Since starting Chinese, my studies have been mainly on developing reading ability. Not being in China or having regular language partners, my main window into China has been through text, so it made sense to take that approach. But more and more, I feel I’m missing out on enjoying all the audio and video content out there, which is easily accessible these days over the internet. I do occasionally listen to spoken Chinese for study purposes, but I have made very little progress in that area. At the beginning of this year, I changed my study ritual to focus much more on developing listening skills. In this post, I’ll share my experience thus far and various other thoughts. Please remember that this is just sharing my own experience and, as with any advice on language learning, your mileage will definitely vary!

As with all the other languages I’ve dabbled in over the years, my main difficulty in understanding foreign speech is that the words just come too fast. There is a lot of mental processing that needs to take place in order to comprehend: the sounds need to be identified; the word boundaries need to be found; the words need to be identified as an item in one’s mental lexicon, and then disambiguated to understand the specific meaning in context. I always find it amazing that for native or fluent languages the brain can handle all this in the background, while the conscious self is simply aware of understanding the overall meaning of what is being heard.

Although reading ability in Chinese requires similar mental processing (substituting character identification for syllable identification), one can read as slowly and carefully as necessary, and re-read difficult passages until they become clear. This luxury doesn’t exist when listening; all this comprehensive processing needs to happen in real-time. Since I do a lot of reading, I am well aware how much backtracking I do to try to understand a difficult sentence, ponder a character to try and remember it, or just stare blankly at the page to take a mental break. This can easily be experienced by watching Chinese TV shows and movies. Because many programs include subtitles, I can read the dialog along with (or instead of) listening to the audio. At full speed, I can understand about 60% of what I read in the subtitles, but I still encounter many characters or phrases I can’t recall that quickly. Since this is all streaming in real-time, there is no chance to go back and review. This reduces my level of understanding significantly, since I sometimes miss out on key points of the dialog. Also, the amount of mental concentration required is significant, yet there is no chance to rest and recover. The hard stuff just keeps coming! This has led me to my first conjecture of listening:

(For those who can read) If you can’t understand it when reading it quickly, you can’t handle hearing it at the same speed.

I can think of cases where that statement may be wrong. But keeping it in mind has been somewhat useful to me. In listening, it isn’t good enough just to know the words if I can’t handle it at normal speed with no pause or rewind. I clearly need to work more, to be so familiar with the words and grammar that I can understand them all instantly. And the understanding should be so effortless and mundane that I’m never blocked by the well-known phenomenon experienced by language learners of “hey, I recognize this word, let me repeat it over and over in my head while ignoring the next three sentences!”

Speed is not the only factor, however. I was excited when 慢速中文 Slow Chinese first came on the scene. Here was my chance to tackle my complete inability to listen, without being overwhelmed at the outset. It quickly became clear after the first episode that it wasn’t just speed that was difficult. Even at the slow speaking level of the podcast, there were still a large percentage of words I couldn’t understand. Why was this? Quite simply, I really didn’t know the words. Thus, my second conjecture of listening:

If you don’t know the words, listening speed is irrelevant.

The converse of this is also somewhat true: The better you know the words, the less speed is a factor. Quite early into my Chinese studies, I was surprised at how quickly I could understand the phrase “大家好,欢迎收听” (Hello, welcome listeners to …) even when spoken very quickly, spit out as if it were one long syllable. Of course, the rest of the speech after that phrase was unintelligible at that speed. But it was a clear illustration of the point that words and phrases that reach a key threshold of familiarity require no effort to understand, at whatever speed.

It has been said that the best way to learn a language is immersion, with a massive amount of input. This means watching a lot of TV and movies, and listening to music. There are many who claim to have learned successfully this way, and I have no reason to doubt them. But after many years trying this approach, I had not made any measureable improvement to my listening ability. The method was even detrimental, as I simply got accustomed to accepting all audio as a single stream of incomprehensibility. To describe my personal experience, I have devised a fitting analogy:

Studying a language by listening to native speech at full speed is like learning how to play the piano by repeatedly playing difficult pieces at full speed from day 1. Getting every note wrong the first 50 times is a normal part of the process.

That’s quite a pessimistic analogy, but in many ways it fits with my experience. If I learned to play the piano only at full speed, I would initially get nearly every note wrong. In theory, every time I practiced the piece I would get a few more notes right, and with enough repetitions I would eventually learn it well. In practice, however, I may be more likely to just get accustomed to getting every note wrong, and end up mashing my fingers on the keys; the result wouldn’t sound much worse, but at least it would be less mentally taxing. Most importantly, I wouldn’t enjoy the process. To the extent the analogy is valid, a better approach for gaining listening ability would be more like how I actually learn piano pieces, by breaking the piece into smaller “phrases” for repetitive study, taking each section as slowly as necessary. Some of these phrases are common patterns in music and may not even need to be practiced, while others are more unusual, or have difficult fingering that needs to be worked out. The more these difficult parts are studied, the more they become habitual, eventually shifting to the realm of easy phrases.

There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when a piece of music is learned. At that point, the whole piece is easy to play through at full speed without much concentration. The process is even somewhat autonomous, in the sense that while playing my main consciousness is free to wander, thinking about things completely unrelated to the task. In fact, there are times when I play better when not paying attention, and thinking too much about the notes and fingering is what causes mistakes to happen. I imagine this to be similar to achieving language fluency; the goal is to be so familiar with the language that I’m no longer hearing the individual words, but rather letting deeper parts of the brain do the processing while I consciously just “hear” the underlying point being made by the speaker.

This year I discovered the wonders of Tatoeba audio flashcards. Tatoeba is an open content database and accompanying website, containing sentences and their translations in multiple languages. For example, there are currently over 32,000 Chinese sentences with English translations (both direct and via common third languages). Of these, 1,693 sentences have audio recorded by native Chinese speakers. One of the site administrators has made available a handy Anki flashcard deck for these sentences, with the spoken Chinese as the question, and the characters, pinyin and English translation as the answer. I have spent the last 5 months going through the deck, at around 80-120 repetitions per day, finally getting through all the cards last week. I feel the experience has been helpful in many ways. While there is still a lot I don’t understand (especially with strong accents or poor audio quality), I am marginally getting accustomed to listening for longer periods without being quickly overwhelmed. Throughout the process, I’ve paid attention to my personal experience with the exercise, which I will write more about later.