What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of passive listening?

When it comes to input activities I mostly focus on reading books while at the same time I listen to their audio versions. In that sense I think LingQ is a great tool and I have seen considerable progress both in English and German over the last two years.

However, I think my listening comprehension in German is not at the level that I would like it to be. That is the reason why whenever I am not working on LingQ and I have free time I try to listen to content in that language, most of the time it’s news and occasionally podcasts. If I focus I can understand 75% of what I am listening to. Nevertheless I must say that it is not always a conscious process because I do it while exercising, playing videogames or doing the chores. That means I only get a rough idea of what they are talking about, picking up words and phrases here and there unless I fully focus.

The problem is that for me it is very diffuclut just to sit down and start listening to content in my target language without getting bored or distracted. I think this is a situation that Steve Kaufmann has experienced and pointed out several times as well.

So I would like to know if you think there is true progress by this kind of passive listening or it is just too slow or ineffective in any case, at least compared with active listening.

Thank you!


Hi, Ludirou!

We had a long discussion on this topic a few months ago, see: https://www.lingq.com/pt/community/forum/open-forum/blog-post-why-passive-listenin

Here are some of the main points:

Here is an interesting blog post by Andrew Barr on this topic: https://www.fluentin3months.com/listening-skills/ 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: https://www.lingq.com/pt/community/forum/lingq-language-challenge-forum/a-power-user-shares-his-advice) 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?

Hope that helps


“it is very diffuclut just to sit down and start listening to content in my target language without getting bored or distracted”

There are two stages here:

  1. At the beginner stages (A1/A2), it’s often hard to maintain attention to L2 content for an extended period of time because the content isn’t compelling enough, focusing takes a lot of mental energy, etc.
    Two strategies are helpful in this case:
  • Rely on (tiny) habits (see the eponymous book by B.J. Fogg: https://tinyhabits.com/), not on motivation or feelings. In short: Just do it - every day!
  • Use the Pomodoro technique, e.g. for 5 min a day in week 1, 10 min in week 2, etc. until you reach 25-30 min in one Pomodoro session. Then add another Pomodoro session.
  • Or to put it differently: Being able to focus over an extended period of time is a matter of mental training. And Pomodoro sessions with short breaks between them are a helpful tool to structure your (daily) training.
  1. At the intermediate / advanced stages (B1 and upwards), it’s a good strategy to use the most compelling content you can find. And when you’re really fascinated by something, it’s usually not that hard to pay attention because you want to know what’s coming next. Unfortunately, that’s usually not an option for beginners, but it’s an option for intermediate and advanced learners.



Yeah, this is common. It’s the same for me too. Sitting/lying down and listening (most of the time), my mind wanders and daydreams. I can focus a lot more, when going for a walk, doing repetitive tasks, such as washing the dishes, or driving. That’s no problem. You know sitting in the armchair and listening doesn’t work for you. No problem. Simple. Don’t do it. It’s very common. Be practical about it. Instead, go for a walk and listen. Alternatively, as opposed to just sitting there, listening and daydreaming, watch something. Watch YouTube vlogs or YouTubers talking to the camera. It’s much more engaging.

I have no proof that it works, but in the last three months, I’ve clocked a bit over 100 hours of listening and, yes, it feels like I’m improving. The majority of my listening was done while doing other activities (mainly driving, sometimes walking, sometimes chores). I’m at the beginner stage of my Italian journey, so it has involved a lot of repetitive listening, that is, listening to the same audio many times. I’ve started to delete the audios from the Mini Stories now, when I clock more than 15+ listens (over the last three months). I feel that I know the stories and most of the words pretty well, so I delete them, and use my listening time to listen to the audios of other lessons, which I’ve already read, lingQed, studied, etc. As @PeterBormann mentioned, your strategy will change as your progress in the language. So as you’re more advanced in the language than me, you will probably be doing less repetitive listening. With these things, you can’t really notice everyday impovements. But after months of practice, you’ll just realise one day that, “Wow! My German is much better than it was half a year ago!”


In my opinion any listening is helpful. The question is to what degree? If you are already doing these activities, sure, go ahead and listen to something. Depending on the activity though it is going to be some degree less effective than if you were completely focused. I’m guessing your listening is probably better during chores compared to video games. I also find that doing some chores for me, listening is not very good…i.e. I can do dishes which is very mindless, but if I’m decluttering and needing to make choices of what to keep or throw away, I might as well not even listen.

I agree with nfera…find some things you can watch that are of interest. Or if it’s a podcast or audiobook…read along, as Peter suggested. This will help keep you focused. Even if it is for just a short while. Per Peter’s suggestion, set aside some time for this and make it a daily thing you’ve put into your schedule (or whatever frequency you can fit it in based on your schedule of other things). If you just say, I’ll throw it in whenever I can, it’s not going to happen with any frequency. So schedule it like you would your workouts.

Again, I think you’ll still make progress with the passive listening. Most of mine is so far and I can tell I’m getting better. Slowly, but surely. I do also do a lot of German tv show watching. Probably on average a half hour a day although at least one of the shows I’m not sure how much I get out of it because I can hardly understand it =D. Documentaries I fare better and I probably get more out of those.


Most of my approach is based around watching video and listening to audio.

You will get something from listening to content that is above your level but maybe not what you expect.

At the beginning what you will get is exposure to the sounds of the language. When learning a language that isn’t too too far away from your native language (e.g. English, German from Spanish) this doesn’t matter much (and you might not be aware of it) but the effect is there.
In a distant language many of the component sounds are entirely different and you won’t even know be able to distinguish the component sounds. From that perspective just listening to native content will give you exposure to the vowels, consonants, vowel clusters, consonant clusters plus rhythm, cadence and tonality of the target language.

If you learn purely by reading you will subconsciously layer your native language’s pronunciation into your new language without listening practice. For example, comparing English and Spanish: Spanish speakers drop the “d” at the end of words as in “verdad” sounds like “verda”. They typically drop a “v” so “five” sounds like “fi”. Paying attention to the sounds of words will tell you that the natives don’t drop those letters. You will also pick up for example that “ee” is not a lengthened version of “e” in “verdad” but is in fact the same sound as “i” in “limon”. Those are all things you won’t pick up from reading unless you’re paying attention.

So at the beginning you will get these additional pieces although you might not understand.

At the level you’re at (you can understand 75%) you won’t get much improvement immediately and definitely not if you continue to listen to different content at the same level.

What my experience is confirms what Steve Kaufman says: listen to the same material over and over and over. The mini-stories are perfect for this. Listen to all the mini-stories over and over and over. You can do this passively no problem.
For continued passive learning, once you have perfect understanding of the mini-stories then pick some other content just slightly above your level and listen to that over and over until you understand it.

Don’t, however, expect to get the same amount of benefit from passive as from active. In order to “notice” it’s much more efficient to pay active attention than it is to just have it on and be daydreaming.

Anyhow, that’s my 2c.


xxdb, With your language method does speaking emerge on its own with immaculate grammar so no need to read and write, no need to study grammar? Just curious if you were to make a trip to Moscow tomorrow how would you fare?

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It is possible that over time some grammar would emerge on its own but unlikely to be immaculate if I focused only and forever on vocabulary and watching videos. That said I can’t go back in time and reverse out the wikipedia articles I have read and videos I have watched (in Russian) about Russian grammar so it’s not a clean test. Also ignoring grammar forever is not really my method anyway (see below).

That said my method is “ignore grammar until you have a large enough base of vocabulary combined with enough hours of listening/watching video”, it’s NOT “ignore grammar forever”.

My gut feel is that perfect active grammar does NOT emerge on its own without specific drilling, deliberate practice or formal instruction. Even children learning their first language experiment with grammar and get feedback from parents/peers till they get it right. So no, if I ignored grammar altogether and just focused on vocab and video I doubt I would be able to speak grammatically correctly.

Passive grammar is another story, however. I understand much more than I should given that I cannot reproduce all of the grammar actively.

But I’ve had a handful of conversations with Russian speakers on conversational type topics so far. I can understand them and they can understand me. I reckon I would fare just as good in Moscow as I would in Paris (assuming nobody in Paris went “ugh” and just switched to English).

So yeah I suspect I could function decently as a tourist there.

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I feel like most people would agree that a mix of passive and active listening is best. That said, I know for certain that I got the most out of intensive active listening. The trouble is, it’s very taxing and can even be demotivating for that reason, so leaning towards some kind of 75/25 ratio would probably be ideal.

FWIW, I seem to have the opposite reaction to you in that my mind wonders if I’m not sat down and focussed. I find it really hard to tune in and out of audio, as doing stuff is distracting to me. Unless it’s something completely automatic like driving, but even then there are visuals that distract me. When I listen to audiobooks, I like to visualise what’s happening as the story is being told, like playing a film in my head, so I guess I find it difficult to do that if I’m not sat down and focussed.

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“My gut feel is that perfect active grammar does NOT emerge on its own without specific drilling, deliberate practice or formal instruction.”

There are people who would dispute this. My personal belief is that it can be acquired naturally, but only through absolutely MASSIVE input, and then later plenty of speaking practice. I feel like hardly anyone does the kind of input required for it to just emerge, but I think it would if you immersed in the langauge for 4-5 years.

Hardly anyone can do that, which is why most people don’t believe it, IMO. They do their 1-3 hours/day for a few years and they find they’re lacking grammar ability, but 1.5 hours/day for 3 years is the equivalent of only about 4 months of full time immersion. Native kids take 5-7 years under such immersion for accurate grammar to arise. Adults might be able to do it quicker, I’m not sure.

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I’m not sure we’re disagreeing because you include the caveat of plenty of speaking practice as well as massive immersion.

I’m strictly talking about watching video and listening with nothing else though so I think the comparison is apples and oranges.

Otherwise sure.

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You should listen to something you have actively listened to. This way you are simply reinforcing to whatever you have listened previously instead of listening to something unknown which you have not listened before. As an example, you can create a playlist of lingq lessons that you have listened actively and you can listen to them passively while doing other chores. Major chunk of time should be spent on active listening, though.