Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Training your Chinese teacher, part 3: Listening ability

Listening ability is often neglected in classrooms. Naturally, the students hear the teacher talk and might even here other students talk, but beyond this, listening ability is often reduced to occasional exam-like listening comprehension exercises where students listen to something and then answer questions.

This is understandable to a certain degree. Improving listening ability, especially once you get through the beginner stages, takes so much time that it’s simply not plausible to do all the listening in the classroom.

As I discussed in the introduction to this series of articles about training your Chinese teacher, time quality is a major factor. It seems like a waste of precious time with a teacher to listen to a recording and answer questions. If you’re motivated enough to read this article, I think you should do that on your own, not with a teacher. In fact, the bulk of the work, as always, needs to be done by you as a student.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing a teacher can do to help you, of course, far from it! In this article, I will discuss worthwhile things you can do with your teacher to improve your listening ability. Before I get into that, though, here’s a list of the other articles in this series. You should read the introduction if you haven’t done so already, because it states clearly what this series is about, and perhaps more importantly, what it’s not about. Then pick whichever articles are most relevant to you!

Training your Chinese teacher, part 3: Listening ability

Listening comprehension is a actually very complicated and processing happens on many levels at the same time. It’s not only about decoding the sounds and seeing how they form words and sentences (bottom-up listening), but also relying on prior knowledge, context and other cues (top-down listening). Failing to understand what someone is saying can have many and various reasons, which I discussed in an earlier article:

Chinese listening strategies: Problem analysis

As I wrote in that article, many of the problems associated with listening ability are actually caused by other problems, such as a lack of vocabulary in general. I will ignore such issues in this article and focus only on those that deal with listening directly.

Basic decoding and phonological awareness

One of the fundamental issues when learning a new language is to figure out what it sounds like (phonetics) and how they are sorted and interact (phonology). These processes are largely subconscious and we can only influence them by deciding to practise in ways that make sense and perhaps by directing our attention. There is no mental trick or technique that will magically help you hear the difference between two tones, for example, but you can practise in ways that will help your brain figure it out.

There are a few things a teacher can do for you here, but also some built in limitations of a teacher. First, methods that work:

  • Provide a model for what the language sounds like – This should be obvious, but one major advantage of having a teacher is that she functions as a reference for how the language sounds. While you can achieve this on your own through audio recordings, a teacher can produce anything you might need at will. Synthetic audio is not good enough yet to do that.
  • Exaggerate differences between sounds you struggle with – One approach that has been proven to work when it comes to teaching adult learners the difference between tricky sounds is to exaggerate the difference until it becomes noticeable, then reducing exaggeration gradually. This is analogous to how we naturally speak to infants. If you struggle to hear the difference between two sounds, say c and ch, your teacher can produce exaggerated versions of each sound to highlight the difference for you.
  • Direct attention to the feature that matters – The reason it’s hard to figure out the sound system of a new language (say the difference between and in various languages) is that the brain needs a lot of data to be able to draw conclusions. If you focus on the wrong feature, you will only be able to hear the difference between two sounds in that specific setting. For example, if you think that the main thing that distinguishes the fourth tone from the other tones is that it’s louder, it will take you much longer to learn. A teacher can point this out and help you focus on the feature that really matters (which is of course the falling tone).

The last item above points us to one of the major limitations of having a teacher (focusing on the singular of “teacher” here): because the brain tends to use whatever cues are available to figure out which sound is which, the input needs to be varied to give the brain enough data to construct an accurate model of the sounds.

If you only listen to your teacher speaking Mandarin, you will learn how she pronounces the sounds and tones, but your brain might be focusing on the wrong features. Only if you listen to many different voices will you be able to sort out what’s essential for each sound and tone, and what’s peculiar to each individual speaker.

Thus, a teacher can and should:

  • Provide you with varied listening material – This can of course be recorded, so using your textbook audio, some podcasts or other listening resources work. Having more than one teacher in parallell also makes sure that you don’t get too focused on how one individual speaks.

Listening speed, or how quickly you can understand things

The more I teach Chinese, the more I realise that this is the most important problem for students, at least in teacher-student conversations. When speaking with strangers on the street, other problems tend to be bigger such as decoding (perhaps because of accent) or vocabulary (because the stranger doesn’t know what words the student has learnt).

As a teacher, I often know very well which words a student knows. Sometimes I might know exactly which words the student knows, because I have either taught all the words personally, or I know which learning materials the student has used. However, having studied a word and reviewed it many times does not mean that you will understand it in a new context.

The best way to identify a problem with speed is simple repetition: If you hear something once and don’t understand, then hear it a dozen times more and then you do understand, your problem is simply that you’re not processing the language quickly enough. Naturally, you could also slow the audio down to check this, but there’s a limit to how much you can slow something down before it stops being helpful.

And now we’ve come to the area I think a teacher is extremely useful, perhaps it’s even the most important thing a teacher does:

  • Provide students with large amounts of level-adjusted language – To show you what I mean, let’s take a beginner example. Someone who has learnt numbers, time and dates plus some basic verbs can in theory understand a basic timetable, including when to have class, when someone eats breakfast and when they go to bed. However, it takes hours and hours of practise to go from “knows all the words” to “understands these words in unfamiliar contexts”, even if every single word is known. A teacher can keep you focused and learning intensively for as long as you can cope with by slightly varying what’s being said and keeping the dialogue going.

When described to someone who has never tried this, it sounds stupid, but I want to highlight that this really works. Even without introducing a single new word, a skilled teacher can keep you engaged for a very long time. This is incredibly hard to do without a teacher, because there are no services that have such a detailed understanding of what you know and can vary output in such a way while still staying within the boundaries of correct language usage.

This type of practise is the bread and butter of teachers focusing on Comprehensible Input (CI) and Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), but many good teachers do this intuitively without necessarily putting a label on the method they use. For more about this, see the article series starting with this post:

An introduction to comprehension-based Chinese teaching and learning

Focus on the process, not the product

Like I said in the introduction, classroom listening is often test-like in that it cares mostly about the result rather than the process. This includes various techniques and strategies you can employ before, during and after listening. Here are a few examples:

Before:

  • Pay attention to context. Are there clues to what the speaker might say, such as environment, facial expressions or something else?
  • If you know what the topic is, think through what you know about it in advance. Which words have you learnt relating to this topic? What might the person say?
  • Make yourself ready to listen (this is especially important on exams). Personally, I try to relax, pop my ears and close my eyes (to shut out irrelevant visual cues). If you’re interested in why popping your ears actually helps, I found this really interesting article about that very question.

During:

  • You don’t need to understand everything when listening; focus on the things you do understand and try to not get stuck on things you don’t understand. This takes some practice.
  • If you know in advance what you’re listening for, try to identify that information and listen for words related to it (such as times if your goal is to figure out when the bus leaves). The fact that you don’t understand anything else might not be relevant.
  • Take notes, both te stay focused and to force yourself to identify what really matters.
  • Use your understand of the context and topic to predict or guess what the person might say. You might not be able to guess perfectly, but it narrows the scope of possible answers.
  • Silently shadow (repeat in your head) what someone is saying, or parts of what they’re saying, to stay focused. This works very well on longer listening exams when the mind tends to wander.

After:

  • Briefly review what you did understand
  • Review your notes
  • Identify what you didn’t understand for follow-up questions or re-listening

These are all strategies that should be more or less obvious to experienced teachers and language learners alike, but if you, like most students I teach (adult university students) have never thought of listening comprehension in such detail, you might benefit from going through the process with a competent teacher. Listening can seem like “just listen” before you really sit down and analyse the process, which will reveal that it’s far from simple and that there are many thing you can learn from a teacher.

Providing guidance, support and resources for listening

The final role a teacher plays in learning to understand spoken Chinese is to help you navigate the vastness of online learning resources and how to deal with them. We have already established that you need:

  1. Varied input
  2. Input adjusted to your level

This is exceptionally hard to do on your own, because evaluating the difficulty of something quickly is almost impossible as a beginner. Your teacher tan help you find suitable listening materials featuring different speakers. Like I’ve said a few times now, the teacher can’t do the listening for you, but still plays an important role in finding materials you can then study on your own. Because the bottom line is still that you have to do an awful lot of listening, probably much more than you think, to get good at it.

I can’t suggest learning materials for you specifically, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, I suggest you have a look at Hacking Chinese Resources, where there are currently more than 100 resources tagged with “listening” on different levels. If you’re a beginner, you could also check out this article:

The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese

Practising listening with your teacher

While it’s true that listening is mostly a matter of practice and that you will have to do most of that practising on your own, a teacher can still be great to speed up progress. Firstly, a teacher can help you sort out the sounds and tones of Chinese, which is essential for listening comprehension. Secondly, a teacher can provide you with input on your level, allowing you to speed up processing, which is also essential for comprehension. Thirdly, a teacher can help you learn the strategies you need to successfully understand spoken Chinese. And lastly, a teacher can help you find suitable learning materials that you can then consume at your own pace.

I can’t possibly cover everything in an article, even if I knew everything, which I don’t. So over to you! As a student, do you have any specific activities you find very useful to practise with a teacher to improve your listening? As a teacher, do you have similar activities you use to help students improve? Leave a comment below!


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