How much listening do you do?

I’m curious as to how much listening others do, specifically, listening to material that you have no transcript for. For a while, I was listening to all sorts of stuff; I used Global Maverick’s guide to organizing foreign language listening material with iTunes, synced it with my iPod Touch, and had ear buds stuffed in my ears for hours on end. I’m not sure of how helpful it really is.

I’m certainly not arguing against listening to your target language, but I’m not overly confident that one learns a great deal when listening in this fashion. That is to say, sure, hearing something I already know reinforces it. But all of the words and structures I don’t know tend to just fly by me, lost. If it’s something new, whether a word or a grammatical structure, hearing it a dozen times isn’t going to teach me the meaning of it; on listen #12, it’s going to be a big question mark for me, just as it was on listen #1. I suppose one could argue that you could write down unknown things, but that’s going to involve a lot of rewinding, and considering that there’s practically infinite written material for the major languages, it makes more sense to just learn new words from reading.

Obviously, having a transcript of what you’re listening to alleviates this problem; listen to the item in question, then read the transcript and look up unknown words (or vice versa). Then proceed to listening to it until you’re bored of it.

By |2010-02-09T17:54:34+00:00February 9th, 2010|All Entries, Language Learning, Learning Methods|18 Comments


  1. Troy February 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    I listen to short 2-5 minute radio commentary podcasts because listening comprehension is the most difficult for me.

    I agree that it is podcasts are a slow way to learn new vocabulary for the reasons you’ve pointed out. But I do find that on the second and third listen through, I get more of what they are talking about because I have more context.

    So I think if your goal is to improve listening comprehension, it might not be such a bad method. Of course, this all depends on your level relative to the stuff you’re listening to.

  2. Keith February 10, 2010 at 4:59 am - Reply

    I’ve been listening (while watching) about 4 hours a day lately. No transcripts, no looking up anything. This is audio to which I am trying to pay attention.

    The more audio input you get, the easier it is for you to hear what is being said. Just building up a large vocabulary doesn’t help. People who have studied lots of words but have not done much listening complain about not being able to follow audio that is too fast. The problem is not that the dialog is spoken too quickly. It is their lack of tuning the ears and training the mind. Lack of audio input. This is going to take hundreds of hours, maybe even thousands depending on the language.

    Words in a language make up phrases. The audio produces a signal. The more you listen, the more used to that signal your brain becomes, making it easier for you to listen.

  3. WC February 10, 2010 at 7:07 am - Reply

    I agree! I’ve been playing with listening to podcasts and children’s stories on my iPod. I find the stuff I don’t know (random radio podcast) to be completely pointless and never get anything more complicated than a ‘Sou desu ne!?’ out of it. Even complicated children’s stories, I just get a few random words from it that I already know.

    On the other hand, my graded readers that I’ve read along with the audio a couple times, those are great to listen to because I understand almost everything being said.

    Now, off-subject a bit, but watching anime and jdrama with English subs, I’m picking up new words all the time. There’s no way I’d understand what the words meant without the subs yet, but at least I can hear the word well enough to use a dictionary to confirm my guess at the meaning of the word and get a little better handle on it. I’m very much looking forward to being able to turn the subs off for some of it soon.

  4. Ethan Poole February 10, 2010 at 8:34 am - Reply

    In my opinion, listening is extremely important in language learning. It is however important to listen to material at your specific level and, if possible, to have a transcript available. For some less commonly taught languages, it can be hard to find such material, but it is fairly easy for Spanish, French, German, and English.

    I have also found some good stuff at this website called Lingq ( You have to make an account, but there is a lot of good listening material at various learning levels.

    You must remember that when you are listening to something in a foreign language, you are not going to understand everything. That is not the point. You are trying to pick up bits and pieces and extract some meaning from the audio. You don’t need to have a super strong grasp on grammar to do this, mainly vocabulary. For example, you can listen to a Spanish radio programme and understand the general topic of the programme without remembering the conjugations for the subjunctive mood.

    As with all language learning, listening is important, but it isn’t the only important thing!

  5. Ramses February 10, 2010 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Listening is extremely important in language learning. People who say it doesn’t help clearly didn’t study this topic and thus have no idea what they’re talking about.

    I get about 10 hours of input per day. In my target language, of course. It helped me with my pronunciation, with my grammar, with picking up words, etc. That doesn’t mean I don’t look up things, because I do. I use an SRS to get comprehensible input. Still, as Keith proved with his Mandarin project, it isn’t necessary at all to ‘study’ to become good at a language; listening is enough.

    Just read this article, it clears up a lot. In short: it tells that by just listening you’ll get used to the sound of the language and also absorb the patterns it uses.

  6. Josh February 10, 2010 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Just to make it clear (as I clearly didn’t!), I’m not saying listening isn’t important. It’s not as if I think you can just read and learn vocabulary, and then expect to be able to understand the spoken language. That’s nonsense, and I recognize that.

    What I was aiming at is the fact that, for me, I tend to not pick up much that’s new while listening. If I hear something I’ve learned elsewhere, sure, it clicks more firmly into my mind. But listening for hours and hours doesn’t seem to change the fact that, if I didn’t know a word on the first pass, I won’t know it on the 20th pass.

  7. Ramses February 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    I was also commenting on WC.

    Josh: did you ever try to get some serious audio-based input, like several hours per day and that for several months in a row? I agree that just listening is less effective, but in combination with a TV it’s great. Look how far Keith got. Also, I became fluent because I watched well over 5000 hours of television in Spanish.

  8. Jeff February 12, 2010 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    I aim for 1 hour German, 1 hour Russian and 1,5 hour Chinese everyday. Sometimes I listen to the same content I’m studying, sometimes it’s just random news/TV.

  9. Paul February 12, 2010 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    Interesting thoughts Josh. At first I too felt I wasn’t learning anything new just by listening. However now that I am almost three years into German learning at a slow and casual pace I believe that, for me, it is a worthwhile activity where I do very subtly learn.

    I regularly listen to the daily news, spoken slowly, from Deutche Welle “Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten”,,8030,00.html and the DW-World TV news as well. I also listen to a variety of other content irregularly. I would say my periods of listening are generally short; never more than 30 minutes.

    The main benefits to me of this are expansion of vocabulary by deducing the meaning of words in context and an opportunity to listen closely to pronunciation (which I can always improve on). I also found, particularly in the early days, it really helped me get a feeling for the “rhythm”, and learn the unique sounds, of the language.

    Aside from the learning something new I also find it invaluable for forcing my mind to “click” into German every day and importantly as a measure for self-encouragement. For example with the daily news, I remember when I began I understood absolutely nothing. Now I understand a lot but still with some way to go. The day I can understand the whole news bulletin I will know I have achieved something. Although at this rate it probably not going to happen in my lifetime ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. John B February 15, 2010 at 6:45 am - Reply

    I would agree that listening to lots and lots of stuff that you don’t understand won’t help you learn all that much in and of itself, but (in my experience at least) it really does help to prime your ears so that when you actively set about to learn it just clicks. Also, when you get to a higher level (when you’re just missing a word or two every once in a while), you’ll pick up those words unconsciously out of context.

    I think a lot of people just give up on it before it has a chance to work. This sort of learning is insidious — it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything and then *bam* you realize how much it has added.

  11. stermi February 16, 2010 at 8:05 am - Reply

    Hello, firstly let me tell you that I like your website ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I think listening to foreign material with no written transcription is not meant to teach you new vocabulary but new sentences, new ways of saying things. You need to have the vocabulary, anki is your friend (but I know I’m not teaching you anything here lol). Listening is good for ear training and for real sentences from real world to go in your brain, if you already have the needed vocabulary.

  12. Aidan March 4, 2010 at 7:02 am - Reply

    I agree with many of the other commenters that listening with a transcript is the most effective while you are still actively learning a language. I get nothing out of listening to random Japanese a I have no clue what it is about.
    However once you are at intermediate level or above in a language I think that it is a really effective way of learning new words and reinforcing your existing vocabulary. If I make the effort to listen to any of the languages I know well then I always get a nice boost from the activity.
    Having said that I personally think that reading as much as possible in the target language is even more important.

  13. Andee May 3, 2010 at 9:54 am - Reply

    I listen to more directed material when I’m walking with the baby or something, or do the shopping, etc. By directed I mean, things that I should know and can listen to a fill in the blanks through the context. It may be new material or material I’m reviewing.

    As for material that is above my level… I listen to that in the car kind of passively. I understand maybe half of what is going on and have that single podcast or broadcast on repeat until I can get to about 80% understanding. Most of the time I know the structures and vocab but it just doesn’t click. But with each subsequent pass it becomes clearer… I will recognise one more word or one more structure. It becomes clearer and clearer until I feel comfortable enough to move on to the next track. Sometimes I get through 2 tracks a day with 40 minutes driving, other times I’ll have the same track on for a few days.

    Of course there are times when it bugs me that much that I have to look at the transcript when I get home ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. anonymouse March 8, 2012 at 4:02 am - Reply

    For people like me, who would be considered high-intermediate or even in the advanced category simply for knowing enough words (I know well over 5,000 French words. I may even be close to 10,000) it doesn’t mean I can say much.

    I still feel that I can barely talk about anything I’d like to. Sure I can introduce myself, order a meal if I had to, but I still feel like my ability to converse is still at a very strict beginner level. I understand grammar. I do. I can’t tell you the correct grammar names in french, but I have studied ad reviewed them a few times.

    For people like me, listening is all that is needed :). I’ve stopped all formal study and just began incorporating more and more french in my life. (Through TV, and video games.) I feel that this is far better for me than sitting there learning yet more words. Or more grammar. ๐Ÿ™‚

    My two cents.

  15. Beth August 2, 2012 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    I think it’s important to distinguish between watching/listening (as in, TV, and movies) and just listening (as in radio and audio podcasts for iPod.) It’s also very important to distinguish between passive and active listening. I think the lack of focus on this distinction is why some people are adamant about having learned through listening, while others say it’s not possible.

    First of all, watching something at the same time that you listen to the audio is a whole different ballgame. You can usually get the gist of, say, a TV show, from the visual, including gestures and body language. You can begin to associate words with ideas (although I still question how much you can really learn if you come to it with zero background in the language.) However, if you just listen to something, you don’t have all those added clues to help you understand what the audio might possibly be about. If you don’t know ANYTHING in the language, then you have literally NO IDEA what it is about. You’re not thinking, “oh, that’s how that word should be pronounced!” because the words are just flying around, meaningless. If you know a little, you’re almost equally lost. It’s only when you have at least an advanced beginner level that you can begin to understand larger chunks of what you hear.

    But, that brings me to the active vs. passive listening issue. Once you already know a bit of the language, listening can be helpful for learning… but only if it’s ACTIVE listening. The same goes for the combination of audio and video, as in TV… you need to be actively watching it. I actively listen to Radio Canada (which is talk radio in French… some reading of the news, but mostly interviews, so somewhat more natural speaking) and pick out what I know. I detect how much of what they are saying is the filler “euh,” I detect how they pronounce words, and when I hear certain words I don’t know, I look them up. That’s helpful and I learn through it, but it’s far from all that is needed to teach me French.

    Here’s evidence that PASSIVE listening (listening with something in the background with no attention paid to it) does not work to teach you a foreign language: Many, many expats live in foreign countries for years and never learn the language more than perhaps understanding street signs and names of food items they see in the store. I lived in Montrรฉal for two years, with French all around me, and couldn’t converse with anyone in French to save my life. It’s because it was all background… had I actively attempted to learn the language, that background would have been a helpful “learning lab,” but purely as background noise it didn’t help.

    People will say that passive listening primes one’s ears or even “builds the necessary nerve pathways,” but I have never seen evidence of that, and have seen plenty of evidence of people not learning, even in an immersion environment.

    • Beth August 2, 2012 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Oh, just to clarify my position… I fully agree that listening is absolutely crucial to developing oral comprehension, which is often one of the most difficult skills to pick up. But again, the listening needs to be active and is only useful after you already know a bit of the language.

      • Josh August 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm - Reply

        Beth: I agree. Actively listening can be helpful. I used to spend countless hours with ear buds in my ears, with German / French audio running while I did other things (chores, etc.). Without paying much attention to it, I gained very little from the practice.

  16. John D November 5, 2016 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    Listening helps if you have studied the words before but aren’t use to hearing them, competitive drilling of those words will bring them home eventually.

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