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It seems so easy to practise listening in English. You can watch TV. You can watch a YouTube video. You can listen to a podcast. You can even practise listening with English songs.
But many English learners do all of these things and still complain that they make slow progress.
A wise learner knows that there are two types of listening: passive listening and active listening.
A passive listener absorbs language more slowly, while an active listener improves much faster. Let’s find out why and see how you can be more active in your listening.
What is the difference between passive and active listening?
Active and passive - you’ve heard these words before in your grammar class! We also use these words to describe people.
A passive person is somewhat relaxed. He waits for things to happen to him. In English class, he waits for the teacher to call him before answering. He doesn’t like learning independently.
An active person loves to take action. He doesn’t wait. In English class, he loves asking and answering questions. He likes learning independently.
Let’s apply this to listening.
Roberto is a passive listener. He heard he can improve his English by listening to songs.
So Roberto listens to English music while he’s on the bus. But, in fact, he isn’t paying much attention to the songs. He checks his social media, he stares out the window and he daydreams.
At the end of his bus journey, Roberto hasn’t learned a thing.
Hilda, on the other hand, is an active listener.
Before listening, she prepares a quiet space and makes sure that nobody will disturb her. She turns off her social media.
She has chosen a podcast that is a little difficult for her level. She will probably understand around 70% of it.
As she listens, she pays close attention. She is listening for new or interesting phrases to write down in her notebook.
She pauses the podcast to write down a new idiom. She rewinds to make sure that she heard it correctly. She says it aloud a few times.
She hears a question tag (weren’t they?) and she pauses again. This is a confusing topic that she struggles with, so she is always listening for examples. She writes down the sentence that she heard in her notebook.
It’s a ten-minute podcast. After listening, she wonders whether she should listen again.
No, today she decides to read the transcript instead. This is a satisfying activity because she can understand things that she didn’t catch when listening.
Finally, Hilda makes a mental note to try using the new words and phrases when she speaks.
Thus, we see that passive listening is simply listening without any input from the learner. Active listening is engaging with a listening clip in order to learn from it.
It is obvious that active listening is far more effective.
Why is active listening important?
Active listening sounds like much harder work, doesn’t it?
The reality is that listening to something in a different language is harder work - don’t pretend that you can absorb the same as if you were listening in your mother tongue.
By applying active listening techniques, like Hilda, we not only “practise listening”, but we can improve our vocabulary and gain a better understanding of grammar and sentence structure.
As you hear things that you have learned previously, such as idioms of grammatical structures, you are more likely to remember them.
By paying closer attention to words and sounds, we can improve our pronunciation.
By noting down interesting phrases that we can use later in our speech, we can even improve our speaking skills.
Hence, when you listen actively, you are actually improving a wide range of skills in English.
Most importantly, in a real conversation in English, you should be an active listener, paying attention to every word.
Let’s see an example. Read through these two conversations:
Carl: Hey, Roberto. We’re having a get-together at my place tomorrow at three.
Carl: So… you’re joining us, right?
Carl: Hey, Hilda. We’re having a get-together at my place tomorrow at three.
Hilda: A ‘get-together’? Is that like a party?
Carl: Yeah, like an informal party.
Hilda: It sounds awesome. I’ll be there!
Roberto’s ‘passive’ style sounds unfriendly and he probably won’t be invited again.
On the other hand, Hilda’s ‘active’ conversation style is more likely to win friends. Notice that she uses active listening techniques, such as repeating and checking new words.
How can you use active listening techniques in your independent study?
Step 1: Setting up
The first step is to set aside some time and a quiet space for your listening practice. You should not be multitasking (doing many things at once) or checking social media during your practice time.
Make sure that you have a notebook and pen with you.
Step 2: Choosing suitable listening content
Secondly, you need to choose some suitable listening materials. These materials could be songs, podcasts, TED talks, TV shows or movies.
You need to ensure that the materials are suitable for your level.
However, you can choose something slightly easier if you wish to focus on pronunciation or you could choose something a little difficult if you want to learn vocabulary.
Either way, don’t choose materials much higher or lower than your level of comprehension.
I recommend TED talks, YouTube videos or podcasts. These are short enough to listen to multiple times and they often come with subtitles or transcripts.
Although podcasts are audio-only, they have the advantage that you can focus your attention purely on the sounds and pronunciation.
Step 3: Planning your activities
Once you have chosen suitable materials, think about what kind of activity you can do.
You should think about varying your activities - changing them so you do not do the same thing each time.
I suggest the following activities:
- Listen for examples of a grammar topic that you have recently learned (such as the present perfect tense) and write down any examples that you hear.
- Listen and write a summary of what you have heard.
- Note down new words (aim for a list of ten), try guessing the meaning, then use a dictionary to check if you were correct.
- Note down words or phrases that you would like to use in your own speech. These needn’t be new words; they could be phrases such as “We can agree to disagree” or “Back in the day…”.
- Listen to a podcast or video on a particular topic (such as artificial intelligence) and then discuss that topic in English with a friend.
- Practise shadowing by repeating the audio just after the speaker.
- Find a podcast that offers transcripts and record yourself speaking it aloud.
There are many other methods that you can try. The important thing is that you are actively engaged with the listening activity.
Check out our guide to listening exercises for independent learners for further ideas.
Is passive listening always bad?
Life is tiring and we are not always full of energy.
Sometimes, you might just want to watch your favourite English TV show without worrying about learning new words or structures.
That’s fine. In fact, passive listening will help you learn, just more slowly than active listening. It is certainly better than no listening practice at all.
However, learning a language is hard work, and the more you put into it, the more you get out. That is why active listening is always the best.