Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Recording yourself to improve your Chinese speaking ability

Recording yourself to improve speaking ability in Audacity.

Use Audacity to record and compare.

When we speak Chinese, we need to keep track of many different things, and even if we can hear what we’re saying, most of our energy is still spent on producing correct language rather than monitoring that language. Recording yourself is therefore a powerful way of focusing on how we say things, which is a good way to improve Chinese speaking ability.

This doesn’t mean its impossible for us to hear our own mistakes, just that we can never hope to hear all the mistakes we make while speaking at the same time. This is good. When speaking, some self-correction is helpful, but an overly critical approach to our own speech is counterproductive and tends to leave us tongue-tied.

Recording yourself alleviates this problem

If you record yourself, you can listen to what you’ve said afterwards, fully concentrating on your language production, trying to find things to improve. You’ve already said what you wanted to say, now you can focus solely on correcting yourself. This is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s free (you need fewer hours with a tutor)
  • It’s convenient (you can do it at home at any time)
  • It increases understanding (knowing yourself what’s wrong is much more powerful than having someone else point it out to you)
  • It enables comparison (if you have a model to follow, you can compare it with what you have recorded)
  • It’s a benchmark for future reference

It’s only natural that you feel that your voice sounds weird when recorded, because the sound you hear when you speak normally is not only heard from the “outside” and is thus different from what everybody else hears (and that’s what’s recorded, of course). Still, this is something you will get used to very quickly if you just listen to yourself a few times.


If you have free access to tutors, of course that will take you farther than you will ever get on your own. However, even if you have a tutor, record what you’re saying! The benefits of recording yourself doesn’t disappear  just because you have a teacher. Hearing yourself is still important.

What should you record?

You can record anything you like, but here are some suggestions that I find useful myself. Try recording yourself when you…

  • …read a text in Chinese
  • …talk with a friend
  • …talk in class
  • …hold a speech
  • …talk on the phone

If you’re going to keep this for future reference, I strongly suggest naming the files properly and organising them in such a way that you can later clearly see what you’ve recorded, how and when it was done.

What program should I use?

I recommend Audacity. It’s cross-platform, open source and generally awesome. Audacity has a number of useful functions, including visual representation of the sound recording, smooth editing of sound channels and different sound tracks. If you want to combine, edit or cut sound, this is the program for you. You can also export to mp3 and record information about date, type of recording and so on.

Mimicking native speakers

One of the most powerful ways of learning pronunciation is mimicking native speakers. Find a recording of a suitable piece of text and simply try to mimic it as closely as you can. Then listen to both versions and see what you can improve. Repeat until you think that the recordings are identical (save for differences in voice quality). Then ask your teacher or a native speaker to check the recordings for you and see if there is anything more you can do. Repeat with a different sound file. If you’re a beginner, I suggest using your textbook, but more advanced users can of course use anything you like, but make sure you check the file with a native speaker who’s judgement you trust (a teacher, preferably).


Recording one’s own voice is useful for more reasons than I have room for in this article and I think it should be a natural part of both learning and teaching. As a teacher, I often record students to see if they can hear their own errors. Most often they do when recorded, even if they can’t hear them when they speak at the same time.

This has lead me to use recording extensively to learn/teach both Chinese and English. To give you an example, I can hear lots of mistakes in this video I recorded on YouTube (in English), even though I thought it sounded pretty good when I recorded it. If I wanted to improve my English pronunciation, I would record myself much more.

I don’t need a tutor to improve, I can do it on my own if I record and listen, because I can hear the mistakes. So can you. You might not be able to hear all mistakes, but why not try and see? I’m sure you will learn more about yourself and your pronunciation.

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  1. Sara K. says:

    Hah, my first thought when I listened to that video was ‘He sounds a bit like he’s from Minnesota’ (a lot of Swedish immigrants settled in Minnesota).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure how to respond to that, actually. 🙂 I’m a bit surprised you associate my accent with the US in general, though. I’ve never been there and almost none of my previous teachers have been American.

      1. Sara K. says:

        I think it just may be I’ve heard a lot more people from Minnesota speaking in English than Swedish people speaking in English, so that’s what I associate the accent with.

  2. nommoc says:


    Thanks for sending this link over.

    It has a lot of good suggestions.

    Also, I did listen to the youtube which you reference in the post. As to that, I must say, the apparent comfort with which you use English, being writing this blog or speaking on that video, considering it isn’t your mother tongue is quite impressive.

    As to the post, in general your post here and the video, got me thinking… please tell me if you feel the same….

    Do you think there is a lack of expat learners recording themselves in Chinese in the various situations you listed:
    …read a text in Chinese
    …talk with a friend
    …talk in class
    …hold a speech
    …talk on the phone

    And then post these online for others to listen too? Why does there seem to be such a proliferation of text based content, blogs, etc., and so little content of adult learners speaking Chinese?

    Maybe no one else other than me would care to listen… but much like the 汉语桥 competition, I think there is something fun, interesting, dare I say educational to getting a chance to see/hear other expats talking Chinese.

    When I watched this years hanyu competition, I remember thinking it was nice to finally get a good opportunity to hear DaShan speak, as he was co-hosting, not to mention all the other students.

    I’m with you that stirring up competition isn’t the best, so it isn’t that I think we all need to enter speaking contents, however I think it is encouraging and educational to hear other expats talking Chinese, demonstrating in real life where they are with the language.

    Maybe we all don’t want to show that “imperfect” side of us… hard to say.

    Regardless, if you posted those files of yourself working on your Chinese, I know I would listen… if John Pasden and others did the same, again I would listen. Maybe I’m not alone either…

    The key is unscripted conversations, like the situations you listed… ChinesePod and other scenarios doesn’t really give us a good feel for where they are with the language. A pod cast is a very controlled environment, as it is a set topic, set vocab list, etc., which is nothing like a real-world unscripted interaction.

    Any who, those are my comments for now and I’ll be sure to get a response to the email you sent me about the nommoc app.

    Thanks for responding, I was getting worried you weren’t going to respond… ; )

    Bye for now! Thanks again for your hard work for the Chinese learning community.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Maybe we all don’t want to show that “imperfect” side of us… hard to say.

      I think you hit the nail on the head there. Even though I do my very best to be open-minded about receiving feedback and so on, I do feel a bit uncomfortable putting my own Chinese (and English) for that matter online. I think it’s a matter of editing. I put all my Chinese texts online (here), which feels much more okay for some reason. Voice and speech are more personal and harder to edit afterwards.

      However, I think this is stupid, we really should be more open with what we do. I’m working on a “best performance” article and that will contain myself trying my best to read Chinese aloud. The reason why I hesitate to publish a random recording of myself trying to read or say something is that that would be very, very far from my best performance. I don’t want people to listen to that and say “oh, so if that’s the best he can do, his Chinese sucks”. If everybody else posts their best performance, the guy who posts his worst performance is likely to be perceived as not being very good at Chinese, whereas in fact, the opposite might be the case.

      Still, this is incredibly stupid. Why care about what other people think? Exposing one’s mistakes online is an excellent way of receiving useful comments and help with how to progress. I’ll go work on that reading and see if I can’t get the article online before the end of the semester. Thank you for your comment and inspiration!

  3. Mike Ellwood says:

    Hi Olle,

    (Not studying Chinese: just interested in the way you use Audacity).

    You seem modest about your English pronunciation, but as a (British) native speaker, may I assure you that it sounds fine. While it’s obvious you aren’t a native speaker, I wouldn’t say there are any “mistakes” as such. It’s very pleasant to listen to.

    Best Wishes,

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks! I think accent is mostly about identity and intention rather than actual skill or knowledge. I have never lived in an English-speaking country and thus haven’t had many real people to use as pronunciation models. However, I’m quite sure that if I found a good model and decided to sound like that person, I could achieve it without too much problem. It’s just that doing so would feel… weird, like, not being me or something. I’ll probably experiment a bit with this once I care less about Chinese than I do now. 🙂

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