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Chinese listening challenge

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Learning to listen to Chinese in a non-immersive environment

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First update

A little embarrassed to notice I haven't updated on my progress since the first post - perhaps should have been predictable given how far down my list of priorities it this blog sits, but all the same...


On the other hand, the challenge is still going strong - 74/112 days completed now, none missed so far! My method for keeping track of this, and motivating myself, is the old but classic crosses-on-a-calendar method. I've tried some phone-based "don't break the chain" apps in the past, but none of them have quite the same impact as keeping physical track of my progress. It's gotten to the point that, when planning excursions or family days, my first thought is often "how can I plan my hours around that to guarantee I don't miss a day?" 




That's not to say it's become easy. I've almost never felt like the 2 hours were effortless. It's just without this motivation I'd probably do less and less every day until I stop altogether. Anyway, if you're struggling with motivation to keep a daily habit (as I often have), I can definitely recommend buying a cheap calendar and just marking it off every day. Super effective.


So what have I learned over the 46 hours of Chinese since I last updated this blog?


Firstly, just as intermediate learners often observe, the rate of progress feels slower every week. I'm still on the boundary between intermediate/upper intermediate on ChinesePod, and when I listen to hard dialogues I downloaded three weeks ago, I don't feel like they've become any easier to decipher in the intervening time. New stories and dialogues introduce just as many new words now as they did two months ago, and I'm getting a visceral sense of just how vast a task learning a language is. The number of near homonyms makes this no easier, and I'm constantly confusing the meanings of words that to a Chinese speaker sound nothing alike.


On that topic, tones in particular continue to frustrate me. I'm not exactly tone-deaf - a few weeks ago I tried Olle Linge's tone training - 100% on the initial level placement - and John Pasden's tone pair drills - no problem there either. But I still often make comprehension mistakes in full sentences due to tones, and still can't reliably predict the tones of an unfamiliar word when spoken as part of a larger utterance. Even when hearing a tone isn't necessary to understand a sentence (at my level context is still mostly enough) it feels like full comprehension is slower than it should be, I'm using grammar/context as a crutch, and the other shoe is going to drop when I try to advance to native materials. It seems like there's a big gap in the market for intermediate tone training - forcing students to listen for tones until this habit is fully internalised. Does such a product already exist? I'm also quite curious what others think about this problem, and whether it's really an issue - particularly from those who have learned Chinese to a very high level of proficiency.


On the other hand, I do feel like I'm currently developing in three related areas. 


  • "Chinese subconscious" - occasionally in the past two weeks I have found myself following some non-trivial material without actively concentrating on the language at all, just thinking about the subject material. This is one of the things I had been hoping to achieve through mass listening, and it's good to feel it might eventually pan out. I have very limited stamina to fully concentrate on spoken language (I can't maintain 100% concentration for more than a few minutes!) so this is very necessary in the long run. This point might seem trivial to many here, but it's a big breakthrough for me!
  • Speed of listening. The 4th level of the Chinese Breeze books has helped with this, as the narrators have stepped up the speed a bit for this level, forcing me to internalise more of the very high frequency words and grammatical structures. (I'll give a more complete review of the Chinese Breeze books later if I can find the time)
  • Ability to learn. The more words I learn, the easier it seems to be to remember new words, and the better I can distinguish between similar words. And because I can listen faster, I can hear more words and grammar structures in 2 hours. It feels like entering a virtuous cycle. Of course because I've properly hit intermediate level now, it still feels like my rate of progress has slowed in spite of all of this.


Finally, I've entirely dropped SRSing of new words in isolation. I've just found it a drain on my mental energy with seemingly little-to-no gain. The SpoonFed Chinese Anki deck is doing a great job of introducing me to new words in context, and providing regular reminders. I re-listen to ChinesePod episodes at regular intervals when they have lots of new vocabulary (is there SRS software that can schedule this for me more conveniently than Anki?) The graded readers use the same words so often that there's no need to SRS them. And best of all, all of these activities are simply more fun than grinding Anki decks of words (well SpoonFed isn't much fun, but is definitely more effective). The only thing I'm losing here is the ability to recognise characters of words I'm learning, but given that all of my learning material currently comes with pinyin, this is something I can tolerate (and will probably fix through extensive reading after the challenge is over)



Being 51 days into a 112 day challenge to spend at least 2 hours a day listening to Chinese, I've decided to start a blog for two reasons:
 - to keep track of my progress - I'm at the stage where I don't make breakthroughs every day anymore, so I need some proof of progress to stay motivated
 - to capture thoughts about the Chinese language, the learning process in general and to discuss these with others


I may post a lot or not at all - what's important is not using blogging as an excuse to procrastinate from the challenge itself.


What is the challenge?


Every day, for 112 days, I will listen *intensively* to at least 2 hours of Chinese. By intensively, I mean that I must be doing nothing else except trying to understand spoken Chinese. Typically I break this up into 2 1-hour segments - 1 hour before work, and 1 hour before bed. I usually also try to listen during my commute, but this doesn't count towards the total as I'm too distracted by traffic to focus. 


I also learn new vocabulary from anki flashcards. These have only 1 type of card: Chinese characters -> English/Pinyin. This is only to ensure that I can read the transcripts from listening materials that don't have pinyin. Revising these doesn't count as part of the 2 hours, and typically takes an extra 15-20 minutes spread throughout the day.


Why 112 days? It's simply the number of days between the day that I started the challenge, and the beginning of my next holiday in China. Why 2 hours? It's about as much as I can afford on a daily basis, given a full-time job and other commitments.


What's the goal?


Mostly just to complete the challenge with the minimum number of days missed. An exercise in self-discipline more than in mastering Chinese.


Regarding Chinese, I'm interested to see how far I can get. I'd like to know what my Chinese in-laws are telling me more often (they speak a very neutral form of Mandarin, thankfully). And it'd be nice if I could follow some very simple TV shows by the end of the challenge so that I can continue to maintain my ability while enjoying myself a little more going forward. That may be optimistic - when I started this challenge I was unable to understand ChinesePod Elementary dialogues until I've heard them a good few times. It still takes me quite a few repeats to understand most Intermediate dialogues in their entirety.


What materials?


I listen to a variety of sources. In order of priority:

  • SpoonFed Chinese (Anki deck of 8000 sentences with audio components. I use only 1 type of card: Audio -> Chinese/English/Pinyin.)
  • ChinesePod (usually Intermediate dialogues and the easiest Upper Intermediate full lessons)
  • Various Chinese Breeze books (currently on level 4, just finishing 好狗维克)
  • Sinolingua's graded reader series (on 1500 word book just now)
  • Other online sources such as Du Chinese/The Chairman's Bao when they have free trials


Despite some of these materials being targeted at extensive reading, I don't read the materials first but instead skip straight to listening, using the written materials as a reference only when I can't parse what is said. I switch sources/buy more whenever I get bored, following some excellent advice on these forums not to persist in any learning activity that bores me.


Why only listening?


Firstly, my listening sucks in general. Like many others, I process information easily from written materials - on the other hand, I have always tended to phase out during spoken events (lectures, seminars, etc), and I struggle even more than most to understand English in noisy environments (pubs, restaurants, etc). My experience in previous L2 learning tells me that for me, listening is by far the hardest of the 4 skills - indeed, in Polish (which I learned primarily through 1-to-1 dialogues) my speaking fluency was so unbalanced with my listening that after introducing myself, people would sometimes mistake me for a native "from the mountains", only to realise after replying that I hadn't a clue what they were talking about. (Though maybe this misunderstanding is more down to how few foreigners try to learn Polish!)


Even disregarding my own issue with listening, there are quite a few discussions on these forums about how hard it is to learn to listen to Chinese. There are, as always, some very experienced individuals who disagree with this assessment, suggesting that learning to read in Chinese is far harder than listening. I personally wonder if  many who make this claim are 1) in a primarily Chinese speaking environment, and 2) relatively extroverted, neither of which apply to me. As an upper beginner/lower intermediate learner, my ability to understand a given written sentence far outstrips my ability to understand to the same sentence when spoken, even when spoken slowly, in perfect standard Mandarin.


Right now for me, being able to understand spoken Chinese is simply far more practical than being able to read/write. My most immediate goal is to be able to get by while on holiday, talk with in-laws, and not rely totally on my wife when we're visiting her hometown for any/all needs - being able to visit the shops alone without making a fool of myself would be great! Speaking is of course part of this - then again, I've typically found that I can usually already find a way to express myself simply, given time, but understanding what comes back is the challenge! As for secondary goals, it's possible we'll want to move to China one day, and knowing the spoken language would help keep that option open. Also, we're planning on raising bilingual children, and this is a little bit easier if both parents can communicate in both languages. 


I've also made some observations about the benefits of this challenge while undertaking it. I make faster and easier progress when I'm only focusing on a single skill at once - if I split my time up to spend more on reading I doubt I would feel satisfied with my progress in either skill. I've also noticed that both my reading and speaking have somewhat improved even without attention - in particular my tones are more natural now that I've had considerable exposure to how they are actually used, rather than visualising that near-useless diagram all beginners learn from. My reading speed has improved because I can very quickly understand a sentence's meaning from sub-vocalisation of the characters - I don't need to puzzle it out.

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