Chinese Listening (Natively spoken)

Greetings to everyone. I’m opening this discussion on the topic of Chinese Listening (specifically natively spoken Mandarin), focused on how and when to develop or start working in this medullary aspect of language learning. I will share my concerns and some general questions, and I’ll be happy to know your opinions.

We all eventually realize that textbook/test audios and maybe our teacher if we’re enrolled in a school (many of us’ primary listening sources, specially beginners like me) can be quite ideal, far from the reality of natively spoken Chinese, which is quite harder to understand. I also understand that this is part of every language, and I suppose it’s only natural that this happens after constant use of the same sounds and expressions (indeed we will develop a particular way of speaking which to some extent diverges from ideal, well articulated speech). However, this effect is likely to be more marked in Mandarin due to many more variables that contribute to it (such as pronunciations from different regions influenced by the dialects, common shortcuts for high frequency words, etc).

With this said, I want to establish that I am not trying to be impatient on my studying, as I understand the inherent difficulty of the language I’ve chosen to learn and I’m willing to invest my time and efforts. However, I do wanna share that I feel a bit pressured to improve this aspect since I’m willing to do gradschool abroad in a near future before becoming too old :sweat_smile:. Maybe some of you can relate to some extent with this mindset. Some of my concerns are:

  1. Should I have more vocabulary knowledge to start really practicing my listening, or is it possible to start doing so with a current Hsk2~ish level? (Hsk 2.0)
  1. Is it possible that background or passive listening can be helpful for me, or am I in a “too early stage”? (As in listening to radio while jogging or working) Is there any recommendations of resources for this type of listening?

  2. What about a more active listening practice? Which indeed will be more time consuming but also ideally more productive? Would you say Hsk2~ish is a good moment to start this? Maybe some movies can be found for this purpose?

  3. This question is out of curiosity and by no means I intend to underestimate the value of textbooks. But it’s a genuine question. If textbook and test audios are not how real people speak Chinese daily, then are these audios really helpful at all? Well it’s likely not a no 100% but I’m still concerned about the true potential of these audios.

Thanks in advance and feel free to share your thoughts on any of these and any other aspects you find pertinent. Happy learning :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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I’m curious what others have to say on the matter, but I’d say it’s never too early to start listening! And in fact, many learners (myself included!) listen way too little, especially in the beginning. Mass input is the prerequisite to output; you can’t know what word to say/write until you’ve heard/read of it at least once (unless you’re a heritage speaker and can just word-build grammatically correct-ish neologisms on the fly). For some other languages I’ve studied, I’ve purposefully ignored the written language and only focused on mass listening comprehension and speaking in the beginning.

The trick, just like with reading though, is finding the sweet spot with comprehensible input. If you pick something too far above your level with lots of words you don’t know and haven’t already encountered in some form, you won’t just magically understand it by listening to it on repeat (unless you already know lots of the words and can pick it up the few unknowns by their surrounding context). So something like an audio recording of a graded reader that you know all the words to when you read is great material to listen to.

I don’t have any studies to cite off hand, but as far as measurably improving listening comprehension, almost everything I’ve read about passive listening is that it’s basically a complete waste of time compared to active, focused listening. Having said that, I think there’s some value at the very beginner stage for more passive listening. It can give a learner an overall feel for the prosody and rhythm of a language and help them just get comfortable with listening to it in general.

Following a standard is important because as a foreigner, you will have an accent. (Almost) everyone in China is exposed to putonghua (or guoyu in Taiwan) and will be used to it as a reference point since it is taught in school and used in media. If you can mimic it well, you will be understood in most places you go by most people; the same can’t be said for a more regional accent. You can always add in a more specific local accent further down the road.

But for listening comprehension, something like textbook putonghua or guoyu is a good starting point. Some TV shows and media, even Chinese youtubers will follow the standard pronunciations more or less, and there’s no one other regional accent that’s more standardized or widespread; investing in it is the best bang for your buck as a learner as far as depth and breadth of media available. And ultimately, no one textbook or series of audio recordings will ever properly prepare you for the true variation that is listening to real life native speakers. Mass exposure is the way, possibly the only way.

So get listening, enjoy the challenge, and celebrate all the small victories and improvements along the way!

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Listening is, in my opinion, the most important skill when learning a language. Understanding what’s going on around you gives many more learning opportunities and is also crucial in any kind of social situation. I could probably (and might some day) write a book answering your questions, but I’ll instead insert comments and answers in the text you wrote. Since I have already written quite a lot, I will include links to further reading. You bring up several important points and questions, so let’s get started!

Listening in Mandarin probably is harder than in many other languages, but not for the reasons you mention. I think the factors you mention apply to any big language in the world, not just Mandarin. It applies to English, for example, and there are also many other languages that have very different “dialects”, such as Arabic.

Chinese is difficult to understand because of several factors, the most important ones being tones, the limited sound inventory (few possible syllables) and the fact that it’s a context-based analytical language. I wrote more about this here:

I can relate! I was in your position ten years ago. I’ve since been through grad school (teaching Chinese as a second language), taught in Chinese. Depending on what subject you’re interested in, listening is probably going to be crucial, although you do need the whole package if the whole program is in Chinese only.

You should start listening as much as you can from the very beginning. I would consider listening more important than anything else when you first start out. You need lots of input to build a model of how the sound system works and delaying this isn’t a good idea. You should focus on spoken language first, and listening before speaking. I wrote more about this here:

It depends what you mean by “active” and “passive” here. You learn by making connections between language forms (sounds in this case) and meaning, which is why comprehensible input is so valuable. You will not be able to do this unless you focus on what you’re listening to, and the harder it is, the less capacity you’ll have for doing other things at the same time.

But this is in fact the wrong question. It ought not be a question of which one you do, because you should do both, as much as possible. If you have the means, energy and opportunity to listen very actively, then you should. If you don’t have those things, then passive listening (defined here as listening while doing something else at the same time) is much better than nothing! I’ve written several articles about this, these are just a few I came to think of right now:

When it comes to resources, anything you can understand works. This could be stuff you’ve already studied before or easier new content (but this will be hard at lower levels, obviously). I’m in the process of updating my article on beginner listening materials, but in the meantime, you can check this and this. Or ask me again in a few weeks. :slight_smile:

Again, actively trying to listen to spoken Chinese and understand what they said is something I recommend to do immediately from the very start, so there’s no reason to delay! However, if you stand little or no chance of understanding, you’re better off listening to something else. If you pick a random radio program, TV show or film, it will be so much above your level that you might not even be able to pick up more than an occasional word ever five minutes. This is not very productive, unless you really like what you’re watching. You still learn what the language sounds like, but this is not efficient learning. Search for easy TV shows or recommendations in general. Here are a few.

This is a good question. I think textbooks are not authentic for two reasons:

  1. They use a simplified language so as not to overwhelm you with new words and grammar
  2. They change the language into something that native speakers wouldn’t say

The first is not a problem and most people would say it’s necessary. If you don’t use audio intended for beginners, you will understand nothing, or you will spend so much time figuring out what things mean that it’s not worth it. In theory, it might be possible to find authentic audio that students can learn from without being completely overwhelmed, but no one has presented any product or service that comes even close to doing this (and I doubt someone ever will).

The second is a problem, however, but this is mostly the difference between bad textbooks and good textbooks. While major textbook series might have some oddities in the dialogues, they are on the whole okay. It might not be the most natural thing to say, but it’s usually acceptable. Note that you should be extra careful of old textbooks (including those that have new editions that are almost exactly like the old editions with only cosmetic changes), as the language develops and what people said thirty years ago might sound awkward today.

So the answer is that there’s no problem with textbook audio as such, but depending on what textbook you use, it could be a problem. This includes old textbooks, bad textbooks or textbooks that have pronunciation that is so exaggerated that it could be considered incorrect (that happens sometimes with tone sandhi, for example). It shouldn’t be the only audio you listen to, obviously, but since you’re likely starved of comprehensible input, anything you can find is useful; the more the better!


Here’s a challenge for you. Actually, in January, I will run a listening challenge for anyone who wants, including myself. Here’s how it works: try to listen to as much Chinese as you can for a limited amount of time (three weeks in the official challenge). It doesn’t matter what you listen to, but the more you understand, the better. Think you can manage 40 minutes a day? An hour? Depending on what you do for a living and how much time you dedicate to learning Chinese, you might be able to do twice that, or maybe even more. We’ve had people who report well in excess of 100 hours in 20 days before. Info will be posted here, but right now it says “September” because I haven’t updated the article yet. The information (and inspiration) is the same, though.

Listening is largely a matter of practice. The more you do, the better you’ll get at it. Not only that, the more listening you do, tho more your Chinese will improve in general, too! Good luck! :slight_smile:

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  1. It is possible to start practicing listening at HSK 2. Continue building up the vocab through HSK 4, and listening will be that much better.
  2. I think your in too early for passive listening. I think again. Once you get through the vocab through HSK 4. Arguably at least an hour of passive listening a day is helpful. Just playing a podcast on voice of America while working out between sets might work - no need to look at transcripts.
  3. Active listening is perfect for this stage, look into buying Mandarin Companion books - buy the ebook through KOBO/kindle (kindle if possible) and also buy the audio book in audible. Listen for the full chapter twice, and then copy and paste the transcript into google translate. Start at level 1.
  4. Textbook audios are very helpful at your stage. Keep working to HSK 4, your not that far away.

Good luck

  1. It is possible to start practicing listening at HSK 2. Continue building up the vocab through HSK 4, and listening will be that much better.
  2. I think your in too early for passive listening. I think again. Once you get through the vocab through HSK 4. Arguably at least an hour of passive listening a day is helpful. Just playing a podcast on voice of America while working out between sets might work - no need to look at transcripts.
  3. Active listening is perfect for this stage, look into buying Mandarin Companion books - buy the ebook through KOBO/kindle (kindle if possible) and also buy the audio book in audible. Listen for the full chapter twice, and then copy and paste the transcript into google translate. Start at level 1 or earlier.
  4. Textbook audios are very helpful at your stage. Keep working to HSK 4, your not that far away.

Good luck

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Thanks so much for this very detailed answer. I think this is more detailed than one could ever imagine for a question like this. I feel many people won’t be so overthinker as me and will just say “that comes with time bro!”. Also sorry for the little late response, have been dealing with HSK stuff recently. I will definitely read this more thoroughly and check all the references you added. :muscle:t4::muscle:t4:

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Thanks so much for this input! I feel many of my friends agree that I’m being a bit of an overthinker when my level is still relatively low for the amount of listening comprehension that I’d like to have. I think your suggestions on HSK 4 are on point, I’ve heard this as a reference before.

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Can’t think how to thank you all for your so valuable input! You all definitely converged on that it’s not necessary to wait before listening more, this is the main thing I lose my time overthinking about. All these suggestions are great and I will be trying them. Thanks for taking your time and addressing this, looking forward to more interesting topics in this forum!

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Once you get through HSK 4 - one super strong resource you can pivot to after HSK 4 will be Chairmen’s Bao - set at… big surprise “HSK4” and the sentences are just complex enough that you will get amazing listening mileage from it. Listen to that a couple times, and then copy and paste everything into google translate, then listen a third time for a good quick and effective listening exercise.

Since Chairmen’s Bao you can get everything in MP3’s - I’ve been planning to pair the MP3 files with AUDACITY - then you can effectively “shadow listen” - which is essentially have them play a sentence and then you just need to repeat what that sentence said word for word. In audacity you can cut up the 2 minute files into probably 50 mp3 files, and put them in a folder based on anything you choose. (grammar point, length of time of the mp3, or both etc).

The CRITICAL skill in language learning is gisting. However, I find that a lot of guys that can keep a lot of Chinese in their head (even for words they don’t know) have a huge leg up. So once you get through HSK 4 - as an example

  1. Voice of America podcasts at the gym in between sets - to get in a mandatory 30 minutes to an hour a day of passive listening - no transcripts needed
  2. Chairmen’s Bao GISTING - play it twice, read transcript in google translate, then listen a third time (at around 5k vocab can be replaced with a news website with transcripts such as NTDtv.com —> toggle browser to english—>video—>“current affairs” - the transcripts that go along with the 11 minute news broadcast are the strongest I’ve seen anywhere.
    【時事縱橫】談民主說通脹 習李講話同遭質疑 | 中共謊言 | 台海局勢 | 習近平 | 新唐人中文電視台在線
    Besides “current affairs” - “Click Today” video subtopic also has a good setup (it’s just not broken up into 5 distinct news stories)
  3. Chairmen’s Bao Shadow listening - play a sentence (or two) and pause the tape (preferable in audacity) and write what you heard in Chinese

There’s a lot of other cool exercises you can do, but if I had these down (especially simply 1 & 2) once I got through HSK 4, I would have had a little better tempo in my language learning process. I think this keeps it simple, and it could go pretty far.

Audacity is free:

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Don’t forget Du Chinese, which lets you listen to the text at whatever level you’re at.

I frankly prefer Du to Chairman’s Bao.

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