Once again you’ve found your way back to the Asian market. But, today, you’re on a mission. You’re going to find someone to practice Chinese with even if it kills you. Hold on. There, that’s an opportunity for a conversation if you’ve ever seen one. You approach and, as courageously as a lion, you squeak “nǐ hǎo.”
You’re in luck! Your new acquaintance is happy to talk. If only he’d slow down. Or at least speak up a little. And wait, is this even Mandarin? After a minute, you’ve lost any sense of language at all. Now you’re nodding your head along and thinking . . .
This might be a little more challenging than you thought.
Listening in Chinese is hard. No two ways about it. Most classes do a fantastic job teaching vocabulary and grammar, but listening as a skill in its own right is too often neglected. Thankfully, there are a variety of scientifically backed strategies you can use to up your game. But not every challenge is internal. Sometimes finding the right person to practice with is as important as the practice itself.
There is, in a word, an ideal speaker. Finding someone with the right traits went a long way toward improving my Chinese listening skills. You can help yourself too. All you have to do is learn who to look for. So then, who is this amazing person I’m raving about?
How to improve your Chinese listening skills
The ideal speaker:
1) Slow and measured
“Qǐng nǐ shuō dé màn yī diǎn” is an incredibly useful phrase. Unfortunately, asking someone to speak a little more slowly doesn’t always work. As a beginner, you need enough time to differentiate each word, define them, and work out a complete translation. Many native speakers will already be on the third sentence by the time you’ve translated the first.
2) Clear spoken
This criterion is straightforward, but boy-oh-boy is it important. I’m a mumbler myself. And I regret to inform you that there are many of us—so many, in fact, we could easily take over the world. If only we could understand our own dastardly plans. Try to find someone who enunciates. If you cannot hear what someone’s saying, you don’t have a shot at comprehending it.
This is a real quote from Winston Churchill. Listen for yourself.
3) On the younger side
Aging does a number on our bodies, and the parts necessary for clear speech are no exception. Changes to the vocal cords, larynx, and chest can weaken a person’s voice, hurting comprehension. Fortunately, these issues only begin to arise very late in life. However, older generations are also more likely to use provincial dialects and non-standard Chinese.
4) But not too young!
Children have a lot to teach us. Mandarin listening skills aren’t among them. While older kids might outshine your speaking abilities many times over, the very youngest are still learning themselves. Unless you’re willing to double check everything you pick up from your kindergarten mentor, it’s probably best to stick with an adult.
5) A female speaker
Generally, women are easier to understand in a second-language context. There are many exceptions, to be sure, and even the research is mixed. Nevertheless, I’ve found men are more likely to express the speaking habits that stump learners, such as mumbling or an unintelligible tone of voice.
6) Non-accented standard Mandarin
A heavy accent is a major barrier to comprehension. That’s only amplified when someone uses non-standard Chinese. In South China, for instance, there’s a tendency to pronounce “shi” as “si” regardless of the tone. Working out that “sì sì sí sì kuài” is supposed to mean “it’s forty-four yuan” might be more of a challenge than you’re looking for.
7) Neither too formal . . .
Business meetings, weddings, and speeches are great examples of situations where your textbook cannot save you. This is the land of jargon, poetic language, literary references, and infrequently used vocabulary. If you’ve been lucky, you might know a tiny fraction of what’s going on. Beginners stay away—there are better ways to improve Mandarin listening skills.
8) . . . nor too informal
Likewise, overly informal language hinders comprehension. This is often why movies and songs help less than you’d hope. They don’t always use that textbook language. For better or worse, informal language abounds in run-of-the-mill social situations, too. The bar, the game, a night of KTV. Expect informal language. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t go.
9) A person, not a group
An individual can tailor their language and word choices. As someone gets to know you, they’ll build a sense of your abilities and make Mandarin listening easy. Good teachers are adept at grading their language like this, but you’ll find others who can do it, too. In a group, however, people aren’t just speaking to you. They’re speaking with everyone. Language grading goes out the window.
Essentially, we’re looking for a young or middle-aged woman who speaks slowly and clearly; uses standard, non-accented, and textbook Mandarin; and does so in a one-on-one setting. Some of you might have noticed I just described your Chinese tutor. It’s no coincidence. These traits can make a great teacher. They’ll also make for a great partner to practice with.
The next time you’re in the Asian market, on the web, or wherever you happen to look, remember the aforementioned traits. They’ll give you a leg up in finding someone to practice with. Maybe more importantly, they’ll help you recognize the places and people you should go back to. Try striking up a conversation with your waiter at a few different restaurants. Chances are, before too long, you will find someone who, not only is easy to understand, but also enthused to talk with you.
But what then? Even after you’ve found the ideal person to practice listening in Mandarin with, you’re going to want strategies to maximize your conversations. Check out the second part of our listening series, “Help I Can’t Understand a Thing!” where we answer the all important question—how to improve Chinese listening skills—with a focus on listening strategies and specific techniques.