Listening is one of the most important elements in one’s Chinese learning journey. Good listening skills allow you to communicate effectively with Chinese people and have solid interactions. However, Chinese listening is also one of the most challenging skills to master. No worries—we’re here to help!
This article will explain what makes listening difficult and give you the best tips to improve Chinese listening.
Let’s dive in!
What makes Chinese listening difficult?
The first step toward mastering Chinese listening is understanding what makes it difficult. Having a good understanding of these challenges will help you know how to improve Chinese listening.
1. There are various non-standard Chinese accents
One of the key things to watch out for is the variety of Chinese accents. Many—you might even say all—native Chinese speakers have a non-standard accent. Nobody really speaks 普通话(Pǔtōnghuà) – standard Mandarin natively. It’s something most Chinese speakers learn to do in school.
Although Putonghua is China’s official language, people in rural areas are still more familiar with communicating with local dialects. It is quite common to hear native Chinese speakers mix Putonghua with accents from other dialects, making it harder for Chinese beginners to grasp.
If you have ever encountered these variations while lacking sufficient listening practice, even a slightly non-standard pronunciation can throw you off. In this case, the best thing to do is to be aware of the accents and tones that people speak with. Immerse yourself in the language’s environment as much as possible and try to recognize the patterns that appear the most in spoken Chinese.
2. Chinese tones are challenging to master
As Mandarin is a tonal language, words with the same pronunciation but different tones will have totally different meanings. These tones can cause serious miscommunication if you’re not paying proper attention.
In addition to pronouncing the tone of each word accurately, you need to follow common tone rules to understand what Chinese people are saying. Chinese tones can be difficult to learn at first, but if you focus on mastering them, everything else will follow.
We’ve introduced several articles about Chinese tones, make sure to check them out!
- A Chinese Pronunciation Guide for Beginners.
- A Guide To The Four Basic Mandarin Tones.
- How To Speak Chinese Like A Native.
3. Be careful of homonyms
Even after you’ve mastered tones, you still need to watch for homonyms. Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. For instance, xióng māo could mean:
- A panda ( 熊猫, xióng māo)
- Chest hair (胸毛, xiōng máo)
The key to solving this challenge is to pay close attention to the tones and context. You can also determine which phrases the speaker is using based on the conversation’s background and topic.
4. Chinese speakers have a variety of synonyms
Chinese synonyms are another key thing to watch out for in Chinese listening. The lack of vocabulary (especially synonyms) can cause you trouble understanding spoken Chinese.
Synonyms are different words or phrases that mean the same or are close to the same as another word or phrase in the same language. For example, people can say “happy” in many ways, like 快樂 (kuàilè), 欣喜 (xīnxǐ), 歡樂 (huānlè), or 喜悅 (xǐyuè). You may know how to say one word for “happy,” but what if the person you’re listening to uses a different word that you don’t know?
One practical solution to this is to take time to learn several ways of saying things. By that, even if you want to express your ideas with more familiar words, you can still get what other people are talking about if they use a synonym.
5. The world is full of ambient noise and distractions
Last but not least, the ambient noise and distractions can make listening to Chinese even harder. In the real world, we don’t usually have conversations in silent rooms. You would probably hear a tourist asking for directions, the hustle and bustle sounds of rush hour, someone’s phone ringing, etc. Though we can’t completely eliminate these distractions, we can learn and practice staying focused on the main topic.
5 practical tips to improve Chinese listening
Tip 1. Set your listening goal
Goals are what drive us forward in life. It’s essential to understand the importance of goal-setting and apply it to your language learning journey. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve can help you determine where you should focus on and how to reach your goals.
You can start with an easy goal and reward yourself once you reach it. For example, you can aim to listen to a podcast for 10 minutes or have a short conversation with a native Chinese speaker every day.
Once you reach a higher level, you can set a more difficult goal. For example, how about letting a day go by not using English and only communicating in Mandarin?
By setting and following short-term goals like these, you’ll see significant improvement in your listening skills within a short time.
Tip 2. Focus on Chinese listening content suitable to your level
If you are a beginner in learning Chinese, it might be better to learn and practice Chinese listening from audio, podcasts, or other qualified learning materials, not from a whole Chinese movie. Spending time on unsuitable content to your level can be a waste of time.
Prioritizing specific content to your listening level will help you understand most of the language you hear. It will also help you minimize the words, phrases, or sentences you don’t understand.
Tip 3. Choose appropriate listening topics
Another effective way to improve Chinese listening skills is to learn topic by topic. While radio broadcasts may be a good listening resource, their topics are often broad and can make it difficult to discover the topic. Moreover, the topic can change right when you have some idea of what the host is talking about.
Instead, you can focus on listening activities that:
- You know the topic in advance and don’t need to waste time guessing what the speakers are talking about.
- You have a basic understanding of vocabulary and grammar specific to the topic.
- The topic is appropriate to you and can be used in your current studies.
The last point above is EXTREMELY important. If your plan is to understand Chinese history talk shows, visiting Chinese museums or exhibitions can be a good idea. Don’t spend time listening to a food show as you will not use any of that information (assuming you can understand it.)
Tip 4. Be selective on listening resources
- Reputable online learning platforms
It’s crucial to find good learning resources. Today, there are many options for you, from traditional speaking classes to online courses, or you can even choose to learn with a mobile app.
Pandanese is a web-based Mandarin learning platform that helps users master Chinese in a fun, relaxed, and effective way. In order to meet the needs of the learners Pandanese’s one-of-a-kind curriculum is divided into three main learning purposes: school, business, or travel. In each lesson, you’ll be given a batch of flashcards with the relevant Chinese radicals, characters or vocabulary, audio of pronunciation, and the mnemonics to remember them. After finishing a lesson, you’ll be asked to review what you’ve learned after a period of time.
Unlike traditional Chinese lessons, you don’t need to sit down and study at a fixed time of the day. Instead, you can learn with Pandanese anytime, anywhere, with only a smartphone or laptop and a good internet connection.
- Chinese podcasts
Chinese podcasts are a great choice to improve Chinese listening. With a native speaker in your ear, you can listen to a Chinese podcast at any time of the day—while doing exercises or before bedtime. However, you need to understand the topic of the podcast, so this choice is more suitable for intermediate and advanced learners. You can find helpful Chinese podcasts on iTunes or Spotify.
- Chinese TV shows
Chinese TV shows are a bit easier than podcasts because you can get visual cues about what is happening, so you can often follow the action even if you don’t understand all of the contexts. The best resource for Chinese TV shows is CCTV. You can also find a lot of interesting programs and movies on Youku.com and YouTube.
You can take a look at Pandanese’s guide on five amazing Chinese TV shows to help you improve your Chinese.
Tip 5. Attend Chinese seminars or talk shows of your specialty
If you want to improve Chinese listening skills in a more specific scope, such as your field of study, professional, or a topic of your interest, we suggest you join relevant Chinese seminars, webinars, talk shows, or conferences. It would be even better if you could join these events regularly as it helps to maintain your level.
As the content discussed would be entirely related to your chosen specialty, you’ll be able to enhance your listening ability within these areas. You can look for these events in Chinese communities, at your college, or in specialized Chinese classes.
The bottom line
Chinese listening isn’t something that you can greatly improve overnight. On the other hand, it requires consistent practice and dedication. However, if you keep it in mind and apply our tips to your study, you’ll definitely overcome the roadblocks and communicate effectively with Chinese people.
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