I've got an upcoming Chinese listening exam this coming Wednesday but I don't really know what to do apart from repeating the set of ten or so listening tests we have to practice from online. They're all short dialogues some with multiple choice answers and some where you have to fill in blanks in Chinese.

But really I'm seeking some general advice for listening. Does it really just come down to practice? For example is there a technique for those questions where you have a lengthy dialogue and five or so questions to answer (the recording gets played twice, and normally it is impossible at my rather low level to fill all the answers in first time around)?

Sorry if this sounds vague. But I do struggle especially on those types of tests; normally I either get fixated on one line but then don't listen to the rest of the dialogue in that moment. I'm wondering, given it is repeated, it is better to JUST listen on the first time and then answer on the second? But that seems risky too.

  • It would be helpful to other learners of Chinese if you could tell us how you ended up preparing for the exam. – Tsundoku Aug 9 '16 at 10:08

Are you learning for the tests, or are you learning for real?

Listen to Chinese radio. Fill your phone with audio books (librivox, tingbook). Watch movies. Immerse yourself, and you will find that those ridiculous tests are too simple for you.

  • 1
    I entirely agree. Listen to Chinese whenever, wherever. Personally, I am a news addict, so I watch the news whenever I can. I still can't understand it, but I catch a lot of phrases! When I'm in the kitchen I listen to the radio. – Pedroski Mar 8 '15 at 2:47

Listening is indeed mostly a matter of practice and there is little you can do if you have an exam next week. Improving listening ability takes a lot of time and short-term cramming won't help. I'm going to separate this answer into two parts: one short-term and one long-term.


In the short run, you can do a few things to improve your chances of passing, such as making sure that you are very familiar with the test format, but it seems you have already done this (the online practice tests).

The biggest problems with trying to pass listening tests that are actually above your level is that it's very hard to concentrate when you lose several words each sentence. Try to focus on what you do understand and don's zone out.

Make sure you read the questions in advance so you know what you're listening for. Take notes if the dialogues are long. If you can't write in characters fast enough, I suggest writing in English. You don't want to waste mental effort on writing notes and thereby miss the next sentence.


Now let's talk about listening ability in general (which won't help you pass this exam, but should help you pass the next). The first goal is to figure out what your weak link is. Simply knowing that you don't understand the audio isn't good enough. What causes it?

Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Lack of phonological awareness
  2. Lack of vocabulary
  3. Lack of listening speed

The first is about understanding syllable and word structure, including being able to separate all possible syllables, tone combinations and so on. Can you map the sounds you hear to the words you have learnt? If you mistake certain sounds for other sounds, you need to sort this out first.

The second isn't really about listening, but I think it's still one of the main reasons why it's hard to pass at least standardised proficiency exams. They don't (only) use the words you've learnt in your textbook, so you will encounter tons of near-synonyms you aren't as familiar with. The solution is to study broader rather than deeper. Study more material at or below your current level. Not more advanced stuff, just more.

The third problem is speed and it's common for all except those who take immersion very seriously. Even if you can map all sounds and know all the words, the audio might simply be too quick for you to understand. It's not enough to be able to understand a word, you need to be able to do it fast. The only way of increasing speed is to listen a lot. If it takes you two seconds to remember what a word means, the voice will be halfway into the next sentence.

How to practise, what to improve

You should obviously study differently depending on which of the above is your main problem, but simply listening more will improve all three areas described above. Vocabulary is somewhat different, but listening more will expand your vocabulary too. Make sure you always have Chinese audio easily available. Listen when you drive, walk, cook, exercise, fall asleep, brush your teeth, wait for the bus and shop for groceries. It will be demanding in the beginning, but you will soon get used to it. You will be richly rewarded.

In case you want more advice, I have written a series of articles dealing with listening ability (I hope it's okay to link like this, it's simply way too much to write here, but still very much on-topic).

  • There are several sites supplying news reports both in spoken and written form (e.g. there is 听新闻学汉语 (for advanced learners (程度较高的学习者) of imandarinpod also on cntv) and there are audiobooks of novels whose written form can be found elsewhere on the web. Alternate reading with listening to the text or follow the written text as it is spoken, frequently stopping the spoken text as needed.有若干网站既以读音又以书写形式提供新闻报道,也有读书网站朗读小说给用户听,而这些小说的印刷形式在另外某些网站是可以得到的。把文字阅读和倾听彼此交替很可能是值得推荐的,或者边读边听言语,而时常按照需要停止录音。 – user6065 Aug 9 '16 at 14:06

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