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The importance of passive listening to improve the understanding of a language


Passive listening consists of listening to something without paying much attention. How can you improve your language without paying attention to it? I know, it may sound strange but it works!

But before talking about passive listening I would like to take a step back to gather different reflections and advice on understanding listening, one of the most difficult skills to train.

I find it much easier to learn through reading. At the same time, however, I find that reading and listening are connected to anyone dedicated to studying languages. Usually, we tend to do both, often favoring reading at the expense of listening.


There is only one problem: if you know a thousand words, you can’t recognize them in speech, along with other words within a sentence. Often I happened to be able to understand some words after months, despite having already met them, or whose meaning I could have deduced by reading them thanks to the kanji.

It can be concluded that leaving aside the problem of the lack of words, one cannot immediately elaborate the connection from sound to word.

The first words that are learned by listening are the most common, those that are heard in different situations. I have no doubt that words like こ ん に ち は (konnichiwa) and あ り が と う (arigatou) are among the first and easiest to learn in Japanese. Repetition is the key to learning something new, the more they repeat themselves, the easier it is to recognize and remember them.

Being always exposed to listening means learning new words, understanding the context in which to use certain expressions, understanding grammar. Hearing the words is very different than reading them, you have to try to work out what has been said quickly, there is no time to check the dictionary.

My advice is not to focus only on reading but also to give space to listen. Perhaps it is more difficult to understand speech than written but understanding speech can help for everything else, and it is absolutely essential to listen if you intend to speak the language. Even if it seems useless at the beginning, when you don’t understand a single word, you can slowly rebuild each piece to improve your understanding.

Here are some tips to generally improve listening comprehension:

Help yourself with subtitles

I said that reading and listening are two related activities for those who study languages, why not exercise both through subtitles or scripts in the original language?

It is the best way to solve several problems: 1) lack of words, you can learn new words by reading and listening to them, 2) speed up reading (it takes some time to get used to reading them quickly!), 3) exercise l listening without having to worry about not understanding anything.

It is best not to always rely on subtitles. It’s okay both at the beginning and if you look at something particularly difficult, if you can understand almost everything and you miss a few words it’s not a big problem, better disable the subtitles (and above all do not activate them in English or Italian).

Help yourself with pictures

Listening to the radio or podcast at the beginning is not easy at all. It is much easier to understand what happens if through images. Give way to drama, anime, and film, at least in the beginning.

Get used to “fast” speech right away

If you want to improve your comprehension, you cannot help but get used to speaking at natural speed right away, considered “fast” by those who are not native speakers.

Any Japanese material has this speed, apart from that for too young children. Although it can be very difficult, especially at the beginning to recognize words, it is better to start immediately in this way.

How does passive listening work?

I started listening passively several years ago by chance, after reading that it took many hours of study to become fluent, to be exact, 10,000 hours.

This issue was theorized by Malcolm Gladwell, who claims that to become truly good at something, you need to spend 10,000 hours of time on it. Of course, it is not valid only for the study of a language, but for any other activity. It is difficult to make all these hours of listening actively, we must also resort to passive ones.

Important: This study has been denied several times because training matters but is not always sufficient to achieve excellence (in general, I do not mean for the study of languages). As far as I am concerned, it is not important to know the precise number of hours, but the fact that everything takes its time, one cannot expect to become fluent within a month by studying two hours a week. I will refer to this study again in the course of the article, to emphasize that it is very important to “make many hours of listening”.

It seems useless to carry out this type of listening, in reality, even when one is not careful, the brain somehow tries to “decode” and memorize what it feels. They absorb new information unconsciously, a bit like children do: before saying their first word they listen passively for a long time.

I can say that this method works: after months, listening to the audio of an anime, I realized that I understood much more than when I started! By listening to the same things dozens of times I started to increase my understanding of the language, get used to the sounds and memorize certain words.


Put this way it may seem that I listened to the same track for months in a row, but it is not so. I simply had a certain number of Japanese tracks to listen to during the day (or rather, for several days) and, once finished, I started the playlist from scratch. When I could no longer listen to the same things, I changed the playlist by deleting old tracks and adding new ones.

(For the record, I never got to 10,000 hours, I stopped at 7700 hours of active and passive listening, reaching a fairly good understanding of a bit of everything. Or maybe I have already overcome them, but at some point, I decided not to count them anymore, in any case, as I said above, it’s just a number, not a certain and safe rule).

How to do passive listening?

It’s very simple, you need an mp3 player (or a smartphone) and audio tracks in Japanese (or other languages) to listen.

You can do passive listening with any material: audio from anime, drama, video and film, podcast and so on. If possible, I recommend that you passively listen to material that you have already actively listened to, in order to know more or less what is happening and what is being talked about very vaguely. It is easier to carry out this exercise if you know in broad terms what we are talking about, we have seen how images can be helpful for understanding.

Passive listening is not very demanding, you can do it at any time of the day, at home and away from home, while you work (if you can!), Do household chores or waste your time in the traffic.

It is not necessary to keep a high volume (and in fact, if you keep the headphones in your ears for a long time, it is better to keep the volume very low!), The important thing is to be able to hear a minimum of sounds.

Don’t forget active listening and other resources!

Passive listening is useful, especially at the beginning to get used to the sounds of the language, but alone is not enough to reach a good level. It is necessary to spend some time every day even with active listening and immerse yourself in the language in other ways, such as reading manga, books, etc.

I took most of the passive audio from anime and drama already seen, so at least once of active listening, I had done it. During the day I did a lot of passive listening (every now and then became active when I was careful), but I always spent at least an hour to watch myself actively in Japanese without subtitles.

Passive listening just one or two hours a day is not enough to see results: the more you listen passively, the more you absorb new information, the fewer hours you listen and the more it will take time to learn something. You have to be constant and try to listen to something as passively as possible.

If you can do enough passive listening, you will soon notice improvements like it happened to me!

Maybe you are still skeptical but I tell you to try: extract the audio in Japanese of something you have already seen (there are several programs that can help you in this operation), put it on your mp3 and start listening passively. In a few days, you will notice that words have become more familiar than before. If you happen to hear some words that are repeated often of which you don’t know the meaning, look for it in the dictionary.

So what do you think of passive listening? Do you want to add something about the importance of listening in language? If you like, leave your opinion in the comments, I’ll wait for you!


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