Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Make sure listening practice isn’t a practical problem

As I have settled in another article (Listening, a matter of practice?), listening is mostly about quantity and there are few tricks you can use that will allow you avoid this fact. However, even though “listening a lot” is a very straightforward and uncomplicated strategy, it is very hard to follow for most people. How do you keep on spending the hours you need to improve, especially when you know that the road is so long? Well, the answer is not simple either, but I will try to answer one part of it here (the rest can be found in a special article dedicated to this problem: How to find more time to practise listening.

Rule number one: Make sure you can listen whenever you want to, wherever you are

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are alone and aren’t doing anything important, you should be able to listen to Chinese if you want to. If you can’t, you have made a mistake and need to change something to avoid this in the future. This sounds easy, but even I, who have listened to audio books for about ten hours a week for many, many years, fail sometimes.

Here are some common problems:

  • You haven’t found any suitable material
  • You haven’t downloaded the material to your portable media player
  • You earphones aren’t working properly
  • You’re out of batteries
  • You forgot your media player at home

Except for the first point (which will be dealt with in a separate article), these are all issues that can be easily solved. The goal is to make sure you never encounter these problems at all, because it will decrease the time you can practise listening by a significant amount, if allowed to accumulate. If you’ve found suitable material, make sure you’ve transferred the oaudio to your phone and have it ready. Transfer some extra audio in case you need it. I usually do this in large chunks, so I have fifty hours of radio shows recorded or podcasts. Always make sue that part of this is on your media player, even if it’s not the ideal listening material.Listening to something twice is not bad, so don’t remove old audio if you can’t replace it with new.

Failing earphones, forgotten phones

Regarding earphones, throw away or repair those that only work half the time. I tend to be lazy and not buy new ones even when my current pair isn’t working properly. This is completely unnecessary and stupid. Besides, you can easily buy more than one pair at a time. If you’re not in a hurry, you can buy very cheap and reasonably good earphones from eBay for almost no money.

The remedy to the problem of forgetting the audio at home is hard to get at, but most people seem to be able to remember their phones. Even if you follow the below advice of having an mp3-player just for Chinese, you can still have some audio on your phone (or any other device you happen to carry around), thus avoiding putting all eggs in the same basket. If you have audio on an mp3-player in your bag, some podcasts on your phone and still more on your laptop, you should be safe.

In fact, there is one thing you can do which will make everything a lot easier:

Get hold of a cheap mp3-player and only use it for Chinese

If you don’t already have an old one or if you can’t find a friend who has, these come really cheap these days and listening only to audio, the batteries will last for ages. This way, your everyday life won’t interfere very much with your listening practice (such as not having enough space on your phone, batteries running out, and so on). If you buy an mp3-player without internal batteries, you can easily have a few extra AAA batteries handy to make sure you never run out of power.

If we can’t even manage practical problems, how are we supposed to cope with the more complicated problems of motivation and perseverance?

If we have agreed on that the main problem with listening is that we don’t listen enough, encountering technical or practical problems is unforgivable. Every time you encounter a practical problem which makes you unable to listen even though you want to, ask yourself the above question and let it be a sobering reminder. Managing practical problem is a prerequisite for dealing with more complicated problems. Listening a lot is hard, don’t make it harder than it have to be.

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  1. David Feigelson says:

    Hi Olle,

    I think it’s an incomplete article. You should have included information on how to listen, how much repetition, listening for specific vocabulary, repeating parts of the vocabulary back to yourself when you grow familiar, perhaps the importance of being able to read what you listen to if you can find a text. I’ve found that being able to read what I am listening to always improves my listening comprehension. Of course, I’m still at the textbook stage of low-intermediate Chinese, so what do I know?


  2. Olle Linge says:

    This is not the only article I’ve written about listening and certainly won’t be the last! My ambition is to take what I want to write and break it down into articles that people actually read, which wouldn’t be the case if I took everything I want to say about listening ability and wrote it in a single article. As you can see, there are five articles about listening so far (check the categories to the right or click here, there are more in the pipeline.

    That being said, what you say is of course correct. There are many ways of listening and there are lots of things you can try if you want to improve your listening ability and I will cover this in future articles. I have saved what you wrote and will include it in the future!

  3. Sara K. says:

    I wish I could take the advice in this article … however health issues interfere. Due mainly to genetic reasons (thanks dad), my ears are more fragile than the ears of most people, so in order to preserve my hearing ability for as long as possible, I have to be more careful than the average person. Use of earphones is connected to hearing loss, so I avoid them unless absolutely necessary. And without earphones, portable audio devices are not terribly useful, because of a) the competition with ambient noise and b) obvious social reasons. Hence, I don’t have a portable audio device (unless my cellphone or laptop count as a portable audio device).

    Even though I do not use earphones (except when I must), I actually had to receive medical attention for my ears since coming to Taiwan (specifically, my ears hurt so bad that I could not sleep, and I had some mild hearing loss to boot – after treatment I was fine though). I can’t prove that it was dues to noise pollution, but I think it is the most likely cause. Even though I now live in a less noise-polluted area, I do not dare start usingearphones or anything else which would put more stress on my ears.

    Does this make it harder to practice listening? Yes. But hearing loss would be worse.

    I compensate by setting priorities. Reading poses no risk to my ears, so in those little snatches of time (waiting for food in a restaurant, waiting for a train, etc.) I work on reading. At home, I prioritise listening practice because I know that I can practice reading during those little snatches of time.

    I actually know someone who has the opposite problem. She, because of the way her eyes are, cannot read in many situations (such as on public transit, which shakes too much) – she can only read under very comfortable conditions. However, she is fine with using earphones. She does the opposite of what I do – she prioritises reading practice at home, because she knows that she will have more chances to practice listening outside of home.

  4. Jake says:

    Could you recommend some good resources for listening, specifically for an intermediate learner? I currently use Chinesepod, but I’d love to find some other good podcasts or radio shows.

    As a side note, I’ve read about some learners who rip the audio off of movies or tv shows and will listen to that, do you have any experience with this?

    Thanks again!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Actually, I must admit that I don’t have much experience with intermediate listening in this way. My intermediate period consisted of lots of time in a classroom with very few students or with friends speaking Chinese. I mainly used Chinesepod during this time, but I started listening to radio programs as soon as I could. Remember that radio programs can vary greatly in difficulty. Some of them I still struggle to understand (like political debates), but others have become really easy (programs where they invite someone and simply talk about everyday topics). I’m sorry I can’t help you more, but try to find these kinds of programs if you don’t find them too difficult. Also, check out this thread on Chinese Forums.

      As for ripping audio from movies, I’ve done that quite a lot. The VLC player has this feature built-in and is very versatily (you can also use it to rip online streaming). I find this particularly useful if you like a movie and want to capitalise on that to learn the language they use. Actually, I’ve done this with dubbed Pixar movies to a large extent. 🙂

  5. Jake says:

    I’ve searched a bit for instructions on how to rip online streaming using VLC. I’m a bit of a computer newbie. All of their documentation looks pretty technical. All I want to do is record TV series online and put the audio on my iPod, is it as hard as it looks?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m pretty sure you can do this from within the program without using a command line. Check this!

  6. Jake says:

    If I’m not mistaken, that page explains how to extract audio from a video file that you’ve already downloaded. I’m still not quite sure how to rip it from a streaming video.

  7. Olle Linge says:

    Ok, sorry, I missed the online bit. What operating system are you suing? This can be done using the command line, but you are right when you say that it isn’t very easy if you don’t know what you’re doing. I have a script that does this in Linux, but I’m not sure how VLC works on other platforms. I usually rip audio only, though.

    What’s your source? You could try something like ths: http://www.listentoyoutube.com/, which allows you to download the audio from YouTube. There should be similar services, but I haven’t used any of them. Worst case would be to download the video and then rip the sound, although that’s a bit stupid since both could be done at the same time.

    Still, I’m no VLC experc and all I’ve done is copy what other people have done. If you can’t get it to work, I suggest you post on the VLC forum, where people actually know what they’re talking about. 😀

  8. Jake says:

    Right now I’m watching TV series on PPTV. If I knew a good site to download TV and movies that would be the easiest thing I guess. Then I could just rip the audio from within the program as you said. I use Windows, by the way.

  9. Clark says:

    If you have an iPhone you might try apps like TuneIn Radio which allow you both listen and record radio station broadcasts at the same time. Potentially quite useful.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sounds great! I don’t use an iPhone, but there should be similar software for other platforms. The radio station I usually listen to (www.rti.org.tw) offers downloadable versions of most programs, so can always download interesting programs after I’ve heard them live. Re-listening is quite important in my opinion, so being able to record or acquire a recorded file is essential.

  10. Renee says:

    I’m mostly struggling to find sources that are at my level. Currently listen to a radio program, but I can only catch a word here and there. I practice once a week with a guy who speaks Mandarin, but he always wants to use a lot of words I don’t know yet, so it’s very frustrating. I’m getting very little practice hearing the words I’m actually learning. I know it’s probably hard for him to stick to such elementary vocabulary so I can’t really complain, but I do really need some beginner level listening stuff so I can hear these words more frequently. If anyone knows of any out there let me know.

  11. lucinda says:

    I tend to put my audios onto my phone and i find that i like to review audios with a transcript, then listen several times then review again (i think i may have picked up some tips on listening over and over to a file from your site actually so thatnks for that too!)
    i use MS OneNote to organise all of my studying, i put my audio transcrpits on there and reading material etc.
    When it comes to the audio transcripts once i’ve listened to the audio a few times i’ll read the transcript whilst highlighting unknown words. And the best thing is one note syncs with my computer and phone (tablet, is even accesible via webpage so is accessible from any computer with internet access), once synced its all available offline too. then i can look up words make annotations etc.
    It has really helped with reading + listening as using One Note for both is extremely useful!

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