Improve Your Listening


When thinking about listening comprehension, we first need to ask ourselves a few questions:

a) when dealing with a problem, do I think through the issues in a logical order, step-by-step, or do I trust my intuition and flashes of insight?

b) When being given instructions on how to perform a task, do I prefer to see these instructions written down or am I happy with just being told orally?

c) In unfamiliar situations, would I describe myself as a fairly self-confident person, or am I easily anxious, nervous or somewhat inhibited?

d) Is the language that I’m hearing around me close to my present level in Chinese, or is it way above my head?

A language learner who is analytical, strongly visual and easily nervous or somewhat inhibited, as well as a perfectionist, will have greater problems understanding what is being communicated to them in Chinese (even if it is at their present level) compared to someone who is intuitive, strongly auditory and full of self-confidence.

So let’s first look at each of these in more detail.

Analytical vs. Intuitive

What’s the major difference between analytical types and intuitive types when it comes to listening? Intuitive types listen to the sentence as a whole and hence grasp the general overall message, while analytical types, by contrast, focus hard on each word in the sentence, and so must understand the meaning of every word before feeling confident about giving a reply.

Visual vs. Auditory

The strongly visual (and weak auditory) language learner is obviously at a severe disadvantage when learning Chinese because, unless they see it written down, they don’t feel comfortable. However, it is important that they be willing to gradually move out of their comfort zone if their listening is to improve.

Nervous or Anxious

What is going on in the mind of the language student who is easily nervous or generally anxious? Some language learners are naturally confident, while others are easily nervous or anxious and so tend to panic or totally shut down, hence losing all ability to concentrate on what is being said. “I’m not going to understand what they’re going to say to me” they subconsciously say to themselves, and so it happens just as they predicted! (If you are like this, you may find the article ‘Anxiety in Language Learning‘ helpful)


The inhibited language learner is constantly concerned about what others are thinking of them. So, in order to protect their self-esteem and avoid being thought stupid or incompetent, they avoid potentially embarrassing situations, e.g. answering difficult questions in class, going outside to practice, or sharing in a meeting.

So, how can we help the learner who is analytical, visual, perfectionist, and also possibly easily nervous or somewhat inhibited? The answer lies in three key areas:

  1. Seek out content that is more readily comprehensible.
  2. Practice communicating in ‘safe’ places which are low-anxiety producing and non-threatening.
  3. Only talk with warm and empathetic Chinese people.

But how can we create this environment? We must first be clear regarding two important aspects:

Firstly, when considering how to improve our listening, we need to distinguish between “Interactive” (= active communicating) versus “Non-Interactive” (= passive listening – which although is called “passive” actually needs to be very “active” in order to gain the most benefit).

Secondly, we need to find input which is at a level of what one linguist calls “i+1”, i.e. “i” = our present level in Chinese, and “+1” = a level just slightly higher. But where can we find this kind of input?

Beginners level

Non-Interactive: get hold of recordings of other beginner-level textbooks. Most beginner-level textbooks cover roughly the same kind of content, but the variety of presentation and order of topics will give sufficient variety to avoid feeling bored.

Interactive: Because we find that, when we understand so little when talking with people on the street or in stores, we easily begin to feel panicky [see additional note at the end of this article if this sentence describes you] and hence want to avoid going outside to practice, it is best to hire someone for talking (or exchange English for Chinese) who comes to our home. (1-on-1 is more effective than trying to understand what a group of Chinese are talking about.) Whereas self-confident people are happy relating to a wider range of personality types, language learners who are shy, easily nervous or anxious, as well as those who are inhibited, need someone who has clear Chinese, is warm, friendly and empathetic, and who therefore readily puts you at your ease. But where are these people? A teacher at your Chinese language school – who can temporarily cease being a ‘teacher’ and simply be a friendly ‘talker’ – is probably ideal because they know what you know and (more important) know what you don’t know. Increase your class hours to include an extra hour just for talking – or better, two blocks of 30 minutes. Someone else’s tutor may also be a good choice – but you must be the one who makes the final choice as to who the right person is for you. Go and visit your western friends when their tutor is at their home for a lesson, observe the tutor in action and see if they might be suitable for you.

At each talking session, you must be in charge of selecting the topics so that you can maintain the conversation at an “i+1” level. Topics from your textbook or a ‘Survival’ type of textbook will be best because the topics will all be practical and relevant. Before you start conversing with your talker, first run through the vocabulary related to that topic so that you can predict which vocabulary is likely to be used and what aspects are likely to be talked about.

If you do want to try conversing on the street, have a few key phrases ready in order to handle misunderstandings as they arise. Phrases (in Chinese) such as “Please say it again” or “Please speak a little slower” are very useful. (see the article Getting Help with Your Chinese for lots of useful phrases). Successful listeners are always formulating clarification questions in their mind, e.g. “What does that word/phrase mean?” “Can you tell me more about that …?”. Other clarification strategies include repeating, reformulating, checking/confirming and summarizing.

Intermediate level

Non-Interactive: carefully chosen TV programs or videos covering topics you are interested in can be useful at this stage because they provide the visual support which aids understanding. Choose programs such as the weather forecast, discussion/chat shows and sports events. Record them if at all possible, watch them through several times, then sit down with a Chinese friend and watch them once again before discussing the content together. also has many useful dialogues.

Interactive: Regularly go outside with your talker, but first run through the likely flow of the conversation before leaving home by reviewing the words and sentences you will probably want to use.

Advanced level

Non-Interactive: record and then watch the TV news (although it will go better if you have first looked at the news in English so that you know the likely news items). Recordings of children’s stories, especially about the cultural history and geography of China, will also be useful. However, be clear in your mind as to whether you want to be totally focused on understanding the whole content in detail, or simply wish to grasp the general idea.

Interactive: our problem at this stage is that we are continuing to learn more and more words, yet often having little opportunity to use them on a regular basis because our normal daily conversations are still quite basic. So hiring someone for talking is still very worthwhile even at this stage.

All the above ideas will help give you greater self-confidence – a vital ingredient for effective language learning and better listening. Especially in the early stages when you may find going outside to practice your Chinese too traumatic, accept the fact that it’s O.K. to do your talking at home or in school where it is ‘safe’. Later on, when your self-confidence is higher, you’ll be ready to go outside to talk.


Personality and Language Learning

For the anxious or easily nervous person, our difficulties lie in three distinct areas:

We feel frightened or panicky when thrown in the deep end.

We think that we’re going to make a complete fool of ourselves – and we hate people laughing at our apparent incompetence (because we want people to think we’re actually pretty clever!).

Our attitude towards ourselves: “This is such a simple task, yet I’m a total failure – why can’t I just shape up?!”

So, in order to keep our self-esteem afloat, we decide to avoid potentially embarrassing situations and instead stay at home (where it is safe) and write Chinese characters (which are non-threatening and which I’m fairly good at). But this type of behavior actually reduces our self-confidence, as we now focus on our inadequacy and weakness, especially when we compare ourselves with other language students.

“Personality factors are interrelated with motivational factors. The self-confident or secure person will be more able to encourage language intake and will also have a lower ‘affective filter’. Traits relating to self-confidence (lack of anxiety, outgoing personality, self-esteem) are thus predicted to relate to second language acquisition.” [S. D. Krashen (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning].   H. D. Brown (1977) states a similar view: “Presumably, people with high self-esteem are able to reach out beyond themselves more freely, to be less inhibited, and because of their ego strength, to make the necessary mistakes involved in language learning with less threat to their ego”.

Start with the 4 Basic Topics

If you are struggling with understanding what people are saying, for a while try simply focusing on those topics that you most frequently talk about: e.g. Introducing Yourself, Buying Things, Ordering a Meal, Giving & Asking Directions. These four topics cover approximately 80% of what you talk about in Chinese in a normal day. Rewrite the dialogues in your textbook on each of these four topics one at a time, get your teacher to correct and record them, then practice them in class for 10 minutes each lesson. This will increase your self-confidence. When you are fluent in these four topics, gradually add more to your repertoire. So, while slowly moving on to new lessons in the textbook, at the time continue practicing these four (and then gradually more) key topics.

Improve Your Listening:  pdf file