One of the hardest things about mastering Mandarin is understanding what people are saying, or building your Chinese listening comprehension.

Unlike learning a Romance or Germanic language (if you’re an English speaker), you won’t be able to pick up random bits of vocabulary here and there and follow along if you’re learning Mandarin. In other words, you’re starting from scratch, and that means exposure to the target language is even more crucial for building your listening comprehension.

When you take a Chinese class, the teacher speaks slowly and precisely; in real life, people are not so considerate. Instead they talk quickly, in half-sentences, and skip from one topic to the next. It’s easy to get lost. Therefore, a good way to improve your ability to understand Chinese speakers — second to an immersion camp, of course 😉 — is to watch television shows in the language you are trying to learn.

1. Start with Shows You Know

This one’s pretty essential. Begin by choosing a program that you know and like — a program that you would enjoy seeing again. For example, a Western show like Game of Thrones dubbed in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles is a good bet.

Note that it is often good to start with a show featuring action, as the dialogue in action shows is often simpler than the dialogue in other genres. For example, Chines period dramas, while incredibly popular in China, are know to be very difficult due to their heavy emphasis on dialogue and historical references.

Remember to have the option of subtitles and audio in English, so that you can switch to English if you are stuck.

2. Use Repetition to Help You Learn

The advantage of watching a Chinese program on a DVD or a service such as Netflix is that the show is not “live” and so, when you do not understand something – and that may happen frequently at first – you can back up and watch a snippet repeatedly until you do understand.

This is similar to the method described here on the Hacking Chinese blog. It’s based on recording and mimicking a given segment over and over until you’re completely comfortable with the contents.

It often helps if you have watched an episode before, because then if something is said that you cannot catch, you can continue the show without feeling lost. If you have subtitles in English available, you can switch to that for the scene to make sure you understand the meaning. 

At first it may be frustrating and difficult, but if you persist your ears will become more practiced at discerning the various words. You will notice that sometimes the words being spoken do not match the words in the subtitles. When you understand both the dialogue and the captioning, you know you are making real progress. You also learn that sometimes the same idea can be expressed several different ways.

3. Transcribe to Asses Your Chinese Listening Comprehension Progress

One benefit of having a Chinese TV show in front of you is having a tangible goal for your listing comprehension. That is to say, understanding 100% of the dialogue eventually. By attempting to transcribe the audio in real-time, you can gauge your current level of Chinese comprehension.

Since two episodes of the same series will be at more-or-less the same level of difficulty, you can try this exercise once per week to measure the progress you’re making in learning Chinese.

4. Move to a Different Series

Remember that different characters and actors, whether you’re listening to the show in the target language or a dubbed version, have their own ways of speaking. Furthermore, every genre or show tends to have its own range of vocabulary.

By changing programs, you will challenge yourself further. When you are comfortable enough, switch to comedy. Comedy is often more difficult because the dialogue is usually faster and the genre frequently involves word play.

5. Watch Chinese Shows to Master Chinese Listening Comprehension

After you can understand comedy, the next step is moving to programs that were produced in the Chinese. There are several reasons that these are more difficult for your Chinese listening comprehension than shows that were originally produced in your language. Cultural references will be different, and the dialogue will often contain more slang, which will also challenge you.

You may not be able to watch the show in English at all, so by the time you reach this stage, you’ll be listening without a net. Subtitles and the ability to go back and to listen to sections again are still tremendously helpful features. Eventually you’ll be able to watch and to understand the news in your second language. This is especially useful as items in the news are often topics of discussion.  

Watching television shows can help train your brain and your ears to understand the second tongue, so that the next time you are conversing in public, you will be better at keeping up with those speaking around you. This technique is also a great way to indulge in guilt-free TV.