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The quickest proven way to improve your Chinese listening skills

Jun. 29, 2020

Like most Chinese language learners, many of my students have difficulty with listening comprehension in the beginning. If I speak at a normal or slightly faster-than-normal pace, they usually can’t understand what I say. As such, I have tried different methods for them to improve their listening skills, and the results speak for themselves — the following method is the quickest way my students improve.

Since it’s difficult for non-advanced-level students to clearly distinguish each Chinese word, the quickest way to improve listening skills is to learn to instead listen for the keywords in the topic or sentences. Here are 3 ways I have used to help my students efficiently pick out keywords.

1. Learn common Chinese sentence patterns:

● Sentences with “ (shì)”


shì Dora.
I am Dora.

“wǒ” means “I/me”, “shì” means “to be”, “equals to”, or “is/am/are”. We can use this sentence structure to introduce our name, nationality and so on.

● Questions with an interrogative pronoun


nǐ jiào shénme?
What’s your name? (lit.: “What are you called?”)

“nǐ” means “you,” “jiào” means “to be called,” “shén me” means “what”.

● Sentences with a verbal predicate.


yào kāfēi.
I want coffee.

● “Yes / no” questions with “吗 (ma)


nǐ shì zhōnɡ ɡuó rén ?
Are you Chinese?

“ma” is a question word that we put at the end of the sentences to make a ‘yes or no’ question.

2. Pay more attention to the nouns and verbs in sentences.

Normally, nouns and verbs provide the most useful information on a topic.

Nouns have four main characteristics:

● The majority of the time, they are modified by a measure word.


ɡè pínɡɡuǒ.
One apple.

Grammar: Number + measure word + noun

● They can act as a subject, an object or a complement, but never as a result. A noun can occasionally be adverbial, but not often.


1)pínɡɡuǒ hěn hǎo chī.
       Apples are delicious.

2)wǒ yào pínɡɡuǒ.
      I want apples.

● They may not be modified by the negative adverb “不 ()”.

● They may not be reduplicated (unless it’s for a “cutesy” effect, usually when speaking with small kids).

There are five main characteristics of verbs in Chinese:

● The main function of verbs is to be in the predicate of a sentence.

● The majority of Chinese verbs are transitive, which means they take an object.


wǒ yǒu yì zhī .
I have a pen.

● Verbs CAN be negated by the adverb “不 ()”. However, other than verbs of emotion, they CANNOT be modified by “很 (hěn).”


1) bù hē kāfēi. (CORRECT)
      我不喝咖啡。 (CORRECT)
      I don’t drink coffee.

2) hěn hē kā fēi. (INCORRECT)

● Most Chinese verbs can be reduplicated, softening their meaning slightly.


wǒ yào shì shì zhè jiàn yī fu.
I want to try on this dress.

● Most verbs can be modified with the aspect particles “了 (le)”, “着 (zhe)”, and “过 (guò)”.


1) chī le pínɡɡuǒ.
      I ate an apple.

2)chī zhe pínɡɡuǒ.
      I am eating an apple.

3) chī ɡuò pínɡɡuǒ.
      I have eaten apples before.

3.Memorize high frequency vocabulary used in daily conversation.

● Personal Pronouns: 你 (), 我 (), 她/他/它 ()


1) shì zhōnɡ ɡuó rén.
      I am Chinese.

2)shì měi ɡuó rén.
      You are American.

3)shì yīnɡ ɡuó rén.
      He/she is British.

● Numerals and Quantities: 一 (), 二 (èr), 两 (liǎng), 三 (sān), 七 (), 十 (shí), 百 (bǎi), 千 (qiān), 万 (wàn), 亿 (), 半 (bàn)


1)liǎnɡ wàn sān qiān qī bǎi yī shí liù

2)yí yì měiyuán
      a hundred million dollars

3)bàn ɡè pínɡɡuǒ
      half an apple

● “是 (shì)” and “的 (de)” may be used in almost every Chinese conversation.


1)zhè shì pínɡɡuǒ.
      This is an apple.

2)zhè shì wǒ de nǚér.
      This is my daughter.

Of course, if you want to be able to fully understand native speakers, you still need to practice with full conversations in different contexts, using a wide variety of materials like Chinese movies, videos, songs etc. There is no shortcut, but there are highways!

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