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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, but could not follow a speech. The resources for me to practice were scarce. There were no podcasts, no YouTube videos. Most of the time, I used tapes or listened to English programs on radios. Things have changed completely. Smart phones came and enabled many listening resources available at finger tips. 

Many Chinese language learners have some similar experiences.

Many students have said that, after learning Chinese for a period of time, they could pick up new words fairly quickly, guess the meanings of unknown words in a given context, and understand most of what they read. However, they still can not follow one hundred percent of what people are speaking during a speech or follow the evening news.

For these higher level students, the right listening strategy must be in place. 

At MSL Master, the dividing line is at Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A. Prior to this book, the lower the level, the more controlled the listening exercises are. At the Pre-Intermediate Level, there is a shift that students are gradually moving away from tightly controlled listening exercises.

At the Intermediate Level, no Work Books are provided. Listening exercises are selected solely from the wider pool of non-classroom oriented materials for their contents and ideas. 

Available listening resources

Available listening resources for higher level students are plenty, including at least the following:

  • Chinese videos on the internet
  • Podcast in Chinese
  • Chinese audio books
  • Chinese movies and TV shows
  • Chinese news
  • Chinese people

All of these resources are useful, but they 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.

When we read, our eyes can go back and forth frequently. 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 the 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 in a conversational tone, is easier.
  • Repeatability: It’s easier to listen to speeches when they can be repeated numerous times.
  • Speaking speed: The faster the speaking speed is, the more difficult it is.
  • Time to reflect: It’s easier to listen to speeches that have natural pauses in the middle.
  • Accent: Standard Mandarin Chinese is easier to understand than Chinese with accents.

If we take a look at the listening resources we mentioned earlier, and rank them according to these factors, we find that Chinese news on streaming is the most difficult to listen 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 Chinese.

Anything that allows students to rewind or to pause is a lot easier. 

Anything with subtitles helps tremendously.

Of all the resources, talking to Chinese people is the only spontaneous activity and also the easiest. The format is generally social interactions, even during in-depth discussions. Sentences are generally short. The only problem is that people might have different accents. 

Some accents are really hard to understand. I had this experience when I first moved to Hong Kong. It was nearly impossible for me to understand local Chinese people’s Mandarin. After I made progress with my Cantonese, I also understood the local’s Mandarin better. 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 (Tiān bùpà, dì bùpà, jiù pà guǎngdōng rén shuō pǔtōnghuà), meaning “Not afraid of the sky, not afraid of the earth, just afraid of Cantonese speaking Mandarin”.

How to use these listening resources

For intensive training, use videos that are interesting, short and have subtitles. Watch these videos  more than once, rewind at difficult places, read subtitles when needed, and look up new words when necessary. 

For overall comprehension, watch Chinese movies or TV series that have clear story lines and subtitles. To be able to follow the story is the main goal. Read subtitles while listening to the characters is very helpful.

For background noise, listen to audio books and podcasts in Chinese.

Watch breaking news with subtitles occasionally. (Evening news can be boring. Too much evening news might kill one’s interest quickly.)

Have various in-depth discussions with Chinese teachers, friends or language exchange partners. Listen to and adapt to various accents.

The quantum leap to exceptional Mandarin Chinese listening skill

Listen often and listen regularly.

I’ve heard many times from my students when they experienced a sudden clarity on their listening comprehension. 

That is a quantum leap. And when it happens, it happens suddenly and violently and makes their head spin. It could be during a trip to China, or when watching a Chinese film. All of a sudden, everything becomes crystal clear. 

I experienced the same thing with English. One evening while I was in the university, all of a sudden, the radio program I was following became totally comprehensible. I just could not believe my ears.

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

Keep listening.