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👂How I learned fluent Chinese by listening to podcasts
Why podcasts are the best language learning tool
The #1 tool that has improved my Chinese the most is podcasts. And it’s not even close.
In the days before podcasts, options for honing your Chinese listening were as limited as they were frustrating. You could break the bank on a Chinese course with outdated audio CDs, tune into the radio, watch TV shows, or make the monumental leap to China. But these methods had their shortcomings:
Outdated Content: Learning from old sources is like trying to navigate with a map from a century ago.
Limited Topics: Your choices were constrained to a narrow range of subjects.
Inconvenience: These methods just weren't user-friendly, often requiring a dedicated effort to access.
Lack of Control: The inability to pause, rewind, fast-forward, or revisit material impeded your progress.
Lack of Authenticity: Many materials sounded formal and far from colloquial.
Costly: Several options carried a hefty price tag, far from budget-friendly.
Unsurprisingly, this made meaningful progress in listening comprehension a herculean task. But then, enter podcasts - a game-changer in every sense.
Podcasts are convenient
The biggest benefit of podcasts is their convenience. I can listen to them anywhere. This is huge.
We’re all busy. We all have jobs and responsibilities and limited time to study.
So the easier it is for me to learn, the more likely I'm going to do it.
Reducing friction and increasing convenience is the easiest way to get something done.
This is why I love the convenience of downloading podcasts onto my phone or streaming podcasts on the go when I'm out and about.
I can listen to podcasts passively throughout the day, which would otherwise be "dead time" and increase my overall time immersing in the language.
Examples of passive listening include while:
Commuting (walking, riding a bike, driving, on a bus/train, etc.)
Doing house chores (cooking, washing dishes, sweeping, moping)
Working (admin activities, other low mental activities, etc.)
Exercising (running, working out, etc.)
Waiting (in line, for appointments, etc.)
All that passive “dead time” adds up. By listening passively I can increase my study time from 0 hours some days to 1-3 hours most days without much effort.
Some people think that listening passively won't help your learning much because you're not actively engaged but based on my experiences, I disagree.
Although my attention fluctuated while listening passively, I still unconsciously absorbed the sounds of the language, which significantly improved my ability to pick out tones and pronunciation differences. This in turn improved my listening comprehension and speaking.
Moreover, you can adjust your attention level accordingly based on your particular situation because you can have podcasts constantly playing in the background,
Listening actively all the time is not always ideal because it is exhausting and can decrease motivation if you think you need to do this all the time.
This also lowers your expectations for how much you "need" to understand and your overall enjoyment while listening becomes much higher.
The end result is more listening and more learning.
Podcasts are interesting
One of my issues with listening to old audio CDs or the radio was that they were boring.
It was always the same speaker or the same few channels that talked about the same few topics.
There was no variety. There was no novelty.
But podcasts are different. You can find podcasts about every topic under the sun. Podcasts about language learning, sports, travel, lifestyle, business, investing, sex, cultural issues, politics, and much more!
Not only that, but every podcast host was unique; the way they spoke, their voice, their intonations while talking, their laugh, etc.
Moreover, podcasts are constantly updating with new episodes coming out weekly and thousands of different podcasts to choose from.
This makes listening to podcasts wildly interesting and fun.
Discovering new podcasts and listening to a new episode is always an exciting dive into a completely new world.
I always say, in order to do something consistently, you have to enjoy it.
Podcasts make listening to Chinese enjoyable and this is one of the main reasons why my Chinese improved so quickly and why I continue to listen to podcasts.
Podcasts are controllable
The problem with traditional media like radio and TV is that you can't control the playback. This is fine if you’re just listening for fun but for language learning, this is a deal-breaker.
Luckily, podcasts make this easy.
With podcasts, you can pause an episode if you need a break or want to look up a word and restart playback at a later time.
You can rewind the episode if you didn't catch a word or phrase or if you want to listen to something again for increased input.
You can slow down sections that are difficult to comprehend as a beginner learner. You can speed up sections that are boring or to challenge your listening comprehension.
You can listen to the same episode over and over again to get repetition. As a beginner, I would listen to the same episode 5-10 times, and each time I would pick up something new. After each listen my comprehension would grow, increasing my overall confidence.
I can't stress how important this was for my learning and how often I engaged with these tools to help me learn faster.
Without the ability to control playback, you have to catch everything, look up characters, practice your pronunciation, and do all your learning in just one playthrough. Not ideal for language learners.
Podcasts are colloquial
The problem with radio programs or even TV shows is that they are produced to sound more professional or dramatic for viewer experience (think news anchors or TV soap operas).
This is not exactly how real people talk in daily life.
If you want to learn Chinese to speak with real people, it makes sense to consume and listen to media that depicts how Chinese people actually speak in real life.
And this is why I love podcasts.
It often feels like I'm a fly on the wall, secretly eavesdropping in on an interesting & colloquial discussion on the streets of China.
But in fact, I'm in my pajamas halfway across the world. Technology is amazing.
Podcasts have made real conversations and discussions with Chinese people that would happen in everyday life widely accessible.
You get to learn colloquial words, phrases, and slang that you won't find learning in classrooms or textbooks.
Moreover, this is why I love shadowing with podcasts to improve my pronunciation because the audio is natural, authentic, and colloquial.
Podcasts are free
There's no need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for curated material when thousands of podcasts are accessible for free.
All you need to do is download any one of the free apps like Spotify, Himalaya, 小宇宙播客 or simply YouTube and start listening.
It's never been easier to listen to your favorite podcast.
Podcasts have changed the game for me to improve my Chinese listening comprehension, tones, pronunciation, and speaking because they are:
Podcasts allowed me to absorb tons of authentic Chinese input even as a beginner learner.
If you haven't tried listening to podcasts in Chinese yet I highly recommend you start. I made a list of my favorite podcasts and resources that you can download here.
If you have any questions about how to find the best podcasts or my process for listening to podcasts even if you don't understand much, let me know and I'll make a post about that.
PS Here are some practical ways I can help you:
Speaking Course: This is the step-by-step system I used to go from being afraid to speak to having meaningful conversations with native Chinese speakers (in real life, podcasts, live streams etc.) and making life-long friends.
The Language Learner OS: The all-in-one hub to help me organize all my notes, track my progress, stay more productive, and learn Chinese faster and more effectively.
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