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I'm learning standard Chinese and I recently realized that my listening skills are worse than I hoped. Once I hear something unexpected such as a common word but spoken with a different accent, the entire sentence becomes incomprehensible and it throws me off guard. As a result, one mistake leads to next sentences being also poorly understood.

I noticed a similar phenomenon when learning how to hear Morse code, which you practice in a way that's similar to practicing listening comprehension of a foreign language. I can currently do simple (4-character) exercises easily, but adding another one makes me feel overwhelmed and results in me remembering less (only the first 2 characters).

This makes me feel that the problem might not necessarily be related to whether I know certain words, but how I react to something unknown. Is there a way I can reduce or get rid of the brain freeze that happens when I hear something unexpected?

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    It's just an hypothesis but maybe the 'language processor' inside your brain is inadvertedly spending too much time trying to decode the unknown word. So if you hear, for example "Let's eat some XXX n' chips in tomorrow evening" where XXX are garbled sounds, maybe you'll also not catch the rest of the sentence, because you were too busy trying hard to hear what XXX was. Of course, an easy answer to this is more experience -- for the English example, you can probably guess the missing word, provided you know 'fish n' chips' which is a common multi word expression. Experience is key.
    – Brandin
    Jan 7 at 14:08
  • @Brandin Having learnt Chinese for 6 years (as my fifth foreign language), I can assure you that learners can have this problem without having issues in the brain's language processor. The issue is that Chinese has far fewer syllables than Germanic or Romance languages, so you need to hear both the syllable and the tone to decode the audio stream correctly. This is vastly more challenging for Chinese than for any other language I have learnt.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 7 at 16:07
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    @Tsundoku what also doesn't help is that the southerners don't seem to agree with northerners about the pronunciation (zh vs z, etc).
    – d33tah
    Jan 7 at 18:56

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Borrowing some bits and pieces from the conference interpreters' toolkit may be of help.

A standard exercise used in introductory classes to interpretation is textual/speech analysis, and in turn the closely related exercise of summarizing a text/speech.

There are several ways to go about this, but ultimately the core idea is the same: recognizing the overall architecture of the text/speech and learning to prioritise ideas. At heart, it is not all that different from rounding numbers. If I hear a large number, say "1,073,459.63", and I struggle to replicate it fully, I can always fall back on a lesser level of detail that is easier to remember: "roughly 1 million", "roughly 1 million 70 thousand", "roughly 1 million 73 thousand", etc. Practising analysis/summary allows you to better recognize whether a word/idea is the "1 million" part of the text or the ".63" part, and to not get too tripped up if you don't hear the ".63".

A good place to start could be to focus on the logical connectors that outline the structure: first, second, and, but, if, so, therefore, for example, in conclusion, etc. For instance, if you spot a sentence starting with "for instance" like this one, you know that it only serves to illustrate the point, and if you don't understand this sentence, you can always fall back on the lesser level of detail that excludes this particular example: your understanding of the logical structure is sufficient to know that whatever came after that "for instance" was just an illustration of the point made before that.

Once you get comfortable recognizing logical structures that way, it becomes easier to "know where you're at" at all times, so if you miss something, you can comfortably fall back on a higher level of abstraction instead of worrying too much about the specific part you didn't make out. At the very least, it should minimize the frequency with which you get completely stuck. To go back to the analogy of rounding numbers, the only time you would be completely stuck is if you don't hear the "1 million" part of the number, but if you miss any of the other 8 digits you would have that option of comfortably falling back on that higher level of abstraction, the "1 million" part of the number.

Last point, note that this skill is almost entirely transferable from language to language. Different languages will of course have different ways of structuring texts/speeches, and you have to get familiar with the specifics for each language, but once you learn how to recognise organizational patterns like that, the skill becomes a habit that you apply across languages, at whichever level of proficiency you happen to be. Your overall proficiency in the language is what allows you to go from "roughly 1 million" to "1,073,459.63", but this skill is what allows you to say "roughly 1 million" instead of getting tripped up and freezing because you missed some of the other digits.

A brief introduction can be found on the EU's ORCIT site, in the "Listening and Analysis" section. Some further exercises are outlined in Pédagogie Raisonnée De L’interpretation by Marianne Lederer and Danica Seleskovitch or in Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting - A short course by Andrew Gillies.

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