I just arrived in Taipei about a week and a half ago – the first time in my life to set foot in a Chinese-speaking land. I came here right after graduating from college, where I studied Chinese for four years. Despite the thousands and thousands of hours that I have spent studying back in the states and my decent grasp of the written language, I find that I can understand next to nothing of what people say to me here unless they significantly slow down their speech, and even then I frequently have to ask them to repeat themselves several times. Needless to say, I find this extremely frustrating. Often when I’m with a group of (Chinese-speaking) people and everybody else gets the joke but me (I’m not aware that a joke was being told till everybody else starts laughing…) I feel like screaming.

Anybody else with this kind of experience? How long did it take you before you could follow typical conversation? Any advice?

Maybe you’re having some problems adapting to the slight differences between the Taiwan version of Mandarin and the Beijing one. If you like, we could meet up some time and I could give you some tips. Anyway, with any foreign language you learn there tend to be differences between what you learn in books and the way people actually talk on the street. I have the same problem in a big way with French.

About a year of heavy drinking in the Bushiban (pub).

Patience, man. It takes a while to adjust to the speed and inflections used here. Learning a language in a classroom is a far cry from learning it on the streets.

Get yourself a small notebook and a pen that you can keep in your pocket, and start writing down what people say. This will help you with vocabulary and word choice. The listening aspect of things is just going to take a little time. Enjoy the process, rather than fighting against it.

If you have a good background in classroom Mandarin, you’ll be getting along well in six months. After a year or so, if you’ve got a good ear and you work hard, you’ll be rapping along at a native pace.

I think that’s probably a small part of it, but even listening to standard Beijing Mandarin I don’t follow much more than I do here. :frowning: I wish adapting to a couple of pronunciation differences and a few different words was all I had to do. Unfortunately I think the problem’s more fundamental.

The impression I had when studying at NTNU and in the Mainland was that a four year BA in Chinese is probably equivalent to about six months to a year of actively living and learning in Asia. So, patience and practice like the rest of us.

Would you care to give your alma mater a plug and tell us where you studied Chinese for four years?

Whoa! It takes time.

You have to get a handle on the accents and the non-text book use of the language. Chill, get yourself a language exchange and insist on equal time for both tongues.


Didn’t your degree give you a year in a Chinese speaking place ? Just curious because I couldn’t imagine studying Chinese for 4 years without going somewhere it was spoken.

Yeah, I studied at the University of Florida. After the second year everything is almost entirly reading and writing, very little speaking and listening practice. This is partly because it becomes a 3-hour/week class (instead of five, like first and second years), and maybe also partly because after the second year nearly all of the students who don’t already speak Chinese at home have long given up.

Well, my major was actually Linguistics; I was just minoring in Chinese. I never wanted to take an entire academic year abroad, cause this would take too much time away from Linguistics, which I considered more important. I had, however, intended to go abroad for a summer, but every summer there was always some reason that I couldn’t do it this time.


When I first came to Taiwan I had only studied Chinese for a year at University in Australia. Initially I felt very discouraged too. Still after a few months my ears began to tune in to the sounds of Mandarin and because I had a good base of vocabulary and grammar I was able to improve fairly quickly.

I think just put yourself in situations where you have to speak and listen to Chinese and after a few months it should be less of a struggle.

The main barriers to listening comprehension (and I say this as a person with plenty of said barriers, so I know! :unamused: ) are twofold: lack of vocabulary and speed/accent. Lack of vocabulary causes far more problems than the other.

You probably feel you have memorized a lot of Chinese words, and indeed you have. Unfortunately, memorizing them, producing them for a test, or even recognizing them in written form is a far cry from being able to immediately, INSTANTLY know the meaning when you hear them. Your brain has to stop and “decode” words that it is not 100% familar with – that means less brain resources available to continue listening to the next word of the sentence, and the next and the next – and if you hit 2 or 3 unknown words, or not-completely-known words – crash.

So now you have a twofold problem: increase your 'active-passive" vocabulary (we might call it “activated” vocabulary – stuff that you may have known before, but which is not as familiar as it needs to be) and increase your overall vocabulary (because there will still be many, many things you just haven’t come across yet, and these will trip you up, too.)

I always thought I was a purely visual learner, but I’ve been experimenting with more aural methods lately, and I’ve been pretty pleased with the results. One of my favorite exercises these days is to take an article in Chinese (get something not too scary as to level! and hopefully somewhat interesting), read it closely with any dictionaries or other aids I need, and then have somebody record it for me. Yes, it is written style instead of oralized (although you could have a talented friend make the style of the read passage more natural, like speech, while taking care to include the terms you have underlined or highlighted, to make sure you get hte repetition on them) but the main thing is that you get hte repetitions of those new (or recycled) words.

Another thing is to get out of the “school mindset” in which each item is of equal importance. They aren’t. Focus on the items that you suspect will be more frequently used or of more use to you (i.e., things that have to do with favorite topics, topics you need for work/school/whatever, and so forth). Don’t waste your time on fancy stuff until you feel more comfortable with the “basics” (if there are “basics” in Chinese :unamused: ). Lots of people will be saying, “Oh, learn these chengyu” and so on, but I really think it is more valuable to you to learn what would be considered a core vocabulary. I have never seen a reliable list of this type for Chinese (I am talking about words, not single characters) for spoken language, but there are a number of wordlists for “Basic English” on the Net which make for interesting parallel references. Imagine that you could use and understand all the Chinese equivalents for those words instantly – you would probably understand a great deal more of what was said. And the more you listen to what is said, the easier it will be for you to produce accurate utterances yourself.

If you have an MD player, make yourself some “audio flashcards” – record the Chinese word, Englihs word and Chinese word again and make each of these units an individual track on the MD. THen set your player on “shuffle” and go do something useful while listening (work out, walk around, or something). It’s like flashcards, only for listening. This IS at the single-word level, so it could be argued that it is not as valuable as hearing the items in context, but then again the order is truly random, so that has its merits too. I use both these methods (the listening to passages and the audio flashcards) together and I feel pretty satisfied about the results (tested #1 in our class this semester including the into-Chinese portions of the test, so something must be working. I just hope it keeps working until well after the professional exam next year!)

Hope this helps.

Good advice from ironlady.

I hate chengyus - why learn a load of cliches when you could spend the time learning some relevant vocab ?

One of the best parts of my university course was the language labs - listening to radio broadcasts and recorded articles on various things Chinese.

Don’t worry too much about the accent issue. You will tune in very quickly.

This reminds me of an interesting observation I made a fews weeks or so ago. My character and vocabulary recognition is starting to get to the point to where I can read subtitles and understand most of what’s going on. But there was this time when I would always get stuck on that one character I didn’t know and it would mess up the whole line (and likely a few lines after that out of frusrtation). It’s seems like it would be obvious (and maybe it is to others) but mastering the technique of blocking out the stuff I don’t know (right away) and focusing on the stuff I do know is helping me alot (with listening and reading something I can’t ask about or re-read).

You got some good advice already.

I’ve seen people in the situation you’re in. Years in Uni but can barely speak or understand anything. Like people said, the reality on the street is different. You’ll struggle for a few months, then it’ll all suddenly come to you all those words you’ve learnt and you’ll be swimming. I’ve seent hat happen too. So my advice is forget about your ‘studying’ for a few months and get out there listening and talking as much as possible.


Thanks everybody for your help.

Your thought on this are surprisingly similar to my own. Usually when I study vocabulary, I do not consider a word learned until I know it well enough to recall its meaning within a fraction of a second. Maybe I just don’t know enough words, I guess.

As for the exercise you suggested, I’ll certainly give it a try, but I wonder exactly what benefit it is that one gets from listening to the passage after already having read it and familiarized oneself with all the difficult points. Other than verifying that you have learned the necessary vocabulary (which is not nothing), what do you think it does? Helps fix the words more firmly in your mind?

One thing that I am often told after telling people about my listening comprehension difficulties is that I need to “listen more.” I’ve really never understood what it is that I’m supposed to be learning when I listen to incomprehensibly difficult Chinese. When I made that post yesterday I actually had just gotten back from a 12-hour mini-road trip with three friends, and during this time I heard (and even listened to) plenty of Chinese, very little of which I understood. To the best of my knowledge my Chinese has not improved one iota on account of these 12 hours. Can anybody explain to me why people believe that you can learn something from listening to language sufficiently difficult that all you can make of it is things like “I think they’re talking about something to do with food”? Ironlady, I’d love to hear your take on this.

As means to study Chinese, Terry’s suggestions sound fine as usual. If you’re interested in using the language in day-to-day chatter, however — as opposed to learning the vocab necessary, e.g., to translate technical manuals on blender operation or read the more flowery literature out there — an hour of study is rarely as good as an hour chatting with friends. Hence the superior wisdom of Hexuan’s advice: pop into the local pub and start yacking.

Listening to incomprehensible Chinese doesn’t sound very useful to me. Maybe instead of listening (like most study techniques — excepting, perhaps, Terry’s suggestion of having a native speaker read and record for you, which I’ve also had success with; reading out-loud together also works well — a one-way activity) you should focus on conversing (a two-way activity). I often find that when new words arise in a conversation, interested in keeping the conversation going, my Mandarin-speaking partner will often offer a simpler explanation of the new word and then move on.

Talking of aliens (the big-eyed and spindly-fingered type, not the big-nosed white-skinned type) the other evening, a Mainland friend of mine used the expression you sheng zhi nian (literally, the years I have life) to say, “I’ll never believe that nonsense as long as I live.” I hadn’t heard this expression before and went “Huh? You sheng zhi nian?” Whereupon another friend interrupted with "Ta huozhe de shihou " and on we went. And I remember the expression without any need to memorize it because the conversation was engaging.

This method — conversing as much as possible — worked well even when I spoke very little Chinese. In fact, the bulk of my improvement came through interesting conversation on trains while traveling in China; there was little to do but talk and play cards, and people were endlessly patient in their attempts to figure out how much I made and whether I planned on getting married, etc. Courses and study are great ways of learning vocab and grammatical structures so as to facilitate ever more interesting and useful conversation; but conversation … ah, that’s the cream! :smiley:

I’ve said this in other places on this forum, I’m sure, but – you cannot learn what you do not comprehend. This is doubly true for foreign languages.

The purpose of listening to recorded passages the meaning of which you know perfectly well is to be exposed numerous times to those expressions. I’m probably thinking more of my own situation here: I’m at a reasonably high level of Chinese, so the “new” phrases and words are not what you might call “high-frequency”. Therefore, I can’t expect to be hearing them every 5 minutes “now that I realize what they are” (which does happen when you learn a new, high-frequency expression; I’ve had the experience of feeling like “hey, it was there, everywhere, all the time, but I never managed to notice it! Cool!”) Of course the ideal way to cement new vocab is to be presented with the new item in UNEXPECTED, COMPREHENSIBLE contexts repeatedly. For a beginner, we’re talking 50-70 reps to “fix” the word in the mind. The research does not say how many reps for advanced learners, but my intuition and experience would suggest that it would be a lower number, as there are more “connections” in place that can be capitalized on.

For general listening, you MUST make sure you can understand what’s going on (also true for reading, only dictionaries mean that if one has sufficient willpower and patience, one can plow through things that are really too hard; for listening, sleep usually intervenes). You are still acquiring vocabulary AND solidifying/acquiring grammar patterns, collocations, and morphology, but through listening, instead of some formal, stilted presentation in a book. Listening in real situations tends to be less controlled, of course, unless you have a really with-it friend who can remember your recent vocab adventures and reinforce them, and who also knows what you DON’T know. You will need to use top-down strategies (listening for general ideas, filling in details as you can, making hypotheses about what you think is being said and then updating them as “more information” comes in) and try to get away from bottom-up processing (word by word, stop when you don’t know a word, which is what traditional Chinese teaching encourages).

When I do a new segment for practice (I’m an interpreter), I first just go into the booth and do it in simultaneous mode – just to see how it goes. If it’s a disaster, then I take a recording of the segment and listen to it, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, and make sure I know each and every thing that’s going on. At my level, it’s possible to do this, with the help when necessary of the odd native-speaking classmate or the excellent Lanbridge Pinyin Chinese-English dictionary, which is my personal favorite for any listening task. (I think I have 3 copies…that’s how good I think it is.) I then go back and interpret the same passage numerous additional times, EVEN THOUGH I have a very good idea of what is coming up, having listened to it and studied it in detail. Of course there are some differences between interpreting and just listening – polishing the English output is another dimension that you don’t have to deal with when you’re just listening – I really do find that repeating the same material helps.

Reviewing/repeating/hearing or reading again things that you already “know” is always good for you, as long as the item is “on the edge” of your memory. Obviously repeating stuff you really, really know might be a waste of time to some extent; but repeating the stuff that you feel is lurking in that 50-70% zone will nail it down and solidify the instantaneous response which is the basis of all effortless comprehension.