Why Listening is One of the Best Ways to Learn Mandarin
Of all the ways to learn Mandarin, just listening may be one of the most effective and underrated.
You may be thinking—wait, don’t I need to speak more Mandarin to get my pronunciation right? I’ve heard that if I want to speak Mandarin, I need to always be speaking. Isn’t listening just going to go in one ear and out the other?
We hear you. But we also don’t want you to miss out on the evidence-proven (both by students and also by some scientists!) benefits of listening to improve your Mandarin, regardless of your level.
In this article, we’ll cover just why listening may be the best way to learn Mandarin for your buck, more specifically:
I. The common myths about why listening isn’t the best way to learn Mandarin (and why you shouldn’t listen to them!)
II. How listening to Mandarin conversation actually helps you improve your Mandarin no matter your level (really!)
III. Proven methods to make the most of your listening practice (that you can start using right now!)
Let’s get started!
I. Common Myths About Mandarin Listening Practice, Debunked!
First, let’s bust some myths you may have heard about how listening isn’t the best way to learn Mandarin:
Myth #1 Listening practice is passive (nope!)
On the surface, listening seems like you’re not doing much.
But if you had a way to look inside your brain at the neuron level, not only would that be really cool and a little creepy, but you’d also be able to see there’s a lot more happening than you think.
According to scientists in this article, “listening comprehension is an active process that requires an assorted range of activities, such as discrimination between sounds, understanding words and grammar, interpreting intonation and other rules in phonetics, and retaining information to be interpreted in context later.”
In plain English, when you listen to, say, the Mandarin Monkey podcast, you’re actively learning to:
1. Recognize sounds: You’re teaching your brain to “tune into” how Mandarin sounds, even if you don’t understand everything just yet, just as you would listen to an orchestra playing (you don’t have to understand music to listen, right?)
This may sound too basic (after all, babies can do this better), but you’re really picking up the building blocks that are needed to move on to more complex aspects of Mandarin.
2. Tune into the tones: In the same way you’re learning to recognize (not totally understand) sounds, you’re also getting familiar with the pace, rhythm and flow of conversational Mandarin, not to mention how the tones shift in conversation (or even when the tones all blend together so you can’t even tell them apart).
3. Catch grammar and vocabulary in action: You’re learning grammar and vocabulary in their natural environment—in the flow of a conversation instead of in some formulaic textbook dialogue. That’s the difference between learning about a horse from a book and actually riding a horse.
To summarize, listening practice primes your brain for the “musical” qualities of Mandarin—intonation, pace, rhythm, tones (or the seemingly lack thereof)—which you’ll no doubt need when it comes time to speak Mandarin.
Myth #2 Listening is only good for fun (no way!)
Many people think that listening to Mandarin couldn’t possibly be the best way to learn Mandarin because it’s just a leisurely activity one does on their spare time. But scientists would disagree.
An article published in Scientific American pointed to several studies showing that just listening to a language in the background could help students improve their learning on several different criteria.
They even saw that for some students, listening practice alone had better results than speaking practice alone! (The caveat in all of the studies, though, was that the students were also supplementing their listening practice with lessons.)
But how can even leisurely listening help strengthen what you’ve already learned in the classroom?
Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon and a co-author of one of the studies cited in the article has a theory. “There’s something about our brains that makes it possible to take advantage of the things you’ve already paid attention to and to keep paying attention to them, even when you are focused on something else,” she suggests.
In summary, listening practice may work best when you’ve already had some Mandarin lessons under your belt.
Myth #3 Listening practice is too easy (not really)
Okay, so listening to a Mandarin podcast in the background is actually pretty easy. You got us there.
Even easier if you’re listening to a Chinglish podcast (more on this later on!)
The truth is, you can make listening as easy or as challenging as you want, depending on your level and goals. There are several listening methods (which we’ll cover in just a bit) that let you dial up the level of difficulty, from “passive” listening to more active “fishing.”
But overall, I guess this is one myth that isn’t totally debunkable. Compared to other ways to learn Mandarin, listening practice is pretty easy, indeed. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s any less effective.
Myth #4 Listening practice takes too much time (say what?)
You can listen to as much or as little Mandarin as you have the time for.
It doesn’t take more time than speaking practice or any other way to learn Mandarin, really.
There’s also the very obvious perk of being able to listen to Mandarin anywhere while doing pretty much anything, unless you’re at the helm at NASA’s command center, of course, or landing that rover on Mars. (Even still, one could argue that you could have it on in the background without affecting the mission one bit.)
Listening to learn Mandarin also has another time-saving benefit—whatever time you put in, you get back in spades. Think about it like compounding interest. Whatever you put in (total listening time) will start gaining interest (improvements in your listening comprehension) over time.
This is called the cumulative effect of listening practice (more on this later).
Myth #5 Listening to Mandarin won’t help you speak Mandarin (think again!)
This is perhaps one of the most common myths about listening practice out there—that if you want to speak Mandarin, you have to speak Mandarin, not listen.
On the surface, it makes sense. If you want to learn Italian cuisine, you learn Italian cuisine, not how to boil pasta, amirite?
But wait! Boiling pasta is part of Italian cuisine! In fact, if you can’t boil pasta (you know, just right, perfectly al dente and not a mushy soup noodle—although those have their place, too), you won’t get very far in Italian cooking school.
Listening practice is to speaking practice what boiling pasta is to Italian cuisine. It’s at the heart of it. They’re one and the same. You can’t have one without the other.
And just as learning to boil pasta like a pro will propel you to the upper echelons of Italian culinary mastery (or just make you a noodle foodie…or a noodley foodie?), listening practice will give you an edge when it comes to your speaking.
In summary, your listening skills will directly boost your speaking skills, even if all you’re doing is listening right now. We’ll get into more detail about this in just a bit.
Okay, now that we have the myths out of the way (and we probably made you a little hungry), let’s talk about the benefits of listening to improve your Mandarin ( this what you’ve been waiting for!):
II. How Listening Practice is The Best Way to Learn Mandarin If You Want to Get More Bang for Your Buck
1. Listening is portable
For one, as we mentioned before, you can practice listening to Mandarin anywhere. By being able to take your listening wherever you go—you can do more of it every day, which means more Mandarin every day.
Because listening practice is portable, you can also “piggyback” it on top of any other activity, from house chores to working out.
2. Listening has a low level of perceived exertion
If someone asked you to listen to a talk in Mandarin, your response would be a whole lot different than if they asked you to give that same speech.
How difficult we predict a task will be is called perceived exertion, and listening practice falls on the low end of the spectrum (with the high end being something like maybe giving that talk we just mentioned).
Listening to Mandarin just sounds a whole lot easier than speaking Mandarin. Which means we’re more apt to getting it done instead of procrastinating on it.
3. Listening builds both language acquisition skills
When you listen, you’re using both declarative knowledge, or what you know about the language (things like pinyin, individual word meanings, grammar patterns, etc.) and procedural knowledge, which is how these elements come together in context.
Declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are fancy language nerd words for saying, “first you learn things on their own (like the rules of the particle de 的) and then you learn to put things together (like using de in sentences)” which makes up one perspective on how we learn languages.
Listening, in other words, may be the best way to learn Mandarin in that it teaches you how to put its building blocks together.
4. Listening builds confidence
The more you listen and things start coming together, the more confident you’ll feel in your Mandarin, even in your ability to speak! Plus, listening practice is one of the best ways to reinforce what you learn from your classes. (Which, you are taking Mandarin lessons right?)
Even if you’re not speaking yet, you’re becoming a pro at how things are said—tones, vocabulary, grammar patterns. Eventually, you’ll build up the self-assurance to start repeating what you hear. And voila, you’re speaking Mandarin!
5. Listening makes you a better listener
Whoever says speaking more is the best way to improve your Mandarin conversation skills missed a big part of how to be great at conversations in any language.
In fact, conversation pros like radio host Celeste Headlee say that, “the irony of being a good conversationalist is that talking isn’t the most important piece; listening is what makes you memorable.”
So consider Mandarin conversation like a biathlon, a sporting event that has two disciplines—listening and speaking—and you need to be equally great at both to go for the gold.
Plus, when you’re a great listener, people will naturally want to talk to you more, which means you’ll be getting tons more conversation practice.
6. Listening has a carry-over effect to speaking
Mandarin listening practice builds your speaking skills in the background. You’re building a reserve of knowledge that you can eventually tap into when you’re ready to get chatty.
And if you think that can’t possibly be true because listening and speaking are totally opposite skills, think again.
A study published in Psychological Science showed that speaking and listening happen in the same brain region. If you’re curious, you can read more about how they did the study here, but they basically used functional MRI to look at brain activity when people were either listening to sentences or saying them aloud.
That means when you’re listening, you’re essentially building the same “brain muscles” you’ll use for speaking.
Brain science aside, here are some ways listening helps boost your speaking:
- Schools you in pronunciation: This is a no-brainer. The more you listen to pronunciation, the better you’ll get at reproducing it, especially if you’re listening to native speakers.
- Gets you good at context: Listening helps you see how vocabulary words and grammar patterns are used in real-world conversations. You’ll get really good at extracting context from what you hear, an essential tool in your Mandarin learning arsenal.
- Strengthens your comprehension: Listening will help you reinforce what you already know and push you to look up what you don’t. Remember that sometimes you won’t understand everything you hear in your listening practice, and that’s actually the point. Dialing up the difficulty gets tricky because you also don’t want to overwhelm yourself. That’s where Chinglish comes in and finding the right level of listening difficulty for you (more on that in the methods section).
- Boosts your endurance: Learning Mandarin is not a sprint, but a marathon, and you can marathon-listen more than you can marathon-speak. Remember that whole listening is portable thing? You can even binge-listen if you want. The point is that listening is a good way to “flood” yourself with Mandarin for longer and longer periods of time. Start with a 50-minute Chinglish podcast, and build from there.
- Gives you self-confidence: We’ve already covered this benefit but it’s worth repeating. You’ll be surprised to see how your confidence will level up (yes, even your confidence to speak!) when you make listening practice a regular activity in your studies.
8. Listening adds up (so keep it up!)
Remember that cumulative effect we talked about before? Well, in plain English, listen to Mandarin can really add up over time.
If you listen to just an hour of Mandarin everyday (which is about one episode of the Mandarin Monkey Podcast), that adds up to 15 straight days of total Mandarin listening “immersion” within just a year!
Okay, now that you’re convinced listening is the best way to learn Mandarin, here are 5 tried and true methods to help you make the most of your listening practice:
III. 5 Proven Methods to Make the Most of Your Mandarin Listening Practice
1. Just listen
This is the easiest way to get in your Mandarin listening practice. You just, well, listen. You’re not trying to understand anything. You’re not listening intently. You can even listen in the background while you do other tasks or even at the gym. You can let your attention fade in and out, without trying to listen the entire time.
You could call this truly “passive listening,” as in you’re not trying to do anything else other than listen.
Some of the best content to try this method out are Mandarin podcasts that use Chinglish. That’s because Chinglish podcasts like the Mandarin Monkey podcast alternate between English and Mandarin, making your listening practice even more effective.
Why listening to a Chinglish podcast is the best type of Mandarin listening practice for your time:
1. You’ll get more from it: You’ll likely pick up more vocabulary and meaning with less effort because you’ll always get a little bit of English with your Mandarin.
2. You won’t get as fatigued: Listening to Mandarin alone, even passively, can get draining when you don’t understand any of it (yes, even if the goal isn’t to understand any of it!)
3. You’ll be more motivated to listen: Because the material is never too hard to understand, but also not so easy that your learning stalls (more on this later!), you’ll want to come back for more.
2. Rinse & repeat
To get the most out of listening, it’s important that you listen a whole lot. But that doesn’t mean that what you listen to has to vary a whole lot. Actually, listening to the same song or Chinglish podcast multiple times may work better than changing it up too often.
That’s because when you’re listening passively, you won’t be “tuned in” all the time, so you can listen to the same thing over and over again without getting bored.
Plus, developing familiarity with one piece of content over time is probably better than listening to something entirely different each time.
It also increases your chance of something getting through and you totally understanding what was just said (we love those moments!), especially if you’re listening to Chinglish!
3. Go fishing
So aside from passive listening, you can also listen more actively while trying to pick out or “fish for” any vocabulary, grammar patterns or even Mandarin interjections and filler words.
Now, this method shouldn’t feel like a lot of work, in the same way that fishing doesn’t feel like a lot of work. When you’re fishing, you’re basically passively waiting most of the time for a fish to bite. Then, you reel that sucker in!
Only here what you’re waiting for it to “bite” is any Mandarin that you understand from the conversations.
And use that rewind button. As you listen, if you think you almost understood something that was said, go back to it and see if you have a proverbial fish to reel in!
4. Switch up your listening
There are really only two types of listening content: playback content and non-playback content.
Playback content is anything you can, well, play back anytime you want. This includes Mandarin podcasts, Mandarin songs or Mandarin YouTube videos. Non-playback content is anything that you can’t play back, like say, if you happen to be listening to a real-world conversation in real time.
Now, where would you be able to do that? And wouldn’t it be weird to be snooping around listening in on people speaking Mandarin like some nerdy language ninja?
At Mandarin Monkey, you can listen in on real-world Mandarin (well, Chinglish) conversations in real time with the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts. We won’t judge.
The concept of the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts is to provide students of different levels with the ability to practice their listening and speaking in an unstructured, judgement-free zone. But if you just want to listen, you can do that, too!
Although it’s best to mix both types of content to keep your listening fresh (plus, you can listen to playback content on the go, which is a nice bonus!), non-playback content like what you’ll find in the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts helps boost your listening practice by adding:
1. Variety: In the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts, the conversation topics are pretty much limitless, so it doesn’t get any more diverse as far as conversation topics from which to glean even more words and phrases, on any subject matter you can think of, from sci-fi movies to cats.
2. Unpredictability: Listening to real-world conversations keeps you on your toes because there are no scripts or set lesson plans.
All the randomness adds richness to your listening practice. Plus, you’ll be able to listen to people of all levels, from beginners to native speakers.
3. Memorable vocab: You’ll remember the vocabulary you learned from a joke you heard because laughter has been shown to improve memorization. In the Hangouts, we make sure to mix up your learning by playing games that lead to some pretty hilarious moments.
5. Dial up the difficulty gradually
Professor and linguist Stephen Krashen came up with the hypothesis that you learn better when your listening material is just a little above your current level. He called this the input hypothesis, or i+1 hypothesis, of language acquisition.
Similar to the Goldilocks Rule which we mentioned in an earlier article, the input hypothesis says that your input (or listening material in this case) can’t be too hard or too easy.
Krashen’s i+1 hypothesis is basically this:
The “i” represents your current level of understanding, and the “+1” means you need to go one level higher to learn optimally. Not two, not three levels. According to Krashen, raising the difficulty level over +1 will actually hinder your learning.
This is one of the reasons why listening to Chinglish tends to be more effective than listening to Mandarin only content.
Depending on your current level, Mandarin only content will likely be a few notches above that i+1 sweet spot, and therefore can quickly lead to more overwhelm rather than more learning. Because Chinglish provides the right mix of just enough Mandarin with just enough English, you’ll find it easier to dial in that ideal level of listening difficulty.
Additionally, the new format for the Mandarin Monkey Podcast uses stories that run the gamut from beginner to intermediate, so you can easily find the listening content that’s right for your level.
For example, Episode #185 on transportation is a good example of a beginner level story and vocab, while Episode #183 (where we interview Susu Laoshi!) is probably more ideal for an upper intermediate student.
Okay, now you’ve heard all the ways listening is the best way to learn Mandarin—if you want to get more bang for your buck, that is.
Of course, listening practice is only half of the equation, and you’ll still need to put in the time to practice speaking Mandarin. But in the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that listening is not something passive you only do on your spare time, but an active learning process that will get you closer to your Mandarin goals.
Eventually, you’ll use all those skills you picked up listening once you start speaking.