Listening to spoken Mandarin when you are a beginner is quite the challenge!

我不明白-你说话太快了 I don’t understand – You are talking to fast!

I have been listening, speaking and writing Mandarin a reasonable amount – but mostly I have been learning vocabulary. Sometimes for a few months, the rate of investment in learning seems to drop significantly. Recall of new words and grammar seems reduced and I feel like my progress has slowed to a trickle. This is when I start to focus on letting the sound and “voice” of the language in. It’s not that I don’t the rest of the time. It’s that if my brain seems stopped up elsewhere I can try to put another skill to good use – so the learning doesn’t stop.

Rather than just listening to the current lectures, or even reviewing them, I use this as a chance to retread old material such as listening to dialogue reviews while walking to work, walking home – trying to become extremely familiar with the sound, and trying to recognise the new vocabulary and patterns. Conscious repetition often reveals something new, and helps comprehension and speed of recognition – but repetition is not something that I am good at. Usually, it bores me to tears. Anyone else experiencing that? Yet, I think improving rate of recognition speed can bring more words into our active memory. That WILL help our ability to speak. Is it efficient? Should you try it? It’s really a lot of work to keep my attention, and I suspect for many a reader as well.

Listening is a skill – even passive listening!

Staying focused is difficult for me personally. I try and listen to a recording or even music (well it depends on the music), and pretty quickly my mind has wandered on to something else. The brain needs discipline. Or maybe it needs to slow down.

Very often I think we learn best in small chunks, but that can be hard if you obsess due to a passionate interest in something. One in which you find yourself spending all your free time on it.  In that case, it really pays to change things up to maintain some level of interest and commitment. I’ve found that finding new strategies and a different approach to listening can be really helpful.

That to me is still a form of passive listening. It’s still better than just hearing… Perhaps semi-passive. Following along to audio, speech, film, but not really analysing. Not pausing to re-play when you get stuck.

Active listening on the other hand – now that requires work. Distraction free focused listening where you are absorbing details or replaying content for a much more detailed understanding. Where you follow along and immediately notice when you don’ the know something. You’re in the zone. It’s the hardest, but the most magnificent. To me, it is labour intensive. Even tiring – particularly in a distracting world. I can watch a Mandarin language video and analyse, play back a few times, but by the 3rd time, I can’t stay focused. Should I force my way through it, or try something else for awhile?

Active listening? How can I?

So how do you recommend listening? What are your experiences? A lot of recommendations I have read seem to assume a fairly standard approach. Maybe I have ADD. It’s definitely not easy to listen – but it makes a huge difference – in the long run. That was the single best language learning experience when I went to China last summer – not the speaking, but the constant listening. Now I recognise MUCH more just from that constant exposure. Speaking it – not so much.

I really think this link on Hacking Chinese is a good resource for listening ideas. I also like to listen to the Yoyo Chinese: Chinese on the Street and Chinesepod segments. They are really nice, but their best material is behind a paywall. If you are serious about learning Mandarin – free probably isn’t the way to go. These resources and others are great opportunities for both semi-passive listening and active listening. I suspect a combination of directed learning, and active immersion is the best listening methods. Of course, every learner is different. How do babies learn to speak – listening (but to adults learn the same way? I don’t think we do).

With a few hundred words under my belt, I think I am doing okay. I don’t have time to practice for two hours every day like I did initially. On average I practice about 60 minutes a day (if I include my listening on the way to work). This is not always very effective, though. I am hoping that more often I will have certain phrases that pop up into my head in Mandarin first. I’ve started to focus more on listening, but… There is no but. It takes discipline and patience. LOTS of patience. Enjoyment definitely helps.

It’s important to not get disheartened. Improvement isn’t linear or smooth. Remember: just like physical growth – it comes in chunks and spurts. Listening is for some of us is the most difficult, but perhaps the most critical. You can never listen enough.