Monday, August 1, 2011

Speaking Chinese: Learning to Listen

Rainie Yang and Mike He in Devil Beside You
I began to learn to speak mandarin in the United States. But as you may guess there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking the language. I was limited in my ability to practice. There are a number of tools to learn to speak. For instance, Rosetta Stone software has a neat feature that records and processes your voice and displays it digitally so that you can see if you pronounced the tones correctly. You can also go to the local Chinese restaurant and try to speak to the servers. This was a favorite past time for me but there was a problem. Some of them were so amazed that I was trying to speak Chinese that all they would say was, “Ah, You speak Chinese?” Unfortunately I had an extremely limited vocabulary, and if they spoke much Chinese back to me beyond greetings I was lost and my tones were so bad that most of them would just laugh.

In fact at one point, I asked a friend, the owner of this particular restaurant, “Why does everyone laugh when I speak to them in Chinese?” Her reply, “You don’t speak Chinese.” Aha, I realized at that moment that learning to speak Chinese was going to be harder than I had previously thought.
Mike He, Rainie Yang and Kingone Wang in Why, Why Love?

You know it’s kind of annoying when you see ads for software that say, “Learn Chinese in six weeks!” because it really takes a while to master Chinese. When I first started to learn my teacher spent the first three months drilling me on consonant and vowels sounds, “Bu, pu, mu, fu,” on and on over and over. Then we started to work on the tones. It wasn’t until we had done all that that we began to actually work on vocabulary. I think it really helped because my pronunciation is very good. I still struggle with tones, though. Because we don’t use them in English and I had been speaking English for 50 years before I started to learn Chinese.

But, without a doubt, the most difficult thing for me has been to learn to listen. Now that I live in Taiwan, I have many opportunities to practice speaking. I have become more confident and actually speak to strangers in Chinese. But when they answer I find myself struggling to understand what they’re saying. I think part of it stems from the fact that I have been taught with Beijing pronunciation and people here speak with a Taiwanese accent. But the biggest problem is that I’m not able to process the language at the normal speaking speed.
Mike He, Hebe Tian and Lee Wei from Bullfighting

So, I developed a plan to learn to listen. In Taiwan they have a number of television shows known as “Idol Dramas.” They use the current popular teen idols and produce a love story that lasts for about 20 episodes. They’re similar to a soap opera. They have the nice girl, the tough guy, comedy, drama; all that you might expect in a teenage love story is rolled into the package. They usually follow a couple of formulas.

1. The rich, highly motivated, young business heir falls in love with the girl from the other side of the tracks. The mother is opposed and does everything she can to destroy the relationship. The son stands up to his domineering mother. In the end there’s always a happy ending.

2. The girl falls for a guy that is way beyond here. He’s smart, rich, popular and she’s a nothing. She eventually wins him over because of her charm and sweetness.

Okay, so basically they all have the same plot. The young woman overcomes all odds to end up with the super successful young man. The nice thing about them, probably owing to the culture, is that they are wholesome and enjoyable. I watch them on the internet because I got rid of my television many years ago.

The good part is that you can find these dramas all over the Internet. Many sites carry them with English subtitles. Because they are written to appeal to teenagers they use simple language. They are often written about everyday life so they are excellent tools for learning to listen in Mandarin. English subtitles help understanding when vocabulary fails and you can check your understanding of the dialogue quickly and easily.
Ariel Lin and Joe Chen from  It Started With a Kiss

One good site for watching these video dramas is They have a large collection of current and past dramas. Many of them are produced in Taiwan and you can hear the language with a Taiwanese accent, which helps if you live in Taiwan. But they have many others from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Youtube carries a number of them as well both with subtitles (in a number of languages) and without.

Here are some that are worth watching if you want to try this out:

Devil Beside You: Starring Rainie Yang, Mike He, Kingone Wang and Tsai Pei Lin: The story revolves around a nice young girl who wants to declare her love to the captain of the basketball team. Inadvertently, the love letter she prepared for him she gives to the school’s notorious bad boy, which also happens to be the son of the university’s president. After a lot of drama and plot twists they eventually fall deeply in love.

Why, Why, Love: Starring Rainie Yang, Kingone Wang, Mike He and Michelle Chen: Rainie plays a young woman who works very hard to pay off their family’s debt. The debt was left to the family when her father died. Kingone and Mike play brothers who are the sons of a super successful businessman. Kingone is the nice guy and Mike is the bad guy. Rainie and her friend are temporary workers at the mall owned by the guys’ father. Try and guess what happens.

Bullfighting: Starring Mike He and Hebe Tian (from the popular pop group, S.H.E.): Mike He plays the super motivated business heir. His father wants to buy the land that her father owns to build something. But her father stands his ground and refuses to sell. This pits the two families against each other. But Mike falls for Hebe and well the rest is kind of predictable.

It Started with a Kiss: Starring Ariel Lin and Joe Cheng: Ariel plays Xiang Qin, a very naïve young woman in the lowest class of the high school. Joe Cheng plays Zhi Shu, the best student in the school. He scores the highest grades in the entire school. He is also the most handsome guy in the school. Xiang Qin falls hard for Zhi Shu in her freshman year. But Zhi Shu is unimpressed. Eventually, well you can probably guess. This story is charming and fun. You can’t help but root for this hapless young woman.

Below is a part of Devil Beside You taken from You Tube.  It starts out pretty corny but it gets a little more interesting as it goes on.  Rainie Yang is a popular singer in Taiwan she's singing the song "Ai mei" (which translates as "Ambiguous" in English).  The Title song is by Huang Yi Da it is called "Chou Nan Ren"  (loosely translates to English as "The Jerk.")  Actually, I think this is the best of all the dramas I watched in my quest to learn to listen.


  1. Is "it started with a kiss" like Koreas "playful kiss" (it sounds similar). My roomate in College was from Taiwan she taught me some of the "alfabet" I have been working on it for a little while. I think it might be a little difficult for me because I have friends from Taiwan and also friends from Mainland China. I can hear and understand what they are telling me and the differences but I cannot really speak it well. My friend and I are planning to work on the mainland after school but we need to know the language better

    1. I haven't seen "Playful Kiss" but I've heard people compare them, so they might be the same. In mainland China they use Pin Yin which is more "English-like" that Zhuyin Fuhao which is the Taiwanese Alphabet. Being in China will help you to improve your speaking and listening skills quickly. Don't hold back because you don't think you speak well enough. It will become more natural after you've been there a while. Good luck in China and thanks for reading the Taiwan Adventure Blog.