Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice

As a learner, which part of Chinese is most important? The answer depends on your goals for learning the language, but if I were to give a general answer, I would say listening.

The main reason is that listening is the key to most social situations, which means that you gain access to many learning opportunities you would otherwise have missed. You can often get away without knowing how to read, and almost always without being able to write, but listening is crucial.

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

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Speaking is also important for social interactions, but doing so in a limited fashion is often enough. You can get very far with basic words. Improving listening ability also accelerates your learning in a way that improving speaking ability doesn’t, because the more you understand, the more likely you are to learn new things that pop up. If you’re not fully convinced, check out my more detailed discussion here:

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

Listening is the hardest part of learning Chinese

An informal study I conducted a few years ago with several hundred respondents showed that students think listening ability is the hardest part of learning Chinese.

This might come as a surprise: wouldn’t speaking be harder with the tones, or maybe writing because of all the characters?

No, not according to the students, at least.

Learning to understand naturally spoken authentic Chinese really is a challenge, much more so than in many other languages.

The good news is that the solution is easy to describe: listen more; quantity really is king. The bad news is that just because the solution is easy to describe, it doesn’t follow that it’s easy to implement!

Concrete ideas for how to find more time can be found here:

How to find more time to practise Chinese listening

Smooth and effortless listening practice

It’s not only about finding more time, though; we’ve all had times where we could do lots of things but ended up doing nothing.

Listening needs to be smooth and effortless. Here is a test for all of you: Right now, the moment you read this, how long would it take you to get started listening? Is the time it takes to get started typical for you? Leave your response in the comment section below!

Regardless of what approach you have to study management (including none at all), making listening practice as easy and effortless as possible is very important.

Here are a few ways of approaching the problem:

  1. The managerial approach – If your approach to language learning is built on a solid foundation of goals, to-do lists and task management, you need to make listening practice as context-independent as possible. It should not be something that is confined to a certain physical space or limited to a specific time. Instead, you should plan your activities in such a way that listening is always an option.
  2. The forking path approach – If you can’t stand to-do lists or quarterly language learning reports, then the forking path is an option for you. In short, it’s simply a way of regarding life as a very large number of small choices. In order to learn more, you should consciously strive towards choosing Chinese over other options. Now, smooth and effortless listening is very important if you use this approach, because it makes it so much more likely that you will actually choose Chinese over something else.
  3. The free-styling enthusiast approach – While I think that most people who read this probably follow one of the above approaches, it’s worth mentioning that if you have no approach at all and just do what you feel like, smooth and effortless listening is almost necessary. If your learning is largely dictated by whim, any minor obstacle can throw you of course. Enjoying learning is important!

So, how can you decrease the resistance and make listening smoother?

7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice

Below, I present seven ideas for how to make listening easier. Note that I don’t mean easier as in “lowering the difficulty of the language involved or coping with it in some way”, I have written about that elsewhere already, but easier as “in easier to get started”, leading to more listening and thus more learning.

  1. Get cheap, wireless earphones – This idea sounds stupid; how much of a difference can it make to have wireless earphones? A lot, actually, so much that I wrote an entire article about this: The simple trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to.
  2. Always have audio available – This is also obvious, but most people fail to do this. It doesn’t count if you have a podcast on your computer if you’re outside. If you have to spend five minutes searching for the right file on your phone, it’s far from easy and effortless. You need Chinese listening material available at a moments notice. Even a single extra step, however small, can make a difference!
  3. Have audio at a suitable level available – You can vary the difficulty of what you listen to according to how much energy you have to dedicate to listening. There are many ways you can listen, so only having challenging content with tons of new words is not a good idea. You need the full range, from background listening via passive listening to active listening.
  4. Make Chinese the default option – According to the forking path approach described above, listening more is all about small choices. However, you can nudge yourself in the right direction by making sure Chinese is the default choice whenever possible. There’s ample evidence showing that you are much more likely to stick with the default option than make an effort to change. Deliberately make it harder to make choices that lead to less Chinese, for example by putting audio in other languages in a hard-to-reach place.
  5. Commit to activities that involve listening – This is a bigger version of the default option above. If you can put yourself in situations where you have to listen, this will automatically increase your minimum listening time. The ultimate example of this is immersion in a Chinese-speaking environment, but things like signing up for a conversation class, book club or similar also works.
  6. Make Chinese the only option – Instead of allowing yourself to choose, simply remove all other options. This requires  you to be resolute once and then makes subsequent listening more effortless. If you delete all English music from your phone or unsubscribe from everything that isn’t in Chinese, you then don’t have much choice, do you? This is similar to studying with a no-English rule and won’t suit everybody, of course.
  7. Create solid listening habits – Modern life is possible partly because we have a large number of well-established habits that require no effort to perform. If we had to actively choose to brush our teeth every morning, we would have little energy left for what really matters. Once habits are formed, they are great energy-savers. Of course, this applies to listening as well! Gradually build up your listening habits with specific triggers, such as while doing a specific activity (running, cooking), a specific time (at eight o’clock every morning) or a specific place (when you get into the car). Read more about habit hacking for language learners here.

These are the main things I do to listen more. I listen a lot, not just to Chinese, but to all kinds of spoken audio. Naturally, there are times when I go out for a run without even having earphones with me, or take a long walk just to think, but those are active choices for me; the default option is to listen.

Which of these ideas have you tried? What challenges did you face?Do you have any strategies of your own? What enabled you to listen more? Please share your experience in the comments so we can learn from each other!

Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2011, was rewritten from scratch in September 2020.



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26 comments

  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?

    David

  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!
    Jake

    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!

  12. 武文山 says:

    My current strategy is that I’ve downloaded around 100 dialogues from ChinesePod (just the dialogues, not the full lessons) and loaded them into Spotify. I used a separate app for a while, and also tried using the ChinesePod app, but I’ve found having them in Spotify creates the least resistance since I already use that for music and the app is better designed than the alternatives. I just listen to them on shuffle – if I think a particular dialogue isn’t worth listening to any more, I delete it and go listen to the corresponding lesson on ChinesePod.

    The main problem with this approach is that Spotify doesn’t have a good way to tag the one’s for which I’m ready to listen to the lesson. It was also a bit of a hassle to download them all initially, though I’m definitely thankful that ChinesePod has that option; most other resources don’t. I’m not really a big podcast person and I definitely need to spend more time each day using these, but it has worked okay for me so far.

  13. Ben Parker says:

    As an intermediate learner (most native content like news is too difficult, most teaching content doesn’t suit my specific goals or is too easy), I find it really difficult to maintain a stock of high quality audio. I will find a great program and listen to it all, then fall out of the listening habit as I spend a lot of time searching for something else good. Any tips on where to get consistently good content for this level, and strategies to find more?

    One podcast I would really recommend is 打一个电话给你。Of everything I’ve listened to, it best simulates listening in on a casual yet intelligent conversation between native speakers. Because that’s precisely what it is!

    1. 武文山 says:

      Yeah the whole comprehensible input/i + 1 thing is a lot harder to achieve in practice. I think as long as the content is reasonably authentic it’s okay if it’s a bit easy – it’s still likely to help, but you can listen to it for a longer and maybe even enjoy it.

      News in general is quite hard because they speak fast and use a lot of obscure vocabulary; other native content might be easier for you. Maybe consider audio books? I’ve had good experiences listening to the audio versions of graded readers, and I’m hoping to move to native level books soon. A single book can be many hours in length, which is good because a lot of quality content is just too short.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      I’m working on better coverage of beginner and intermediate materials, but 听故事学中文 is very good, should be quite right for your level, too. You can check it out here: Learning Chinese Through Stories

  14. Natasha Gwilliam says:

    Hi, great article.
    For me, listening is the easiest thing to do in terms of studying Chinese. It seems so hard to find time to sit down and read something in Chinese (I tried the Chairmans Bao for a while but got bored with it), so I just naturally default to listening to Chinese. I think that over the years it’s just become a habit. I would say that 95% of the time when I drive somewhere, I’m listening to Chinese. Whenever I’m preparing food, cooking or doing housework, I always listen to Chinese. I use earbuds occasionally but most of the time just listen to my phone’s audio (my kids just completely ignore it and my husband often wonders out loud who the Chinese person person is in our home LOL).

    And I took Olle’s advice a long time ago and have many different options on my phone. I think this is the key, because, to be honest, I get bored quickly with the same stuff. These are my listening options I currently have on my phone, which I just rotate between:
    NPCR 4,5,6- audio text and exercises
    Chinesepod
    Audio files of all of the graded reader series of books https://www.purpleculture.net/graded-chinese-reader-1500-words-selected-abridged-chinese-contemporary-short-stories-with-mp3-p-16256/
    My Chinese teacher’s podcast that she recently started (conversation between 2 women about different topics) https://open.spotify.com/show/31VvYsaas7ijlHhR2dqB25
    Grammar practice sentences on repeat
    Audio from another Chinese text https://web.duke.edu/chinesesoc/

    I recently started using Audacity to create audio files to learn vocab- I grabbed the audio file from my NPCR 5 textbook and added in the English word after the Chinese, because I NEVER get to my textbooks to actually study, so I needed a way to learn the words.

    I also often just listen to Youtube videos in Chinese. Since I live in NZ, I like the Chinese vlogs about life in NZ https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvrGXUmnt4dgBjImvOLmlaQ. I also listen to Happy Chinese https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svdnzVJ9KA4&list=PLdT5MUO4gYEdQBMFtkF5g803FJZOss-ip&ab_channel=kkwchu- they speak pretty fast, but it’s great practice for me.

    Anyway, love your blog, Olle. I’ve been reading it for years, but never commented. You’ve kept me going when I’ve just wanted to give up learning Chinese, so thank you for all your hard work.

  15. John Nomura says:

    I bought 6 biographies from Amazon by Grace Wu.
    You can get the audios and English translations online. I like them because they are interesting. I listen to them when I exercise, stretching, cooking etc. I also have an iPod nano which has a pause button. I listen to a phrase, hit the pause, repeat the phrase several times. I do this while walking and I do a lot of walking. I also take the English translation of the biographies and orally translate it to my language partners. I got a lot of words to go from passive to active using translation. Luca Lampariello uses translation. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERD05x0JWoI. I also listen to audio I downloaded from http://www.lingQ.com. I also bought some audio from support@iwillteachyoualanguage.com. It is an interesting story – not too long & not too hard. I also contributed to a Indiegogo project called “Lily smart speaker”. Because of COVID they never produced the smart speaker (manufactured in China) but they are going to deliver an iPad & Android app that you can have a conversation with in November 2020. I found that I can do a lot more listening if I do it while walking vs sitting.

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