Blog post: Why "passive listening" is bad for you

Hey, guys!

Here is an interesting blog post by Andrew Barr on this topic:

His takeaway message is:

"If you really want to accelerate your listening comprehension skills:

  • Put yourself in high stakes active listening situations. See if you can use your most powerful weapon for performance — stress — to increase your rate of learning.
  • Spend more time actively engaged with software tools and apps, or podcasts and movies with pen and paper in hand.
  • Use non-listening activities like reading to boost your vocabulary."

I would add three points:

  1. Listening while reading (with or without AudioReaders) is an effective strategy, especially in the early and intermediate stages of the L2 journey (see Toby’s recent LingQ interview:

  2. Strategy 1) may be even more effective when combined with some (deliberate) speaking and/or writing practice, as mere immersion/input activities in general are a bit too passive in the long run.

  3. Deliberate practice combined with a timeboxing approach (Pomodoro and Co) is your friend!

What´s your take on this?

*** The (provisional) answer to our question *"Why is passive listening bad for you? ***
Passive (= divided attention) listening is “bad”, i.e. more or less ineffective, when it doesn´t resemble “active” (= focused attention) listening.
And when it doesn´t resemble active listening, language processing and thus the whole meaning-deriving activity tend to break down. In short: There are “meaning blackouts” (im Deutschen: “Sinn-Blackouts”).

In short: Focused = active listening is king, after all - even if it´s disguised as divided = passive listening.

For details, see esp. the longer discussion between @t_harangi and yours truly.

*** UPDATE (11 / 24 / 2021): Beyond the distinction “active vs passive” (listening) ***
Thanks to the discussion with @t_harangi I´ve come to the conclusion that the distinction “active - passive” is better avoided in this context because it tends to create a conceptual mess by mixing three different meanings:

  • Meaning 1: Listening (and reading) as “passive” in the sense of receiving input in the context of the “input - output” or “sender - receiver” model. “Active” then means outputting something (i.e., sending information), e.g., by speaking or writing. However, there are two main problems here:
  • Listening and reading are always ongoing operations (activities) otherwise nothing happens. So, strictu sensu, there´s no passivity here, because operations occur or they don´t occur. This problem can be overcome when theories, for example in sociology, switch to (communicative) attributions or paradoxa, but that´s a story for another day.

  • Not all listening and reading activities are created equal, as there are different levels of depth of engagement (see our discussion above)

  • Meaning 2: Passive listening as “divided attention” == the (permanent) switching of the attention focus in multitasking activities.

There´s a lot of research reg. “focused, divided, selective, etc. attention”, and the common wisdom is that multitasking is often detrimental compared to single-tasking because the quality / speed of performance decreases while the error rates increase, etc. (see our discussion below).
Talking about “passive listening” here doesn´t make sense because there´s nothing “passive” in the permanent switching of one´s focused attention between tasks.

  • Meaning 3: Passive listening refers to “listening alone without other concurrent or subsequent activities” For example: Reading while listening, taking notes while listening, shadowing, writing a listening diary/summary afterwards, talking about the topics one has listened to with one´s tutor afterwards, etc.

For the sake of accuracy, it´s better to speak of “listening alone or listening as a sole / exclusive activity” rather than calling it “passive” listening.
The key question here is: What are the levels of depth of engagement for listening without / with concurrent or subsequent activities?


The concepts of “active” and “passive” listening are these really strange semantic differences that make very little sense to me. The way that people describe them don’t align well with the points that they try to make. The ability for someone to pay more attention to something isn’t dependent on whether they have a pen in hand or a person across from them, it’s whether they’re genuinely interested in the content of the messages and can comprehend them (if you can’t understand enough, it’s really not possible to be interested). You may also be completely uninterested in the individual, which is why finding a good language exchange partner is difficult. People have to have some shared interests to make these meeting effective. I always hear and read about this “passive” listening debate, and it is really less the activity and more the individual doing the listening that makes the difference. People that listen to audiobooks (even in native language) are definitely focused on the story and hoping to engage with it. I will say that rather than passive and active listening, it seems best to talk about the degree of complexity that you’re using to understand concepts. Bloom’s taxonomy shows a really good model of what constitutes higher vs lower level thinking skills, and in Education these higher level thinking skills definitely show better results in students in terms of depth of learning. Andrews suggestions are good/valid, but these activities, at least for adults, are simply not practical. He touches on this, but I always want these very successful younger language learners/bloggers to take a regular 8 hour working schedule and other activities into account. Most people have additional activities or kids that also sap their energy, and then language learning with that degree of focus is not entirely feasible. For people living abroad, this fatigue is intensified by having to go around all day in a language which they lack proficiency. I do think that he’s definitely offering more authentic/realistic experiences, which will be a more efficient use of time, but they really dismiss the issues of the vast majority of adult language learners (time and energy). One thing I’d like to add is the use of background knowledge. If you’re engaging with scenarios that you’re more familiar with, listening is going to be easier. When he talks about reading to get more information, it’s still difficult to recognize words and phrases when listening in real time for most learners because they don’t have the background knowledge or cultural knowledge to expect whenever certain phrases or words are going to be used. It’s not that the people don’t recognize what was said, but it’s not processed fast enough before they have to process new information because that interlocutor is not gonna stop! These situation require people to make many connections between the word and scenarios before it becomes automatized. Overall, I agree a lot with the things that he recommends. I really hope that people start thinking more about the complexity of tasks rather than throwing them into these “active” and “passive” categories, which are simply misleading (at least to me). I’d be interested in what others think. I know that this answer may seem negative, but we’re trying to nitpick and engage, right? :smiley: haha. Also, just kind of wrote, so apologies if there are some errors or lack of clarity.

Lastly, to Peter’s two points, again I agree that it definitely leads to greater depth of knowledge with the concepts that you already know. It’s a really important thing to do for fluency and automatization. If people have the time and energy, these are definitely worthwhile things to do. I would say though that they are using more higher level cognitive abilities to process the information rather than saying that one is being too passive.


This is spot on!
“He touches on this, but I always want these very successful younger language learners/bloggers to take a regular 8 hour working schedule and other activities into account. Most people have additional activities or kids that also sap their energy, and then language learning with that degree of focus is not entirely feasible.”
I do lot of “passive” listening, because as an enterpreneur running 2 businesses and a mother, who due to covid has to homeschool, there is not enough time to dedicate to sit and learn. I just learn on the go. While doing laundry. That is my Spanish time.
Because my “passive listening” is based on materials where I understand 80 - 90% and the rest just needs to be figured out.
For couple of months, I did not really have any time to come back to LingQ. I just listened to two podcasts. I felt i improved, but only after reviewing some content I realized what was difficult for me then is now easy. Just “passive” listenting while doing laundry.
All passive listening is not the same. My laundry listening - is an active act. I am interested in the content, I understand most of the content.
I think that Andrew Barr mixes up - real passive listening where you do not engage with the content, and is just a backround noise with active listening, where you engage with the content.


Passive listening is GREAT for you. Not knowing how to use it bad for you.

Full disclosure, I only skimmed through the blog post, because I don’t like this genre of blog posts. “I misused a tool for years, so it’s bad.”

Incorporating passive listening time into your language routine as a secondary activity – coupled with an effective primary activity – can be extremely useful. Especially since passive listening is often done at times when the primary activity is no doable, such as during driving, grocery shopping etc.


Well, the only thing I take from that is to make the listening more active, which is not a bad idea. But I’ve never had this problem with any other language I’ve learnt so I’m not sure about it.

As always, it probably depends on the situation, language, etc, etc…

But yeah, I’ll have to think about it in practice, to make it more active in some situation. At the end of the day it’s only a strategy to increase focus, so I probably think it’s only a problem of focus and concentration. Something like that.

There seems to be no scientific study on the “usefulness” of passive listening:
" I have been searching on Google Scholar to find a paper presenting research results on whether passive listening helps learning a language, but I could not find any. Is there any such work that shows passive listening helps to learn a new language?"

I just checked Google Scholar. The situation hasn´t changed.

My thesis is: The “usefulness / greatness” of passive listening is simply part of the myth of “effortless mastery” of something (see K.A. Ericsson et al., 2nd ed. 2018, "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology), p. 76).

From my personal experience, passive listening has three limited use cases:

  • Pleasure: It can make boring things (ironing the clothes, washing the dishes, etc.) more interesting.
  • Maintenance: it can help maintain our level of language to some degree.
  • Consolidation: Repeated passive listening can help us consolidate what we already know.

However, this doesn´t help to improve our language level a lot!
So if language learners really want to get better at their L2, they need to be more active, focused, and deliberate (through reading/reading while listening, active listening, speaking, writing, flashcarding, etc.).

Without these practices, language learners usually end up like routiniers of other practical skills in medicine, sports, music, etc.: they stagnate for years or even decades after reaching a certain level of acceptable performance:
“Once this acceptable performance has been attained, gaining further routine experience does not seem to improve performance. For example, some individuals play tennis or golf several times a week for decades without getting much better. Similarly, many professionals accumulate years or
decades of experience without increasing their objective performance as teachers, nurses, or psychotherapists (see Ericsson, Chapter 38, this volume). Reviews (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996; Ericsson, Whyte, & Ward, 2007) have shown that the length of domain experience is often unrelated to improvements in professional performance and in some cases the time since
graduation is even associated with decrements in performance, …” (see the Handbook mentioned above).

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I think that I have to agree more with t_harangi on this because the “how” you use the so-called “passive listening” seems to be the most important part. I know that I’m repeating myself a bit here, but the things you encounter through “passive listening” do not have to be used as merely exposure to the language where you’re only using it to hear things or understand them. This comes down to how people are processing the information. It doesn’t seem like using “passive listening” would necessarily limit one to lower-level cognitive processing like remembering and understanding. The person listening could be applying, analyzing, and evaluating the language and content while doing these other activities like washing the dishes or folding clothes. They can be making connections between what they hear and other things that they have read and heard in the language, which would indicate that the “passive listening” techniques could be quite powerful depending on how much people are able to process it. I’m not so sure the “passive” and “active” components actually quantify the degree of processing that occurs. With all that said, I do think that the vast majority of learners are not using appropriate materials or processing strategies while they do engage in “passive listening” as described in the article. What do you think? Are higher levels of processing not possible while engaging in very mindless tasks?


This really is interesting. I think we are talking about two concepts:

  1. deliberate practice
  2. listening
    Depends on how passive listening is defined. It could be described as “backround noise” - such can of course not be helpful in any way. Also just listening to let¨s say story doesn’t have to be helpful.

The guy in this article says:

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.

He was listening while writing a book. That can really not be helpful in any way improving anything. It is just distracting you from you proper job. Do not do that.

Here we are missing deliberate practice. Without a doubt nothing can be improved without a deliberate practice.

My experience shows listening while doing something else can be coupled with deliberate practice. At least this is what I do.

Have you found any paper on active listening? And how active listening can be described?


Actually I’d like to find scientific studies on many things concerning languages because there aren’t so many, a lot of them are based on opinion, experience, feelings and so on. And unfortunately this is because the “science” we live in is a subcategory of the “money” making machine of the economy and system we live in. The rest that doesn’t make profit have not much budget to continuously improve scientific researches, often even receiving obstacles if they go against the profit or the current agenda.

Maybe you haven’t found scientific studies on the usefulness but have you found scientific studies on the not usefulness?

Btw, I agree on the points you have highlighted based on your experience. Maybe we can add a slow and steady improvement depending also on the intention of the listener. For example, I don’t watch anything anymore in English to improve the language, I just focus on the topics and what I need from them. But others could do in a different way and improve more.

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To be clear, my definition of passive listening is listening to podcasts, audiobooks, news, and to a certain extent, movies and TV shows without subtitles. It’s when the listening is done for fun and does not include engaging with the written version of the same text.

In my time of learning five languages I’ve found all the above mentioned activities hugely useful as part of comprehensive language study routine. When used properly, it’s a great way to engage with the language, build listening comprehension, build some new vocabulary from context, and it ultimately will lead to better active reproduction and pronunciation.

If the academic research community has failed to study the effectiveness of the proper application of this tool, that’s not really my problem. I myself have the data points to back up my claims of it.

If there are language learners out there who misuse this tool, or misunderstand what it’s supposed to be doing, and expect to learn a language by using this one tool alone, that is also not my problem.

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I’m inclined to agree.

Before starting seriously learning last year, I had spent a lot of time listening to German music, and I didn’t have a clue what any of the songs were about if I didn’t make an active effort to understand them at some point. No amount of playing the song over and over passively because I enjoyed it ever gave me any understanding or comprehension. There needs to be “something” active to turn all the sounds into something comprehensible and give it value.

I have also listened to a fair amount of K-Pop like BLACKPINK and while it’s fun to listen to, I do not know a single word of Korean. It could be that something has happened “under the hood”, and if I started learning Korean actively that something might unlock with all that I listened to, but I am skeptical.

Now if you already done that work, either by actively engaging with the content previously or simply building enough automaticity that you can understand without effort, in those situations I think playing the content in the background can be beneficial at maintaining your level. I am just skeptical that it will lead to much improvement on its own.

I would argue the different between “active” and “passive” is as simple as are you engaging to understand in a way that will give you meaning. Listening while driving a car or doing household chores I’d argue is more like stretches of “active” listening with divided attention. In the cases where I just have something else going on, but am otherwise engaging meaningfully with the content, I find this as a GREAT method for getting input as I’ve found that doing nothing but trying to listen it gets to easy for my mind to wander.


I also derive benefit from listening to enjoyable audio for fun, without text support. But this is not passive listening. There is no such thing as passive listening. Listening is an activity, consisting of paying attention to the sounds that one hears. You yourself use the word activities, which is quite right. These are activities. They involve active engagement and focus on the sounds (not necessarily with language acquisition as the conscious goal). The absence of text or transcript doesn’t make these listening activities passive. It is the active paying of attention (to voices, or text, or both) that triggers the subconscious inferential and pattern-matching processes which underlie language acquisition.


Exactly right. It is an activity. All of your listening is active. That is because all listening is active. There is no such thing as passive listening. Listening may be fragmentary or intermittent (due to distractions, other tasks etc) but it is never passive.

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So, okay, if my definition of “passive listening” wrong, that’s fine – and if listening to a podcast or audiobook is considered active listening, I’m fine with that.

But that would mean that the blog article referenced here – and in turn this whole thread – is more useless than I originally thought. If the point of the article is “having random noise in the background won’t teach you a language” I would have to say “Wow, man. My mind is blown here.”

Who does that? Nobody. Not even the person who wrote that article really tried doing that, they probably just needed a blog post to submit for Benny’s blog so they came up with a non-existent problem to advise against. It’s kinda like saying “banging your head against a language book is not an effective method, and let me tell you why.”



The guy in above mentioned referenced this article: Shocking truth about passive listening » Fluent in 3 Months

And there he says:
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.

So he was actually doing this. But why? Why do you do this to yourself? Why bother?

Maybe a few psychological distinctions are helpful in this context:

“Listening is an activity, consisting of paying attention to the sounds that one hears.”
I agree. The distinction “passive - active” is probably not helpful in this context. There have to be continuous operations, esp. of the brain and the psyche / consciousness, otherwise a human being is either in a coma or simply dead.
Or to modify Descartes’ famous saying: “Operamus ergo sumus” (we operate, therefore we are) :slight_smile:

Within this basic operational perspective, we could distinguish between a preattentive and a focused attention stage (see Treisman´s approach in this Wikipedia article: Attention - Wikipedia).

Furthermore, we could distinguish the oral medium in a simplified way as follows:

  • Level 1: Simple sounds (sound patterns) that can be distinguished but have no semantic meaning, e.g.: the sound of raindrops falling on a window [an interesting borderline case would be sounds that can´t be distinguished so that they can´t be generalized (categorized). IMO, they don´t reach our mind, but are filtered out or remain non-conscious]
  • Level 2: Phonemes as abstractions of basic sound patterns that can be distinguished and have no semantic meaning in itself, but are used to distinguish (segments of) words within a particular language (Phoneme - Wikipedia).
  • Level 3: Chains / segments of words that can be distinguished and have meaning.
  • Level 3 can be further complicated by creating more complex language patterns like sentences, texts, discourses, discourse genres, intertextual networks of discourses, etc.

When we talk about speech processing, we´re on level 3 (and higher).
But if speech processing isn´t possible in a meaningful way it regresses to the non-meaningful sound levels (i.e., phonemes and basic sound patterns).

So, what the “passive / active” distinction refers to regarding speech processing on level 3 (upwards) is

  1. focused attention
  2. the division of this focused attention in multitasking.

We could then write:

  • “passive” listening refers to divided attention by permanently switching the attention focus in multitasking activities
  • “active” listening refers to the undivided (i.e. fully focused) attention being sustained over a longer period of time

“It’s when the listening is done for fun and does not include engaging with the written version of the same text.” (@t_harangi)
That´s not the problem here.
The (interesting) questions are rather:

  • Should we multitask and, by doing so, divide our attention while listening to stuff in our target language?
  • And if we decide to multitask (because we´re busy bees like Dominika), how much is this division of our attention beneficial for our improvement in our target language?

I´ve been a hardcore multitasker (like Dominika) myself listening for thousands of hours in various L2s. But did this really help me (apart from the pleasure, maintenance, and consolidation aspects I mentioned above)? I doubt it.

However, I´m pretty sure that listening to hundreds of hours of Europe 1 on the radio (while doing other stuff) didn´t have much of a big impact on my oral and written exams in French. The deciding factor was being well prepared for these exams (and I mean rote memorization and role plays here).
Simply relying on “free speech” in these exams is, well, academic suicide - even for native speakers of French :slight_smile:

And performance specialists like K.A. Ericsson (see the Cambridge Handbook above) would probably add reg. the division of attention while multitasking:
“It´s not simply practice that makes perfect. It´s perfect (i.e. deliberate = focused = intense) practice that makes perfect (or, at least, creates relevant improvements).”

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“Have you found any paper on active listening? And how active listening can be described?” (
I´d say “active / passive listening” aren´t good keywords in this context (see my reply to @glossboss and @t_harangi below).

The main concepts that are of interest here are rather:

  • (human) multitasking
  • divided attention

For further literature, see esp. this Wikipedia article:
Human multitasking - Wikipedia

Thank you very much for your detailed answer. Have you described your studing routine anywhere? How you combine your LingQ with other techniques?

And then I am asking about papers on listening, cause listening is my main method of learning.

I have ADHD and I am not able to focus for more than 2 minutes on anything repetitive (like SRS vocab here in LingQ) No app, nothing. Just focusing on something like that just never works. My mind wanders off.

For ADHD doing repetivive motion helps you focus on other tasks. So Doing laundry helps me focus on learning. I am no able to sit still, even in my consulting practice - All my client just know, if they want the better of me, they have to let me walk.

So I heavily depend on listening to learn. It is either listening while doing something, just staring into a textbook for an hour and realizing, that in an hour I have not learned anything.

Basically - I just go through content, and then I listen to it, until I understand every single word. Listening will be always number one for me.

There must be efficient way to use listening to learn. There are many people who are blind and still managed to learn another language.

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music doesn’t help me either, maybe when I was a teenager and I wanted to know the meaning of a specific song or how to sing it but in general doesn’t help. The mind wanders too much and it’s a insignificant progression compared to audiobooks for example.

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“Are higher levels of processing not possible while engaging in very mindless tasks?”
An excellent question, iMeoWi.

The common psychological wisdom reg. multitasking seems to be:
"Multitasking can be defined as the attempt to perform two or more tasks simultaneously; however, research shows that when multitasking, people make more mistakes or perform their tasks more slowly. " (Attention - Wikipedia)

For example, driving while doing other things (texting, speaking, whatever).
“The vast majority of current research on human multitasking is based on performance of doing two tasks simultaneously,[20] usually that involves driving while performing another task, such as texting, eating, or even speaking to passengers in the vehicle, or with a friend over a cellphone. This research reveals that the human attentional system has limits for what it can process: driving performance is worse while engaged in other tasks; drivers make more mistakes, brake harder and later, get into more accidents, veer into other lanes, and/or are less aware of their surroundings when engaged in the previously discussed tasks.[25][26][27]
There has been little difference found between speaking on a hands-free cell phone or a hand-held cell phone,[5][28] which suggests that it is the strain of attentional system that causes problems, rather than what the driver is doing with his or her hands.” (Attention - Wikipedia)

I´ve had the same experience, e.g. listening to podcasts / the news in my target languages while doing calisthenics workouts:

  • If the calisthenics exercises are (technically) simple and easy in terms of strength (let´s say slow regular pushups), listening to podcasts / the news by switching my attention is no problem.
  • As soon as the calisthenics exercises become harder and / or technically more demanding (let´s say plyo pushups), my attention focuses exclusively on the calisthenics exercise to be performed, otherwise the risk of injury is too high. In this case, I usually have complete “listening blackouts”, i.e. I don’t understand what is being said for several minutes.
  • However, even if the calisthenic exercises are technically easy and not that hard to perform, I must have a B1, B1-B2 or higher level in my TL. Otherwise, I don´t understand much in my TL (that´s the case in Japanese for me right now).

Note 1:
“Some experiments have been done that demonstrate that it is possible to divide one’s attention among several tasks, how successfully depends on several factors such as how much practice one has with it or the difficulty of the task.” (Human multitasking - Wikipedia)
Tasks with a low cognitive load (because the tasks are simple and highly automatized) like washing the dishes or ironing the clothes allow for a better listening experience.

But, I´ve tried to combine a mindless activity like ironing the clothes with listening to a highly complex subject (in machine learning - even in my native tongue, German!)… and that wasn´t a very successful experiment :slight_smile:

Therefore, I´d say listening to something in our TL (a podcast, a movie, a TV series, the radio, the news, etc.) while doing some highly automatized activity without much cognitive load works. But, does it help to improve “a lot” (apart from the three aspects - pleasure, consolidation, and maintenance) in our L2? I´m not so sure, but I doubt it. If there are gains for heavy multitaskers, they re probably “minimal”. And heavy multitasking is probably not a good investment of time in the middle and long run - at least as an exclusive strategy.

But it´s different with a comprehensive mix of various strategies (like @t_harangi or Andrew Barr suggested). Example:

  • Listening to the news while doing some cognitive low-level activities.
  • Listening to a shorter version of the news with undivided attention (for a few minutes) and writing a short summary of three important news
  • Talking about these news with your tutor

We did something similar at university. And such a mix is quite effective in the long run.

Nevertheless, it would be great to read detailed scientific SLA studies about this topic.
Otherwise, as Davide wrote, we remain in the realm of “personal opinion vs. personal opinion”.

Note 2: Regular people vs supertaskers
For regular people (like me) multitasking should be avoided if something we have to do is “really important”:
"Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer—often double the time or more—to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” states Meyer.[7] This is largely because “the brain is compelled to restart and refocus”.[8] A study by Meyer and David Kieras found that in the interim between each exchange, the brain makes no progress whatsoever. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process. " Human multitasking - Wikipedia

But there´s the special case of “supertaskers”:
"In 2010, a scientific study found that a small percent of the population appeared to be much better at multitasking than others, and these people were subsequently labeled “supertaskers”.[34] In 2015, another study supported the idea of supertaskers. This particular study showed that they tested people by making them drive on a driving simulator while at the same time memorizing words and solving math problems. As expected, most of the participants did much worse than their individual task test scores. The supertaskers, however, were able to multitask without major effects to their performance. "

So, my personal lessons for language learning / acquisition reg. multitasking are:

  • A lot of “passive listening”, sensu: divided attention while multitasking, isn´t a good strategy for improving my target language, esp. at the beginner level.
  • But it´s an ok strategy (doing cognitive low-level activities) when it´s combined with a comprehensive mix of more focused strategies (reading, speaking, writing, flashcarding, etc. as deliberate and timeboxing practices).
  • It´s a time-efficient strategy for an advanced level because the focus is on mood and mind-management (“pleasure”) and maintenance (getting exposure to the TL), but not so much on improvement.

But these positions are only a snapshot and are likely to change (again) over time :slight_smile:

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