Controlled exercises - How lower level students develop listening ability

For people who have not taken any Mandarin lessons, it is natural for them not to understand any utterance in Mandarin. After they start learning, things begin to sound intelligible. They will move in a spectrum from understanding nothing to everything. To push the needle from nothing to everything takes lots of time and great effort. 

For lower level students, this needle is particularly hard to move. There are suggestions all over the place, such as, talking to your Chinese friends and colleagues, or watching some Chinese YouTube videos. Unfortunately, this kind of listening practice is too advanced. Time spent is mostly wasted. An extreme scenario would be that a student, who just learned “ni hao”, watches a ten minute video of a Chinese stand-up comedian who has a heavy Northeastern accent. 

It is unrealistic to expect lower level students to engage with native Chinese speakers or to watch Chinese shows. The primary goal of listening should be realistically set at understanding of everything students have learned. It is more easily said than done. Very often, after students learn a few words which they hear someone speaks soon after, they still get baffled and don’t understand anything. Therefore, first of all, students should strive to listen and understand everything covered in each lesson. Gradually, and lesson after lesson, with incremental progress and reviews, they will be able to develop solid listening ability. 

Below are some techniques I find particularly useful.

#1: The listening materials contain zero, or close to zero, new words.

The content covered in Chinese textbooks is the core content of all listening exercises. Each exercise is short. The speed is relatively slow. And the pronunciation is standard. Unfamiliar words are restricted to names of people and places.

#2: Listening materials are content appropriate.

Adult students don’t have to listen to materials tailored to young children. They won’t get excited by the high pitch and fake excitement. Adult students listen to materials related to them. The more engaging the content is, the better.

#3: Students learn through repetition.

Listening ability improves when students listen to the same content a few more times. Sufficient repetition brings out remarkable progress. 

However, let’s distinguish two kinds of repetition. One is mechanical repetition, such as listening and repeating after the teacher a few times. This kind of repetition is predictable. Students know what is coming. The other one is active repetition, such as listening to words in an unknown sequence. This kind of repetition comes with a certain degree of unpredictability. Students do not know what is coming and they must stay alert. 

Both kinds of repetition are required to create a diversified listening environment.

#4: Mixed listening formats capture more attention.

It works the best when the formats of listening exercises are varied. One exercise focuses on words, while the next one on sentences. One exercise requires answering questions, while the next one is asking questions. And so on. 

#5: Students improve listening ability by listening frequently.

Spending 10-15 minutes every day on listening exercises brings a better result than 90 minutes one day a week.

#6: Teachers must speak Mandarin during lessons.

Quite often, teachers speak too much English. If a teacher teaches everything in English, she is not teaching. She is translating. There is a big difference between “teaching Mandarin” and “translating Mandarin”. The less translation there is, the better. The more Mandarin communication there is, the better.  

To reduce the amount of English used in classes, teachers and students can start with some simple and frequently used classroom languages, such as 我有一个问题 (I have a question) and 请你再说一遍 (please repeat), and gradually increase the genuine communication. 

#7: Where to find appropriate listening resources.

The first reliable resources are teachers. They know what students have learned and where the difficulties are. So teachers can write suitable listening materials. 

The second best are Chinese textbooks incorporated with appropriate and adequate listening exercises. If about half of all exercises are listening exercises in various formats and with close to zero new words, this textbook will be very effective to train students’ ears. Don’t pick the textbooks with pages and pages of reading exercises. These books are good for improving reading skills, but not for listening comprehension. There are other textbooks, where the listening exercises contain too many new words, which defeats the whole purpose of listening to the learned content.

YouTube videos and TV dramas are not very useful at this stage. But they are great resources for higher level students. 

There are also a lot of Chinese podcasts available on the internet. Many of them use a lesson format. Some lessons are quite useful. The speed is slow and the pronunciation is clear. But the over-all structures are not there. Lesson topics are selected randomly, and there is a lack of sufficient re-enforcing exercises.

Further thought

I have read the “i+1” theory of linguist Stephen Krashen. He says that we should be exposed to materials at a “i+1” level in order to learn a language. The “i” is our previously accumulated knowledge. And the “1” is the new knowledge. This is a great insight on how to structure an effective curriculum. But it does not give us much guidance on training listening skills. What is this “1” in listening exercises? If it refers to new words and expressions, it is really a bad idea. 

I propose a different formula “z+1=i”, where the “z” refers to the words and structures in textbooks, the “1” is the listening exercises focused on these words and structures, and “z+1” will bring students to Krashen’s level “i”.

In “z+1=i”, the “1” is also a measure of difficulty by various factors, such as increased speed, increased length, or slight deviation from standard pronunciation.


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