If you’re new to learning Mandarin Chinese, you might feel like Mandarin sounds absolutely mental. That’s mostly down to the fact that you’re a beginner learner, but it’s also because you’re right. At first, it is a bit mental
I don’t care what any gurus or salesman tell you, listening in Mandarin Chinese is objectively hard compared to many other languages.
- Mandarin has short, very similar sounds and syllables. Mandarin has over one thousand unique syllables, but English has almost ten times as many. This leads many students of Mandarin to say, ‘Everything sounds the same!’
- Context is essential in Mandarin. This means you have to put in extra effort when listening. For example, if I hear the word ‘she’ in English, I know someone is talking about a female. The sound ‘ta’ in Chinese could mean ‘he’ – 他, ‘she’ – 她, or ‘it’ – 它. It could also mean over one hundred other words, but the only way you can figure out which one is through context and spending a lot of time learning.
- Regional accents. Because of the similar sounds and short syllables in Mandarin, regional accents make things even tougher. For example, I live in Guangzhou, and many locals replace the ‘sh’ sound with ‘si’. Given the fact there are thousands of words starting with both the ‘sh’ and ‘si’ sounds in Chinese, this makes things very complicated indeed.
If you’re a beginner and you’re reading this thinking, “Oh, what’s the point? I’m going to learn German instead!”
Hold on a second.
There are two very simple (but not easy) ways around the listening problem.
- Practice, practice, and more practice. Seriously, when it comes to listening in Mandarin, quantity is everything.
- Listen at your level (or slightly above). Unless you’re a complete beginner and just want to get a feel for the language, listening to podcasts about astrophysics isn’t going to help you as a complete newbie. If you want to improve, you have to listen actively at the appropriate level.
If you think that listening to hours and hours of Mandarin in the hope that it’ll somehow go into your brain and you’ll end up understanding everything you hear, then you’re wrong. I’m sorry. I wish it were true.
The general rule of thumb is as follows:
- Follow Krashen’s ‘i+1’ input hypothesis – Simply put, consume listening material that’s slightly more difficult than your current level. Finding this suitable level of listening material takes practice and you’ll never get it perfectly right, but that’s OK. Just try your best, listen, and keep listening.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat – Just listened to a podcast? Cool story, bro. Try listening to it 20 times, shadowing it, transcribing it, and writing your own summary of it. It is a well known fact by now that reptition is essential in language learning.
- Get as much exposure as possible – You know how I said earlier that you shouldn’t just listen to anything and everything because it won’t help much? Well, I lied a bit. The more exposure you have to the language, the better. Just try to keep it at least somewhat comprehensible. If you understand none of what you hear, you’re not helping yourself and you’re wasting valuable time.
Now I have good news and bad news for beginners, so I’ll give you the bad news first.
Your choice of listening resources is fewer than that of an intermediate and advanced learner.
The reason being is that there are very few forms of Chinese media that cater to absolute beginners. A podcast or radio station geared towards newbies wouldn’t have many listeners… or episodes.
The good news?
Learning the basics can easily be done for free or very cheaply.
Chinese Skill, Hello Chinese, and Duolingo are the apps I recommend every absolute beginner starts with. They certainly won’t take you all the way to fluency, but they’re free and provide a simple introduction to all areas of the Chinese language. They have you listening to basic sounds and sentences straight off the bat.
You’ll move through the 5-minute mini-lessons as fast as you want by learning a few bits of vocab and a new grammar structure.
Nothing too complicated here, but that’s exactly what you need at this stage.
Even the best Chinese learning textbooks are far from riveting literature, but they offer listening material that’s suited to your level.
The following are textbooks I recommend. I’ve used them on university language courses in mainland China, and for independent self-study.
PRO TIP! I download the audio from my textbook and import it into an app called Audio Stretch. With AudioStretch, I can listen to the audio normally, slow it down to practice shadowing, or I can crop complicated sections of the audio to repeat it over and over again until it clicks in my head.
The HSK textbooks aren’t necessarily my favourite textbook, but they are probably the most widely used, particularly among foreigners in China.
The HSK is the Chinese Proficiency Test for foreigners, therefore many learners decide to study in alignment with the test. The HSK also serves as a somewhat accurate benchmark of your level of Chinese.
HEADS UP! The HSK is undergoing some fairly big structural changes you should probably be aware of. Read a full guide here.
The BOYA series is my personal favourite. It’s more detailed than the HSK (whilst still keeping in line with the HSK content) with a lot more learning activities.
Developing Chinese textbooks are used in other university language courses in China. They’re incredibly comprehensive and have a lot of learning content, but I still prefer Boya for the layout and structure.
Podcasts are the absolute BOMB when it comes to learning any language, but they have to be used right.
I’ve decided to focus on podcasts that are educational podcasts specifically created to teach Mandarin Chinese, as opposed to native-level Mandarin podcasts about a range of niche topics that are only useful to advanced learners (although there’ll be some of those later).
I listen to a podcast from Chinesepod almost every day, and I have done it for quite some time.
ChinesePod provides thousands of 10-30 minute podcasts covering a huge range of interesting and useful topics. From the beginner level up until the intermediate level, you’ll hear some Chinese dialogue and then two speakers on the podcast will break down the exchange. So, after a few listens, you’ll have a much fuller understanding of the exchange.
There are basic and premium subscription options for Chinesepod. I have the basic subscription, with which you can have access to all audio and video lessons as well as the lesson notes. With the premium subscription, you get quite a few more fancy bells and whistles.
As you’d expect with a resource as good as Chinesepod, it doesn’t come cheap. However, you can save a lot of money by purchasing a long-term subscription.
Make sure you take advantage of the free trial first!
There are a few free lessons on YouTube as well, giving you a clear impression of what lessons will be like.
- Basic Subscription – $14/month – $39/3 months – $124/12 months
- Premium Subscription – $29/month – $79/3 months – $249/12 months
ChineseClass101 is another podcast service with great presentation and detail. Just like Chinesepod, there are thousands of audiovisual lessons on their database broken up into 5 study levels.
The one area where Chinese Class 101 has Chinesepod beaten is with their collection of add-ons. With the premium+ option, you can get regular 1 on 1 lessons with a native-speaking teacher.
In my opinion, Chinese Class 101 podcasts simply aren’t as entertaining as the ones on Chinesepod. The content of Chinesepod is much more informal, but this won’t matter to a lot of learners. Chinese Class 101 also has fewer materials for intermediate and advanced learners compared to Chinesepod (but still quite a lot).
There are a lot more subscription options with Chinese Class 101, so you can check out their pricing page here.
As always, check out their free trial and videos on YouTube before you hand over your cash.
Melynks Chinese features loads of podcasts following the format of situational Chinese dialogues broken down into English afterward by Serge Melynk (Russian guy) and a Chinese lady.
Many Chinesepod and Chinese Class 101 podcasts follow this same format, but they expand more into other formats and generally have a lot more choices available on their database.
However, at 97 US dollars for a full-year subscription, you could do a lot worse than Melynks.
Melynks also provides transcripts for every audio lesson (very important) and a supplementary worksheet.
Slow Chinese features very short podcasts that are conducted entirely in Mandarin, with the speakers slowing everything down a lot. This might not suit complete beginners all that much, but it’s perfect for high beginners and intermediate learners to practice shadowing.
Slow Chinese stopped uploading back in 2018 and there aren’t any transcripts available, but it’s an awesome free resource and the podcasts are all still available. You can find them in Apple podcasts and whatever the Google equivalent is.
Another podcast that is led entirely in Mandarin and may seem daunting to beginners, but rest assured the discussion and story are always kept at the same language level. The podcasts are also divided into 9 levels from complete novice to advanced.
Full transcripts and other supplementary lesson notes from each episode can be accessed if you subscribe to their Patreon account.
An excellent selection of really funny, situational dialogues in Chinese broken down into English. These podcasts go from beginner to advanced, although for me, sometimes the levels aren’t completely accurate. However, that’s my only gripe with these guys because I love the more informal, humorous nature of the podcasts.
The podcasts are free to listen to but you’ll have to subscribe for all of the other goodies like transcripts, downloadable mp3 files, worksheets, etc. It’s $99.99 for the year.
YouTube is now home to an absolute ocean of Mandarin learning content for beginners, and for much of this content, you only need your ears. Simply having the video play in the background is enough.
Now, there are so many channels out there vying for your attention it can be probably quite overwhelming. That’s why I’ve drawn up a shortlist of my favourites for you to try out.
For a whopping list of youTube channels dedicated to learning Mandarin, check out my collection here.
Probably my favourite Mandarin learning channel on Youtube (and I’ve seen a lot). Eileen knows exactly what learners need and offers it in a variety of formats. You’ve got HSK learning content as well as general interest content and street interviews.
Seriously, I think you could arrive at an intermediate level of Mandarin Chinese just from this channel alone.
This channel also offers a ton of excellent learning content, and I can confirm that the paid courses atYoyo Chinese are really good as well. I think it’s really quite rare for an internet course to cover all areas of the language quite well, but Yoyo Chinese is the best I’ve come across.
You won’t get stuff like street interviews or discussions about hot topics on the Yoyo Chinese channel, but you’ll get loads of really detailed grammar explanations and coverage of Chinese idioms.
Chinese Class 101 podcast service is really good, but they’re incredibly generous in terms of how much free content they give away on their YouTube channel.
To be honest, it’s almost as if they give away too much. Everything you need to learn the basics is on their channel, and they cover all aspects of the language in great detail.
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