Studying Chinese

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.


  • Teresa Mateus

    Hello Sara,
    Your last post is really important and usefull. I will try hard to spare some extra time for the tools you suggested. For sure it will be interesting, as at the same time they offer a window on current chinese way of living. I just love to read about foreign cultures and to focus on the different answers brought to our common problems as human beings.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You brought up an important point, learning about the culture while you learn the language. Even though what you see on TV isn’t what it’s like in real world, but I still think you can learn a lot by watching Chinese TV. The way they react to things, the way they use the language, body language etc.

  • Kaiser


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I wish I was as diligent in listening to the news as you are, but I just unfortunately haven’t made the habit of watching the news on a regular basis. It’s true that it’s easier to get that massive amount of listening if you live in China and are surrounded by people who speak the language/dialect you are learning. In my case it has influenced to my Chinese that I speak in a southern accent, which makes it a bit harder to learn standard putonghua now. But even though you live abroad, you can do your best in creating an immersion environment, like you said, listening when you have the extra time driving a car for example.

    Kaiser Reply:


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:


    Kaiser Reply:

    No more being humble! I know your Chinese is A+++++++! But I will overtake you if you don’t keep studying hard, Mrs. Jaaksola! :-)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hahaha, great! I like the challenge :)

    Sent from iPhone

    “Disqus” kirjoitti 6.8.2014 kello 0.52:

    麦子 Reply:


  • chinaelevatorstories

    Great suggestions. I also used Chinese Pod while I was studying Chinese and used to watch a lot of TV shows. But what ultimately did the trick for me was just being in China and listening to people speak Chinese (and having conversations with them). When I was back in Austria, watching Chinese TV shows really helped me remember much of the Chinese I had learned during my exchange year.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You are right, it really does help a lot if you can live in the target language environment. Even better if you live somewhere they mostly speak Mandarin, not Cantonese as is the case here in Guangzhou :) For people living abroad or in the middle of the Cantonese world, we need to find way to listen as much standard Mandarin as possible in order to help both our listening and our pronunciation.

  • Kaiser


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Good point! The news anchors speak both super standard Mandarin and also in rapid speed that helps you to improve your listening skills.

  • T

    Watch “非常完美” instead of “非誠勿扰”. It’s a much better dating show.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I don’t watch dating shows anymore, but thank you for the suggestion! I actually have two foreign friends that have been on 非常完美, they came to our school to find people.

  • Timo

    I wish I would have such determination to study. I only do my daily workload of character flash cards, check some exercises in a book and watch with my wife Chinese tv shows. I know its not much but at least I understand more and more over the years in those tv shows which is a little success for me :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I think it’s great you see how you have improved during the years :) I’m not the most diligent student out there, I need classmates, teachers and exams around me to motivate me fully. But varying learning methods have helped a lot too, that’s how things stay interesting.

  • KM

    So you feel that watching TV shows had a big effect? Everyone recommends it and I know lots of non-native English speakers who say they basically learned English through American TV. So I watch a lot of Chinese TV but I never feel that I’m learning anything from it.

    I’m not a beginner, I passed HSK 5 in February (listening 74) but while I continue to improve speaking and reading I feel that my listening is stuck in a rut no matter how many sappy romantic dramas I sit through. :-P

    Do you feel that you actually pick up new vocab from watching TV, or just reinforce the things you learned elsewhere?

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I think I mostly reinforce the things I’ve learned before by watching TV, I never look up any words or characters as I want to keep watching fun. But at the same time I think I’ve picked up different ways on how to use the language, I sometimes notice my self using a sentence structure I haven’t learned, but that just feels right.

    Especially if you live outside China, watching TV and other videos in Chinese does help a lot I think. Or if you live in a dialect zone like me, with TV I can get used to the standard pronunciation.

    Of course if you want to improve your listening faster, then doing listening exercises helps a lot.

  • Katherine

    Hi Sara, I have just moved to Guangzhou to teach English. Can you recommend a tutor/language school that is good for beginner Mandarin?

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi Katherine! Sorry to reply so late, but welcome to Guangzhou. How’s everything so far? I’m actually working as a tutor for beginners my self, have one student at the moment and starting with another soon.