Listening Skills


During my first year in Taiwan, with my Chinese skills at a bare minimum, I found it frustrating to constantly be in situations where I couldn’t understand what people were saying around me, or to me. That’s when I learned a neat trick to get myself more involved – guessing! I began to recognize patterns in what I was hearing around me, and began to build around that.

I first learned how to recognize subjects – “I”, “you”, “he / she” etc. I then learned how to recognize questions – “….ma?” along with the key question words “what”, “which”, “where”, “who” etc. After that, it just became a game of fill in the blanks. I might be in an elevator when someone asks “you… where…?” I would instantly reply “Jiānádà” (Canada). The gleam on their face told me that I had answered their question of where I was from correctly!

Later, as my vocabulary began to increase, I began to recognize key verbs. I would walk into a McDonalds and point at what I wanted to order. The cashier would then ask me a question (you want…?) . In the early stages, this was a pure guessing game. I would quickly rack my brain trying to think what questions I would get asked when ordering fast food in Canada. “What do you want to drink?” –

Got it! I would then point at the drink I wanted (this time it was me who had the gleam, as she poured the drink I wanted). Next question just before payment – “you want… or…?” I was already waiting for her to ask if I was planning to dine in or take out, so I quickly pointed at the ground to indicate wanting to dine in.

This was a great confidence booster for me to be able to function this way. Well, until I ran into a cashier one day who asked “you want…” followed by some new words I hadn’t heard before. My confident demeanor vanished in an instance. Was this a new way of asking if I wanted to eat in? I tried pointing at the ground, but could tell by her confused look that I wasn’t even close. (It turns out that she had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to upsize my fries and drink!)

I realized then that I had to increase my vocabulary to increase my guessing odds. But how could I forecast what questions and what new vocabulary someone was going to throw at me next time? I decided to play the odds again.

Over time, I began to pick out words that I would hear repeated in these different questions. I figured that if I heard a word being used repeatedly, that meant there was a greater chance it would be used again in the future, so it was in my interest to find out what it meant. After finding out that “hē” meant “to drink,” I was a lot more confident answering “you want drink what?” than answering “you want… what?”

This is the same concept used in the CLO course. Certain words get introduced in lessons and are never brought up again, so you are probably less likely to remember them. Other words get introduced, and then are later brought up again in future lessons.

Learning the more frequently used words first allows you to set the context to “guess” the meaning of the remaining words. You may notice this approach in the explanation portion of the lessons too. We first listen to a conversation without translating, then pick out the words we do know to help us figure out what’s remaining.

Developing this technique can be valuable in improving your listening skills.

7 Responses to “Listening Skills”

  1. That is a really good way of learning I think. I’m using sort of the similar techniques whenever I get a chance to interact with people who speak Chinese. When my Chinese colleagues at work speak, I literally cannot a single word they’re saying. I don’t know if that’s because of the way they speak, the amount of slang or background knowledge involved or because they talk really, really fast.

    However, there is a Chinese gentleman who goes to the gym at the same time as I do and I can usually understand everything he says and reply back to him in Chinese. It’s very rewarding when I understand something and can reply back, and I feel very good about myself.

  2. I find it hard to tell when I’ve “finished” a lesson and it’s time to move on to the next one. I know that doing all of the tasks once isn’t enough for my slow brain, but spending excessive amounts of time on a single lesson can have a negative effect too. Any tips?

  3. Good point (and good suggestion for a future blog post!) I don’t recommend spending excessive time on any particular task. Sometimes the brain functions better on a good rest, so move on to something completely different.

    The site and lessons are designed to allow you to easily return to an earlier lesson at a later point if necessary. If a concept isn’t clear, you can either post a question in the comments, or move on without worrying about it. If it’s important enough, it will be revisited in a future lesson at which point it should hopefully become clearer.

  4. Thanks Adam. There’s seldom any problem with clarity, and if there is it’s easy to get a good answer to a question, as you say. It’s mainly an issue of how well it is remembered, and knowing how much is enough for now.

    I think I’ve fallen into both extremes in the past, and would like to become more efficient than that. The cumulative vocabulary and reuse of words provide a nice safety net, allowing both extremes of study depth to still work, but now I’m looking for some way to recognise a more reasonable midpoint. It’s hard to see it clearly when you’re standing in it.

  5. I would say as a general rule, you only need to understand 70-80% of a lesson to continue, since as I said earlier, the important stuff will come up again. This is easier to do pre level 3 since it’s only a few words per lesson that you have to worry about. This 70% figure may be harder to achieve in level 3, since there is a lot more content to go through.

    In the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of working with users of my course on an individual level (part of an upcoming addition to CLO) which has given me further insight on this matter. Some listeners are content to proceed to newer lessons even if they haven’t “mastered” older content. Whereas other listeners, who I would consider to be at a much higher level, prefer to dwell on earlier lessons to make sure they understood 100% of the content before proceeding.

    I guess at the end of the day it comes to your own learning style and what goals you hope to achieve. Some might choose to focus on acquiring vocabulary or grammar, whereas others might instead focus on pronunciation. I’m happy to see that all these types of users seem to find value in the course. In the future, as I figure out more areas of weakness among my listening audience (through comments like this), I hope to be able to offer more options for users to be able to more specifically focus on their desired area of importance.

  6. Hmm…interesting strategy. It makes sense to concentrate on words that are used a lot. Surprisingly a lot of study materials out there don’t seem to recognize this point. There is this site, and I can’t remember if I found out about it here–but it lists the most frequent characters:

    I wonder then–would it make sense to create learning materials and lessons based on these characters as a way to learn Chinese efficiently?

  7. You are right that most study materials out there don’t necessarily follow this approach. I’m hoping to differentiate my material by using my own experience learning Chinese which has come from what I’ve learned myself while living in Taiwan. Things I hear often tend to stick, while things I don’t tend to get forgotten (I’ll elaborate more on this in a future blog post).

    If you go through the characters in the site you mentioned, you will find most of them turning up a lot within lessons (since they are the common ones). You can go through the word bank entering different characters to see how many times they have turned up in the past. Then try to guess the context of the example sentences by picking out the characters you do know.

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