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How do you remember what someone says in another language?

So, I've been learning Chinese through my school for 5 years now and I'm not too bad. My reading, writing and speaking skills are generally pretty good but the one thing I really struggle with is my listening skills. Though I can easily understand a word I've learned when it is spoken to me, I struggle to remember all the words said when a sentence is spoken, not even mentioning a conversation, which I certainly struggle to keep up with the details. I've done a bit of research into this such as trying to watch more Chinese movies and TV shows, but I tend to lack the vocabulary at the moment to really know exactly what they're on about, hence why I've started to also do Chinese on duolingo. Does anyone know of a strategy to remember all the words said, in order, or figured out a way, which they would like to share? Thank you

March 23, 2018



The first time I went to China I struggled with this too. I just couldn't handle the overload of information. A sentence with one unfamiliar word was alright, I just had to ask what it meant, but when there were two of them my thought process completely broke down. I found a small school that gave lessons in listening comprehension, and I improved really fast through their method slightly modified by my demands. I don't know if it would work for you but I tried it on my own a few months later, and once again made great progress.

The method they used was pretty simple. We watched the news and after about a sentence my teacher paused the TV and I had to repeat exactly what had been said. (We also discussed the news, but that is not important for my advice here.) Obviously that wasn't going to work for me, so I had the teacher give me the lesson content before we actually used it so that I could preview all the vocabulary. But you probably should try to do it the way I did later, on my own. I chose some TV show (with Chinese subtitles, to make sure I got the words right) and added the unknown vocabulary to my list. (I use Anki.) Then I watched the show, pausing after about a sentence, repeating that sentence. Doing this forced me to process the content faster, but without having to focus on an actual reply. I guess that it also connects listening and pronunciation. Anyway, it worked really well for me, and the improvement per minute ratio, so to speak, was definitely higher than for speaking with actual people. (This might not be true for someone less shy than me.)

Edit: I recommend 家有儿女. (Something another teacher I had in China used.) It is pretty accessible, since it is made for kids/families.


It sounds like you have a couple of factors here as your problem - vocabulary not big enough, and not enough practice with listening.

One thing NOT to do. Don't just watch Chinese movies or TV and think this will improve things. I know, this sounds counter-intuitive, but for a while I worked alongside someone whose PhD research was on this very issue. Her findings were: it felt to the watcher as if they were doing something useful, but when one actually tested whether they had improved their comprehension, or learnt new vocabulary (and every single person who watched was convinced that there was an improvement!), it was found that they had not actually got any benefit at all. It also used up a lot of time that could have been put to better use.

However, the type of method that procellis describes is a completely different, and highly useful, way of working on it. Either line by line, as described (which I also had to do while studying in China).

Alternatively - and the results will be similar - watch something which is at the very most about 10 to 15 minutes long. Then watch it through again, and again a third time. By now you should at least have an inkling of what is being said. Now watch it through basically line by line, pausing and repeating as necessary until you have got EVERYTHING that was being said. Look up things as needed. Take notes. Do it for the entire thing. By now, everything should make sense (and you could probably repeat the whole thing even in your sleep!). And now watch it through a few more times.

I had to do this exact process for several different language classes in my undergraduate degree. It was agonizing at first, but it made an amazing difference to my comprehension of the spoken language.


Was your colleague's research published anywhere I could read? Sounds fascinating.

I assume the finding would cease to apply beyond some level of competence, for example if you understand 98% of words said, then generalized expose is a reasonable way to learn new things through context, as we do in our native languages?


As far as I know the research was not published.

Like you, I am also sure that once you are a past a certain level of competence, generalized exposure is a reasonable way of learning new things. My own personal experience would back that up. I've lived in seven different countries now, using five different languages. The country where I live now is not is still not one which uses my mother tongue, but I've been here twelve years now. Any new words here are picked up from context, and that is the way it's been for years.


Processing new information in a second language is certainly harder. However, if you're at a point where you're quite routinely learning new things from Duolingo sentences, then probably the bulk of the issue is just that you need to acquire more vocabulary. For languages as far from English as Chinese, this is a very lengthy process. You might look into something like LingQ (I haven't used it for Chinese, there might be similar options that handle Chinese specifically more adroitly) if you're pretty comfortable with the bulk of Duolingo's content.


Yeah, listening skills. My worst part of my Spanish is my listening skills.

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