Understanding spoken Chinese can be surprisingly hard. This is the opposite to what most new learners think, but once you have got basic pronunciation down, listening is usually a bigger problem than speaking. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is related to control. When you speak Chinese you can decide what you want to say. Naturally, you will say things you know how to say and stay away from things don't.
So what should you do if you want to improve your listening ability? Here are a number of common problems. In general, practice makes perfect. Most of the problems listed here can be overcome simply by practicing more.
Three common problems with listening ability in Chinese
Problem #1 – Listening speed. This problem is very common and it means that it simply takes too much time from when you hear a sound until you have correctly recalled its meaning. This means that you will lag behind the speaker, because the person speaking won't slow down just because it takes you a few seconds to figure out what a specific word means. If this happens often, you're likely to fail to understand that someone says even if you know all the words.
Problem #2 – Phonological awareness. If you want to be able to understand spoken words, you need to be able to correctly distinguish the different sounds in Mandarin. If you can't do this, it doesn't matter if you know ten thousand words, you still won't understand what people are saying. This of course includes tones. If you find this hard, research suggests that you should try to listen to many different native speakers, don't just listen to your teacher.
Problem #3 – Vocabulary. This isn't actually related to listening directly, but it's still so common. Students often complain that they don't understand what people are saying to them. When they ask them to slow down or write things down, they still don't understand. This isn't a listening problem! It's not because your listening is poor, it's because you don't know enough words. Expand your vocabulary by reading and listening more, using text or audio that is at or slightly above your current level.
Apart from these three important aspects, there are many other factors that come into play when you try to understand spoken Chinese. Context plays a very important role and if you know little about what someone is talking about or who they are, it will be even harder to understand what they're saying. Therefore, don't feel disappointed if you don't understand random sentences said to you, that's perfectly normal. You should strive to understand sentences said within context, because that's the kind of listening ability you really need.