Become a Better English Speaker Through Passive Listening
According to internet polyglot and LingQ cofounder Steve Kaufmann, listening is by far the most important language skill. In fact, he claims that great listening skills are often a straight pathway to better speaking skills for any language learner.
Active listening often requires a response to the person we’re listening to, whether it’s body language or a verbal cue such as “Yes” or “Uh-huh”. It’s this very moment of response that guides us from a state of active listening to active conversation, improving our English.
However, we’re most often playing our part in a scenario where no response is required from us, such as listening to a lecture or a business presentation. It’s when a simple head nod is all that we’re allowed to do to respond. This is called “passive listening”.
To paint the picture as clearly as possible: if active listening “produces” an instant response, then passive listening “demands” understanding, which is another key element in mastering the language learning process.
Without further ado, here are a few ways you can become a better English speaker through passive listening.
Isolate Your Target
To truly witness great English learning outcomes through passive listening, the first step is to not get distracted by all the things that don’t really matter. What I mean is even when you’re passively listening, you must have a language learning target. Otherwise, you’re listening to every single thing being said by a speaker in front of you.
This is most effective when you’re targeting specific words, phrases or idioms but it can also be applied to accent or pronunciation. Let’s say you’re watching a movie or a TV show. Aren’t you passively listening then?
By choosing an area or target to focus on, you can get a handle on the native-like English sound of it all much quicker without having to travel to an English-speaking country. It’s actually self-immersion by isolating your target and “actively focusing” on it while “passively listening”. Hey, it even sounds cool!
Even more importantly, you must always aim to eliminate all distractions between you and your language learning target. Of course, this won’t always be possible. When you’re in a room full of people and everyone’s whispering or clicking their pen, it can get pretty distracting.
However, becoming great at learning languages also requires you to constantly enhance your focus. Like I said previously, the key to passive listening is to not get distracted by all the things that don’t really matter to you.
From my point of view, passive listening is like a comprehension exercise and focus is simply a must. Plus, it’s a much more seamless journey to your English target of choice.
Yes, I know… this is supposed to be about the “English” language. However, body language is a very important aspect of mastering English that can’t be omitted. In other words, it’s not just about your ability to speak a language but how well you can communicate with others.
You see, there is a huge difference between how a language is written and how it is spoken. In writing, we are actively engaged in a conversation but we rely on our sentence phrasing or even emojis, in the case of social media, to show our connection, interest or emotions to our conversation partner.
While speaking, we do the same thing with body language. However, passive listening doesn’t allow us to do any of that. Nonetheless, you can still be part of the conversation… passively.
By simply leaning in, you’re showing others that you are engaged in the conversation, even if you aren’t responding verbally. Moreover, you’re putting the speaker at ease by making them feel appreciated and relaxed – something that can’t be accomplished that easily by just words.
The most important thing to note here is that improving your communication will probably lead to better relationships in your life. After all, isn’t that the whole purpose of any language?
This is probably the most underrated passive listening method that I’ll mention today… and an odd one, as it pertains to writing skills. Just because you’re not required or allowed to verbally respond to what you’re listening to doesn’t mean you can’t jot down notes of what you consider highly important.
By this, I don’t mean writing down a summary of “everything” that you hear. That’s not the way to go if you want to learn better English. Note-taking through passive listening is the most effective when you’re writing down only the things that matter to you most.
If you can extract specific English words, expressions or pointers that are the most interesting to you from what you listen to, just write them down. This means that you’ve already recognized the potential of those things for yourself, their real-life implementation, and you’re merely saving them for later. You can then add these words and phrases to your vocabulary on LingQ, or if they’re in your list already, move them one step closer to known!
Moreover, if you already know what you’re looking for, the more beneficial it becomes. By having the chance to literally pick out what you want to learn by yourself, you’re putting your mind at ease to memorize and master new things a lot faster.
Essentially, you’re creating new learning opportunities on the fly. This is especially beneficial in a highly distractive setting, where active listening and responding aren’t possible.
In a nutshell…
I often hear people say that active listening means has a purpose as opposed to passive listening, which just serves to widen your attention span and what not. Yeah, right…
Everything above proves that regardless of whether you’re actively or passively listening, you can still analyze, evaluate, and infer things without “speaking your mind” completely. Of course, it’ll all depend on how well you can enhance your focus even in the most distractive settings and stick to your language learning goals.
This is all to say that learning English is appropriate at any time and in any place, whether people notice your involvement or not. It’s about training your mind to recognize new language learning opportunities wherever and whenever they arrise.
Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.