Is incomprehensible passive input (listening) useful?

I wonder if there is any benefit in incomprehensible passive listening for Chinese or other languages? Every now an then I listen to audio books in Chinese at the gym. I pick up the odd word, but have no idea what they are talking about. Is this still useful? E.g. for making your brain get used to the sound and rhythm of the language?


Some people say it’s good, as it adds to the passive listening database in your brain. It certainly can’t do any harm I don’t think if you enjoy it, I find it very distracting and can’t do it haha


Not in my experience.

First of all, there’s no such thing as passive listening. Listening is an activity, consisting of paying deliberate attention to the sounds that you hear.

Secondly, if the audio is truly incomprehensible to you, then that means you can’t make any sense of any aspect of it , including the non-lexical aspects such as intonations and rhythms. This is not useful in acquiring the language. Comprehensibility is vital.

If you are picking up the odd word, then that’s comprehension. You presumably encountered those words while studying the language, heard them spoken, and then recognized them when they popped up later in authentic audio content.

You will expand your range of comprehension by continuing to expose yourself to content that makes unfamiliar vocabulary comprehensible in some way (with transcripts, glosses, pictures, LingQ etc). Then when you listen to authentic audio in a non-learning-oriented environment, you will find that you recognize more and more of it.


I think that incomprehensinbe passive listening can only make you used to native speech. It’s very good in start of learning new language, but then you can’t learn Language by only tihs way.

I find I can exclusively listen (audiobook, radio) to incomprehensible content for only a brief period of time before I get frustrated, even if I am doing something else. However, I did start watching TV shows, mostly comedies, in my target language before I had anywhere near enough comprehension to understand everything. No subtitles, no closed caption, but it’s amazing how much body language and other physical cues help in comprehension! Sometimes I attempt to spell and look up a word that I hear repeatedly; interestingly, I nearly always remember those words and don’t have to look them up again. But usually I just watch it passively in the evenings when I’m tired. I’m entertained by the physical parts of the comedy and I’m getting lots of exposure to fast-paced dialog. And when I understand a word-based joke, that’s icing on the cake.


Hi JanFinster,
How are you?
Well, sometimes I have this felling that I’m not acquiring any word or sentence while im doing an activity., such as workingout. But what i really like to do when i’m at the gym is listen short and easy podcasts/lessons. I’ll give you my experinece through that.
So, I’ve started to learn french and i really like to listen just short phrases and words in that target language, so i can repeat to myself those short phrases and words. On lingq we have the lesson greetings and goodbyes, so I really like to turn on those lessons, listen it and then repeat to myself.
I really think this “approach”, specially because I am a beginner french student, can keep me up in this process to learn a new language.


It might have some benefit for a very foreign language, letting you get used to the rhythm etc… But it’s a very suboptimal way to spend your listening time imo.

Much better to find something where you can understand at least 50%. Comprehensible input is key to learning

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In the early beginner stage I was listening to native radio for a while. I do believe it was useful for understanding the sounds and tones when learning PinYin. For vocabulary however I probably didn’t learn more than the top 10 common words from native content until much later when my comprehension level was higher. In the meantime I occasionally listened to native content mostly to gauge my progress.

Why do you keep listening to it? If it’s enjoyable then it’s probably good. It can be motivating and help you connect with the language, as well as understanding what you’re aiming for.

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Before you read I am disclaiming that this isn’t a rant.

Let’s say you’re doing half an hour or an hour a day. Which gives you like 140 words. Let’s say you do it whenever you feel like so like 3 - 4 times a week. After a half year you’ll have around 9000 words. This is just not enough words. The pace is just not high enough. The words by reading and listening… unlock the ability to listen and pronounce much quicker and better.

I think besides the idea that it gives you passively words (which I don’t believe) it just isn’t enough words on it’s own. I am shocked when hearing people say it took them 10 000 known words in LingQ before they felt they could listen to input. The shocking part is that I think they are being honest. I have difficulties believing them as I am not even close to 10000 words. And I am not even talking to those that say you should aim above 35 000 words. I’m at 4500 french known words according to lingQ.

It took me like 8 years of trying to study french with methods that are relaxing… I understand the appeal of wanting to not force words or the language for that matter.

But one will realised reading two sentences around 25 words with 5 words unknown a couple of times and moving on only to the next couple of sentences and then always finishing the page (LingQ bit-sized page around 10 sentences) with the audio. The audio is very important in my opinion. And read the text while listening to that 30 seconds of audio you don’t have to repeat that 30 seconds of audio… just continue and be liberal with the criteria of when you leave words on blue so they go to known when you click next page. All these things are things I have to do to get those words up. I have to find things on my level and things I enjoy reading.

The most relaxing thing I can do is intermediate french podcast or inner french or the cottolongue podcast. He talks slowely so the 30 seconds of audio every page is like 2 minutes of audio. I get like 40 - 120 new known words in a podcast of 30 minutes.

I press play and just read along and sometimes have to pause, but mostly he is going slow enough for me to follow.

I have done passive input it only has made me feel dumb and not being confident is way more taxing than people think.

I have added the A1 DELF text and I enjoy seeing it says I have less than 500 unknown words in that text. Everyday it goes down and it motivates me to know I am getting closer to that A1 level.

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I get what you’re saying, but when you first learn a language EVERYthing is incomprehensible.


I think it is useful, just like you said “sound and rhythm”. When you start learning any language, everything is incomprehensible. You have to start somewhere.

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When you are a beginner, you need to have a transcript, otherwise everything is incomprehensible.

Right, but adults start “actively” listening to slow manufactured speech aimed at learners, if they’re starting from zero. Very few adults will turn on the radio and start listening from day one, and the reason is because, if it is even helpful at all, it’s about the most inefficient way to start.

Exactly, the phrase: “passive listening” doesn’t make any sense. What you’re actually doing is “hearing” not listening. As a native English speaker, I could “hear” an English language radio show playing in the background as my mind is focused elsewhere, but I’ll never be able to understand it unless I “listen” to what’s being said, and that’s an active activity, no matter how little effort it might require.

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