Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How narrow listening and reading can help you learn Chinese

One of the main problems facing people who want to learn to understand spoken and written Chinese is the lack of suitable learning materials. To be more precise, much of the material is too difficult. In many courses, the difficulty increases rapidly, but stays within a carefully limited space defined by previous chapters, giving rise to an illusion of advanced learning.

The most important step to alleviate this problem is to focus less on intensive listening and reading, and switch to extensive studying instead. In other words, instead of using material that is very challenging and introduces new words and grammar patterns in every sentence, you should  focus on content you can understand comfortably. Since this is much quicker, you can cover many times more content, giving you the breadth and repeated exposure you need to really learn understand Chinese.

Narrow listening and narrow reading

Once you have switched your input to mostly extensive listening and reading, there’s a very powerful method you should try: narrow reading. This simply means that you limit your input in some way. It could be that you focus on the same topic for a longer period of time, that you read only books by a certain author or listen to the same podcast.

This might sound a bit counter-intuitive considering that I normally advocate diversity and breadth, but hear me out. By restricting the input, you make it a lot easer to deal with. When I studied Chinese at various language schools, I remember a clear spike in difficulty every time I switched teachers. This wasn’t because they differed in difficulty, but simply because they chose slightly different ways of expressing themselves and I wasn’t used to that.

Before continuing, it should be mentioned that the terms “narrow listening” and “narrow reading” come from Stephen Krashen, but that the implementation here is my own and differs from his.

Increased diversity, increased difficulty

If you’re after diversity, this is a good thing because it broadens your knowledge of the language. However, it should also be recognised that this also requires energy and makes the input more difficult to deal with. Thus, if you switch often, the difficulty will increase. If you stick to material spoken or written by the same person, you lower the difficulty. It’s a form of scaffolding. You can read more about other forms of scaffolding here:

8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese learning

The easiest way to restrict your input is to focus on one topic at a time. Don’t read ten texts about ten different sports, read ten texts about the same sport. Don’t switch genre after each short story or novel you read, stay with the same genre and focus on that. You will find that the more you stay with it, the easier it becomes. This is good! As I said in the introduction, input is usually too hard, not too easy. You need quantity more than anything.

The benefits of narrow listening and reading

So, let’s look at a few reasons why narrow listening and reading are useful:

  • It lowers difficulty – As mentioned above, by restricting your input, you make it easier to understand and you can cover much more material.
  • It makes flow possible – If you always jump into new material, it will be difficult to create flow in your listening and reading. The more familiar you become with the style/topic, the more enjoyable it will be to keep going. This is the same as focusing on long-form content over bite-sized chunks.
  • It’s motivating – Feeling that you gradually understand more and need to spend less energy to do so is very motivating. You can feel how your Chinese improves!
  • It integrates learning and reviewing – Since part of the content will repeat itself, reviewing is built into the learning process. If you spread yourself too thin, you need to review a lot more to cover what you have learnt.

Problems with narrow listening and reading

So, are there any disadvantages with using this method? Not really. unless done to extremes. I stand by my earlier advice that diversity is great, but what that means differ by proficiency level. As a beginner, you get more diversity than you can handle. As an intermediate learner, you need more diversity, but you’ll also struggle with more difficult texts and badly need the scaffolding.

The only situation where I would advocate caution is if you’re a very advanced student in which case it makes sense to deliberately broaden your horizons, try different authors, genres, and listen to different podcasts, speak with different people and so on. This is the only way you can hope to approach a native level.


In short, I would gladly sacrifice some diversity for a lower difficulty in listening and reading. Not all the time and not in all cases, but more often than not, and especially if you feel that learning Chinese is really challenging. Naturally, if you feel the opposite, feel free to disregard the advice given in this article!

References and further reading

Bryan, S. (2011). Extensive Reading, Narrow Reading and second language learners: implications for libraries. The Australian Library Journal60(2), 113-122.

Krashen, S. D. (1996). The case for narrow listening. System24(1), 97-100.

Schmitt, N., & Carter, R. (2000). The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners. Tesol Journal9(1), 4-9.

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  1. Rob says:

    “Don’t switch genre after each short story or novel you read, stay with the same genre and foes on that.”

    Foes should be focus.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      THanks for reporting; I have fixed the typo now! 🙂

  2. Ben says:

    Revisiting this article as it was linked from your latest. I find watching Chinese game shows like 非诚勿扰 and 中国好歌曲 to be a very effective method of narrow listening. They often unfold as a series of similar situations articulated slightly differently–that singer’s rhythm was good, that singer’s melody was bad, etc. It’s also entertaining.

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