Strategies for Better Chinese Listening – Why is it important to know how to listen?

Of all language skills, listening is the most important one without a doubt. Statistically speaking, during a dialogue, listening will take up at least half the time, and maybe more, which is more than the time spent on speaking, writing, and reading according to a research made by Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. and Proctor, R. (2001).

In a dialogue, the sound of the voice occurs first. As we all know, good listening can make the listener accurately receive and decipher messages. In contrast, without the ability to listen effectively, messages are more likely to be misunderstood, resulting in frustration or conflict. Good listening causes effective understanding, giving value to speaking, and it can also boost your vocabulary and improve your comprehensive quality.

However, listening does not get the full attention it needs, though it is considered as one of the most challenging of skills to develop.  Take Chinese learning for example. Though some Chinese universities provide professional listening classes, it still counts as only a small fraction. This is not even considering Chinese lessons held overseas. Thus, if there is one skill you should aim to master the most during Chinese learning, it is listening.

How to improve your listening skills

Since listening plays a significant role in studying Chinese, and that it also matters in all sorts of Chinese tests, then how does one improve one’s listening ability? Below, we are going to illustrate how from elementary level to advanced level.

– For beginners

Goal: To understand familiar topics about daily life, like studies, dinner, hobbies, sports, etc. and can catch relevant information in certain situations.

Suggestions:

1. Familiarize yourself with frequently used words in daily life.

Since this is your first encounter with the Chinese language, start with words used often by Chinese people, and that will open the gate to listening. Because those words are quite practical, it will give you motivation and confidence to go further when you find you can understand even just some of what they are talking about in Chinese.

2. Make an effort to understand every word.

A real-life situation provides a vivid way to utilize words you have mastered. However, living in China is not possible for most Chinese learners, so we can use scenario simulations instead to help. One thing that should be pointed out is that using simple materials will be better, because limited vocabulary will confine your listening ability. In fact, you can ask your Chinese friends or your study partners to provide simple communication, or try listening to the recording of short dialogues in your textbook repeatedly to practice your listening skill. Try your best to understand every word the speaker is saying and to infuse yourself in it. By doing this, you will build a solid foundation for your listening ability.

– For intermediate learners

Goal: To understand a familiar dialogue or speech in general situations and to be able to catch main points and key information.

Suggestions:

1. Obtain the necessary vocabulary first.

Words make up sentences. Therefore, enough vocabulary will make your listening ability go further and even make your speaking ability better. So open your textbook or your notebook or your dictionary to learn new words before trying harder listening materials. How much words should you acquire? According to the HSK standard, 1200 words at least. Though some may argue this is not the regular way to learn, it is quite useful and functions well for most learners. And I highly recommend remembering all words with their pronunciation–try reading thye words aloud–because in this way you can practice both your listening and speaking. One way to check whether you can distinguish words or not is to dictate them.

2. Listen and try to picture what the speaker is saying or to anticipate what he is going to say.

Picturing or imagining in your mind what can happen while you are listening is also a good method that can help you learn. Listen to the Chinese materials carefully and try to train your brain to conjure a literal image, or even an abstract concept or a specific item that can integrate the information obtained from what you are listening to. In the long run, when your brain is accustomed to it, the ability to understand can also be improved. In addition, depending on the context – a checkout, a booking, a dinner, a sport, a game, an activity, a news, a lecture, an exchange– you can actually predict the kind of words, phrases, word chunks, and structures the speaker will use. Furthermore, when we make a prediction, it is a way to activate all relevant vocabulary stored in our brains which will help us better understand what we’re going to listening to.

3. Understand all content or main sentences.

It is recommended that Chinese learners master as much content as possible. The textbook plays an active role, because the text and pictures there can help greatly. When listening to the text, you can try to understand all content. It may take some time at the beginning, however, with persistent effort, it will help in both listening and speaking in the future. But this may not be practical for all Chinese learners, so you can also step back and try to understand main sentences instead. What are the key sentences? That depends on the requirements and the topic. For instance, when you are taking an HSK test, in the listening part they will give your requirement in the questions to guide you to find corresponding answers. Those requirements decide what you should listen to. So, when listening, you should concentrate on parts related to that question. And even in a dialogue, they will focus on one issue, discussing and illustrating around it. Even when the topic is changed, there can be hints in the communication.

4. Summarize, Summarize, and Summarize

Summarizing can check whether you understand the materials or not. In the intermediate level, you should focus on your ability to summarize after listening. You can use your textbook as a tool for this. After learning about an article or a certain piece of dialogue, close your book and listen to it. When done, try to summarize the content you’ve just heard. At first, you may not be able to use your own words to rewrite it, but don’t worry, you can try to use some original sentences plus your own words to make a summary. In the long term, with deliberate effort, your own words will gradually replace original ones, which proves your listening ability has reached a higher level.

– For advanced learners

Goal: To thoroughly understand all sorts of listening materials in formal or informal situations by grasping the gist and fully understanding the purpose and ideas of the speaker.

Suggestions:

1. Learn generic terms.

When your Chinese reaches the advanced level, you must have learned at least 2500 vocabulary based on the standard of HSK. So, you can understand different kinds of materials in various situations. However, in some situations, if you work for a Chinese company needing professional knowledge, learning generic words will be better. Since you have mastered a certain amount of Chinese words, it won’t be hard to remember generic words, as many are the same Chinese words only differing in meaning when they are used professionally. By remembering generic terms, you can get a profound understanding of professional topics.

2. Listen for gist.

Don’t be a sentence- or word- grabber now. For Chinese leaners, the advanced level is not for understanding a certain word or sentence, but understanding and grasping the gist. When listening, information will come in a sequence. And in that sequence, there are several pieces of information you could catch, such as the person, the place, the time, the thing, the subject, and so on, that can help you understand the whole picture.

3. Listen extensively

In the advanced level, Chinese learners should use various materials to carry out extensive listening practice. Materials like Chinese drama, Chinese TV shows, Chinese news, or Chinese podcasts, etc. all can help learners dramatically and effectively maintain good listening skills. For example, when you watch a drama, even though there are some things you can’t understand fully, with a well-designed plot, vivid performances of the actors, proper background music, etc., you can still perceive it and grasp the meaning.

Recommendations of Resources for Practice

Besides the textbooks you hold now, here are some other materials that can be used for listening practice.

  1. DIGMANDARIN:

This site contains all kinds of Chinese learning resources. There are also many tips and skills on how to practice listening. If you want to learn Chinese systematically you can also find lots of great courses there.

  1. MANDARINBEAN:

This one is suitable for all level of Chinese learners, from beginner to advanced. It will provide different topics from popular Chinese culture to traditional Chinese culture, from economy to technology, etc. Each article comes with audio and a translation in English.

  1. POPUP CHINESE:

This website separates listening materials into different levels, which is quite convenient for you to find listening materials that match your own. They will also provide essays or articles with audio written by famous Chinese writers, like Mao Zedong, Zhu Ziqing, Wang Xiaobo, San Mao, etc. which can expose you to the beauty of Chinese.

  1. CSLPOD:

CSLPOD also provides listening materials according to the learners’ level. And they also life-related topics in the way of dialogue. Because of this style, it will be much easier for most Chinese learners to study.

  1. YOUTUBE:

YOUTUBE, a crucial free channel for Chinese learners, brings most popular Chinese Drama, Chinese TV shows, and so on, together. You can find a loved one to practice your listening ability while enjoying fantastic performances at the same time. In YOUTUBE, you can speed up or slow down according to your own needs. And if you really want a challenge for listening, you can even turn off the subtitles.

Summing up

Strategies won’t make sense if it’s just a strategy. Materials won’t make a difference if it’s materials only. Let action speak louder. Execute your strategy and use your materials. Here’s hoping you make big progress in your listening ability. But please remember that Rome wasn’t built in one day; perseverance is also needed in the process of improving your listening ability.

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