WHAT IS PASSIVE LISTENING – how to use it to access all languages

The magic word: passive listening

The first time I came across this term I was desperately searching the easiest ways to learn a language. I had been in Norway for one month and I hadn’t seen any real progress with Norwegian, so one night I typed “learning a language overnight” on Google (I know it’s not such a great idea but as I said I was desperate) and I found passive listening in the list of the methods suggested. I thought that the only thing that I had to do was hearing  YouTube videos all night long for some time and voilà: job done. There are some people who pass off passive listening as an easy technique that just requires the use of headphones and a pillow. I’m sorry if I disappoint someone but it is not like that, at all. Passive listening is more than listening to random videos while sleeping, it’s listening to everything and everyone always. Personally when I talk about passive listening I like to mention also passive learning. Passive listening is a part of passive learning. You’ll find some advices that are not directly connected to the listening part but to the reading one. Passive listening and passive reading go hand in hand so I couldn’t live it behind. But first things first.

The conscious and subconscious mind

Passive listening is listening without attention. When you hear music in a clothes shop, that’s passive listening. When your mum is talking to you but you’re just staring at the phone smiling at a meme, that’s passive listening too. In other terms passive listening is hearing with your conscious mind and listening with your subconscious mind. For those who don’t know the difference between these two parts of the brain, I’ll try to explain it in a simple way: the conscious mind is that area responsible for attention, focus, analysis of the possibilities, for decision making and goal setting. It’s basically the voice you hear in your head that tells you what is right and wrong, what to say and not say. The subconscious mind, instead, can’t be heard but it acts uncontrollably and without pause. It’s the box of our most dark fears, of our traumas, of our inner desires but also of our first memories, of everything that happened to us and everything we felt. It’s literally our personal storage, the problem is that we can’t access it with our conscious mind (not in a simple way) even if it drives the 95% of our mind. It can be quite scary: we believe we have full control of our days but instead it’s our storage that has it… anyway it’s not so bad if you are aware of its power and if you try to use this big storage in your favour. But so, how can you do that when it comes to learning and specifically studying a new language?

A guide for passive listening

So passive listening, as the word itself says, it’s not active, so it’s not appropriate for our conscious mind but for our subconscious mind. As opposite to mainstream advices, sleep, that is the activity most known for its easy connection with the subconscious mind, is not enough for making remarkable changing with passive listening. What is needed is a combination of the two minds. So take my experience for example. I studied Norwegian while living in Norway so I had easiest access to the language but anyway I had to create methods and habits to improve it. The first thing that really matters in learning a new language even if it’s from scratch is to not care to understand, just listen, just hear, just do not care! So passive listening is the best technique in this case, mostly if you are just getting started. What I did was hanging out with friends, with my host family and listening consciously to everything they said and time to time ask for a translation. Watching movies is another type of conscious or active listening and listening to songs while reading the text is too. So when is the time for passive listening? ANY TIME. You just have to decide to not care to understand. Use your headphones and go to school or to work listening to music of your target language or to podcast and audio book. Watch the news, watch debate programs, tv shows without subtitles. All these activities can be done in an active way or passive way, the difference is that if you are active you are constantly thinking about a translation and your brain goes like “Ohh that’s difficult, I don’t understand anything”. In the passive way instead you JUST LISTEN.

Other two strategies that I use that are not in the category of passive listening but more in the passive learning, is reading newspapers without focusing too much on the words, I just turn page to page and read, I DO NOT CARE TO UNDERSTAND. Using flashcards and putting them on my room walls is another thing that I suggest you to try. They can be words of specific objects or phrases, quotes that you like in your target language. So every time you enter your room you’ll see those cards and even if you don’t direct your full attention to them, your subconscious mind will do the work for you.

Passive listening and passive learning activities

  • Meeting native speakers and watching them talking
  • Listening to music, podcasts, YouTube videos
  • Watching movies, series, programs without subtitles
  • Reading newspapers without trying to understand
  • Hang flashcards on the walls

How much time should I spend doing passive listening activities?

This varies a lot. There isn’treally a specific amount of time to devote to passive listening. You should not think about passive listening as a normal “studying session”. It should be something that become natural, like a habit. In the beginning it can be more difficult to see it in this way so what I suggest is to create a routine where you give time to a passive listening activity. You can do it in the morning with listening to some musing and maybe before going to bed or after dinner watching a movie. It’s really up to you. The important thing is to do it everyday and try hard to not to stress if you don’t understand.

How much time it takes to learn a language with passive listening?

YEARS. If you just use passive listening, you’ll probably be fluent at 80 years old. Do not confuse a specific technique with the whole learning method. You need to sit down, write, think, translate, speak, you need to practice in different ways. Passive listening is something that can help you speed up the process, but it can’t take the place of conscious studying, meaning opening a book, or speaking with a native speaker, or going to a course. You need to put effort in what you do and there is no easy way to learn languages, just lots of strategies.

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