Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The simple trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to

Listening ability is probably the hardest skill for learners of Chinese. You eventually get the hang of learning characters and even pronouncing tones, but training your brain to process the spoken language quickly enough to understand naturally spoken Chinese requires an awful lot of practice.

I’m sure most students have had the experience of feeling quite comfortable in class, understanding most of what the teacher says, and then talking to a stranger only to find comprehension going down at a speed only matched by that sinking feeling you get when you realise you haven’t made as much progress as you thought.

Don’t despair!

I’ve recorded an audio version of this if you prefer listening instead of reading:

Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Improving listening ability is mostly a matter of practice – The more you listen, the better you will get at it. No clever methods are needed and no expensive courses or resources.
  2. Your problem might not actually be listening – Even if the end result is that you don’t understand what someone is saying, it’s very common that a lack of vocabulary is what is actually holding you back.
  3. Learn to understand regionally accented Mandarin – If you only listen to the same type of Mandarin, or maybe even the same person, you will find it hard to understand other types or people simply because you’re not used to them.

The general conclusion is that you should listen more than you do.

Much more.

I’m used to listening to audio for many hours a week, but in this article, I want to share a simple trick that enabled me to double the amount I listen to each week.

The simple trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to

Before I introduce the trick itself, let me first explain why it works. I have spent many years trying to build habits that let me read and listen as much as possible, and I have also coached many students and helped them do the same.

One clear conclusion that can be drawn from this experience is that even small problems that look like they should be easy to solve can prevent you from getting the listening practice you need.

Here are a few examples:

  • Not having audio available on your mobile device – This more or less guarantees that you can’t listen whenever you want, which drastically reduces the amount of audio you can listen to  in a week. It doesn’t sound hard to download audio to your phone, yet even I sometimes go for weeks without having suitable audio available for no other good reason than laziness.
  • Not having earphones available at all times – Similar to the previous item, not having earphones means that you can’t listen whenever you want, because it’s not socially acceptable to go around blasting Chinese podcasts at the general public. Again, it seems easy to always have them with you and have a backup, too, but most people just don’t do this.
  • Not having an effortless way to start listening – Even if you have the audio and you have earphones with you, it needs to be really easy to get started listening. I have noticed that even very small hurdles can put listening off significantly. Having to open apps, navigate folders and so on all make it harder to get started. Opening a browser and navigating to some slow-loading website to get started is even worse.

The trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to is related to the last item on the list. It might sound silly, but consider the fact that I listen to at least ten hours of spoken audio every week already, and I still managed to increase that by a significant amount just doing this.

How using cheap, wireless earphones boosted my listening time

So, the thing that made such a big difference for me was simply to get the right pair of earphones. Now, you might think I’m trying to sell earphones here, but that’s not it at all. In fact, I will not even tell you what brand I use or where I purchased them, but I will tell you they cost less than $30. These are not high-end earphones.

You might also think that this is silly, why would such a small change make such a big difference?

But I’m not making this up, it actually did double the amount of Chinese I listen to. I clocked more than 10 hours/week during last month’s listening challenge. That’s on top of listening to maybe 10 hours of audio in English each week.

Of course, it does not matter which earphones you use as long as it has these qualities. Indeed, you might have other requirements that suit your needs better, I merely list why I find the pair I’m using now so much better than what I had before:

  1. Battery life – The current pair of earphones I use is good for one day of fairly intensive listening, maybe six hours or so, without charging. If you use each earphone individually (they are completely separate and can be paired individually), you have twice that; more than you can realistically listen to in a day. But that’s not enough. The box they come in work as a power bank, which automatically charges each earphone when it’s put in the box. That way,  I only need an external power supply to charge the box maybe once a week. This significantly reduces the hassle of listening, running out of batteries or even needing to think about charging.
  2. Practical to wear – Because these are individual in-ear headphones not connected to each other, they can be worn around the clock if you want. Switch between your left and right ear if you feel uncomfortable. I can do handstands and somersaults without them flying out. The lack of a cord also means they don’t get tangled in cupboard handles when cooking or similar. I guess we’re all different when it comes to what is practical to wear, but this is far better than more expensive headphones I’ve tried.
  3. Easy to start and stop audio – While this could be dependent on your phone and media player, the single, big button on each earphone stops or plays the current audio when pressed. This makes it very easy to turn the media off if someone wants to talk to me or something happens where I need to pay attention. It also makes it easy to start again once the distraction is gone. I can even have my phone charging in one room and keep listening while moving around the apartment.

Even easy-to-solve problems are serious problems until you solve them

I know this reads like a review of a pair of earphones I happen to like, but I’m really not after promoting these earphones in particular, but instead I want to highlight the importance of small, seemingly insignificant factors and how much of a difference they can make. Like I said earlier, I’m used to listening to a lot of spoken audio and was still amazed by how much I increased the amount I listen to simply by switching earphones.

So, the takeaway from this article is that small things matter when it comes to things like listening more. Don’t think that not having audio available or not having the right earphones doesn’t matter because they are easy to fix. The easier you make it to go from not listening to Chinese to listening to Chinese, the more you will listen!

Further reading

If you want more information and inspiration regarding what to listen to, please check the following articles:



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15 comments

  1. Paul says:

    Could you recommend some sources of listening material? Perhaps podcasts or online radio stations, or a platform where you can listen to free ebooks without clicking through loads of adverts? I’ve been listening to a podcast called 百靈果 which, despite the name probably has less than five percent English. I go through them pretty fast though and need some other sources. I’m planning to take the TOCFL band C this year so if anyone can point me in the direction of an hassle free resources that would be great.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I have added a section at the end of the article with suggested further reading with more suggestions, although most of them will be too easy for you. If you’re preparing for Band C, you should be able to listen to almost anything anyway. Have you tried searching native podcasts about topics that interest you? It’s a bit hard to recommend things in general, as you probably don’t enjoy the same things I enjoy.

  2. Albert says:

    what are the podcasts you recommend. I’m currently stuck in Xiamen China due to the covid19

    1. Olle Linge says:

      There are many good podcasts! I have added a section at the end of the article with suggested further reading with more suggestions. Check out Learning Chinese through Stories? Very good.

  3. James Wong says:

    Oil what kind of stuff do you recommend we listen to?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I added a new section at the end of the article with links to suggested reading material!

    2. Olle Linge says:

      I have added a section at the end of the article with suggested further reading with more suggestions.

  4. Arthur Jones says:

    Thank you for the advice. How do I get the earphones?
    Bishop Arthur Jones student of languages
    alvjones@gmail.com

  5. Ean says:

    Hi Olle, another good article. Actually, I have that kind of Bluetooth earphones, but neglected to use them out of laziness (having to keep charging them). However, you’ve inspired me to pick them back up and I can really see the benefits. You mentioned that you have listened to an average of maybe 70-80 audio books per year at least for a decade. Just wondering, how do you listen to them- are you doing other things at the same time? I find I can do that with podcasts or news, but with audiobooks, I quickly lose the plot!

    By the way, for those that asked for a new podcast, I can recommend Australia’s SBS mandarin radio- two hours of new material every day, including all types of discussions and news. High level of mandarin listening ability required though. Also, 圆桌派 is an interesting tv program from China- just discussion with some interesting guests.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for the recommendations! Regarding listening a lot, I think it’s mostly a matter of habit, or, in a sens, a skill. I have been listening a lot to spoken audio for a very long time. On top of the mentioned audio books, I have also listened to almost every edition of the Economist for the past 15 years or so. And I certainly listen while doing other things, otherwise it would be crazy. In fact, I almost never listen when I’m not doing other things! I’ve learnt over time which activities work well with audio books and which don’t. Naturally, it’s also a matter of how much you need to focus on the audio book, making Chinese audio books a lot tougher to combine with other activities than books in English or Swedish. Anyway, my suggestion is to experiment and see what works for you. If you keep at it for a few months, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d be able to combine audio books with things you now consider tricky. Some things will remain off limits, of course, but apart from doing other, language related tasks, almost anything works for me.

      1. Ean says:

        Many thanks Olle! I forgot to mention that 圆桌派 was not a podcast, but was a TV show watchable on YouTube. It seems to be the new version of 锵锵三人行. Except with four 人…

  6. Matthias Schönborn says:

    Great article as always! I got a new job a few weeks ago and since I’m now mostly working in a lab I got a pair of wireless headphones as well. There’s a great audiobook version of 活着 on the internet (I believe pingshu8.com), but it needs some editing (cropping, compressing, cutting out commercials). I now get several extra hours of listening to Chinese audio every day.

    The other thing that helped me to make a habit of learning Chinese every day is to build a phone holder for my bike. I review my Anki cards everyday on my commute, and it’s proven to be very effective because it is a habit I can stick to easily every day.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great tip about 活着! But what flashcards are you reviewing? Listening, I hope, or are you actually reviewing characters while biking? :O

  7. Sandtrack says:

    Hi! I’m a Chinese from Hong Kong but don’t speak Putonghua (Mandarin — turn of phrase used in Taiwan). Hong Kong had been a British colony for more than 150 years until 1997. Strange enough, the majority in Hong Kong do not speak good English or Putonghua. I always dream of one day becoming bilingual and proficient in English and Putonghua. My first language is Cantonese, not Putonghua. I started listening to audiobooks or online radio broadcast in Putonghua a couple years ago in hope of beefing up my listening comprehension of it and found that very helpful. I guess I am able to understand more than 95% of the audio. I downloaded the audio together with its corresponding text (ebooks) online free. In very few occasions did I need to buy the audio from Taobao. It is worth noting that it is much more easier for me (a Chinese) to adjust to listening to Spoken Putonghua than you English speakers, as I am able to understand the Chinese text almost without any problems.

  8. Antonina 朵夏 says:

    What you’ve described is pure Kaizen + The Power of Habit ? Less steps to reach the desired action – less opportunities to give up! (btw, a nice trick to do less of an unwanted action, when used the other way around)

    We need to analyze what is stopping us from the desired behavior, to these seemingly funny details, because then we can think of a small, simple solution that will erase these “innocent” obstacles that trigger our subconscious to avoid excessive hardships and we end up procrastinating. That’s a classical case! And because it sounds “easy” we often don’t take it seriously. But we should! So thank you for this article – it’s important not to be afraid of addressing such issues ? ps. It’s comforting to know that even for you it’s hard ?

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