How to make the most of Chinese audio lessons

Chinese audio lessons offer many benefits. 

The most obvious one is that, with audio lessons, students can free their eyes and concentrate on using their ears when learning Chinese. A direct result is a more flexible learning style and improved Chinese pronunciations and listening skills.

However, many students don’t realise that listening to audio lessons is only the first step of their Chinese language acquisition process. To make the most of any audio lessons requires them to do more than listening.

In this article, we’ll talk about how audio lessons can bring listening into the core of Chinese study, and what else students can do to achieve the best result.

Bring listening to the foreground

Listening is important in learning Chinese. The earlier students focus on it, the better their learning result is. For this reason, audio lessons offer students a wonderful head start. 

Too many Chinese programs excessively rely on using pinyin to teach Chinese with little listening support. The result is that students look at pinyin as gospels. They make great effort to memorise pinyin, and to correct their pronunciations according to pinyin. Listening remains a weak spot for a long time. 

When their ears are finally able to pick up Chinese sounds and to tell the differences, they’d often realise that, to their ears, the same pinyin sounds quite different, for example, the same pinyin final “an” sounds different in “san”, “yan”, and “shan”. 

“How strange! Perhaps I heard it wrong?” Their initial reaction usually is. 

The fact is that they did not hear it wrong. It is the pinyin that does not reflect the exact way that Chinese is pronounced. The real pronunciations almost always differ from the written pinyin scripts. Tones alone can come in a variety of ways — Tones, a fluid and dynamic concept.

This realisation that pinyin is not right is a positive sign that they are ready to be free from pinyin’s tight grip.

Audio lessons can turn this learning style around. Students focus on listening to, and repeating after, the sound first, and later use pinyin as a backup. All the inconsistencies of pinyin can be easily accepted and quickly ignored, like millions of Chinese kids when they are learning pinyin. 

Listening to audio lessons definitely brings listening into the center of Chinese study. But that’s not all.

The learning pyramid

To better illustrate the actions students can take to maximise their gains in listening to Chinese audio lessons, let’s digress a little and talk a bit about the learning pyramid, shown as below.

This learning pyramid consists of four tiers, “Understand”, “Re-enforce”, “Remember”, and “Apply”. 

Learning starts from the bottom tier “Understand”, that students understand what words mean, how to pronounce them and how to structure them into sentences. This is the knowledge that are raw, static and easy to be forgotten. Everything has huge potentials, but nothing can be used without some degrees of modification which depends on when, where, why, and with whom these words/structures are used.

The second tier “Re-enforce” is a process linking “Understand” with “Remember”, transferring the forgettable knowledge in “Understand” into something that is lasting and can be recalled easily in “Remember”, which is an active memory zone. This process requires extensive trainings and drills ranging from highly targeted to highly integrated exercises, which can be visual or audio.

After re-enforcement, knowledge gets to the third tier “Remember”. Words, structures and pronunciations are no longer raw. Instead, they are active, and can trigger quick responses from students.

The last tier is “Apply”. When situations are calling for, students can use their knowledge stored in “Remember” to meet the requirement with dexterity and skills. 

These four tiers are not evenly spread. What students eventually apply in real life is only the tip of an iceberg. Below that is a vast amount of active knowledge ready to be recalled, and lots of effort to transfer the raw knowledge there from a relatively thin layer of “Understand”.

Limit the number of Chinese audio lessons

Once we understand this learning pyramid and the mechanism it represents, the very first conclusion we draw is that, to maximise the benefits of audio lessons, students need to limit the number of audio lessons they are working on, and respect the ratio of the time they spend on understanding to the time they spend on re-enforcing. A 10-minute audio lesson may require one hour or more, some times even days, to be fully re-enforced and transformed into the active memory zone.

“Understand” is quick and easy, but “Re-enforce” is long and hard. 

Therefore, unlimited audio lessons are not necessarily a good thing, if students don’t impose a certain kind of control to make sure that each lesson listened gets necessary re-enforcement.

Knowledge that is not re-enforced thoroughly will be forgotten in no time. 

Contrary to that, a small number of audio lessons can be beneficial if they get to be processed thoroughly and rigorously. 

Available resources for re-enforcement

The second conclusion is that re-enforcement is an important follow up to listening audio lessons. This process is more than “repeat after” or “talk back”. 

Well-designed and level appropriate resources are needed for this process. 

This is where textbooks come in. 

With the supporting textbooks, students can check scripts and work on a variety of different exercises. 

With each exercise they complete, they become faster and more responsive to words and sentence patterns they have learned in audio lessons, and one step closer to use these words and sentence patterns in the way they want. 

Opportunities to use Chinese

The final tier “Apply” is where students are able to use what they’ve learned for a purpose, whether it is to request information, to give information, to listen to a story, to tell a story, or to complain.

Learning Chinese is not just for schools, but for life. 

Once students are well prepared and ready to move away from their comfort zones, opportunities for them to use Chinese are limitless.

When students are not yet ready to step into a Chinese speaking world, they need to find a safe environment for them to try. 

Patient Chinese speaking friends, study buddies, online Chinese learning groups, or Chinese teachers all can be of great help in this final tier.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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