Train for exceptional Mandarin listening ability - higher level students

Among four basic language skills, listening, speaking, reading and writing, listening is the hardest to improve. 

When I was learning English, there was a period of time when I was able to read papers and write essays, but could not follow a speech. The resources for me to practice was scarce. There was no podcast, no YouTube video. Most of the time, I used tapes. Things have changed completely. Tapes were long gone. Smart phones came and enabled many listening resources available at finger tips. 

For Mandarin learners, after studying Mandarin for a period of time, they will have developed the ability to pick up new words quickly, be able to guess a bit within a given context, and gradually move away from controlled listening exercises. New opportunities come up as learning opportunities. Taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, Chinese customers, TV programs, and audio books, there is something to be learned in every encounter. Learning definitely goes beyond classrooms.

Available resources

  • Listening exercises in Chinese textbooks. 
  • Chinese videos & podcasts on the internet, including downloaded audio books in Chinese
  • Chinese people, such as friends, colleagues, customers
  • Chinese dramas, such as movies, TV shows
  • Chinese news on TV

These resources are all vey useful, but can not be treated as the same. Each of them has a different level of difficulty, depending on whether or not students are able to exert some kind of control. The less control there is, the more difficulty it gets.

We can analyse these resources according to six deciding factors, which affect the listening outcome.

Deciding factors

When we read, our eyes can go back and forth frequently. When we write, we ponder word choices and consult dictionaries. When we speak, as long as we are not shy, we can keep on going. But when we listen, we have little time to reflect, little chance to go back and forth, no opportunities to consult a dictionary. We have to follow the utterance continuously. When there is a word we don’t have an immediate understanding, we get stuck and quickly lose the rest of it. When we finally get back to the listening, it is already miles away. And sometimes, speaker’s accents make it nearly impossible for us to understand.

From this common scenario, we can segregate the following factors which will either help or hinder our listening comprehension:

  • Vocabulary:

    The size of the vocabulary used in speeches. Generally speaking, professional language requires larger vocabularies than social interactions.

  • Language style:

    Formal style of language is harder to understand, while casual style, a conversational tone, is easier.

  • Repeatability:

    Can the speech be repeated for students to have a second listen?

  • Speaking speed:

    The faster the speaking speed is, the more difficult it is.

  • Time to reflect:

    Are there any natural pauses in the middle of the speech, which allow students to think about it quickly? Or how often can students interrupt the speech?

  • Accent:

    Are speakers speaking standard Mandarin or with some accents?

Now let’s take the listening resources we mentioned earlier, and rank them according to these factors.

Chinese news is ranked as the most difficult listening resource because it is very compact. It gives lots of information in a short time, necessarily involving tons of vocabulary. It is fast and students have no time to reflect and it can not be rewound. And the news generally follows a formal style of writing, which uses longer sentences in more complicated structures, and is very different from the Chinese language people use in daily social interactions. All these make Chinese news the most difficult to understand, even though all newscasters speak clear and standard Mandarin.

Good old listening exercises in textbooks are the easiest. Each exercise targets a fixed number of words and structures, which are generally introduced in the student’s book. Students can listen to it many times and, occasionally, take a look at listening script for help. 

Like listening script in textbooks, subtitles in videos, movies or news also help students understand, regardless the subtitles are in Chinese or in English. If the subtitles are in Chinese and can be rewound, students can quickly figure out where they get stuck.  

Of all the resources, talking to Chinese people is the only spontaneous activity. The format is generally social interactions. Sentences are short with easy to understand sentence structures. In our table, its difficulty ranked at 3 is only because people have different accents. For example, as a native-Chinese speaker, even I had a hard time to understand the Hubei accent. Fortunately, most Chinese people do speak rather standard Mandarin. 

Occasionally, we have to adapt to a certain accent. I had this experience when I first moved to Hong Kong. Back then, not many Hong Kong people speak Mandarin, and I did not speak Cantonese. It was nearly impossible for me to understand local Chinese people’s Mandarin. However, after I struggled for a while, their Mandarin began to make sense. And after I made progress with my Cantonese, I understood their Mandarin very well, and knew exactly why their Mandarin sounded the way it was. And along the way, I learned a famous saying which goes like this: 天不怕,地不怕,就怕广东人说普通话.

The quantum leap to exceptional Mandarin listening ability

To all higher level Mandarin learners, there exists a quantum leap in listening ability. And when it happens, it happens suddenly and violently and will make your head spin. It could be during your trip to China or Taiwan, or when you are watching a Chinese film, and all of a sudden, everything becomes crystal clear. That is the quantum leap and you will feel it. 

It does not come easy. Great effort must be made to trigger the quantum leap. It is truly an instant success of ten years in the making.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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