Hopefully by now you have found a speaking partner and started to speak a little Chinese. The “problem” is that now people will speak back to you!And you might not understand what they are saying – shock horror. Today I want to talk to you about Chinese listening skills and Chinese listening resources.
The key with listening is to be able to process the vocabulary you are learning at conversational speed.
It’s not enough to just learn vocabulary and hope to pick it out whilst listening to a native speaker. You need to be able to do this fast. As fast as the speaker is talking.
How to build Chinese listening speed?
Listening resources tend to come in two flavours: either from textbooks or from native materials (TV, radio, youtube etc.)
Textbook audio goes nice and slowly and you’ll have a script (in the book) to read along with. It’s a good place to start.
Our goal however is to work towards native materials as this is closest to how native speakers communicate.
However it’s often difficult to find material that helps us move from basic textbook dialogues to conversational spoken Chinese.
I want to give you a few suggestions about this sort of material – material that helps us move from textbooks to conversation.
In Chinese we have 3 main options:
1. A conversation-based audio course
1. Conversation-based audio courses
These audio course are very different to textbooks: They don’t rely on written scripts, instead allowing us to focus on the sound of the spoken language.
This is especially important with Chinese because of pinyin, which is misleadingly similar to English and causes confusion. At the early stages it is important to “tune the ear” to the sound of Chinese without pinyin interfering too much!
There are two courses in particular that I recommend because they don’t rely on written pinyin but instead focus on spoken Chinese.
Both use spaced-repetition to reinforce what has already been taught. By following the courses you’ll be constantly reinforcing what you’ve already learned. This is super important for listening – by reinforcing certain words and phrases by repeated listening they’ll be easy to hear in native conversation later. Your brain will be up to speed with these elements of the language already, allowing you to focus on other parts of the sentence that you don’t understand.
By making some parts of listening instinctual and automatic you free up more brain space for working out the parts you don’t know. This is the key to effective listening – nail down the basics until they become automatic.
Pimsleur and Michel Thomas use the same basic method of listen/repeat, reinforced with spaced-repetition. The main difference is that Michel Thomas uses a “virtual classroom” approach – you as the listener are in “class” with two other students who are learning at the same time.
These students are on the recording so you can hear their difficulties. It makes the process more human than Pimsleur but it also means that there is less Chinese spoken per minute of audio. This is not a huge problem unless you are listening multiple times to a recording – at this point it becomes annoying.
Pimsleur on the other hand feels a lot more rigorous but also drier. It’s less human than Michel Thomas but the trade-off is that you’ll hear a lot more Chinese.
There are other notable mentions like Glossika and Assimil. Glossika is much better at the intermediate stage of learning to polish up listening skills through massive audio input. Assimil (a French method, less seen in the US than in Europe) is normally great but the Mandarin Chinese book/audio is one of the weakest in the series. Therefore I can’t recommend it.
All of these products have free samples. Rather than discuss the relative merits it is better if you go ahead and listen to the introductory lessons of each and see which style you prefer. If you find Pimsleur too dry you’ll like Michel Thomas. If Michel Thomas has too much filler for you then you’ll like Pimsleur.
In terms of pricing Pimsleur can get expensive, especially if you wanted all four levels. You can get a little bit off by using the code SAVENOW (10% off mp3 version and 25% off the CD version) but Pimsleur is still expensive!
Therefore definitely check out your local library. You can use WorldCat to check all the local libraries around you for a copy. For some reason public libraries seem to be well stocked with Pimsleur products so it’s normally easy to find a copy.
Michel Thomas is much more affordable. The first level is around $15 and is money well-spent for listening skill reinforcement.
As Chinese learners we are very lucky to have Chinesepod. I’ve learned a lot of languages and few have such a rich listening resource as Chinese does with Chinesepod.
In short Chinesepod has a huge library of several thousand podcasts, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced native levels.
Most of the podcasts have a central dialogue, much like a textbook, but the real value comes from the discussion and explanation around the dialogue. The native Chinese hosts will explain a little about the language and give more context about the dialogue’s contents. Around the intermediate level all of this additional discussion is carried out in Chinese, which means the whole podcast is conducted in Chinese rather than slipping back into English.
If you use your email to sign-up for a free account you can get access to 100 lessons straight away. You can do that here: https://learnchinesecharacters.academy/recommends/chinesepod
However, if you don’t want to even sign up for a free account there are some unlocked free lessons I’ve found for you. Those will give you a taste of the style and quality of the content and hopefully convince you that it is worth signing up for the free 100 lessons.
The free (no email needed) lessons are here: https://learnchinesecharacters.academy/recommends/chinesepodfree/
FluentU is a new kid on the block compared to the other methods I’ve been talking about.
If you haven’t seen it yet FluentU is basically Youtube with foreign language videos that have been carefully subtitled and ordered by difficulty.
If you’ve ever tried to find a Chinese video you can watch on Youtube (or Youku, the Chinese version) you’ll know it’s frustrating to find the right level of difficulty to match your level.
Also, lots of videos on Youtube won’t have subtitles or perhaps will have subtitles in Traditional whilst you are learning Simplified (or vice-versa).
FluentU has gone ahead and made the process of finding video content for language learning much easier. There’s lots of free content and you can sign up here: FluentU
Working with video is actually a smart way to improve your listening. Video gives you more context than audio alone – you can see the facial expressions and non-verbal clues of the people speaking which gives you more information.
Is this cheating? Not really – a lot of the time you’ll be talking to actual people in Chinese and you’ll have these non-verbal clues to rely on. Unless you intend on only using your Chinese on the phone video is a better learning tool than audio.
Like Chinesepod, FluentU has a lot of beginner’s material to help you get started. Where it really gets interesting though is when it moves into native material.
By analyzing this native material and the words used FluentU have managed to categorize by difficulty, meaning you can ease yourself into native material much more gradually than if you simply turn on Chinese TV. This is invaluable.
These resources will give you enough material to take your listening from beginner to advanced native level.
In what order should you tackle the material? It’s really up to your preferences but I’ll give you my personal suggestion:
1. Michel Thomas Introduction ($15)
2. Pimsleur I (library)
3. Newbie level Chinesepod/Beginner FluentU (free)
4. Pimsleur II/III (library)
5. Continue with Chinesepod and/or FluentU (subscription)
6. Native material
Working with audio from different sources may seem messy. Actually, it is messy. But that’s what you need to help reinforce your listening ability!
Talking with native speakers is messy. They’ll have different accents, different speeds. Sometimes they’ll have bad colds! They won’t always sound like crystal clear textbook recordings.
Getting used to variety of spoken language (by working with a whole bunch of different resources) will prepare you for this randomness.
Also, working from different methods at different points in your study will stop you getting bored. The very idea of sitting down and working from Pimsleur Level I to level III bores me. Being able to switch back and forward keeps your learning interesting, makes you more likely to stick at it and reach fluency.
What are your experiences with these or any other listening materials? What do you find difficult about Chinese listening? I’d love to hear in the comments!