Home » Q&A » On Passive Listening and How to Incorporate it into a Study Regimen

On Passive Listening and How to Incorporate it into a Study Regimen

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I hope all is well. Long overdue, here is my question on listening:

I was wondering how you approach the role of listening in your language study. Like the rest of your study methods, I assume you approach listening somewhat systematically as well. On the one hand, you have said that you listen to audiobooks while running and shadowing clearly involves listening and repetition of the heard content. On the other hand, however, you haven’t said much about how to approach more “passive” listening, such as when you are walking around doing errands, on the train, or washing the dishes. I was wondering how you incorporated passive listening into your
study regimen.

Thank you as always!

Paul Capobianco, Ph.D.

My reply:

Dear Dr. Capobianco,

Thank you for following up on this. The subject of listening and how to incorporate it into a study regimen is one of the few areas I can think of where my position has changed substantially over the years. The way I now regard and treat passive listening in particular is now essentially the opposite of the way I regarded and treated it for most of my studying life. So, I may have written something about this back in the days of the How to Learn Any Language Forum or elsewhere that your question now gives me the opportunity to correct, or at least to update and change.

First of all, let’s define types of listening. I can think of at least four varieties of “active listening”:

  1. Shadowing of any type (i.e., speaking along with what you hear)
  2. Engaging with didactic instructions (e.g., following the prompts of an all audio course, doing pattern drills, etc.)
  3. Listening and simultaneously reading the same text with the eyes
  4. Truly paying attention to an audiobook, lecture, etc. (i.e., taking notes, pausing now and then to rephrase, summarize, lecture to the wall, etc.)

I have always believed and still believe that all four forms of active listening can be highly useful and totally valid ways of learning, using, and maintaining languages.

In distinction to “active listening,” then, “passive listening” would be any form of listening that you do while simultaneously engaged in some other activity, for example:

  1. While exercising (running, lifting weights, using stationary cardio equipment, etc.)
  2. While in motion or transit (walking from place to place, driving, on public transportation, etc.)
  3. While doing chores (dishes, cooking, housework, yardwork, etc.)
  4. While engaged in some sort of art or craft (drawing, painting, weaving, etc.)

In essence, these forms of passive listening are times when a language nerd might play foreign language speech where most people might play music or even have a news radio broadcast or television playing in the background at all times. Due to this, one’s concentration levels vary as one must pay more or less attention to whatever else it is that one is doing – sometimes one is fully engaged, sometimes one tunes out.

Of course, the distinction between the two is not always cut and dry. I can recall many instances when passive listening has morphed into more active listening, for example when I have become totally engrossed in the narrative of an audiobook while running (by the way, I am curious as to why you thought that I might include this activity as a form of active listening…).

For most of my life, I was an avid passive listener. Particularly in my most obsessive study years (the Korean monastic time), I prided myself on never allowing a moment to go to waste. Passive listening seemed to me then to be the ideal way to study continuously, to win back the time that needed to directed to most mundane activities by keeping the mind interacting with the sounds of the languages that I was studying all day long. If I was able to log insane numbers of hours of study per day (12 or even 16 a day) back then, it was in part because 2 or 3 of those hours would be passive listening.

I still believe a strong case can be made for passive listening being a way to create more hours in a day and enable people who might not otherwise have any time to study to at least be able to get some hearing practice.

I also believe a very strong case can be made for using passive listening as a form of auto-immersion. That is, if you cannot travel to a country to hear the language spoken all around you, you can still play it yourself to the same or even greater extent, perhaps even by design at times (say a weekend alone) blocking out your mother tongue and other languages completely and only hearing your target language at all times in the background.

However, as the years have gone by, I found myself doing less and less passive listening, and I now no longer do it at all. The reasons why I have stopped include:

  1. An inability to legitimately clock the hours spent doing it. For many years, when I was obsessed with documenting all of my study time, I was tempted to give myself a full hour’s credit for an hour of passive listening, which is clearly wrong. The fact is that one’s mind wanders while doing passive listening, so how much time spent doing it can be counted as valid study time? Can 60 minutes of passive listening be legitimately counted as 30 minutes of study, or perhaps only 15? I never found a satisfactory solution to this, and so came to prefer documenting only time truly engaged on task.
  2. Passive listening is highly valuable for additional hearing practice in languages that one is either actively studying, or in languages that one is simply trying to maintain. I personally am no longer learning new languages, and while there are many that I would love to maintain, I have moved on to putting most of my time and energy into a smaller number of languages that I am continuously trying to use at higher levels, i.e., where listening is concerned, to get at the content and style of audiobooks in them, which requires active, not passive, listening.
  3. The exercise of passive listening, precisely because it does draw you to pay attention to the sounds coming in your ears, actually prevents you from effectively doing a different exercise, which I have come to value over time as being more valuable and efficient in terms of really developing knowledge of a language, namely thinking directly in it. In other words, attempting to direct my own thoughts in a language is more beneficial than passively listening to the speech of others in it.
  4. Also, as I age, I suppose even when I am not actively thinking in a language, I just appreciate being in the moment more. Passive listening inevitably involves being plugged in to some device, no matter how low tech, and sometimes it is just nice to be unplugged altogether. This is especially true in the kind of environment where I love to run, which is when I did most of my passive listening, namely in nature, as listening to a recording means you miss the sound of the wind and the birds.
  5. Furthermore, I found through hard experience that passive listening can lead one into dangerous situations. Thankfully I was never really badly hurt and never hurt anyone else, but I had too many close calls, not hearing a bicycle come up behind me until too late, swinging a kettle bell and dislocating a knee when I moved to replace an earphone that fell out, getting seduced into listening while riding a bicycle (I can listen while I run, I can listen on an exercise bike, so why not…) Obviously these are all situations that one could avoid with prudence, but the habit of constantly listening to something can make one all too careless.
  6. Finally, I am concerned about hearing loss after decades and decades of listening to audio through earphones. The last thing in the world I would want would be to go deaf and never be able to listen to audiobooks again, and I have noticed that my hearing is not as sharp as it was when I was younger, so it only makes sense to reduce the amount of time I listen by restricting myself to the most active kinds at the most sensible volumes (again, listening while running means listening at high volume).

So, how do I incorporate passive listening into my study regimen? I no longer do so. I did when I was younger and I probably would again now if I were in the process of learning new languages or more actively trying to maintain those that I am not currently using, but I would attempt to do so with less of a compulsion to use every single moment of exercising, cleaning, commuting, or crafting as a simultaneous listening experience. Above all, I would try to remind myself to think more and listen less.

With best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Ask a Question

Would you like my advice for developing a systematic, long-term plan for learning languages and accessing literatures? This website provides a place where you can describe your background, current activities, and goals in sufficient detail for me to provide you with meaningful advice, and where our exchange can remain as a lasting resource for others with similar scholarly aspirations.

My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

Share this Page