A guide to Mandarin listening comprehension, part 1

Why listening matters more than you think

Listening is arguably the most important skill when learning a new language. Naturally, this will vary from person to person since some students main interest might not be spoken language at all, but on the whole and for people who strive towards balanced proficiency, listening is probably the most important skill.

Why listening ability is so important

This is crucial if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment, but if you don't, it merely very important.

The reason listening ability is so important is that it increases the number of chance you have to learn things.

Compare two situations common for someone who lives in China to study Chinese.

  1. You hear Chinese every day, but you understand almost nothing of what people say, especially when they talk among themselves or when it's not directly targeted at you.
  2. You hear Chinese every day, and even if you don't understand everything, you can catch words here and there and occasionally understand the gist of what people say, even when it's not directed at you.

The first learner actually benefits little from being in China, at least not when it comes to this specific scenario (which is why I normally advice people not to go immediately if they only have a limited time in China). The reason is that you don't learn much from hearing things you don't understand at all and most people will simply shut off the incomprehensible gibberish they hear every day.

Understanding is important

In comparison, if you do understand what's going on, you can practice and improve every time you hear something, which over time will build up to good listening ability. Naturally, it requires a lot of effort and won't happen overnight, but it will happen. That's not necessarily true in the first scenario unless we're talking about a child integrating into a new language environment.

What I say here is relevant for adults.

How to improve listening ability

So, how do you get from the first to the second scenario? Practice, mainly. This might sound like stupid advice, though. If I ask an expert how to get better at baseball, accounting or dancing and he or she says "practice", it won't help much. I might learn the wrong things in the wrong order or commit any number of mistakes that will hamper my progress.

Not so with listening practice, really. There are of course principles you can keep in mind, but in general, it's about being able to map sound to meaning quickly enough to enable to understand hat's being said. However, I know from experience that some parts of this more often causes problems than others, so this is what we're going to look at in the next part of this article.

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