Improving Listening Skills In Chinese

“Didn’t you understand or are you being disobedient?”

When I was an elementary level Chinese learner I felt that listening was perhaps the most difficult skill in Chinese. I could write a few hundred characters already, the grammar wasn’t that hard yet and I thought I was ready for conversations with the locals. But then I noticed how hard it was to understand what everyone was saying around me!

Recently I received an email from a reader asking for help on how to improve his listening skills in Chinese. That gave me an idea to go over what different methods and tools I’ve used during the years that have resulted listening being my best skill of all four (listening, speaking, reading and writing).


How I improved my listening skills on different levels


One of the first Chinese learning tools I discovered back in the day was ChinesePod (affiliate link). Funny and super useful podcasts on all the possible topics imaginable. I downloaded a bunch of podcasts to my mp3 player and listened to them whenever I had extra time. These days there are lots of podcasts available besides ChinesePod, like ChineseClass101. (affiliate link)

I’ve always taken Chinese classes, starting from 2008, but with listening skills you need to do a lot of work outside the formal classes in order to improve. My next discovery in Summer 2011 was Happy Chinese TV show that features an American Susan living in China, aiming to teach Chinese to beginners and elementary learners. I watched tens of episodes during those months.


I also wanted to try some real Chinese TV, shows that are meant for the natives and locals. I found out, that dating shows are usually on the easy side when it comes to vocabulary and topics. After all, it all revolves around love, marriage, daily life and dating. Shows that I watched weekly include the most famous 非诚勿扰.

Later when I got my two feet steadily into the intermediate phase, I started to watch even more TV shows. Recommended drama series include 夫妻那些事, 裸婚时代 and 爱的蜜方. Unfortunately I find it hard to find Chinese shows that I enjoy, but at the same time it’s been very crucial when improving my listening skills in an entertaining and easy way. I never took notes or stopped the video for checking my dictionary, even though that of course would speed up my learning. For recommendations on specific TV series, check out Chinese-Forums’ topic.


Now on the advanced level I can watch Chinese drama without headaches, it’s not necessary to understand 100% to enjoy a show. If you live in China, Youku is your best friend in finding both easy and advanced videos in Chinese. This year I’ve found 飞碟说 (also on Youtube!) short videos, that offer a huge challenge in form of vocabulary and super fast speech.

Another thing that I’ve tried recently is listen to podcasts in Chinese on different topics. With my iPhone I can easily find listening material, like CRI 成长你我他 which features podcasts about education. By clicking the name of the show you can find these podcasts online with transcripts.


One piece of advice on how to improve listening skills in Chinese

How I have learned my listening skills in Chinese is probably far from perfect and far from the ideal route. I can’t concentrate on hours on something that doesn’t interest me and I can’t make my self to check the dictionary during the plot twists of a TV drama.

We all have to find out best way to learn. If you are a diligent student, perhaps you enjoy checking unfamiliar words and characters more often than I. Maybe you even make notes of the podcasts you listen and input the new words to a flash card software. You can find lots of amazing articles on how to learn listening on Hacking Chinese, the best blog out there to tell you how to learn Chinese.

In order not to overwhelm you, I give you only one tip and that’s the most important of them all.

Listen as much as you can.

Listen material that is one level above you, that you can follow but also offers you a challenge. Listen to podcasts, radio shows, TV and movies you love and enjoy. Notice how you can understand words and phrases you have learned from your textbooks or from your formal classes. Fill your smart phone or mp3 player with Chinese listening material to be listened when commuting, exercising or cooking.


This is how I have improved my listening over the years. Now I would like to hear what tools and methods you are using. Please leave a comment with your story!

If you have any questions about learning Chinese, I’m more than happy to answer those in the comments as well.