Listening strategies: Active listening

In previous articles we have already looked at two kinds of passive listening (the first article was about background listening, the second about passive listening in general). Now, the time has come to look at active listening, which is what I think at least traditionally is what people mean when they say that they’re practising listening ability. Active listening simply means that you actively engage all your faculties to try to understand and process the language you hear. To make sure that the processing is as complete as possible, we typically perform some activity which is not listening in itself, such as answering questions about the audio we just heard, taking notes while listening or translating the sentences we heard.

In this article, I will do two things. First, I will discuss the importance of active listening. I will argue that both passive and active listening are essential and that they should in no way be regarded as different methods where you should use only one.Second, I will discuss various strategies you can use along with some tips and tricks on how to vary your active listening practice.

If you want to skip the discussion about active listening and dive straight into some real exercises, click here to scroll down.

This article is part of a series of articles focusing on listening ability, please read the introduction here.

Image source:

Articles in this series:
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening (this article)
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

Active listening and the 10,000 hour rule

I think most readers will be at least a little bit familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which basically says that in order to become expert in any given field, you need to invest 10,000 hours. For now, the number is not important, but to me, it’s quite obvious that the amount of time you practise is the main factor determining how much you learn. The number 10,000 is often misinterpreted and people think that simply engaging in whatever activity you want to get good at is enough.

Deliberate practice

That isn’t the case. The original concept refers to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, which in essence means that you’re actively trying to become better, challenging yourself and doing your very best to improve. For instance, simply going to class is not necessarily deliberate practice (depending on what you do in class of course). Background listening is definitely not deliberate practice and probably not passive listening either, although that depends on how passive it is and what you’re listening to. In general, difficult tasks forces you to be very active, so the more challenging a task is the, more likely it is to be considered deliberate practice.

Language learning isn’t like learning to play the violin

In my understanding, language learning is slightly different from, say, learning to play the violin. Languages has an input factor which is extremely important, but which simply isn’t there when we learn to play in instrument. Sure, we might become slightly more proficient at playing the violin by listening to other violinists or even music in general, but the determining factor is still how much we play ourselves, how many hours of deliberate practice we put in.

Not so with language learning. When we learn Chinese, listening and reading are more important than speaking and writing, depending a little bit on our goals and where we are at the moment in our Chinese learning lives. Still, deliberate practice is the quickest and most efficient way of improving, so if possible, we should strive to be as active as we can.

If deliberate, active practice is so great, why do I sing the praise of background and passive listening at the same time? Why don’t we invest all our time into deliberate practice?  Because we can’t. Various studies into deliberate practice have found that a few hours per day is all we can manage, after that we simply can’t concentrate and maintain the high level of mental processing required. In other words, deliberate practice is very demanding and leaves one exhausted. This is where passive listening enters the picture, because being passive is much less taxing and can be kept up for hours and hours. Thus, there is no opposing relationship between passive and active listening. You do active listening when you can and have the energy to do so. If not, then background or passive listening should be on the menu.

Exercises for active listening

The thing that turns passive into active is that we actively engage with the audio we hear. The easiest way to make sure that we’re doing this is to transform what we hear in some way. We’re not simply receiving information, we’re changing it and using it for something else. It doesn’t really matter exactly what we do, but here are some examples:

  • Participate in a challenging conversation – Having a conversation slightly above your normal level is definitely active listening. The transformation involved occurs when you’re supposed to take what you hear (input) and transform it to some kind of meaning in your head and then give it back to the the other person in an engaging manner (output). I think conversing with people on a level slightly above your current is the best way of learning, but since this is sometimes not practically possible, I have lots of other ways of achieving similar results.
  • Transcribe audio – This is something I’ve done a lot myself recently. Simply choose something which is reasonably difficult and do your best to transcribe what you hear, either using characters or Pinyin (I type, which I consider to be the golden middle way). Try to choose a source which has transcripts, because otherwise you’ll have to ask people for help if you fail to transcribe a certain section. I suggest using a program that allows you to see the audio file, which will enable you to select specific passages to play again. I use Audacity, which is free and available on most platforms. In Audacity, simply select a passage and hit shift+play, which will loop the selected audio.

  • Expanding transcription – This is really the same thing as above, but I want to point out that you don’t need to transcribe boring newsreels, you can transcribe anything you want, including films, cartoons, TV shows, music, podcasts and what you hear people say around you if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment. Again, TV, film and music work very well, because they are almost always transcribed already (find karaoke versions of songs). Cover up the subtitles, create your own and compare!
  • Take notes and/or write a summary – Pretend that you’re attending a lecture and that there’s going to be a quiz or test after it has finished. Take notes that cover the main points of what you hear (even if the content isn’t lecture-like at all). After you’ve finished listening (listen more than once if you want to), take you’re notes and write a summary. Post the summary on Lang-8 and have someone correct it for you.
  • Translate what you hear – You can either try to write it down, in which case you’ll need to listen a few times unless you have mad typing skills, or you can translate orally (try this and you know why interpreters typically work very short shifts). If you want to benchmark this or at least judge the outcome, try recording what you’re saying as well. You need earphones to do this, of course, otherwise you will hear the audio you listen to on the recording (you still have the original audio for reference).

As you can see, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but transforming the audio you hear into some other medium is excellent. There are many more ways of doing this than I have listed here. Do you have any methods or tips that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment!

But active listening is hard!

Yeah, that’s the whole idea.

If you try any of the above exercises with sufficiently hard audio, you will find that it’s exhausting. This is the whole point. Since you’re engaging every faculty you can to succeed with the task you’ve set for yourself, of course you’re going to feel tired after a while. Do you remember what it felt like to speak Chinese in the very beginning or have you just started learning? Then you know what deliberate practice feels like.

Gradually, studying will become easier. Deliberate practice means that you should keep doing hard things that require you to invest lots of energy, because that’s when you learn the most. Active listening is about challenging yourself, of pushing your limits. I will talk more about this in future articles, so stay tuned!

The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Is mastering a subject mainly about innate gifts or about hard work? If it is about hard work, how long does it take? The first of these questions has of course been attracting people’s attention for a long time, but it’s not the people who ask this question who are in trouble, but those who don’t even think it is question in the first place.

The traditional (or fraud-proof) character for 10,000.

Too many seem to assume that learning anything (especially languages) is about being talented and having a gift for learning (again, very common for language learning). Although it’s arguably true that some people seem to learn languages more easily than others, this is far from the whole truth.

In this article, I’m going to argue that learning Chinese is mainly about blood, sweat and tears, not talent. Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll find ways to bleed, sweat and cry that you actually enjoy or at least think is worthwhile, but hard work is still what will propel you forward, not some inner ability you were (or weren’t) born with. Similarly, saying that you can’t learn because you don’t have the gift is equally invalid. If other people can work hard to master Chinese, so can you.

The talent myth

I think what people usually call “talent” starts from early childhood, meaning that it’s something grown or learnt rather than something being genuinely innate  In school, pupils are very quickly sorted into categories: those who are smart and those who aren’t. If you’re the smart type, you’ll get lots of encouragement from your environment, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be placed in the other category, then you’ll have a more difficult time.

The problem is that people base their ability to learn something on what they did in school, perhaps ten or twenty years ago. I’ve read about and heard innumerable people state that they can’t learn a language and then follow it up with “I took French evening classes and it was really hard” or “I studied German for six years in school and I still can’t speak the language”.

This is nonsense. These people aren’t assessing their own ability to learn, they’re simply saying that under that kind of circumstances, they weren’t able to learn the languages to a satisfactory level. Then they go on and read about the polyglots who travel the world to learn many languages, usually very quickly. Even though I have argued that learning Chinese in just a few months is, depending on definitions, impossible, that’s not saying you can’t learn an awful lot. Let’s take French as an example, simply because I have studied French for more than six years in school and still can’t speak very well (in other words, I was once one of the people I criticise above).

Practice is counted in hours, not in years

If someone claims to have learnt French in just a few months, most people would either say that it’s a lie or that the person is extremely talented. Neither is necessarily true (although both might be, of course). The mistake people make is that they count practice in years and not in hours. Let me illustrate with a short dialogue:

A: Have you studied any foreign language?
B: Yes, I’ve studied French.
A: For how long?
B: Six years.
A: Wow! You must be very good then.
B: No, I can hardly communicate with natives.

This dialogue is weird only if you think that six years means six years of serious studying, because then you really should be very good at French. But if B in this dialogue only took one hour of evening classes every second week for six years and did no homework, I don’t think he’d be able to communicate very well, even after six years.

Don’t compare with your high-school French class

Let’s look at the numbers of a more realistic example. Let’s say that I study French in school for six years. That means roughly 40 weeks/year because of holidays and so on. Most people don’t have class everyday, let’s say we have three hours of French each week and do two hours of homework, then this adds up to 200 hours in one year or 1200 in six years.

Compare this with the serious language learner, immersed in the language and doing nothing but studying. Realistically, it’s very hard to maintain a lifestyle where you do nothing but learning languages, but for a short period of time, I know it’s possible to study non-stop, but let’s say 14 hours/day, which gives plenty of time to sleep, eat and so on. If you do that for three months, you’ll end up with 1260 hours.

As we can see, the avid language learner totals more hours in three months than an average high-school student does in six years.

The 10,000 hour rule

What can we learn from this? Mainly, we learn that what seems to be impossible feats of talent is in reality the result of hard work (counted in hours), although concentrated in a short duration of time (counted in years). We also learn that by erroneously comparing someone else’s learning process to our own experience, we draw incorrect conclusions about how others achieve success. We tend to dismiss expertise simply as the result of innate ability, which is wrong. Some subjects are more prone to this than others. For instance, would you attribute a surgeons skill to innate ability? What about a musician? Do you realise how many hours an Olympic gymnast has practised when you watch him or her on TV?

Let’s see what Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who is usually attributed with popularising the 10,000 hour rule) has to say about this:

Basically, the 10,000 hour rule states that if you want to get good at something, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practising. Gladwell claims that this figure is relevant for many fields, but I don’t really care about the exact number. The point is that it’s there and that it’s there without referring to talent. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours if they really want to.

Experience and deliberate practice

Note that “practice” in this case means deliberate practice, i.e. striving actively to become better by challenging yourself. Most people who practice simply do so in a passive manner, which doesn’t really count (or if it counts, it counts less than true deliberate practice). Anders Ericsson, a pioneer researcher in the field of deliberate practice,makes a clear difference between deliberate practice (top musicians) and ordinary experience (everyday activities). Since this is a major topic of its own, I’ll save this discussion for an upcoming article.


What I want to say in this post is very simple: Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Each persons road might be different, but it’s simply not the case that someone else’s road is half as long as yours, provided you have roughly the same background.

So, don’t use talent either as an excuse not to learn, either because you think you’re talented and therefore don’t need to study, or, perhaps more commonly, because you think you aren’t talented and therefore can’t learn. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

Reaching your goal might take more or less than 10,000 hours, but whatever the true number is, it’s still an indication that you can and need to study, regardless of talent.