Plugging Away with Intensive Listening – Week 63

For those who read last week’s post with consternation, I’m glad to report that I’m still plugging away, and had a much better week in terms of listening hours. The journey continues.

Said journey—The Mandarin Experiment, as I like to call it—is mostly an exercise in extensive listening. By “extensive” I mean that I listen to a great deal of authentic material—mostly Chinese movies, but also dubbed Disney movies, Boonie Bears, and Qiao Hu, among other sources—in the hopes that I will gradually pick up phonemes, words, and other language patterns, which repeat in endless permutations, regardless of the viewing source. Often, I will watch a movie or episode just once, never coming back to it.

However, I also incorporate some intensive listening—of late, quite a lot. “Intensive” listening entails repetition, with a view to deciphering and assimilating more vocabulary from each segment and getting closer to real comprehension. I think my motivation for doing more intensive listening, like other adjustments to my experiment, is largely psychological. While I truly believe in the power of extensive listening and extensive reading in language acquisition, the results they bring are cumulative and organic and ripen in their own good time. The ripe fruits are satisfying and the nourishment is solid and reliable; however, we often have a psychological need for faster and more apparent progress, even if it is somewhat ephemeral. We need a sugar rush, so to speak.

Intensive listening, though generally not as enjoyable as extensive listening, does give you a sugar rush of apparent progress in language acquisition. If you listen to segments of a movie over and over with subtitles, you can end up deciphering many new words and, in a sense, “understand” the dialogue. I think this is largely what subs2srs is all about. You get the satisfaction of supposed comprehension and concrete knowledge. Some argue this method jump starts learning and is a prerequisite (in lieu of traditional learning methods) for effective extensive listening.

I’m not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, I think some mixture of intensive and extensive listening (and reading) is probably optimal, though I don’t know what the ideal ratio is for myself or others, whether in acquiring Mandarin or easier languages. Regardless, after dozens of hours of extensive listening with sporadic doubts about its effectiveness, some intensive listening is psychologically refreshing and motivating.

Here are a few examples of my intensive listening:

  • As I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts, I have been learning kids’ music in Mandarin while driving. I’ve learned the Boonie Bears intro song and a couple of very short tunes from Little Dragon Tales, and I think I’m now 90% done learning Nan Zi Han from Mulan. This approach involves endless repetition.
  • As previously reported, I keep a word-a-day list from my viewing sources. I then generate lists of words I have picked up from specific sources, such as my movies, and from time to time repeat the sources with special attention to those terms.
  • Recently, I chose one Boonie Bears episode (19 from Season 1) and my favorite movie (Dragon or Wu Xia) and have been repeating scenes many times to decipher as much vocabulary I can. My goal is eventually to be able to watch them with a fair amount of comprehension without subtitles (Boonie Bears does not have subtitles, and with Dragon I cover them).


One additional factor that has led me to incorporate more of this type of intensive listening is that, over time, I have discovered sources that I enjoy enough to endure such repetition. If I had tried to do such exercises with Momo or Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf—two of my early sources—I might not have been able to stand the boredom. By contrast, I actually have fun with the Mandarin tunes, the silly Bears, and the ass-whooping Dragon sequences.


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