The quickest proven way to improve your Chinese listening skills

by Jennifer Zhu

Learning a language

Like most Chinese language learners, many of my students have difficulty with listening comprehension in the beginning. If I speak at a normal or slightly faster-than-normal pace, they usually can't understand what I say. As such, I have tried different methods for them to improve their listening skills, and the results speak for themselves -- the following method is the quickest way my students improve.

Since it's difficult for non-advanced-level students to clearly distinguish each Chinese word, the quickest way to improve listening skills is to learn to instead listen for the keywords in the topic or sentences. Here are 3 ways I have used to help my students efficiently pick out keywords.

1. Learn common Chinese sentence patterns

• Sentences with “ (shì)”.


“wǒ” means “I/me”, “shì” means “to be”, “equals to”, or “is/am/are”. We can use this sentence structure to introduce our name, nationality and so on.

• Questions with an interrogative pronoun.


“nǐ” means “you,” “jiào” means “to be called,” “shén me” means “what”.

• Sentences with a verbal predicate.


• “Yes / no” questions with “ (ma)”


“ma” is a question word that we put at the end of the sentences to make a ‘yes or no' question.

2. Pay more attention to the nouns and verbs in sentences.

Normally, nouns and verbs provide the most useful information on a topic.

Nouns have four main characteristics:

• The majority of the time, they are modified by a measure word.


Grammar: Number + measure word + noun

• They can act as a subject, an object or a complement, but never as a result. A noun can occasionally be adverbial, but not often.


  1. 苹果很好吃 (pínɡɡuǒ hěn hǎo chī) = Apples are delicious
  2. 我要苹果 (wǒ yào pínɡɡuǒ) = I want apples

• They may not be modified by the negative adverb “不 (bù)”.

• They may not be reduplicated (unless it's for a “cutesy” effect, usually when speaking with small kids).

There are five main characteristics of verbs in Chinese:

• The main function of verbs is to be in the predicate of a sentence.

• The majority of Chinese verbs are transitive, which means they take an object.


  1. 我有一支 (wǒ yǒu yì zhī ) = I have a pen

• Verbs CAN be negated by the adverb “不 (bù)”. However, other than verbs of emotion, they CANNOT be modified by “很 (hěn).”


  1. 我不喝咖啡 (wǒ bù hē kāfēi) = I don't drink coffee (CORRECT)
  2. 我很喝咖啡 (wǒ hěn hē kāfēi) = I very drink coffee (INCORRECT)

• Most Chinese verbs can be reduplicated, softening their meaning slightly.


  1. 我要试试这件衣服 (wǒ yào shìshì zhè jiàn yī fu) = I want to try on this dress

• Most verbs can be modified with the aspect particles “了 (le)”, “着 (zhe)”, and “过 (guò)”.


  1. 吃了苹果 (wǒ chī le pínɡɡuǒ) = I ate an apple
  2. 吃着苹果 (wǒ chī zhe pínɡɡuǒ) = I am eating an apple
  3. 吃过苹果 (wǒ chī ɡuò pínɡɡuǒ) = I have eaten apples before

3. Memorize high frequency vocabulary used in daily conversation

• Personal Pronouns: 你 (nǐ), 我 (wǒ), 她/他/它 (tā)


  1. 我是中国人 (wǒ shì zhōnɡ ɡuó rén) = I am Chinese
  2. 你是美国人 (nǐ shì měi ɡuó rén) = You are American
  3. 他/她是英国人 (tā shì yīnɡ ɡuó rén) = He/she is British

• Numerals and Quantities: 一 (yī), 二 (èr), 两 (liǎng), 三 (sān), 七 (qī), 十 (shí), 百 (bǎi), 千 (qiān), 万 (wàn), 亿 (yì), 半 (bàn)


  1. 两万三千七百一十六 (liǎnɡ wàn sān qiān qī bǎi yī shí liù) = 23,716
  2. 一亿美元 (yí yì měiyuán) = a hundred million dollars
  3. 半个苹果 (bàn ɡè pínɡɡuǒ) = half an apple

• “是 (shì)” and “的 (de)” may be used in almost every Chinese conversation.


  1. 这是苹果 (zhè shì pínɡɡuǒ) = This is an apple
  2. 这是我的女儿 (zhè shì wǒ de nǚér) = This is my daughter

Of course, if you want to be able to fully understand native speakers, you still need to practice with full conversations in different contexts, using a wide variety of materials like Chinese movies, videos, songs etc. There is no shortcut, but there are highways!

If you have any questions about Chinese learning or just want to say “hi” to me, please add my WeChat: jenniferzhu6, or scan the QR code below. I will also add you to a WeChat group where you can practice your Chinese for free, if you want.

QR code for Jennifer Zhu's WeChat

About the Author

Jennifer Zhu is a professional Chinese teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience with, an online Chinese school providing customized 1-to-1 Chinese lessons. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages.


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