Active vs. Passive Listening: How I Use Both to Practice Languages

1280px-tepantitla_mural2c_ballplayer_a_28daquella_manera29I wrote about extensive and intensive reading a while ago, and I’ve come to realize that I do something very similar with my listening practice.

Listening to your target language is incredibly important. I’ve heard so many language learners talk about how it’s so much easier  to learn how to speak than it is to listen. People take up a language, follow their language course, and develop a sturdy beginner’s vocabulary. But when they meet a native speaker, their confidence is blown to smithereens because native speakers talk fast.

This is pretty funny to me, because I’ve always thought it was easier to develop listening comprehension than speaking fluency. That’s mostly because I enjoy the solitary parts of language learning, but that’s pretty clear from the rest of my blog.

Language learners end up thinking that listening comprehension is unattainable because they’re never really listening. Listening to textbook recordings, Duolingo phrases, or even your language professor simply doesn’t count for much when it comes to understanding authentic speech. These formats are all made for language learners– the speech is slowed down, the words are separated by pauses, everything is clearly pronounced.

This seems like it’s helpful for learners, and it feels good. After all, if we’re learning, we want to understand the whatever we can, right? We can speed it up later!

In my experience, this really isn’t how it works at all. In real life, ellision happens, sounds are dropped, and there aren’t any breaks between words in a sentence (in fact, this is why speech-to-text software is so terrible). All of these things make the language sound completely different from it’s sanitized, textbook version. In other words, speeding up your textbook recordings won’t result in native-like speech. It’s still too clean. No one talks like that.

Spoken language is messy, so it’s best to listen to the real thing as soon as you start learning your target language, and you’ll avoid any nasty surprises down the road. This doesn’t mean you can’t use Duolingo or other recordings made for learners– actually, those end up being more helpful when you’re listening to native speech alongside it!

When I listen to native media, I use active listening and passive listening. Here’s how you can use both methods in your daily routine!

What Is Active Listening?

I define active listening as listening with the intention of picking out words (if I’m just starting out) or following the material (if I’m intermediate or advanced). I mostly use talk radio for all of my listening purposes, but TV, movies, podcasts, and music work just as well!

I think active listening is what most people have in mind when someone suggests that they listen to native materials. This is why it’s a little intimidating– everything goes so fast– what if you don’t understand anything at all?

This really isn’t a problem. As I said, when I’m just starting out in the language, I use active listening for trying to recognize vocabulary I’ve been learning. I also listen for intonation (and also tones, if the language has them) and how the people are using their voices. I listen for filler words, because those vary from language to language, and learning them helps you sound more natural when you speak.

Focus on what you do understand rather than what’s flying over your head. Listening at all is helping your language skills immensely, and your comprehension will leap ahead soon enough.

Since I’m not one for staring into space while I’m listening to my target language, I like to do something that requires low attention while I’m picking out words or following along to a podcast or whatever. For example, I actively listen to podcasts or music while I’m walking somewhere. Active listening is also great for a long commute– you need to pay attention to something, right? My favorite way to include active listening is to play a repetitive or low-intensity video game while listening to a podcast or radio show. This makes things a lot less boring!

What Is Passive Listening?

I define passive listening as having target language media playing while I’m doing anything else, without the intention of following along at all.

Again, you can use talk radio, music, movies, TV, but you basically just have it on the background. This could be while you’re at work, while you’re doing homework, or even while you’re getting in some reading in your target language.

I find passive listening to be helpful in familiarizing me with the sounds of the language as a whole. If you have your target language on in the background chattering away, you’re emulating the experience children have when they’re learning their first language– you’re getting close to complete immersion.

And honestly, “passive” isn’t a very accurate descriptor. Even if you’re not trying to pay attention to the radio on in the background, you’ll inevitably take a break from whatever is demanding your immediate attention, and you’ll tune into the language for a moment or two. Those moments add up, and having the language playing makes those tiny moments of active listening possible.

Listening Resources!

I use TuneIn Radio all the time. It’s great for the serial language learner, because you can search by location (and by language if you’re using the app). There are a lot of dead links, but I’ve had a lot of luck in finding consistent radio stations for all of my target languages (as a heads up, there are fewer good talk radio stations for Japanese, Korean, and Chinese).

Multilingual Books is another site that has compiled radio stations from a whole host of countries. However, there are even more dead links here (it’s an old site), so it takes some searching before you find a good radio station.

Spotify is really great for finding new music in your target language. You can search for playlists that other users have made, and plenty of users sort their playlists by language.

Listen, listen, listen.

Remember that developing any linguistic skill (reading, writing, speaking, or listening) will help advance your other skills, as well. Because listening is a wonderful, low-stress way to practice your target language, it’s very easy to make listening a cornerstone of your learning regime. Try organizing your listening goals into active and passive sessions– you can set a goal to passively listen to X language for a number of hours each week, but also with the goal of actively listening to X language for an hour each day.

No matter how you decide to listen, turning up the volume will only help you in the long run!



7 thoughts on “Active vs. Passive Listening: How I Use Both to Practice Languages

  1. While I agree that listening to authentic media in a target language is undoubtedly beneficial, the issue that I have with active listening as a solitary is that it is difficult to know afterwards if you were right or not. You can trick yourself into thinking that you are making progress when you are infact heading down the wrong track because there is no feedback on your understanding/comprehension.


    1. I think that if I do active listening in small spurts, this can definitely happen. However, I try to get massive input in terms of listening, so I get a huge number of chances to see if I was right. Sometimes I think I hear one phrase, it comes up again and again, and, in the end, I realize that I heard something else instead. I think this works best with lots of reading and vocabulary acquisition as well, because those give me more words and phrases to listen for, if that makes sense! I know that as a kid in English, I misheard so many phrases. Time and experience (and sometimes some embarrassment with native speakers/adults) straighten these out in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. With all due respect, I don’t see the point of any passive listening. You can emulate babies only if you are a baby, for adults who want to learn languages everything works in a very different way. You can get the supposed advantages of passive listening with the active listening too. Passive listening means only to listen to the particular music each language has in the same way as you can get, through passive reading, that in Spanish the letter “a” is as common as the letter “i” in Italian. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure you may get sometimes (I love for instance the Argentinian accent), I don’t see what kind of value this passivity has for the student.


    1. We’ve had very different experiences, then. Passive listening, when done in large quantities, has helped me progress quickly in all of the languages I’ve set out to learn. Learning the rhythm and speed of the language is very important, and I’ve found that having the language playing for hours a day helps me get used to that better than any other method. I’ve learned Québecois French (which is alarmingly different from Parisian French) simply by having Québecois radio on all the time. I used the same thing to get used to understanding Latin American accents. Sure, passive listening (in combination with a bunch of other resources) takes time– listening for a little bit won’t do very much. But over several months, progress really becomes apparent.


  3. [I had problems to send this comment, I will try again from a different browser]
    We both agree, learning the rhythm and speed of the language is very important but you only can do that when you engage actively in the language acquisition process. If somebody says “I have learned Chinese, Russian… simply by having Chinese, Russian… radio on all the time” it implies that this person has a set of skills which I certainly don’t have and I have never met other people with them. I have never heard either of any language learning method which promises such a thing in combination with a bunch of other resources. They rather provide first those resources and don’t expect you to use them passively, at least not the methods or teachers who take themselves in serious.


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