From my perspective, when reading sentences in Chinese, I might read:

[understandable part] [unknown word] [understandable part].

And I can usually understand the whole sentence to a large degree despite the unknown word (it'll usually be a name, or an adverb or idiom, i.e., something non-critical).

However when I'm listening to the same sentence, I instead hear:

[understandable part] [unknown word] [...what was that word? was it XYZ? oh no, that's not it; argh! they're still speaking? oh I give up].

And I completely miss the rest of the sentence (and this might carry on through later sentences). I subsequently read the transcript, and wonder why I thought it was so hard.

Question: How do I make my Chinese listening robust to unknown words?


1 Answer 1


In my experience reading has always been easier than listening, but I think that is because the majority of my study comes from text based materials. Practice is definitely required for learning to be able to understand through context clues instead of just by picking up every word, but I also have two suggestions for strategies to target listening practice.

First, play around with different speeds. My listening got much better in Chinese when I had a teacher who spoke about three times faster than my other teachers. The first week I understood almost nothing, but around week two or three, I ended up acclimating to it and being able to catch about as much as in my other classes. Right now I am learning Turkish from TurkishClass101.com and I really appreciate that they read the texts at half speed and at double speed so you can get used to hearing how the sounds might change at different tempos. If you are talking with someone who speaks slowly, you can think through vocabulary lists and check if that's the word you thought you heard in your head, but when people speak more quickly you are forced to give up on "getting" every single word and instead learn to trust yourself more on understanding context even if you miss a word or learn to make educated guesses for the gaps and remember what the potential options are as you continue to listen for more context.

Second, intentionally listen for new words in your listening material. ChinesePod does a really good job of this on their advanced level podcasts- they will describe new words in the target language, then have a dialogue that intentionally uses the new vocabulary, and follow up with a more free-form discussion of the topic where the new words are often used just because they fit the vocabulary of the subject. I've tried to do this myself when watching TV shows. If you haven't watched SpongeBob Squarepants in Chinese it is translated very well and having some context for what the show will be about can help you look up some words you think could be used beforehand so you can listen for them explicitly.

You can usually understand people speaking your native language even if the signal on a phone or internet cuts out for a word or two- being able to do this in another language just requires you to be able to trust your ability to make up for it in the same way. When you get used to listening with different speeds, you're forcing yourself to keep up with the speaker even if there are words that you don't totally get, and when you listen for specific words you are teaching yourself to process new information at speech-tempo. I still find reading easier than listening, but these strategies helped me feel more confident dealing with ambiguity in speech.

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