Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Passive listening


Recently Benny posted on the results of his C2 Exam in German, in the post Benny questions the usefulness of passive listening, anybody who had the time to read all the posts on this biog from the beginning (and I really don't blame you if you don't ;)) would know that I rate passive listening very highly as a language learning tool. I would like to think that anybody who understands Thai can see me gaining from it. This is a long post but it could be so much longer, I will be posting much more on listening but for now I will try to keep this focused(ish).

Input and "listening" well is as complicated as speaking well and if you want to master a language the scope of what you need to be able to understand by listening is far wider than what you need to be able to produce, listening requires thought and in some cases the learning of new skills. If you wanted to become a good tennis player you would get fit, not too much to ask a language learner to expand their listening skills, it is after all expected of musicians.

Immersion is the earliest form of language learning and can obviously be very successful, for many people throughout history it has been the only way to learn a language, immerse or don't learn, black and white. If I had a choice I would much prefer to have bags of cash (no need to work), bags of time and immerse myself in a country (hey who wouldn't ;)), hardly anyone can indulge themselves to that extent. What has changed? Printing presses, sound recording, the Internet, increased international mobility bring language to you, and technology makes it more and more convenient. I think many of the Victorian language pioneers, the Jesuit priests that learned Chinese etc. would have been delighted to "prepare" and practice with many of the materials and technologies we have available now, I know I am :)

What is Passive Listening?

Here is the usual problem: definition, what Benny describes as passive listening is wavering all over the place ranging into situations where I can easily actively listen to listening in your sleep (yeah I don't see how that is supposed to work either), We could argue about definitions for ages, but passive does not have to mean completely inactive, we have passive resistance, passive aggressive etc. as examples.

Benny appears to think that when you listen yo give it 100% attention? Some languages the speakers regularly speak over each other, you may be in a noisy environment, in a group, you NEED to learn to understand language by giving it part of your attention.

The word passive can have negative vibes but I always prefer to be positive(irony). For the purposes of this exercise I will use one example that Benny gives "listening to language whilst washing the dishes" (apparently Benny gets nothing from this) you could substitute any other reasonably simple task. It is easy to do. with on-line radio, Ipods, audio books, or a cheap mp3 player from the supermarket etc. You can choose from news, podcast conversations, radio chat shows and mix and match depending on your needs.

Passive listening is often listening in dead-time (unless you really look forward to washing the dishes). The more attention the activity requires the less attention you can pay to the audio (duh) but you can increase your ability to concentrate and learn mental techniques to improve what you get out of it even further. Benny appears to have thought he could get something out of passive listening whilst simultaneously studying grammar? and apparently meets lot of learners with similar ideas, all I can say is WOW.

Can I do it?

Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Yes, well then you can do it, the only thing stopping you is imagination and a little application. Gum chewing doesn't require thought though the sceptic smugly declares. Okaaay then imagine you are in your kitchen washing those complicated, thought provoking dishes, imagine that someone else is there with you doing something else, can you hold a conversation with them? Could you hold a conversation with them in a language you are learning? (if not you are a beginner but don't worry you can still gain from passive listening). Still with me? then having that conversation can you learn anything from it or are you too occupied with the dish washing job to think at all.

Maybe you use this dead time for something else? Benny uses his for SRS but I presume that is a different type of dead time or he has a waterproof iphone. Maybe you use this time for just "not thinking time" that is fine it is just language learning not life and death but can you see the spare processing capability is there? Some people have trouble concentrating, you can improve that just by practice, I have found the ability to concentrate very useful in language learning, I picked it up elsewhere though. Do you think the ability to concentrate and focus is useful when learning?

In the beginning

I am not going to stress this too much because even Benny is prepared to concede(he has posted his war post) that listening will get you used to the sounds of the language early on, I think it goes a bit further than Benny describes though.

You can get the same benefit later on in your studies though, find it hard to understand old people, southern dialect, regional accents, kids talking etc. then a batch of listening later on get your filters for the target language improved.

In the middle

I haven't got anywhere near the middle in Thai yet but a few middle type things have happened already. I hear a phrase that isn't quiet like anything I have heard before that teaches me something new. Simple recent example I pointed out before, len footbun hai sanook (play football for fun) when the opportunity arises I will try pom rian pasa thai hai sanook (I study Thai for fun) usually my guesses are correct but if not I will learn.

Really useful at this point is to be able to replay back in your mind a number of seconds prior to the word(s) that caught your attention (even if you though you weren't listening), if you are a musician or similar you can probably do this if not you can learn to do it.

Later on

Some thoughtless person recently commented that they didn't see the point in acquiring passive vocabulary I can't remember the context but that requires an amazing lack of thought. Various levels of listening build my passive vocabulary. I have not grown up in the language I am learning much of what I want to learn I cannot get from a direct conversation but that does not mean I don't want to learn the words, I need to be able to understand them, perhaps use them in a joke or story. It is hard to find the right context to learn these words in conversation (some) swear words, aggressive words, the language of love (I am happily married thank you), street gang slang, youth culture etc. In real conversation I have better things to do than contrive situations to learn passive vocabulary, I would much rather learn this from listening (not from a book for sure).

Winding up

I suspect that Benny would respond that most of my examples are active listening, if that is the case he should be clearer about what he is talking about.

Seriously I can easily identify a couple of hours a day and I know that I get a steady stream of benefit from this kind of listening and short of kidnapping a Thai or Chinese person and chaining them to my sink or in my car I can't replace that with conversation.


  1. I thought Benny was quite clear about what he meant. After all, it's you (not Benny) who has gone to the incredible lengths here of re-defining "passive" to mean something that is "basically active". You even go so far as to state that point blank.

    You're disagreeing just to disagree.

  2. @yearglot

    No Benny specifically mentions dish washing on the post about his German exam, he mentions car driving and similar activities and opinions that active listening is not possible in those circumstances and that very little of benefit can be gained this way. Read the comments to Bennies posts and Facebook and you can see a lot of confusion.

    In the confusion in the comments to his last post Benny tells someone that he re-defines passive listening to "passive hearing" half way through in his post (which makes everything as clear as mud ;)).

    I was initially responding to Bennies original comments on passive listening in his German exam summary and adjusted to his latest post (which I agree does not make things clear ;)).

    I addressed definitions to some extent, I agree it is confusing but read everything Benny has had to say on it and tell me how clear that is.

    Don't worry I will follow this post up with another to clarify, it seems the problem is that Benny can't actively listen whilst doing anything else, some people can.

    I think it is a little unfair to say I am agreeing to disagree, I raised some points about listening (whether passive or active, however you define it that I think are useful and valid and stand alone aside from the other confusion, so apart from disagreeing with Benny (or some aspect of Benny) I put some effort into making some positive comments about listening.

    Do you think people can do useful listening whilst driving a car or washing dishes?

  3. @yearglot I guess what I am saying is that either I am doing the impossible (let's not go there again ;)) or Benny is wrong in some of his assumptions about how people can learn languages.

  4. I may be wrong but I got the impression that Benny's idea of passive listening is having the language on in the background whilst ignoring it altogether. Although, the examples he gave such as washing the car or driving the dishes (whatever!) makes me wonder why he can't do that and listen to the language at the same time. So I totally understand your point here, Chris and I concur.

  5. @Keith I agree I think that Benny's "war post" toned things down a little, but even then I still don't know what the methods are that just rely on this listen whilst ignoring it altogether etc...
    I think there are different levels of ignoring, different levels of activity.