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Shocking truth about passive listening


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

A whole industry of language learning products is based on something that I have to frankly say that I think is absolute rubbish.

Some people swear by it, and yet it rarely ever produces any useful results.

The shocking truth is that passive listening is never going to get you to fluency in a language. What's even worse is that it won't even help your ability to understand.

Learn a language while you sleep? Dramatically improve your ability to converse by having the radio/TV on in the background for thousands of hours? Master a language while you work or do your taxes with your shiny iPod blaring noise you aren't paying attention to?

Not a hope in hell.

This is something that really touches a nerve for me because I have met the results of this approach – people who have put thousands of hours into passive learning and they are barely any better off because of it.

It's barely better-than-nothing.

I meet dozens of disappointed language learners every week, no matter where I am in the world, and I have declared war on the reasons holding them back from reaching fluency in their target language, and relying on passive learning (playing audio in the background while you are focused on something else) is high up on my hit list.

I want to destroy this myth and finally help these frustrated people do something useful. In the same way as just studying will never help you speak, passive listening will never help you speak and even understand a language.

Results of thousands of wasted hours?

I asked some people on twitter and on Facebook what their opinion of the actual results of this was and (among others) I got the following replies:

  • @hpp23 I tried passive listening but it didn't help me in my learning. First understand actively, then listen passively & let it sink
  • @yearlyglot I think passive listening can only be done when you already know the language. But learning must be active.
  • @permanentnomad After two years of studying Japanese with it, I think my time would have been better spent speaking with natives.

I share these sentiments. When you already understand the language, it's different – but to learn the language? The problem with embracing a passive means of learning a language is that a language is active. It requires your attention to understand and your ability to produce to actually converse.

Sorry to break it to you but you have to do some work to make progress in a language. Passive listening is a way to escape doing something useful, since you are doing something else at the same time.

Having thousands of hours of audio in the background will do you no good if you aren't actively giving it your attention. It's just noise unless you are actively listening to it.

My own disappointment with passive listening

This approach was already something I was skeptical about for several years, but as part of the last months' input experiment (some of which has helped me improve my learning approach) I had the radio on in German all the time while I was doing something else (writing a book, or doing grammar or written exercises for the test) and gave it a real chance to see if it could help.

After sitting my German C2 exam, a few hours of spoken practise per week gave me 75% in the oral exam, and actively writing several texts for correction gave me 74% in the written exam, both of which I'm very pleased about. But passively hearing over a thousand hours of German radio got me a disappointing 37% in the listening exam.

The listening exam was hard, but it was very fair. The reason I got such a low result isn't the test's fault. It was my delusional belief that passive listening for a really long time gave me even the slightest edge. You definitely can't listen your way to fluency, but you can't even passively hear your way to a decent level of listening comprehension.

Some people have ludicrously suggested that I should have heard more to get a higher result. As if three thousand hours would have tripled my score(!)

The only reason I got even what I did would have been due to the spoken practise – which naturally involves focused listening. What I should have done for exam preparation is focus on any audio and analysed it while doing nothing else at the same time. I am confident that just five hours of this would have likely given me enough of an edge to pass the entire exam.

I realised this after doing an example exam a few days before the real one. If I had not done the active listening work the days before the exam, my result would have actually been even lower!

It's not even really passive listening I'm criticising here – that doesn't actually exist; it's passive hearing. When you are truly listening to something then it has your full attention.

So why is passive hearing so popular?

In this day and age we want short-cuts to everything. Drive-through fast-food, shampoo and conditioner in-one, phones that are also calculators/maps/Internet browsers/games. Sometimes this can be useful, but other times you are better just keeping it simple and doing one thing at a time. Learning languages is one of those things.

Learning a language while you do something else is lazy. It doesn't show any devotion at all to the task at hand. It gives you a “sense” of doing something useful, and it can even be fun for some people! (Playing computer games and watching TV can also be fun, but it doesn't mean you get anything useful out of it)

After the “honeymoon”, when you have to use the language you'll just feel stupid that you can't speak or understand when spoken to despite all that “work” you put in.

It answers people's eternal question of “I don't have time” to study/practise a language because “I'm too busy”, so just simply have it in the background to feel like you are doing work. Of course you have time! Stop making excuses and find the time! Even 10 minutes of focused learning/listening will give you way more benefits than 10 hours of noise you aren't pay

ing attention to.

The few benefits

Of course, there are some reasons that passive hearing can be beneficial.

However, it's important to be aware of precisely what these reasons are! I am not writing this article to tell people to turn off their streaming radio or stop listening to podcasts – (I even wrote a post recently about how to find podcasts!) I want people to stop deluding themselves that it counts as their main useful step to fluency that deserves all the time it gets.

Here are some benefits, with some warnings:

  • In early stages, a language really feels like noise. If you have it on in the background you can get used to how it generally sounds and it seems less foreign. You don't need to focus on it to get this feeling. I attempted this with Hungarian to get used to the sound of the language before getting full-time exposure to it. But this is just familiarity for emotional comfort (which is indeed important) – it is not actual comprehension. Hearing Hungarian for years without actively analysing it (or better yet, using it with natives) will get me nowhere.
  • @don_rivers compared it to having coffee on your desk. You can take “sips” whenever you feel it's important and tune in and focus when you decide to. I'd still argue that the times between the “sips” are only useful in that you are saved the “hard work” of pressing a button, and it otherwise doesn't help. A solid distinction of right now I am focused on learning the language will help a lot of people, and they lose this if they vaguely tune in and out.
  • Even when not paying attention, your subconscious will be on the look-out for certain things. It's like how we suddenly hear our name from across the room in a noisy party from a conversation we weren't paying attention to. When listening to news etc. in a foreign language, you will hear key words you learned and might decide to tune in and focus then. I recognised “egy” (one) on streamed Hungarian radio and this is a confidence booster. But a thousand hours to get these minor buzzes is not worth it. The feeling is much better with natives.
  • @danielpwright says it is to be preferred over English (or your native tongue), if you  can't actively listen/converse right now, although I would say this is just marginally better than nothing if you aren't giving it your attention. It's better to find some way to actively listen or converse rather than feel like you have done your language-learning work for the day.

Be more active!

I'm not trying to rain on people's parade here – I just want learners to be clear about the fact that they need to put time into lots of different aspects of learning a language (especially speaking it). By all means, continue passively listening, but be aware of its usefulness so you try other learning approaches too and give them the time they deserve. Don't use hearing “something” all day to get out of the guilt of not doing any real work!

Give the audio your full attention and analyse it. Even if just for a few minutes. This was my main mistake in my thousand-hour experiment. What I should have done was close my computer screen and give the audio my full focus for at least 5-10 minute segments and replay it if possible until I understood it all.

Having the radio/podcast on in the background isn't doing you any “harm”, it can only help – the harm is in people's understanding of how much it helps. If they think it helps more than it actually does, they may put less work into way more useful things.

Of course, my criticism on passive listening here is not related to active listening. But I'd argue that most people with their target language on in the background in some audible format, simply don't pay attention to it, thinking that their brain is processing it magically for them. Even if this were true, without your focus you are getting a minuscule (maybe 1%?) amount of the benefit that some focus would give in a way smaller time frame.

Rather than thinking that many hours a day “doing something” counts, take small parts of your day and do some active learning! Read in the language and try to understand as much of it as possible, listen to online radio but try to make notes of what is being said and use a dictionary if necessary – and most important of all find natives and speak to them there is nothing stopping you from trying.

I like to study using SRS, and sometimes this gets as little as just two minutes when I'm on the metro or otherwise waiting somewhere. But that is two minutes of my full undivided attention. This is the only way to make useful progress in a language.

So please – stop trying to do everything at once! Be active with your language, even if that just involves actively listening. 🙂 I would, of course, highly recommend finding ways to converse with natives as soon as possible.

Looking forward to your comments as always! Since I'm dropping a bombshell on a very much loved pastime of a lot of people, I expect some disagreement – but keep it relevant and insult-free or I'll eat your comment up! I have my nom-nom-nom finger posed!

Share this on Facebook and twitter if you think more people need a fire lit under their asses!

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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