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I know that it means "What are you listening to?" but I'm curious as to what the 呢 is supposed to do.

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呢 is a final particle. It denotes interrogative form in your example sentence. (it has other usages in other context)

You can just use a question mark e.g. "你在听什么?" (what are you listening ) to mark the sentence as a question

"呢" in "你在听什么呢?” asks the question of "what" are you listening to

"嗎" in "你在什么?” asks the question of "are" you listening to something

  • Thanks! One last question: Is the 在 optional? I've heard people use both with and without 在 and I'm wondering if its existence changes anything. – Seankala Feb 28 at 6:26
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    @Seankala 在 functions similar to ~ing in English here. 你听什么呢? = you listen to what? ; 你在听什么呢? = you are listening to what? – Tang Ho Feb 28 at 6:29
  • @TangHo What's the difference between 你听什么 and 你听什么呢 then? – Enrico Brasil Feb 28 at 22:32
  • @Enrico Brasil "你听什么?" sounds blunt ; "你听什么呢?" ends the speech with a softer tone, plus, it stresses the pronoun '什么', make sure people understand you are asking 'what' is being listened to; Not "are you listen to something?" – Tang Ho Feb 28 at 23:29
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Use of 呢 due to presence of interrogative pronoun 什么(similar to 吗 for yes-no questions) quoting e.g. 图解基础汉语语法:

"呢"可以用在有疑问代词"谁"、"怎么"、"什么"、"哪"等的疑问句中,"呢"出现不出现都不影响疑问的表达,"呢"有缓和语气的作用。格式:含疑问代词的句子+(呢)?A:妈妈,你买了点什么(呢)?B:很多东西,你猜猜。A:这么晚才回来,你到哪儿去了(呢)?B:我去参加同学的生日晚会了。Attention:如果句中有疑问代词:"吗"不能出现在句末,只能用"呢"。E.g.✓他是谁呢?✗他是谁吗?✓妈妈,你买了点什么呢?✗妈妈,你买了点什么吗?✓这么晚才回来,你到哪儿去了呢?✗这么晚才回来,你到哪儿去了吗?✓你怎么不去呢?✗你怎么不去吗?

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