The language learning method even better than “active listening” that no one talks about

Adam Novak
3 min readAug 27, 2023

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After experimenting with a number of methods for learning Korean, I’ve stumbled upon one that works really well.

However, even after being in the language learning world for years, I’ve only seen one other person recommend this approach. And I’ve never seen this distinction between listening practice methods be made.

Let me explain the difference between passive listening, active listening, and an even better approach I like to call interactive listening.

Passive Listening

Passive listening means listening without giving your full attention. The words and sounds just flow through your ears, and you brain catches some percent of what’s said.

Passive listening is pretty easy in your native language. But it’s tough when learning a foreign language. There’s words & patterns you don’t know, they speak too fast or too quietly, and the logic or context can be confusing. This leads to a lot of gaps in your understanding.

Passive listening is the least effective. I think it’s also dangerous to really consider this practice. You’re hardly growing, but it’s better than nothing.

It’s also the most flexible. You can listen passively when you’re commuting to and from work, when you’re biking to visit your friend, or when doing some kind of mundane task like washing the dishes.

Active Listening

Active listening is the opposite of passive — you focus on the what’s being said. You put a video or podcast in front of you and give it your full attention.

Active listening can also involve light forms of studying actions, such as
- using a notebook to write down interesting or new words/phrases
- pausing and rewinding at sections you didn’t understand

Active listening is at least several times more effective than passive listening. This is where real listening gains begin. However, it also requires your undivided attention. You have to be sitting down, with both your hands free, and with no distractions around you.

Interactive Listening

Interactive listening is the best method of listening practice for a foreign language.

Interactive listening implies interaction. More specifically, meaningful interaction. Speaking aloud the phrases you just heard (rewinding the video and writing down vocab words don’t count — those forms of interaction are too minor).

Interactive listening, then, is just as much about speaking as it is about listening. Your speaking skill increases at a comparable rate to your listening skill.

Interactive listening is super-effective because:
- You practice speaking real, natural phrases. By going through the motion of actually physically speaking the sentence, your train your brain and muscles of what it feels like to speak that natural phrase
- You practice native intonation. Sounding like a native is an important part of becoming fluent, and that requires a lot of deliberate, repetitive copying aloud of a native person’s accent

The tradeoff? Interactive listening is the least flexible because you need to be in a place where you feel comfortable speaking out loud to your laptop screen. This is why you should never go to study language in a quiet library. Find a place where you feel comfortable speaking out loud. For me, that’s my bedroom, sitting in the back of a bus, or the corner of a cafe.

Interactive Reading

The passive-active-interactive framework also applies to reading.

Reading by nature is an active form of consumption. Audio books fall under listening, so we can get rid of “passive reading” altogether.

Interactive reading means reading the sentences out loud, not just in your head. You can once again practice pronunciation and train your mind to say phrases that feel natural.

Notes

Interaction could also take the form of writing, as opposed to speaking. However, it seems more worthwhile to practice speaking than writing for general utility of a language. This is because a) there are far more occasions when I need to speak Korean than when I need to write Korean, and b) speaking Korean is more difficult because I have to respond quickly, whereas I can take my time with writing.

May you also find a nice little corner in a cafe to repeat back the phrases you hear from a YouTube video and get the full benefits of interactive listening.

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Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology