Do you think Audiobooks (without text) are really Effective?

Just for clarifying, I listen to audiobooks on a daily basis.

I’m talking about here when we listen to audiobooks doing other activities, like driving, running, walking and so on. (so without text or we don’t even have the text for later review)

We know that our mind doesn’t put all the attention into listening because our attention is shattered doing other things. And we also know that our brain is wandering around. So the real attention is a lot lower that what we might think.

So, I’m trying to understand if listening to audiobooks is really effective somehow on language learning or if it’s just our illusion about it.

This has nothing to do about enjoying the story of the audiobook itself.

For example, if I don’t recognize a word while listening, I can’t do anything about it because often I’m not even sure about the spelling to search for it and I’ll forget anyway.

If the audiobook is not really really engaging I will probably lose the most of it.

Sometimes though, I can recognize a word that I previously learnt before and that’s reinforcing the language. But it’s a lot more rare compared to the hours of listening I do.

What do you think about it? What kind of insights could you share to better use that time used for this activity?

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Yes, listening to audiobooks without reading along can be hugely effective. It’s very good at building up listening comprehension by reinforcing stuff you know, along with teaching you new words from context. And it allows you to engage with your target language in an entertaining way and keep you improving indefinitely.

Of course it’s VERY important that you pick material that will engage on you the story level – this is more important than with a book that you’re reading along to, because your mind will wonder more with audio if the story is not engaging enough. This is why I only listen to mystery / adventure stories, since I’m more likely just to enjoy the “movie” they create in my head, than with a classic or literary novel.

Another criteria is that you have to build up enough comprehension to understand a significant enough portion of the narration for it to hold your interest. I don’t know what the percentage is but at the beginning, even if there are passages that are “foggy” to you, you have to be able to get enough just to follow the story. This is of course subjective – I myself am comfortable with a fair amount of fog at the beginning. But in the beginning, you have the excitement factor of being able to understand just enough, and that will fuel you to keep going even though you might get lost at times.

You can make this listening more part of structured study, by re-listening to stuff you already read, or by listening first and then reading later. But I think that once you’re past the comprehension threshold mentioned above, it’s best to just use listening time for books that you’re only listening to forcing yourself to make due without assistance.

Also, you can drop bookmarks into the audible app when you come across a word that stumps you and look it up later. This is super easy when the app is in “car mode.”

I typically have 4-5 different books that I’m in the middle of, rotating between languages, and combining listening only time with another book that I’m also reading along to when I have reading time.

Another neat feature to play with is Whispersync on between Kindle and Audible, which is available on a lot of English and German titles. It allows you switch between audio and reading and on iOS apps it can read along to you while visually following along the text with a highlight. You can incorporate that into your routine in various ways.


I can only share my experience. I found listening to audiobooks while doing multi-tasking activities kind of counterproductive as I am not concentrating 100% on the listening so I pick up things here and there and miss out on a lot of details. However, for my time and efforts when I am listening to an audiobook, I just want to get lost with the voice and shut down all external noise/distractions. In a nutshell, for me, active listening is very important this is where I get more value for my time even if the content is very difficult and beyond my current language level. That being said, your subconscious mind has the ability to decode a lot of noise/difficult language content given if you’re concentrating 100%. This is based on my personal experience.


It depends on the activity for me. Driving, I can follow along quite well. It’s where I do most of my listening. Certainly there are times I get distracted here and have to rewind a bit. Cleaning/Organizing, on the other hand, I can’t for the life of me concentrate on any audiobook, including in my native language. I get instantly distracted.

Also, as t_harangi points out, the difficulty of the material (how much you understand) plays a big factor. If I only understand a certain amount, the effort to really concentrate and grab the bits of information you recognize is very strenuous and I can only do that for so long before the mind aches, or it wanders. When doing other activities it’s even more difficult.

I think, beyond all this, you can still listen even while distracted, or missing large chunks due to the lack of comprehension or multitasking the brain…You may not be getting enough to understand what’s going on all or even most of the time, but those times you are able to concentrate and hear and understand words you know is still valuable I think.

As you point out it may not be all that efficient, so that has to be weighed, but every little bit of exposure does help to some degree I would think.


The activity part is an interesting factor – it’s best to have something to do while you’re listening, but not something that requires too much thinking. Driving is really an ideal time because driving uses a different side of your brain, I think. Another good one is walking with a dog – my dog is actually responsible for most of my language learning. Grocery shopping is also good if you go the same supermarket and have a routine list – some activity, little thinking. Cleaning, cooking and other routine chores can work as well.

What doesn’t work at all is sitting there in a chair and just listening. I simply can’t do that, if I’m sitting and my eyes are free, I wanna read along.

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Thanks for your sharing experience but whisper sync doesn’t count here and it would be definitely effective than just listening.

Bookmarks in car mode might be interesting unfortunately in many occasions doesn’t work as you can’t or shoudn’t pick up the phone all the time (car, running, etc.)

I think it could be important, as you said at the beginning, for reinforcing the stuff you know. And you’re absolutely right about the engaging content. And even more with audiobooks. This is a very difficult part as for me, it’s not so easy to find content very engaging to really want to pay attention to “every page”.

yep, multitasking doesn’t exist. Our brain just split its capacity of focus on more tasks.

From the subconscious level it might be different as the brain would perceive the “need” of learning that language and push the rationality in a different way when we put ourselves to study.

But 1 hour of active listening and reading is way more productive than just listening on the go. Imho.

I really listen to a lot of audiobooks and I’m also a person that analyse quite a lot on how our brain works and on the results of some of our actions.

That’s why I was wondering if this time spent (without text and doing other tasks at the same time) is really effective for learning, on what it’s actually effective and how to make it more productive.

Our brain doesn’t really multitask, it splits its capacity on more tasks. Even more, we always wander, it’s rooted on how our brain works, we just don’t realize it.

The only moments where I’m sure that I’m “learning” is the reinforcing situation. When I’ve learnt a word previously and then suddenly I hear and pay attention to that word. So my brain quickly recall the meaning and that’s reinforced now into a context that I was able to understand.

But this doesn’t happen really often and the main problem is probably what t_harangi was talking about, the level of interest and engaging we have with what we are listening. Probably I have to work harder on finding things that are really really interesting to listen to.

BUT in this case, there is a need of way more attention which means that sharing the listening with another task could be complecated.

There is different between focusing on the story (so enjoy the story and skipping everything we don’t understand) and focusing on the language and learning or get something from the story that is helpful for learning the language.

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I came across this tweet today:

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It’s no more effective than any other activity you would do, but also no less effective. You can walk or sit and listen intently, but that would be a totally different activity. I think the most important part is picking something that you want to hear because it’s interesting, not something that you’re listening to in order to improve your language skills. If you really like music for example, I think you’d be better off listening to music in your target language because you’ll pay more attention to it. Certain people just love audiobooks! Audiobooks alone can be great, but as you and others have said, of course your attention is divided. I always played lots of computer games through high school, and I always had music on during it. I can definitely tell you that my attention is on the game, but every time it flickers to something else, it’s just nice to already have on something that your brain enjoys. So if you don’t like the story that you’re hearing from the audiobook, I believe it’s effectiveness will be very low.

One other thing! I think people get too caught up in individual words. Don’t worry about getting every word perfectly. Do you really look up every word you’re unsure about when reading in your native language? I know that I don’t. It ruins the fun and breaks the flow. Let it be a little ambiguous if it’s just a word here and there. On the other hand, if you have no image in your head of the story, change the book. It’s probably not interesting, or too difficult, which would make it less interesting.

ha ha, funny analogy.

Thanks for sharing your insight but I don’t think every activity is equal in productivity and energy spent.

For example, if I listen and read and LingQ at the same time, I know that this is very effective in learning the language for many different levels.

Same thing is if I watch a video, read the transcript and LingQ the words.

I’m just curious to understand in what listening audiobooks (without text and doing other activities) is really effective in language learning.

Because even if we are doing another activity + listening to audiobooks, we spend more brain energy that won’t be used for other activities later on or during the week. If the focus of listening audiobooks is learning a language, our brain needs to focus on it and this will be an added stress compared to only enjoy and doing the other activity we are doing. But this is just nitty-picking.

You’re right, in my native language I don’t look up every word I don’t know but I have a huge vocabulary and it’s not so easy to find words I don’t know the meaning in the context I’m using them. And if they are essential for the comprehension I look them up. There’s no comparison with the languages I’m learning.

I see what you’re getting at now. It’s interesting, but definitely difficult to pin down. My thoughts above are mostly about making use of your “dead time.” Listening to whatever you have read is always fun for me, but I could understand how that may bore some people.

I think that audiobooks build up some unique skills, but this may be language dependent. Certain uses of grammar and speech from written text rarely appear, or never appear in spoken language. Books also bring up more uncommon words on a regular basis because they have to describe surroundings, and people just don’t tend to do that in normal conversations because the vast majority of people use visuals as a means to supplement communication. I actually think that watching tv shows with audio description is a good way to bridge the gap from the more intermediate level content to full on novels and books. Generally, the descriptions give a more simple description of the characters and the scenes, but they don’t normally have the same level of complexity as a full text.

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Funny quote. I tend to agree, but I have to say for myself, with seemingly very little time left for reading books themselves, audiobooks are a godsend. I can do my “reading” on my commute or anywhere I drive. It’s also allowed me to get through massive 1000+ real page books, which I would most likely put down through page 300 and never pick up again. Hello…Game of Thrones series (he needs an editor to trim down). I’ve also simply listened to a huge volume of books compared to what I would be able to do reading.

I do love the feel and smell of a new book though and certain books obviously don’t lend themselves to being a good audiobook (or ebook).

All these connections and differences are very interesting indeed. It might be that in the progress of our language learning, from beginners to advanced, we should change tools shifting from one to the other to better benefit of each stage.

We generally do it already but it’s more random, at least in my case.

My answer would be that it depends. In my opinion, if you have a good grasp of the sounds, rhythm and flow of the language and can link those sounds and nuances with the words/phrases/sentences they are linked to; that is, in text (bonus points if you can spell the words out in your mind). Then that is good enough for a beginner/intermediate

However as you acquire vocabulary I believe listening becomes relatively more effective in terms of the value gleaned from the usage of your time. If you are at a point where you can listen, recognize words and guess/fill in gaps then that is a great way to practice building up the language within yourself.

In any case, you will eventually have to immerse yourself in listening eventually, it’s more of a matter of when and how much?

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Well, but in the case I was talking about you don’t really “immerse” yourself in listening because we’re doing other activities at the same time. So the energy spent by the brain to use more energy to pay attention to the language would be a cost not spent on other activities during the day or week. Like for example stay focus for more time.

If you fill the gaps you don’t really pay attention to the language itself but to what you’re listening. But in this case you might learn something from the content but it has nothing to do about learning something from the language itself (which is what I’m trying to figure out here).

As far as I know, from the conversations until now, the only benefit I see would be the one to reinforce the language on words or structures that we already know, maybe just learnt, and catch them during the listening. (if we are lucky to be engaged in the moment that this happens).

Probably, familiarizing with the sound of the language could be another but once it’s done it doesn’t really add more to it.

Personally, I think that if you can’t follow the story, then it’s just a wash of noise with the occasional word or phrase being caught. It really depends on your level. If you’re at upper beginner, then listening to “beginner” stories might be effective. If intermediate, then perhaps some podcasts. As long as you can get the gist of the conversation.

But books? I don’t know. If you are able to read the book in print, then perhaps it might be somewhat effective as passive listening.


I think the attempt to gain 100% efficiency from that (or any) sort of listening is misguided. Listening is sometimes passive, sometimes active, wavering between the two. For most of our lives we only hear part of many things we listen to, even when watching a film in our native languages. You learn your own language only partially hearing what is being said and gaps are filled-in as you go along. You need to basically know what is going on, what a fair number of things mean, standard expressions used in everyday conversation. Recognising repeated patterns saves you a lot of effort in processing when listening.

I would say a very literary audiobook is perhaps not the best because it is a piece of art using language personal to the writer’s style. A less literary book is better, and straightforward non-fiction. In any case I usually listen to such audio in pieces (if it is long) and then read through the transcript/book to confirm my listening and catch words/expressions I’ve missed. Then listen again. If I think I’ve managed to catch most of the meaning just listening then I’ll move on to new material. I can always come back if I want to.


Recognising repeated patterns sound interesting as well and it is still in the category of reinforcing what we generally already know. Sometimes might be something new if we can hear it many times and then read it somewhere.

But you see, here you do a more effective job as you read afterwards then eventually listening again. That’s another story and it adds complexity. But in my case there is the “without text” condition, which it could be a lot less productive.

I read many non-fiction stuff and I get the meaning without any problem but I don’t feel that my “learning” has improved at all either. I could go on reading other 50 books and my English, for example, would stay at the same level. I will understand and focus on the meaning but if I want to focus on the language itself, I have the feeling there’s another strategy to be used and passive listening doesn’t move much. More effective might be the way we do with LingQ.