Is it normal to struggle so much with understanding spoken chinese?

I am going through “My teacher is a martian”, one of the most basic graded readers from the Mandarin Companion series. I have learned all of the 150 characters and words that the book uses (both understanding and producing).

When I read the book, I can understand it really well (apart from some complicated grammar structures).

But when I try to listen to the audio version of the book, oh boy I struggle so much to understand what is going on. I even cut the audio book up and have it repeat each sentence several times before it advances to the next one, and even when slowed down to 40% of the original speed, I still struggle massively, and understand only the sentences that I studied before over and over again.

Is there any specific way to practice listening comprehention? Does it get easier fast? It is extremely dishartening as I have already learned Spanish, Portuguese and French just by learning some most common words and then just immersing watching netflix and listening to audiobooks, and it worked, but it doesnt seem to with chinese. Those most basic graded readers seem too advanced. My idea was to decompose the Mandarin Companion books and listen to them on reapeat but it is tough. Please advise and share your experiences!

Yes. A couple of things:

A) Reading you can do at any pace you want. If you were forced to read at speaking speed, you probably would also struggle. Also the ability to parse speech sounds into meaningful words takes a long time to develop compared to reading different scripts.

B) With romance languages you can more or less cheat with cognates. For Chinese, there are essentially 0 cognates.

C) You probably have more exposure to reading and thus are better at it.

No matter the case, there’s no secret here. You need more practice, like hundreds to thousands of hours.


lorentz covered basically everything already, but as for what content to practice with, something that helped me greatly was just going to youtube and searching “HSK1 stories” or “HSK1 listening practise” etc. You’ll find heaps of videos to practice listening. One of my favorites is Alison Mandarin. She has a whole playlist of “Slow Chinese Stories for beginners”:

When starting I just took it one story at a time, watching at half speed and pausing regularly as my brain tried to catch up. I listened to each of them a few times until it stop being painful, then moved to the next one. As you get used to it, it gets easier and you can move onto the HSK2-3 stories etc. But yeah, it’s just practise - there isn’t some shortcut, just actively listen to Mandarin audio that’s close to your level a LOT!

For me, when learning to understand spoken Mandarin I made half the progress with twice the effort compared to German. It’s just soo far removed from English (my native language) that native Chinese media is not even worth watching - just a wall of sound. Had to start with the easy stuff and work up (and I’m not even at native media yet, but at least the ~HSK3 level is starting to click so I’ll get there, but it’s a long road).


Yes for me as well. Lorentz and Kaysik said all that’s needed. I’ll just add a link to Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese with a list of free Chinese listening resources:
The best free Chinese listening practice for all levels | Hacking Chinese. He also has another link there with a few simple but effective ideas how to simplify listening practice (get cheap wireless headphones, have a level-suitable audio always available, etc).


And definitely don’t overlook the power of repetition. When I started out, I listened to audio from a variety of resources, but mainly focused on textbook audio dialogues. Whatever the resource, I would:

  1. Try to listen to it by itself multiple times, with no transcript.
  2. Try to listen to it by itself multiple times, this time with optional list of vocab words if available.
  3. Finally listen and read along with the full transcript to clear up anything that was not clear.

Then, I would take the snippet of audio and play it on my phone while walking around or doing chores or whatever. I usually had a “listening playlist” of the last week or whatever of new audio snippets. I would listen to that on repeat, getting exposure to the same dialogue or snippet of audio multiple times over the following week before finally retiring it.

When I later moved onto watching dubbed anime, I would take a generally similar approach. People get hung up on how it can be “boring”, and I certainly did at first. But I found it more enjoyable in the end as one can get a greater degree of comprehension, and thus satisfaction, from a more repetition heavy approach. I think I ended up watching (or “listening”) the dubbed version of Hunter X Hunter like 4-5 times. :laughing: