I’ve found that the upper levels have to be studied as you say, in front of the computer with 100% focus. To be able keep up with naturally spoken Chinese requires a lot of practice. A LOT A LOT of practice. But there are a few things you can do both directly and indirectly to help with the transition.
Directly: When studying an intermediate lesson don’t start with the podcast. Start by studying the dialogue inside and out. When I study a lesson, I take the following steps:
- Listen to the dialogue once, trying to understand as much as you can of it.
- Read over the vocabulary list. Then listen to the dialogue again, trying to pick out as much new vocabulary as you can.
- Study each line using the dialogue tab. Aim for 100% comprehension with each line.
- Listen to the whole dialogue another one or two times. Your comprehension should be a little better now (though probably not 100% yet)
- Now you should be ready to listen to the podcast, where you can get further insights into the vocabulary and cultural aspects.
- Review the dialogue the next day.
- Put the dialogue into an iTunes playlist and review old dialogues every once in a while.
Indirectly: Don’t just listen to Intermediate podcasts. You should be practicing your Chinese comprehension in a variety of ways. Here are my recommendations.
-Put lots of Elementary dialogues in a playlist and listen to them en masse.
-Check out Glossika. It’s a great way to get in tons of listening practice.
-Read graded readers like Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze. It’s a great way to internalize Chinese grammar, especially since it is written and you can read it at your own pace.