One of the reasons I believe listening skills get less attention than others is because there’s no good way to grade listening skills. Basically, you only care about what you can measure. That’s why Chinese learners spend so much more time focusing on characters.
Metrics for characters are simple
Reading and writing skills are easier to judge and spoken skills. Chinese characters make it easy to determine one’s reading/writing skills. Essentially, you find out which characters a learner can read or write, and what grammar patterns they’re familiar with. Most people do an even simpler calculation: how many characters do you know? That number can gives a pretty concrete answer to how good your Chinese is. It’s easy to understand and simple to test. If only testing listening skills was that simple.
Listening Metrics: It sounds more complex than it is
Actually, the way to determine someone’s listening level is clear:
(Y vocabulary level)*(X words per minute) = your listening skill.
If you can understand University level vocabulary at native speed, then your listening skills should be at or near a native speakers level. If you can only understand a basic Chinese dictated at a slow pace, then you have basic-level Chinese. What makes this complex is how easy comprehension can be affected by slight changes: changing the either vocabulary or speed can have a drastic effect on comprehension. A listener who did very well on an intermediate level test, might not understand much at all if the vocabulary level was increased.
The ultimate listening test would test you using different speeds and different vocabulary levels. You’d end up with results like: I understand 50% of Level-3 vocab at 60 wpm (words per minute); I understand 35% of a Level-3 dialogue at 70 wpm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist yet.
Real ways to test your listening skills
I’ve been thinking about the issue for a while, and have come up with a few ideas on how to better determine someone’s listening skills.
- what does this mean? Listen to a passage and get the learner to repeat or discuss the general meaning of the passage. The better your listening skills, the more accurate your restatement will be. If you understand most but not all of the dialogue, you’ll be able to summarize it relatively well, but won’t be able utilize the same level of vocabulary. Obviously, this test must be on a scale. Playing an advanced dialogue for a beginner to summarize won’t produce any useful results. Giving out grades requires one to have a lot of data on what students at different levels generally understand.
- The number test. Say a string of numbers at ever increasing speeds and get the listener to repeat the numbers. How fast (in wpm) was the speaker talking? (This test probably depends too much on memory).
- Play a dialogue (scaled) at different speeds. The learner indicates when when they start getting confused (e.g. when they stop processing the dialogue). As long as you don’t cheat, this would be a pretty good method.
And here’s one not great way to do it:
- I’ve found the HSK test to contain many “gotcha” questions. Essentially, they’ll play a dialogue and then throw in one phrase or sentence that drastically changes meaning of the dialogue. I’ve seen many dialogues where the answer hinged on one word. You could literally understand 99% of the dialogue and because you missed the one “gotcha” word, you’d get the answer wrong. I sincerely hope the new HSK has fewer of these questions.