The term ‘listening skills’ can have different meanings, depending on the context. But in the context of language learning, ‘listening skills’ refers to listening comprehension. Simply stated, it means being able to understand the words that you hear spoken. It’s something that we take for granted in our native language. But when learning a new language it takes time to develop this skill.
When that new language is Chinese, there is a whole new aspect for speakers of English (and many other languages) to learn to differentiate, that of tones. In tonal languages it isn’t just the pronunciation sound that tells the listener what the word it, but the tone or pitch with which the sound is made. Because in English tones are only used within a sentence for emphasis or expression, English speakers aren’t trained to listen for and recognize different tones. When tone is integral to the meaning of the word and our brain isn’t tuned to registering the tone, then listening comprehension suffers. We will make mistakes and misunderstand.
First Things First
One of the first things we need to do when learning Chinese is to train our ear to hear the different tones. The tone, together with the sound of the word gives it meaning. When you begin studying Chinese, your teacher will practice with you in class – record your teacher so you can listen over and over. She/he may give you some other recordings to listen to. You can also find some listening resources on line that focus on tones, like this tones listening practice video.
Along with tones, there are new sounds to learn. Again, record your teacher in class to listen over and over. There are also some resources on line that you can use to practice and test yourself on the Chinese pronunciation sounds. Here is a link to a website that offers a series of quizzes on the various sounds used in Chinese.
Once you get the basics down and start learning vocabulary, you’ll get to a point where you can understand your teacher. That’s great, but remember that your teacher is probably speaking slowly, clearly and in simple sentences or phrases. Once you leave the classroom, it’s a different story!
So how can you practice listening skills on your own to be able to understand other people besides your teacher? Again, there are resources on line that you can use to practice, but don’t limit yourself to those. If you are living and studying in China, you are surrounded by Chinese speakers who can help. But you don’t need to ask them to help you with your Chinese. Once you have mastered a few basic phrases and questions, you’re ready to start learning in the community.
With the advent of smartphones, it’s easy to make audio recordings on the sly. As you learn to ask and answer questions in class, you can practice asking strangers on the street and recording their answers. Be sure to ask a question that you know the answer to, or can guess the answer to. Record your question and their answer. Then, find someone else to ask the same question of and record that conversation too. Ask a few people. Then go home and listen to their answers. Listen several times until you can pick out words and phrases.
Don’t be shy!
Are you a bit shy or don’t like talking to strangers? Make sure the situation is ‘natural’. Do you know how to ask for directions in Chinese? Pick a place or landmark that’s fairly well known (and that you already know how to get to). Asking directions of strangers is common everywhere and nothing to be shy about. Just have your phone on audio recording before you approach them. Even if you don’t understand what they said, thank them and walk off in the direction they sent you. After they’re out of sight, approach someone else and ask the same question.
Another alternative: approach a street vendor when they’re not too busy, and ask what they are selling. How much is it? How do they make it? Or do the same in a small restaurant, when they aren’t too busy. You can keep a little notebook to go with it and record what they were selling, and things you recognized, so you can try to match them up with your recording later.
Got the idea? Ask lots of questions of different people, questions you already know the answers to. The point isn’t to get information you don’t have. The point is to record the conversation and take it home to listen to until you can understand what they said. That way you’re getting used to listening to different voices, normal speeds of speech, and different ways of saying the same thing.
Back in the classroom
If there is something on a recording you don’t understand, even after listening several times, take it to class and ask your teacher to help you understand.
At TenWest we offer personalized Chinese lessons – one on one, one on two, one on three. In a setting like that, there is flexibility to ask the teacher to help with things that you are hearing in the community.
Perhaps your teacher can even help you think of other questions to ask, or even give you homework assignments to record things in the community. And who knows, you might even make a new friend or two while you’re out there listening and learning!