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imron

Getting out of a listening rut

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imron

Split off from AdamD's post here

Despite incredible effort this year, my listening has gone backwards. I have tried everything there is to try and taken every single piece of advice, and I've still gone backwards. I cannot communicate because I don't know what anyone is saying. It devastates me to say this, but I'm considering giving it away entirely and just keeping up the reading/writing. Apparently I've wasted nearly five years, and I'm not prepared to spend another five getting nowhere.

 

**********************************

 

I cannot communicate because I don't know what anyone is saying

But are they speaking clear 普通话?

 

 

 

my listening has gone backwards

If you have a 400 day listening chain I doubt very much that this is the case, and maybe it's more that you're in a bit of a rut and are beating yourself up about it.

 

Try going back and listening to something you thought was difficult a year ago.  I bet you'll find it's significantly easier now.

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pross

@AdamD What are you listening to? And, aside from talking with people, how do practice your listening skills?

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AdamD

@imron:

 

But are they speaking clear 普通话?

 

Yeah.

 

Try going back and listening to something you thought was difficult a year ago.  I bet you'll find it's significantly easier now.

 

I just got back from Taipei. Last year I understood enough speech to have at least basic conversations. Last week I understood almost no speech, even though my reading has exploded. By any measure this is a backwards step in my listening. It's not just last week, but that's when it hit me just how bad I've become. It should be easier but it's not.

 

maybe it's more that you're in a bit of a rut and are beating yourself up about it.

 

I'd like to think so, but the evidence doesn't indicate that at all.

 

@pross:

 

What are you listening to? And, aside from talking with people, how do practice your listening skills?

 

For more than a year now, every day, I've been playing HSK audio and listening to news and chat podcasts, usually slowed down to 70–80%, and watching TV shows like 非诚勿扰。 All up 15 minutes minimum every day, but usually more than that in practice. That's in addition to trying to have conversations with people, in person and through apps like 微信 and HelloTalk. This past three months I've also been studying Chinese formally at university, the oral part of which ended pretty poorly.

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AdamD
One possibility is that you are no longer trying to have basic conversations, but are finding it frustrating trying to move on to more complex topics. [...] This sort of thing will happen all the time as your Chinese improves and you start to get good at things that used to be difficult and so look for more advanced things

 

That's a fair point, and now that you mention it I no longer have problems with recurrent phrases like “中文很标准”,“热的吗?”,“带走吗?”,”八十五块“。Having said that, some stuff that should be simple really isn't (a couple of long, slow exchanges with wonderfully patient people did not go well, and utterly destroyed my confidence).

 

I assume my improved speed and pronunciation—most of the time I know the tones—and my ability to read text invites people to talk like I'm proficient, as David Ma mentioned at the bottom of this post. Perhaps I should try forcing myself to slow down, flattening my tones and pretending I can't read, just to gauge whether people dumb down what they're saying.

 

This has helped. Thank you for taking the time to go through this, imron.

 

This might be part of your problem.  I would consider not slowing them down.  Instead listen to them at full speed and repeat as necessary until you understand.

 

I've been doing more and more of that, but it still feels like I'm spinning my wheels.

 

Right now it's too hard to think about next year's goals (if I even set any, given this year's heroic failures), but I'm considering paying someone to speak Chinese only with me for two hours every week. No English, no teaching, no reciprocity, no helpful translations, just Chinese. I don't know whether it will work but my options are dwindling.

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Flickserve

It is conceivable that different skills will progress at different rates and at different times. So try not to get down about the listening.

I think Imron's right about speeding up the dialogue. And since you have progressed, so have your expectations which is why you think you haven't progressed.

I get snippets of hearing Mandarin in my daily life. Not much, some of it with bad accent. People say I have improved, it makes me feel good for a while. Then I realise I can only say two sentences at a time.

If you are at University doing Chinese , the expectation is naturally higher but most of us get through. Blocks and slow progress to learning happen all the time. Then, it's time to take a breather, do something else for a while, let your brain consolidate, and then come back. I haven't been paying much attention to lessons but just watching a bit more on the TV. Change things around a bit in terms of topics. Switch between difficult things and easy dialogues. I don't think you need to agonise over trying to know every single nuance in a sentence.

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imron

Something else I forgot to comment on.

 

 

and my ability to read text invites people to talk like I'm proficient, as David Ma mentioned at the bottom of this post.  Perhaps I should try forcing myself to slow down, flattening my tones

I think David is correct and this is a thing that happens when people think your Chinese is better than it actually is, and while slowing yourself down is ok (watch how a politician speaks compared to say a news presenter and you can tell one is thinking carefully about what they are saying), but I think flattening your tones (or otherwise introducing flaws in your Chinese) is a bad idea (slowing down is not a flaw).

 

Why practice making your Chinese have flaws and risk them becoming habit?

 

What you can do, is try and improve the ways you express to people that you didn't catch their meaning.  Sinosplice has a good post on this topic.

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pross
Concerning goals, I can't recommend enough the videos that accompany the Intermediate Chinese Grammar Course on https://edx.org/. The professor has recorded several hours of lectures explaining Chinese grammar. It is given completely in Mandarin, using very simple, but concise, language. Perhaps a coincidence, but mid-way I experience a big boost of my listening skills.

 

For native speed content, I eased myself into it, starting with the weather report as the format is somewhat predictable. (Melbourne 3CW, weekdays from 5:30 PM)

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AdamD

imron, Flickserve and pross, you've given me a lot to go on and I really do appreciate it. Generally I feel more positive now. I'll slow down my speech but I won't introduce flaws; I'll stop listening to slow audio; I'll review old material to gauge my progress; I'll let my brain consolidate the past semester (and the 200-odd traditional characters I've just picked up); I'll have a look at that grammar course on EDX; and I'll identify relatively simple and repetitive content (weather reports) to pick up rhythms and predictable phrases in a range. That can form the basis of my goal(s) for next year.

 

(Edit: Removed content related to the original thread, now not relevant)

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Lu

AdamD, no worries! I was in Beijing and briefly in Henan, and listened to (and spoke with) a number of experts on various subjects. A few had heavy accents, most spoke pretty standard Mandarin. All in al I didn't have much trouble understanding them. Is that what you meant?

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robprobyn

I'm currently living and working in Beijing but don't use Chinese at work, so I'm having a few lessons but also practising and testing my listening Chinese as follows: 

 

 - Practise on www.thechairmansbao.com as much as I can. This site has a range of brief passages with audio and transcript, at different levels.  I spend a while on each passage, checking bits I don't understand against the transcript, until I can pretty much understand it all the way through. 

 

 - Progress feels pretty slow to non-existent.  But occasionally (once every month or so) I take a 'Level Test' on Chinesepod (Upper Intermediate is the level that happens to suit me best at the moment - there are higher and low options).  Sometimes I do get a lower audio score than previously.  But there is an overall (slight ...) upward gradient. 

 

Not claiming this is any sort of panacea, but just sharing in case of any interest / use to others. 

 

Rob 

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AdamD

Stoked that this is split off and we can go into detail. Thanks, roddy.

 

@Lu:

 

AdamD, no worries! I was in Beijing and briefly in Henan, and listened to (and spoke with) a number of experts on various subjects. A few had heavy accents, most spoke pretty standard Mandarin. All in al I didn't have much trouble understanding them. Is that what you meant?

 

Yeah. That's really good in terms of living up to your expectations, and it's good that you're able to work with variation in accents. That's a killer.

 

@Rob:

 

Not claiming this is any sort of panacea, but just sharing in case of any interest / use to others.

 

It does help, in that you can feel quite alone when you're not making the progress that others around you are making.

 

I hadn't noticed The Chairman's Bao's audio provision so I'll definitely look into that.

 

@eion_padraig: Your running analogy is interesting, because my wife also runs and she has similar issues with goals and PBs. It helps us a lot to compare our respective progress—sometimes I need to remind her how far she's come, and sometimes she needs to do the same for my Chinese progress. imron mentioned the importance of looking back; I know I should do that more often.

 

@eliaso:

 

I still way too often have to say '不好意思,我听不懂,(add word)是什么意思'.

 

This is probably the aspect that grates most, especially when you have to ask so often that you even annoy yourself. It wears you down.

 

Later I complained to my friend that how is this possible - even after two years I still can suck so bad. He told me: 'you've reached a point where people don't talk to you like you were a retard anymore, instead they talk to you like you weren't a foreigner. You still just have to work more'. And I will.

 

I do think this happens to me as well, in that people see me read a menu or a sign, ask a question using (mostly) correct tones and faulty but intermediate grammar, and reply at a million miles an hour. Having pondered this, I realised I do exactly the same thing when competent English learners speak to me for the first time. I assume there's a proficiency threshold beyond which people don't even think about the learner's capability and just talk like they're talking to anyone.

 

I must say, it was weird watching The Feed on SBS2 last night (an Australian news show), with a full-length report about students from China paying other Chinese people to sit their exams, and being able to understand roughly 50% of what they were saying. I don't know whether the subtitles gave me a leg up, whether I was tired and caught off-guard, or whether they were just talking in super-basic terms.

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Flickserve

I do think this happens to me as well, in that people see me read a menu or a sign, ask a question using (mostly) correct tones and faulty but intermediate grammar, and reply at a million miles an hour. Having pondered this, I realised I do exactly the same thing when competent English learners speak to me for the first time. I assume there's a proficiency threshold beyond which people don't even think about the learner's capability and just talk like they're talking to anyone.

I must say, it was weird watching The Feed on SBS2 last night (an Australian news show), with a full-length report about students from China paying other Chinese people to sit their exams, and being able to understand roughly 50% of what they were saying. I don't know whether the subtitles gave me a leg up, whether I was tired and caught off-guard, or whether they were just talking in super-basic terms.

this is exactly my experience with Cantonese.

People talk to me like I have full fluency. Although I can understand a basic conversation, when something deeper comes up, I get somewhat lost with the vocabulary. Then, this vocabulary comes up infrequently so I can't remember for future conversations.

If you imagine how many topics with specialised words exist, it seems like a mountain. One day you might be talking about cooking in a restaurant, but how often would that specific vocabulary turn up in daily conversation? Could be a few months later.

So you got 50% of the meaning of that program. That's good. Watch it again. Can you pick up more? Turn off the Chinese subtitles. Still got the same level of comprehension? Are there words you know but didn't recognise when hearing them? Just keep listening to the same unfamiliar words over and over again.

I remember a time when I had a badminton coach. He was an international player. Couldn't speak any English. I spoke conversational Cantonese but not the technical terms of badminton. First few lessons were a nightmare. I understood nothing in his Mandarin accented Cantonese. Luckily my wife, who is fluent in Chinese, acted as translator. Each lesson, I would take a notebook to write down the principles of the badminton lesson, the footwork pattern, how to distribute weight and balance in English. Then, I would also ask my wife to write down the Chinese words that came up, such as footwork, centre of gravity, overhead, striking point, skill, technique etc. All these words never came up in my workplace but because I was training and playing badminton frequently, discussing it with a non-English speaking training partner and then watching cantonese commentary on the subject, I became pretty fluent in that topic. Later, I took a coaching course to gain a coaching qualification in badminton, the practical part all examined in Cantonese. Even now, if I coach badminton, the Chinese comes out more fluently than my English! The offshot is that I can pretty much pick up most commentary on different sports.

However, you give me a topic like cooking or flower arranging or a discussion on politics, I am totally lost. It doesn't help that I don't actively learn Cantonese vocabulary. I might have heard those words before, but the exposure was too infrequent and passive.

I think you're doing the right thing in listening more. The point of all that is, do you have enough variation in input of the SAME topic? Once you get used to listening to the same material and vocabulary presented in different ways, you will have nailed the listening part. Instead of saying 我不懂,you will/should be saying, 不好意思,请你在说慢点儿。你的意思是。。。?(to which at this point the conversation will carry on at another million miles per hour. LOL). This is exactly what we do in English or technical terms in English that we are unfamiliar with. However, being able to listen is not the same as being able to use it totally (though it helps a lot).

This thread helps me a lot. I never really analysed how I managed to learn Cantonese and now it comes out. I always thought I was crap at languages and had difficulty with learning Mandarin (you can read my previous posts). It has been quite frustrating trying to improve listening skills because you personally cannot control somebody's voice. I think it's the sheer volume of input that becomes overwhelming and frustrating. Once you get used to 10% of the input, you work on the next 5%, then the next 5% and then suddenly you find yourself understanding 70% of what is going on.....

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AdamD

@Flickserve:

 

People talk to me like I have full fluency. Although I can understand a basic conversation, when something deeper comes up, I get somewhat lost with the vocabulary. Then, this vocabulary comes up infrequently so I can't remember for future conversations.

 

This kills. I know what 空调 is, but when the guy in the Taiwanese hotel said “冷气” at me six times I had no idea what was going on. I presume there's been a lot more of that breadth of vocabulary coming at me recently.

 

I think you're doing the right thing in listening more. The point of all that is, do you have enough variation in input of the SAME topic?

 

That's a really good point. Probably not. My listening has been within a fairly small scope of material by largely the same speakers, so I'm not getting enough variety. An excellent tip which I shall act upon.

 

It has been quite frustrating trying to improve listening skills because you personally cannot control somebody's voice.

 

100 x this. You can control reading speed, and even pre-recorded audio to some extent, but that person in a shop has got a job to do. Last week I ended up with a glass of hot milk, because people were behind me in the queue and I was just saying yes to everything I didn't understand.

 

So you got 50% of the meaning of that program. That's good. Watch it again. Can you pick up more? Turn off the Chinese subtitles. Still got the same level of comprehension? Are there words you know but didn't recognise when hearing them? Just keep listening to the same unfamiliar words over and over again.

 

Another great tip. Thank you! I'll do exactly that (if it's available).

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imron
This kills. I know what 空调 is, but when the guy in the Taiwanese hotel said “冷气” at me six times I had no idea what was going on.

Here's another thing that could be affecting your ability to have a conversation.  If you're learning mostly from mainland based materials and friends and then trying to communicate with Mandarin speakers in Taiwan there will simply be a lot of common vocab from one group of people that is not commonly used in the other group and vice-versa.

 

Similar to how English speakers from different countries will have different words for the same basic things e.g. Petrol/Gas, Rubbish Bin/Trashcan, footpath/sidewalk and so on.  Native speakers will be able to pick up and understand the differences without too much trouble, but unless you have a very broad, and cross-regional vocabulary you're going to need to learn a bunch of basic vocabulary all over again.

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AdamD

That's true. I had assumed (probably arrogantly) that Taiwanese people would drop to a universal/common 普通话–国语 vocabulary for learners, in the same way I stick to clean, universal English when speaking to English learners, but of course they're not all going to know those differences.

 

Other differences I picked up off signs and menus (e.g. 芝士 v 起司), but if people had said them to me before I saw them (and probably did, now that I think of it) I'd have been totally lost.

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Lu
Yeah. That's really good in terms of living up to your expectations, and it's good that you're able to work with variation in accents. That's a killer.

I've been at it since 2000 though, lived in China and Taiwan for some 6 years in total...

 

The trick for dealing with accents is that it helps to know a few common pronunciation changes: l/n, -n/-ng, retroflexes/no retroflexes. There are some more that I can't think of now. Then, once you hear someone going on and on and you can't make head or tail of it, you just start substituting sounds until it starts to make sense. And then you'll resolve 'sī, lóng, gōng, sāang' (with some context) to 士农工商 or 'bōdàn' to 不断 (to name a few examples that I wrote down because the guy's accent was interesting and strong). I suppose this kind of thing comes with listening to different accents a lot.

 

But by all means, work with clean Putonghua first! It's not my intention to discourage you.

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