Listening to Native Chinese speakers

Hey sweet Forumosans. Sorry if this seems like a “noob” topic or anything.

I want to preface this with a snapshot of my self-analyzed language skills. I feel like I’m around an intermediate level Chinese speaker/writer. I normally find no trouble voicing what I have to say when I must speak, granted the conversation isn’t deep in politics or specialization, and writing is much easier. With this said, I like to read Chinese dictionaries on my spare time, and those are chock full of characters that are seldom used in daily vernacular but have very disposable meanings for general conversations, and I like to use them a lot in my writing. Like in English, I like to sit on what I am about to say before saying it (speak how I write, therefore), so I find myself doing the same in Chinese…

However, for the life of me, when watching Chinese media, I can’t do well without looking at the subtitles… I have a very bad time looking at the speaker and comprehending them (who is usually speaking relatively quickly, taking into account lower speaking time for the monosyllabic language Chinese is versus, say, French) at the same time. When the context is clear, of course, the difficulty subsides, but idk. I feel like my ability to follow is astronomical compared to just hearing speech by itself, especially when it is unprompted.

Am I alone here? I plan to move to Taiwan soon, so I figure time spent immersed among Chinese-only speakers would remedy this situation, but I’m finding it quite frustrating and I’m wondering if it is something I may be doing wrong. I feel like I’m the only one, and it’d be great to finally get some insight so I can put my conscience to rest.

– For the record – I do not have many opportunities to speak with other Chinese in Chinese as much as I do to write.


I’m the same way. I can’t understand the news very well in chinese, especially on politics. But I can watch normal shows and understand.

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I’ve noticed I fare better with TV. I was watching that show that got big a few months ago (forget what it is called, sorry), and I was getting it pretty good for where I am now I think. You think it’s because the dramatic nature leaves more room for enunciative clarity?

I don’t know, I think it’s because the news talk fast and uses “big” words I can’t put in context. Don’t worry, i’m technically a “native” chinese speaker although I haven’t taken a chinese class besides once since I moved from taiwan around 10. The news suck in Taiwan anyways so you’re not missing out, there are lots of English news sources in Taiwan now so you can always go there to see whats going on.

Hmm yeah I definitely noticed that. One time on Youtube’s Formosa Live News I saw them casually discuss the 華為的孟晚舟捕 incident as a 【嬴】for Taiwan. I was like… sure. Lol.

But that’s good to hear. I normally enjoy watching the news (not the West anymore) but it looks like I’m not gonna find much solace anyways haha. Thanks.

The biggest predictor of listening comprehension is the ability to instantaneously “decode” words. In other words, how many words do you really, really, REALLY know? (rhetorical question there…)

You have X processing capacity. Part of that has to go to figure out what words mean. But if the speaker has an accent, is going the speed of light, or it’s noisy, it takes extra brain resources to deal with those things, and there’s less left to puzzle over the meaning, so to speak. (This is Gile’s Effort Model for Interpreting but it’s the same thing for listening to any foreign language, or your native one, for that matter).

I once took a year off from interpreting in disgust at my horrendous listening abilities, and found that my listening had improved after the year, just through translation. I think it was the word knowledge gains. But I still find Chinese listening a big challenge and I suspect I always will. There are just too many potential unknowns out there, and too many accents and too much speed. Not to mention “rhetorical differences” (aka “They have little regard for logical structure, compared to English”).

So, lots and lots of reading to build vocabulary. Reading is listening at your pace, so to speak. And don’t expect to magically become awesome on every topic known to man. Ain’t gonna happen. Don’t ask how I know. :frowning:


Everyone wants to have better speaking/listening skills than reading/writing because that’s the order that it’s supposed to come… but I started out opposite. Like you. And now I’ve studied Chinese to fluency.

I was behind my friends at first because they could talk and listen circles around me. But eventually, I overtook them (after many many years).

Many of my friends plateaued because they got good enough in their speaking/listening that they were comfortable. They had enough Chinese ability as they cared to work for. They wanted to progress but didn’t have enough motivation to keep going.

But people who develop strong reading skills are laying the foundation. It’s slow going and you won’t see the dividends until years down the road. I’ve had a lot of embarrassing instances where people assume that I’m one of those foreigners who doesn’t speak Chinese when I was working through my second Chinese novel.

Then one day, I looked back and realized that it all worked out. When my Taiwanese friends use 成語, I get it. My ABC friends who used to be so much more advanced than me don’t.

Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t give up.


Before I invest that much of my precious life in laying a foundation, I want to be sure the house will be worth it.

I simply don’t have anything in Chinese I want to read all that badly. As for spoken… I certainly have plateaued at a level that’s not particularly high. The problem for me is vocabulary. I’m pretty sure I know what I would have to do to fix that. But will it be worth it for me?

@ironlady @Caspian You both worked wonders for my self-esteem haha.

But in all seriousness, thank you for both your insights. I will continue to do what I do in hopes that I will naturally improve over time. I have no problem with taking it slow, either, as I really love the language.

(It also helps knowing that I am not the only one in this situation, I might note!)

For me, finding reading material is all about finding the right genre. My wife loves manga. I love romance and sci-fi novels. I even know people who play adventure games in Chinese where the characters game speech bubbles over their heads, which forces them to read. There’s a plethora of material.

But if the foundation isn’t worth building, there’s nothing wrong with pitching a tent. Camping is fun, too. But living in a tent will get old if it turns into your long-term residence.

One more thing I forgot to mention. As for your writing ability, are you typing or writing by hand? Or both? Do you use zhuyin or pinyin?

Just as reading is foundational to mastering Chinese, writing by had is foundational to reading. When I first started studying Chinese, I just wanted to read and type. This hindered my progress when I wanted to take it to the next level. Finally I had to backtrack and spend three months just learning how to write. Many people think that typing can replace writing by hand in the 21st century. Not so! Try going to the doctor and filling out the form if you can’t write. Or, a friend is passing around a birthday card and you’re rude for not writing a personal note. Plus, you’ll pick up characters better if you can write.

Also, if you’re going to live in Taiwan, you need to know zhuyin. You don’t need to mast it… but you need to know the basics. Try using a public kiosk. No pinyin keyboard is available. Just the other day, I was applying for a store membership card and had to type my address using zhuyin.

the language they use in news broadcasts is actually really different than what ppl say normally. the words are all the shu mian versions that no body says outside zheng shi settings. the big thing tho is that they will find every friggen jian cheng and invent even more to use, so there will be words you have never heard of that are actually just shortened versions of words you do know. eg. chao shang is a shorthand for chao ji shi chang + bian li shang dian (convenience stores or markets) that i have never heard in my daily life but have seen in newscasts. if you were to hear it you would be like ‘ahh i don’t understand these words’ but if you see it typed out you’d be able to infer that it means a store.

these jian chengs are probably one the worst parts of chinese for learners to be honest. they are everywhere and you just have to memorize them. if english followed this routine, we would say crap like i’m going to supcon’, ‘let’s saphowano’, ‘dadadididodo?’

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I actually had never heard of zhuyin up until you got me to look it up. Having recently picked up Japanese, this had a striking similarity to furigana (you mentioned your wife is into Japanese, maybe you’re aware?) so I’m sure they’re similar systems. It is a wonderful idea, and it definitely has its uses in Japanese so I’m pretty excited to see there is a Chinese version (as I believe for it there is more utility, anyway)

For the first year of learning Chinese, I made it a point to write every character I learned. To start, I would read/learn characters straight out of a dictionary with stroke orders… mostly to see if I liked the language, and loved it since I felt it taught me so much about meanings; from there, I taught myself words and practiced sentences in writing. * I still have my notebook, which I use today, from a year ago * At a novice level, I was especially compelled to believe script was imperative because I used to see a lot of Chinese on my campus use keyboards to write, and it just felt weird. I don’t know, it just struck me to ask, “if you had to write, could you?” which I guess sounds kind of messed up… especially since they use simplified characters (but I guess it makes more sense?)… but I thought it was cool when Chinese TV show people would write such beautiful calligraphy in those big scrolls and my naïveté led me to be afraid such abilities were slowly diminishing over a generation…

In seriousness, I think it did me well to do so. Fast forward to a year from now, I know for a fact characters would not come to memory so easily if I was typing the whole time… memorizing strokes certainly gave me a huge advantage, and quite honestly it makes my typing faster.

As far as reading, sometimes I have a hard time because I became used to learning characters alone and not full words… so I would have to look up the definition of two characters and their meaning as they are juxtaposed (as much as knowing what they mean separately helps, unfortunately I am not always successful) but I am working on it. A good example of this is 瑰寶 ; I know what they mean separately so I would be led to think “oh, like a gem!” but if there is a human being discussed, I would probably be misled… things like that.

It sounds like your Chinese and your studying methods are just fine.

As for learning how to put two characters together when the meaning of the word is not the juxtaposition of the two characters, don’t worry too much about that. This skill will come with time. Reading a lot particularly helps with this skill.

As for zhuyin, this is the phonetic system of choice in Taiwan. When you arrive in Taiwan, you’ll realize that it’s everywhere. If you buy a phone in Taiwan, it doesn’t come pre-installed with a pinyin keyboard… just zhuyin. For kids who can’t read Chinese characters (because they’re super hard), children’s books come with the zhuyin pronounciation next to each character. So, if the child reading gets stuck, there’s the zhuyin to help them out. Pinyin is a mainland thing.

Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese a while ago. Not sure if zhuyin was born out of that?

Anyhow, keep doing what you’re doing… about a year from now, you’ll look back and realize that all the effort is just starting to pay off.

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Zhuyin was devised in Beijing in 1913

It is also used in Taiwan (alongside several other systems)

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Great. I’m going to go ahead and add zhuyin to my list. I have no reason not to! In fact, I’m sure this conversation has prevented some major slip-ups for the future… I almost feel as if I would have never come across zhuyin if I haven’t already.

Thanks for the reassurance. I especially like to read news articles in Chinese and I will make sure it doesn’t frustrate me as much when this occurs, haha. I surely learn well from when it does occur, so your advice is valuable. I’ll probably do so for a little longer until I feel more comfortable to read books. Yesterday, on a shuttle, I had seen a lovely lady reading some magazine and I thought, “hey, I want to do that someday!” I’m eager to move on.

The children part makes so much sense. Here I was thinking they were just good enough to learn the characters at such a young age… really goes to show how the average Western individual is unaware of Chinese culture/education. I was always under the impression, I will say, that pinyin was a less than desirable way to translate Chinese text… When I initially learned about furigana, I was learning about Kanbun. I found it almost unbelievable that there wasn’t already such a system for the Chinese that was not debated (given that kana script had such a bad reputation in history). I much prefer to be using a non-Romanized phonetic system, as I believe it is less arbitrary in nature for lack of a better word.

I dont know much on japanese, but as far as i know furigana by hiragana or katakana is used in a similar way to both of Pinyin and Zhuyin. Zhuyin is more similar to pinyin tha kana in japanese, because

Each kana character (syllabogram) corresponds to one sound in the Japanese language.


Zhuyin and pinyin are based on the same Mandarin pronunciations, hence there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two systems:

Those methods are fine…if you like super-traditional.

I’m more in the “look at the brain science” camp. But the higher your level, the farther language study/acquisition deviates from SLA theory and what happens with really small children anyway.

If you’re in Taipei, a friend of mine teaches interpretation at NTNU, and welcomes foreigners to audit the class – they sort of serve as sparring partners for the Chinese-speaking students. (There are some English-speaking students in the program as well). But if you’re more interested in oral language than in reading, interpreting practice is a good way to get incredibly depressed and then get lots of vocabulary. But if you’re not an actual interpreting student you might be able to bypass the first one. LOL

The only objection to using Pinyin is that it can lead to foreign accent – which only happens when the student reads the words on his own without having heard them enough. There’s no inherent advantage in using Zhuyin or Pinyin or any other system, as long as you really know how it works, but more importantly are getting oral input from some good source and in a way you can comprehend. That’s what builds correct accent, not which system of romanization you use.

Yeah every now and then I find that I have been saying something wrong the whole time (I’m quick to remedy, though, so it’s okay!) and I know this is why. I suppose I should work on finding the best way around this.