understood most of what they say, you then speak with someone else and you understand nothing? Your confidence drops, you start thinking that your listening ability is really poor. You thought you knew some Chinese, but apparently you don’t.
I’ve had this feeling many times and it’s perfectly natural. It arises because all speakers of any language speak in slightly different ways. Think of people you know who share your native language, do they all speak the same way? Do they use the same words and the same manner of speech? The obvious answer is no.
Here are some factors that differ between different speakers:
- Voice quality (hoarse, high-pitched)
- Rate of speech (slow, fast)
- Volume (strong, weak)
- Dialect (Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan)
- Intonation (monotonous, exaggerated)
- Rhythm (constant, varying)
- Style (formal, informal)
- Enunciation (clear, sloppy)
- Vocabulary (例如, 譬如, 比如)
- Grammar (preferred sentence pattern, style)
All of these are layers added on top of what is said. If you have only heard a word spoken by one single person, you’ve heard that word including all of the above factors (and possible some more I haven’t thought of). However, the word itself doesn’t change meaning just because the way in which it is said changes. Thus, if we only listen to one person speaking, we will associate the way in which it’s said with the meaning of the word, simply because for us, there is no difference.
It’s not the same sound, but it’s still the same word
If we then hear a second person saying the same word in a different way, we might be confused. This is not the word we have learnt! Or at least our brains don’t recognise it as such, because it’s not the same sound as we have heard many times before. After a while, though, we become used to this new way of saying the word and we can understand what’s being said to us.
When we hear a third person speak, this starts over again, but the process is much quicker this time. This higher speed is crucial, because the more times you expose yourself to different versions of the same word, the better you become at seeing through the superficial differences in pronunciation or style, and get through directly to the meaning. Naturally, this effect is carried over to similar words.
The same is true for vocabulary and grammar
Native speakers use different words when they speak, not necessarily because they come from different regions, but simply out of habit. Let’s look at how to say “for example”:
In spoken Chinese, these are more or less interchangeable and which one is used is just a matter of habit. I remember my first teacher in Taiwan, who used 譬如, which I had never heard before. I thought it was a Taiwanese thing. Then the next teacher I had always used 比如. The point is that the first teacher could equally well have used 比如 and the second 譬如, but they didn’t. Now we start to see why listening to many different people is essential.
An example: Listening comprehension tests
Every listening comprehension test I’ve ever taken in Chinese involve only people who speak perfectly standard Mandarin. The problem is that very few people actually speak like this (very educated people might, but it’s still rare). Thus, even if you can understand what your girlfriend is saying and can maintain a conversation with the restaurant owner around the corner, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will score well on a formal test. This is not because your Chinese sucks, it’s because you’re not used to hearing that kind of Chinese. It might not even be a difference in vocabulary, it might just be that they speak in a different way.
Diversify your listening
From this follows that we should try to listen to many different kinds of people speaking Chinese. If we stick only to our teacher and textbook, we will have problems understanding ordinary people. If we’ve picked up everything we know in the Hutongs of Beijing, we will have problems understanding people from Guangdong. Also check this article about learning to understand different Chinese dialects.
Here are a few things you can do to diversify your listening practice:
- Watch TV shows that include people from all over China (check out 非你莫属 or 锵锵三人行)
- Do the same with radio programs and/or podcasts
- Develop an accepting attitude towards dialects (they are different, not better or worse than each other)
More about listening ability
This article is part of my series about improving listening ability. Here are the rest of the articles in this series:
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice (this article)
In short, your listening ability might be better than you think. What you need is to diversify your learning and get used to hearing different people speaking. People with different age, sex, profession, education, home town, attitude and personality. Only then can you acquire complete listening ability, which isn’t just limited to the kind of Chinese you’re used to hearing.
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When I listen to local people, I can understand between 30-80% of what they say. I went to Beijing last month (home of “standard” Mandarin) and I couldn’t understand a damn thing. Maybe 10-20%.
Plus, I thought the TV only allowed standard speakers? Isn’t there a test you have to pass to be allowed on TV?
There are strict rules for hosts and anchors, but nothing for the rest of the people on TV. It’s fairly easy to find shows that feature a variety of speakers, check the two I linked to for instance.
Great to hear someone else saying this! I remember when I first started studying Chinese, I was advise to do my exchange studies in Beijing because “they speak more standard Mandarin.” What a surprise to find that I couldn’t understand hardly any person outside of the classroom. Even more depressing when I found out I couldn’t even understand the word “one” (yao1)! That experience really made me question the logic of avoiding dialects. For sure, you’re going to come in contact with dialects and variant speech, and the only way to cope with it is to get more experience. Later I went to Sichuan to study and it didn’t “ruin my pronunciation” as so many people say. I even took a Sichuanese enrichment class and found it gave me a new area of interest. Then in Hong Kong, I ended up speaking more Cantonese than Mandarin. And while that has caused me some confusion, it sorts itself out over time. My big reward was several years later when I was in Tianjin with a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan. I found that I could understand more of the taxi cab driver’s speech than my Taiwanese friend! So I wholeheartedly agree with your advice to diversify listening experience.
Yet another fine post. Honestly, it is amazing how spot on your posts are as it relates to experiences I’ve had as well. Not to mention, without having read your article, having adopted many similar tactics (i.e. often watch 非你莫属 and 非诚勿扰, taking in many different speaking styles, etc., etc.).
What you mentioned here is so so so important for all Chinese students to know, otherwise, we will continue to have those crushing moments in the learning experience where we can’t understand anything outside of the classroom, or outside of “one particular” person, and thus feel studying Chinese is an exercise in insanity.
Another key is what you mentioned, we can’t adopt the attitude that only “标准普通话” is accurate and deserves to be studied, otherwise, one will have a very, very hard time living and especially working in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. Perhaps we must think of “标准普通话” as a foundation on which to build on, but not the “only” building material in our “Chinese house”. As you mentioned here, we must use “diversified building materials” to build this “Chinese house”, and this must include as you mention lots of different media sources… and talking to lots of locals outside the classroom.
Lastly, so true on what you mentioned with the “Chinese tests”. I remember something a very, very experienced HSK teacher once told me… “If you take my class, I guarantee you can pass the HSK at any level, however that in no way means you will be able to understand everyday Chinese people speaking Chinese!”…. wow! That was a wake up call at the time and has proven to be oh so accurate.
Mind you though, in no way does this mean we should “avoid” the HSK or other Chinese tests, as they most certainly have their place… and if you are looking to get a higher paying job in China, or you want to get in to a Chinese university where classes will be taught in Chinese not English, you have no choice… you must take the HSK as a part of entrance/application requirements.
Conclusion, as Olle you’ve posted here… we all need to cultivate a very “dynamic” and “open” learning style, be it different dialects, accents or the more formal “标准普通话” used for the HSK tests, or news broadcasts… we need to study it all and slowly but surely be familiar with it all.
Of course this takes time… thus Chinese for many reasons love the phrase “别着急，慢慢来” and one other phrase that saved me from insanity early on in the Chinese learning process which a teacher taught me when I just wanted to give up: “不怕慢，就怕站”. When it comes to studying Chinese I think that is one the best sayings we can all memorize.
Last two, sorry… they just came to mind as I’m typing this and they are on topic: “好事多磨” and “贵在坚持”。These are all phrases which I’ve heard when discussing and thinking about how long and hard it can be to study Chinese. Yet, each phrase will perhaps give us that extra like boost, so we just don’t quit… we’ve all come this far studying, why quit now? Right? ; )
Thanks Olle for another great post.
So even a supposedly comprehensive Mandarin site like yours has no way for someone like me to practice listening to Mandarin. That’s all I want. Been searching for months and no one seems to know us intermediate students of Mandarin need practice listening to and translating it (with subtitles we can then engage to see how we did)!
Hi Anthony! First, I have never claimed that my site is “comprehensive”. I write about how to learn Chinese and don’t provide any learning materials at all. Still, I have been working on a section of the site that will share useful resources, so you could head over to the beta-version of that section and see if you find anything you like. You can find listening material for beginners here. If you’re not a beginner, you need to change to “intermediate” or “advanced”.
Hey ollie, quick question: when watching a Chinese TV show, do you have any tips for getting separating the subtitles from the video? In other words, getting the subtitles into a separate document so that they can be read all at once? I find it hard and discouraging to stop the video every 2-3 seconds and then draw the characters into my dictionary; not only do I often overshoot the subtitle I am trying to learn from, but it is also very slow and often inaccurate to try and draw by hand the tiny characters on the screen.
Any help would be much appreciated!
Thanks, Michael King