Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese listening strategies: Passive listening

Most people agree that quantity is very important for improving listening ability (immersion, in other words). The previous article in this series started out by defining different listening modes and went on to discuss background listening in more detail.

In this article, we will look more closely at a slightly more active way of listening, but which is yet passive in the sense that listening is all we do. In previous articles, I have defined passive listening in the following way:

Passive listening is when you focus on what you’re listening to, but aren’t doing anything apart from listening. Thus, it is much more active and requires time of a different quality than background listening. You might listen passively because you’re unable to be more active (see the examples below) or because you don’t want to for some reason:

  • Listening to podcasts while jogging
  • Tuning in to a radio station while playing a mindless game
  • Reviewing the audio material to your textbook while driving

This article is part of a series of articles focusing on listening ability, please read the introduction here.

Articles in this series:
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening (this article)
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Listening resources


The passive-active spectrum

Background listening is a simple way of filling our days with hours and hours of Chinese, but since we don’t pay particular attention to what we listen to while it’s in the background, we will of course benefit less from the language we’re exposed to. Passive listening, although still not the most active form of practising, means that we pay more attention to what we hear..

However, in this article I’m going to argue that there shouldn’t be a clear line between passive and active listening. I think passive listening is mostly the result of circumstances, i.e. you don’t do active listening simply because it’s not practically possible. If you heed my advice about using diverse methods to learn Chinese, you will find yourself listening to Chinese while jogging, cooking or drive to work, and so on. In these cases, all you can do is listen, simply because your hands are already occupied.

Basic passive listening

This what most people mean when they say passive listening. You have a radio program, podcast or something on and you listen and try to understand what they’re saying. The difficulty, length and content of the audio material might of course vary, but simply listening and trying to understand is a worthwhile exercise in itself. Let’s not forget that when we look at more fancy methods below.

Note that more active listening isn’t necessarily good. If we’re aiming for something close to full immersion, it’s impossible to spend 10+ hours a day listening actively (you’ll become exhausted very quickly). Before we go on to discussing how to make listening more active, let’s look at a few things you can do to lower the stress level, thus enabling you to learn Chinese at all times:

  • Listen to things you really like
  • Listen to music (which feels more relaxing)
  • Listen to something you’ve already listened to
  • Listen to audio at a lower difficulty level
  • Listen to topics you already know about in your native language

Making passive listening more active

Having looked at how we can lower the mental processing required, let’s now turn to how we can increase it to learn more. The more actively we approach the audio, the more we will learn. This does not mean that background listening is useless, it just means that it can’t be the backbone of our listening strategy (rather, it should be the flesh that makes up the biggest volume of our listening practice).

The problem is that it’s hard to make listening more active if you only have access to your brain and the audio you’re listening to. How are you supposed to do anything apart from simply listening if your driving, jogging or cooking at the same time?

In fact, there are quite a few things you can do:

  • Noticing – Repeat anything you find interesting, perhaps because it’s new to you or you find the expression useful. It can be anything from tones, words, phrases or grammar. If possible, repeat aloud to yourself. If not socially accepted, repeat to yourself in your head. Think of this as a mental bookmark you use to tell your brain that this is something important.
  • Shadowing – Repeat aloud what you hear immediately. This is fairly easy in your native language, but is very hard in Chinese, at least if the audio material contains reasonably natural speech. If you can’t repeat everything, repeat as much as you can, aiming for keywords. If you for some reason can’t repeat aloud, you can do the same thing in your head, but note that this is significantly easier than saying the words aloud.
  • Interpret – Translate what you hear as you hear it. This might be very easy or very hard depending on what you’re listening to and if you’re familiar with the content beforehand or not. Note that the idea here isn’t to produce a good interpretation as such, but to allow you to focus on the main points of what’s being said and summarise that in your native language.

Some of the methods above are very demanding and hard to keep up for long periods of time. My suggestion is to try them out for just a few sentences at a time. Between attempts, return to the basic passive listening mode of simply trying to understand and follow the audio you’re hearing.

Special purpose listening

This is another form of passive listening that I think is essential. The concept is simple: select something you find interesting or something you’re having problems with, then concentrate only on these parts in the input. You can focus on anything you like, but here are some examples:

  • Listen to the person who is not speaking (When you’re listening to a non-scripted dialogue.) This will teach you how to sound approving, non-committed, questioning, interested, encouraging, surprised, empathetic, angry, sad, curious and much more. You will notice that the sounds Chinese people use to convey these feelings aren’t the same as those in your native language.
  • Listen for third tones – If you’re having troubles with the third tone, try focusing only on these while you listen. Try to hear as many as you can, note how they change according to the tone of the following syllable. Note that the third tone is a low tone most of the time.
  • Listen for various ways of saying “yes” and “no”. In class, most people very quickly learn at least one way of expressing agreement and disagreement, but languages typically have a wide variety of words available to express this. While listening to a dialogue, pay attention to how people agree or disagree with each other.
  • Listen for certain syllables – Are you curious about whether syllables like “yin” should start softly (with something close to the “y” in “yam” in English) or with a harder sound (like in “east”)? Listen to different people speaking while focusing on this detail and you will soon find that both varieties are quite common.

Towards more balanced listening

Even though I’ve spent at least one article singing the praise of non-active listening, I still feel that active listening is where most learning takes place. The more we process what we hear, the more we learn. The problem is of course that this mental processing is fairly demanding (depending on the difficulty level of the audio) and we can’t hope to keep it up for very long.

In this article, I’ve suggested several ways of making passive listening more active. Follow the advice as much as you feel comfortable with. If you feel it’s too much, back down to simply listening and trying to understand. If that’s too much, you should perhaps change to easier audio.You could also use one of the several ways of how to make listening less taxing. The point is that you should adapt your listening to how much energy you currently have and how much you want to invest in listening. If you don’t feel up to the task, the solution isn’t to cut the audio out entirely, but rather to change to a more relaxed listening mode.

This concludes my discussion of passive audio, next time we’ll talk about the most active forms of listening which requires full concentration and a suitable environment. Stay tuned!

 Questions for discussion

  • Do you have other ways of listening more actively?
  • Do you have other suggestions for what to focus on?
  • Do you have any advice on how to increase listening volume?

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  1. Sara K. says:

    Very interesting ideas about how to make passive listening more active…

    I never thought of ‘shadowing’ before, but it sounds like a good idea, so I just tried it. I actually did not think it was much harder than (I think it would be) for English, but I was not listening to something particularly challenging. I am sure it would be much more difficult to shadow, say, a heated political debate…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I find shadowing particularly useful to spot difficult part I just didn’t notice before. If you repeat something aloud you don’t really understand, you will notice, but whereas if you listen to the same passage completely passively, it’s sometimes possible to think that you understand, but in fact you don’t. I do shadowing as much as I can and I find it both challenging and entertaining.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for writing this. I couldn’t open the listening speed link. If that piece contains anything about how to keep up with fast speakers, like on CCTV news, it would be very useful.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi John,

      I can open the article without problems, perhaps it was just a temporary problem? Let me know if you still can’t open it!


  3. Felix says:

    I disagree with the translating part as it can become very confusing sometimes.
    Great website by the way, keep up the good work

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