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Learn Chinese in China

Chinese listening challenge

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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)



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It's natural for everyone to struggle with tones for a long time. But eventually you do internalise them to the point that you don't think of the tones, you just hear it as the sound of the pronunciation - kinda like how native English speakers just have feeling for the right emphasis on words (eg. it would sound strange if you said "em-FAR-sis" rather than "EM-fa-sis"). You'll get to the point where you just hear the words and repeat them and you'll have to actually apply cognitive effort to work what tones they after you say them in the same way you'll have to pause and think if someone asks you where the emphasis on an English word is. The other good thing about getting to this level is that you often are able to hear your own mistakes quite easily.


How to get there? I don't think there is a method. I don't believe there is a method because I feel like "tone identification" is actually a bit different from internalising the correct pronunciation of words (which is what I think you should be aiming for). To achieve this kind of internalisation of the tones the only way to proceed is to just do lots and lots of listening. I bet for example you've got a really good grasp of words like 什麼 or 喜歡, etc and if someone said shen1 me4 or xi4 huan3 you should quite easily detect it as wrong. And I bet when you say these two words you're not thinking about what tones they are. And the reason why you know them well is from using and hearing them so much, not because each time you heard them you paused and analysed the tones.

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That's interesting, thanks for your thoughts stapler. I do hope that simply listening will be sufficient to get to that level of understanding.


I suppose what I'm worrying about is tone-sensitivity, particularly as compared to a native speaker. At a subconscious level when listening to fluent speech I'm more likely to use consonants/vowels + context to disambiguate between words rather than the tones, meaning it might be harder to tune in to more complex speech that relies heavily on tones. I suppose what I'd want is a training method that shifts an English speaker's cognitive bias to weight tones more strongly, in line with how a native Mandarin speaker hears words. Or maybe that happens automatically once you reach an advanced level? I don't know - people don't seem to talk about this much for whatever reason.


The other issue I've found is that in faster speech I'm more sensitive to tone register (relative pitch between syllables) than tone contour (pitch change within a syllable). For instance, while I never confuse 1st and 4th tone when spoken slowly/clearly (such as in tone training materials), when they're spoken as part of a fast sentence I have a hard time telling them apart. This even happens with words I'm very familiar with, like 书 and 树 - though if I've understood the context I can usually pick the right one.

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