Transparent Language Blog

Passive Listening or Active Listening? Posted by on Jul 25, 2012 in Archived Posts

It seems like today we want everything now. We get our dinner at a drive-through, we wash our hair with shampoo and conditioner in one bottle, and we always want to do more things in the least amount of time.

All that multi-tasking and rushing around may not always be for the best, however. In this post, I’m going to focus on a topic on which a whole industry is based that needs to be thought out a little more carefully. I’m talking about “passive listening”.

What Is Passive Listening?

Passive listening is what happens when you’re busy doing something while some type of noise is going on around you – like a radio, or the television, or your iPod. You’re not really paying attention to the sound, but it’s there.

There are language learning systems based on this idea that encourage you to listen and learn in your car, while doing housework, sleeping, or any other activity. All you have to do is let the sound play and go about your business. It is claimed the brain will subconsciously absorb the material and process it automatically. The problem is, without focusing on the material, the benefits you receive from this amounts to about 5% of what you could get if you were giving your full attention to the lesson.

Why are these methods being created and marketed? They cater to the everyday thoughts of “I don’t have time” or “I’m too busy”, so just letting the lessons run in the background seems the best way to do it.

Unfortunately, these passive listening methods just aren’t all that effective if they’re the only way you try to learn. You are led to believe you’re doing something useful, but when it comes time to actually use the language, you may be disappointed if you can’t speak or understand it despite all the time and “work” you put in.

So, Is There Any Benefit To Passive Listening At All?

First off, don’t turn off your radio or stop listening to podcasts – they are still useful tools. I’m just letting you know that passive listening is not the one and only way to learn a language. If you’ve never learned a language before, you may be better off using a software program or a book and CD combo pack to begin learning.

That said, there are a few benefits to passive listening. For example, you can use it to get used to the sounds of the language before tackling a language course or class. You can listen to the rhythm and tone of the speech, how questions sound in contrast to statements, how native speakers sounds when expressing emotions like joy, anger, sadness, etc.

In your more advanced lessons, you can also use passive listening to go on to help you keep the language fresh in your mind. This is when the brain will actually absorb the information and think “Hey, I recognize that word/phrase!” before filing it in your long term memory.

Be More Active!
There’s only so far you can go with passive methods, though. It’s a fact that in order to effectively learn a language, you will need to actively devote time and effort to the different aspects of the language. You can continue with listening activities, but give the audio your full attention and analyze it. The pause and rewind buttons should be your best friends – use them often.

Whenever you can, take a few minutes and listen actively. Listen to the audio CDs or online radio and write notes about what is being said (use a dictionary if you have to). Be active with your language by finding ways to converse with natives as soon as possible.

Tell us about how you use active listening in your language learning courses. How has it benefitted you? Do you have any stories or tips to share?

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About the Author: Sean Young

Learning languages since 1978 and studying over 50 (achieving fluency in 10). Sean L. Young loves giving tips, advice and the secrets you need to learn a language successfully no matter what language you're learning. Currently studying Hindi and blogging his progress right here at Transparent Language -


  1. Melina D.:

    The best way I´ve found to learn a language is through music.

    • Fan:

      @Melina D. Listening to music can only have an impact on you when you consciously engage in it

    • Fan:

      @Melina D. I can’t believe people still think that passive learning can do anything for you. It doesn’t create new neuron connections, doesn’t help you understand words if all it is for you is BG noise. It doesn’t even help you understand the sound if there is no sound pattern you are paying attention to at all!

  2. Margaret Nahmias:

    To get used to the sounds I listen passively,but always listening for something I did not know like vocabulary and structure.

  3. kerem:

    listen anime episodes you like while studying napping or walking. You don’t need to focus on what they say just listen.

  4. Elle:

    I do a lot of passive listening.. It’s not my only source of learning the language, but it’s just a nice addition to what I already do…
    for example on the buss/train or when working on chores.. I listen to music and radio podcasts..
    I sometimes hear words or phrases i know and sometimes notice that words I know are being used in different forms .. I don’t understand the full thing, but after few listens of the same podcast, some words or phrases stick.. and I find myself actually understanding the topics discussed on the podcasts …
    what I would advice someone who wants to try passive listening is:
    – it should be just an addition to a more concrete learning activity..
    – listen to the same material more than once, for example you can repeat the same material for a whole week .. and keep going back to things you listened to before and you’ll find yourself understanding them and able to repeat and use the phrases and sentences you heard ..

    the reason I like passive listening is because there is no pressure to understand every single thing you hear.. you just need to enjoy it and fill the silence on your ride to work/school

  5. Fan:

    I can’t believe people still think that passive learning can do anything for you. It doesn’t create new neuron connections, doesn’t help you understand words if all it is for you is BG noise. It doesn’t even help you understand the sound if there is no sound pattern you are paying attention to at all!

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