Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Using voice messaging as a stepping stone to Chinese conversations

Using voice messaging to practise Chinese speaking and listening

For many people, being able to have a conversation in Chinese is an important reason for learning the language. Whether it’s to be able to talk with loved ones, for professional purposes or to travel, communication lies at the heart of language learning.

However, speaking directly face-to-face with a native speaker is not always easy. It’s not unusual to feel anxious or even afraid of speaking a foreign language, a problem that persists even with online tutors or language exchange. Finding someone who makes you feel comfortable speaking Chinese locally can be very hard, depending on where you live.

While you can get far by listening a lot, which you should always strive to do, you do also need to speak with real people. This allows you to test hypotheses of how the language works, alerts you to areas you need to work more on and helps you develop communicative strategies necessary to keep conversations smooth and enjoyable.

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

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Overcast, Spotify and many other platforms!

Voice messaging as a stepping stone to Chinese conversations

Just as text chatting in Chinese can be a stepping stone both to better writing and reading ability, using voice messaging can have a similar function for speaking and listening.

Most modern chat apps allow you to record audio and send audio messages. Instead of typing your messages, you push a button and record your own voice. The other person can then listen to your message and respond in whatever format they prefer. You can play both your own and the other person’s messages by clicking or tapping a button.

In this article, I will discuss why voice messaging is an excellent stepping stone to conversations in Chinese, not just for people who feel anxious about real-time face-to-face conversations, but for all learners!

Voice messaging is great for language learners

I’ve used voice messages a lot when learning Chinese and I still do, although nowadays mostly because I find it convenient and sometimes because it feels more personal. Here are some advantages of using voice messaging to learn Chinese:

  1. It relieves anxiety and pressure to perform both when you record your own messages and when you listen to what the other person says, because neither happens live. If talking face to face with a real native speaker scares you, starting with this kind of asynchronous communication is great!
  2. You can prepare your voice messages before sending them. You can think about which words to use, which order to put them in and even look things up if you need to. In normal conversations, this is possible, but very awkward. Real-time conversations require you to do many things at once, so making communication asynchronous can make it easier.
  3. You can record again if you’re not happy with the result. Maybe it didn’t come out the way you wanted it to or you missed a tone you’ve been practising recently. No problem, just cancel the voice message and try again! Depending on the client, you might even be able to play the message before you send it. In most apps, though, you can at least abort the recording before sending it.
  4. You can listen many times if you don’t understand the first time. Just play the message the other person sent you as many times as you like. Listening is complex and there’s rarely time to process everything the first time you listen, which can cause problems in real-time conversations, but here you can just listen over and over until you understand. You can also write down the Pinyin of an unknown word or use another tool to transcribe the message to text and look words up that way.
  5. Conversations are saved for later reference, which means that you can play your messages again or you can have someone else do so to to help you with your pronunciation, grammar or word choice. If you had a conversation with a friend, but it didn’t go so well, maybe bring it to your teacher and ask them to give you some pointers. You can also listen to your own recordings from six months ago to check if your pronunciation has improved!
  6. Messages can be recorded and listened to whenever you have time, no need to schedule a time to talk. Record a message when you have time and the other person will respond when they have time. This is particularly convenient when you are in very different time zones and it would be hard to find times to talk which work for both of you.

There are probably more advantages with voice messaging, but if these aren’t enough to convince you, I don’t know what will be! If you want to read more about learning Chinese as an introverted student, check out my article about that specific topic:

Learning Chinese as an introverted student

A stepping stone, not a substitute

Naturally, voice messaging is not the same as having a real-time conversation. There are many things you need to be able to do in a face-to-face conversation that voice messaging will not prepare you for, but I think that ought to be obvious. Also, I don’t think anyone will take the advice in this article mean that you shouldn’t talk to real people anymore, just that if you can’t do that or you feel uncomfortable doing so, voice messaging can work as a stepping stone.

Where to find Chinese people to talk to

While going through various ways of finding friendly native speakers to talk to is out of scope for this article, I’ll still give you some hints. Naturally, you can talk with anyone you normally talk or chat with, just try leaving them a voice message instead of a text message next time you want to say something or just outright ask them if trying out voice messages would be okay.

If you’re reading this section of the article, it’s likely that you don’t already have a bunch of friends eagerly awaiting your next voice message, so what to do? If you live in a Chinese-speaking environment, any strategy for finding friends in general can work, such as participating in events, finding people with shared hobbies or practising sports.

Another option is language exchange, which you can do online through apps like HelloTalk or other services that pair you up with native speakers who want to learn your native language. This is great, but note that it can take a few tries before you find people you get along with well! Of course, you can also try to find language exchange partners locally, maybe by checking a nearby university or other place where Chinese people congregate.

Finally, you can always hire a tutor to practise with, although you might need to work out some special arrangement with them as voice messaging probably doesn’t fit a billing-by-hour model. You don’t really need their help explaining the language or even teaching you things, but people with experience talking to foreigners are usually better at communicating at a level that’s suitable for you.

Not just for beginners

Note that many of the advantages mentioned above can be useful for people who can already speak Mandarin well and do so regularly (including myself). For example, listening to your own messages can give you valuable clues about where you need to improve your pronunciation. You can also take your time and really understand what the other person is saying instead of just getting the gist. Sometimes, it’s great to have things recorded, because it allows you to finally figure out what that phrase you’ve been hearing actually is and look it up if need be.

Conclusion: Voice messaging as a stepping stone to Chinese conversations

In summary, voice messaging is a powerful way to practise Chinese speaking and listening. It allows you to circumvent some common challenges learners face with real-time face-to-face conversations and has additional benefits beyond that. If you haven’t tried it out yet, you really should! If you have tried it out and have recommendations for making it work well, please leave a comment below!

Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2016, was rewritten (almost) from scratch in September 2021.



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10 comments

  1. Muzz says:

    Yes, but what is voice messaging?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      “Instead of texting your messages, you push a button and record your own voice. The other person can respond in the same way. You can play both your own and the other person’s messages by clicking or tapping a button.”

      1. HelloTalk is pretty great for this I’ve found. Any experience with this app Olle?

        微信 (WeChat) is great if you already have Chinese friends but HelloTalk is better if you are just looking for people to practice with.

        HelloTalk has a HUGE number of Chinese speakers looking for English speaking partners. I think it’s pretty unbalanced – good news for people learning Chinese though!

        Worth checking out if don’t know where to start with voice messaging.

        1. Miyu says:

          I am currently using HelloTalk and it’s an amazing app. It’s got everything WeChat has but it’s focus is on language exchange!

  2. Miyu says:

    As a self learner, how do I know when I’ve got enough vocabulary and grammar under my belt to take on speaking?
    Should I force myself to start speaking if I haven’t ironed out all of my mistakes ? I don’t to start creating what you call ‘systematic errors’ from starting to speak too soon and not having enough grammar or vocabulary yet.
    I’ve gone through 2 introductory textbooks already so I’m not a true beginner but perhaps a low intermediate level.

    Do you have any posts on this?
    Thanks,

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I would never postpone using the language for communication in speaking or writing, so you should definitely not delay that. It will just delay your overall development in general and you will never be able to iron out your problems if you don’t actually speak (most of the errors you make will probably only become apparent if you do speak). While I don’t think it’s actually bad to spend a lot more time listening and reading in the beginning, if you want reasonably quick progress towards fluency, you have to start practising speaking as soon and as much as possible.

      1. Miyu says:

        “While I don’t think it’s actually spend a lot more time listening and reading in the beginning,..”

        sorry what were you saying here?

        And ok, thanks for the advice! I will try it.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          I meant to say “While I don’t think it’s actually bad to spend a lot more time listening and reading in the beginning”, hope that helps! 🙂

  3. Mervyn Hem Lee says:

    What get’s me most of the times is the structure of the sentence. I keep forgetting that in Mandarin, the subject and object most times, is the opposite to that in English.

  4. Fearchar says:

    Although WeChat/微信 is useful for keeping in touch with people in China, there are restrictions, making it worth mentioning LINE, which is the most widely used messenger service in Taiwan (and in other countries with speakers of Chinese languages, of course).

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