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.

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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!

Listening strategies: Background listening

Contrary to what some people think, I consider background and passive listening to be very useful, indeed necessary. Learning to understand spoken Chinese is about quantity to a large extent and even if we surely can immerse ourselves actively as well, this isn’t practical or possible for people who don’t study Chinese full time. Even for people who do, our minds can’t handle too much active studying anyway, so passive listening is useful in these cases, too.

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

Articles in this series:
Problem analysis
Background listening (this article)
Passive listening
Active listening
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)

Defining background, passive and active listening

The definitions I use here and in the following articles are my own and might not correspond to what other people use, but since I find them useful, I will stick to them from now on. There will be one article for each of the following types. Please note that I use these categories to facilitate a fruitful discussion, so the borders between the different categories are sometimes vague and ambiguous.

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Background listening (this article) means that listening is not the primary task you’re focusing on. If it is, then we’re talking about either passive or active listening. Background listening can be said to be a certain kind of very passive listening, but I don’t want to call it that because there are other important differences. It’s not simply a scale from least passive to most active.Here are a few examples of background listening:

  • Listening to podcasts while working
  • Having the radio on in the background while surfing
  • Playing a (non-language-heavy) computer game in Chinese

Passive listening is when you focus on what you’re listening to, but aren’t doing anything apart from listening. Thus, it is much more active and requires time of a different quality than background listening. You might listen passively because you’re unable to be more active (see the examples below) or because you don’t want to for some reason:

  • Listening to podcasts while jogging
  • Tuning in to a radio station while playing a mindless game
  • Reviewing the audio material to your textbook while driving

Active listening, finally, is when listening is the only thing you’re doing and you’re actively trying to learn/understand/develop as much as you can. Active listening is usually a form of deliberate practice, and as such, it is quite demanding. Here are some obvious examples of active listening:

  • Summarising a podcast
  • Transcribing a news broadcast
  • Taking notes from an online lecture

The benefits of background listening

Background listening is awesome mostly because it allows us to fill our days with hours and hours of Chinese, seemingly paradoxically without taking up much time. Let’s look at a typical day as a barrel (available time) full of rocks (tasks of various kinds, including work). Looks full, right? Well, it’s still possible to fit a large volume of smaller pebbles, sand and water into the same container. Passive listening is that sand, background listening is that water. Read more about the time barrel and how it can help you find more time!

Two things follow from this. First, background listening (and passive listening) isn’t meant to replace active listening. The boulders are still there, the water simply fills up the remaining space. Active and passive listening takes up time of completely different quality (see this article for an introduction of the concept of time quality and how it applies to language learning). I feel that many people who disown non-active listening do so because they think active listening is better. Using the analogy with the container above, this question is moot. It’s not a choice between two methods, you can and should use both.

Second, it follows that we should try to find listening material which fits between the boulders (if something is too distracting, it doesn’t fit, for instance, more about this soon). Using the analogy of water is a bit idealised, because obviously it requires more effort to fill the gaps than merely opening the tap. Living in China helps, but is no guarantee. Also, all kinds of audio might not fit equally well, depending on what major task you’re currently performing. What material you can use for listening will be discussed in a separate article.

About being distracted

I know that different people are distracted to a different extents by background audio. Personally, I can do anything with spoken audio in the background except writing in that very language. However, rather than simply saying “I can’t do this because it distracts me”, I want you to try different combinations. If you feel that radio is distracting you, how about Chinese music? If you really find that you can’t perform task A very well while listening to B, then don’t. Trying, experimenting and evaluating the results is the key here.

I also think that this is a matter of practise. The reason I can usually listen to audio whatever I do is because I have slowly built up the capacity for doing so. Before I started learning Chinese, I spent some serious time studying English and sometimes listened to one or two audio books every week (that amounts to 20-30 hours). I didn’t start that way, it was a habit (or a skill perhaps) I developed over time.

Background listening as an opportunity

A pertinent question regarding background listening is whether we can learn from something we don’t notice. If we are focused on reading e-mails or arranging our calendars, can we really learn Chinese at the same time?

I think the answer is twofold. First, no-one is fully focused on their work 100% of the time. There are always gaps. Thus, even if you don’t focus on the audio at all while reading an e-mail, you might listen to it briefly while switching between different e-mails, while copying text from one or when logging out of your e-mail client (please realise that this is just an example, it works equally well for any situation).

Thus, background listening turns into ordinary passive listening fairly often, albeit for very short intervals of time. The point is that the duration is so short that you’d never consider starting a podcast or turning on the radio, but if it’s already on, you will listen. I can’t offer more than anecdotal evidence for this, but I have the radio on all the time and even when I’m focusing on other things, I often notice words or sentences in the audio I hear, making mental notes about word usage, grammar, pronunciation and so on.

Can we benefit from something we aren’t even aware of?

The second part of the answer is more speculative. Our minds are very good at sorting information and we notice or are aware of only a tiny fraction of all the information our brains receive. However, the information thus “ignored” isn’t simply discarded, even if we aren’t aware of it’s existence until we need it.

For instance, your brain filters out information about how warm it is in the room or if there is birdsong outside your window. But if you ask yourself, you can still say if you’re too warm or if there’s birdsong outside your window (without waiting for the next chirp). Likewise, if the situation changes rapidly (such as if the birdsong suddenly stops), you will notice. Sometimes, we even pick up things which we aren’t consciously aware of at all. Have you ever found yourself humming the lyrics to a song and then found that the radio in the other room, which you thought you didn’t hear at all, plays the same song at exactly the same place in the lyrics? This has happened to me at least a dozen times.

The point of all this is that I think we register and hear quite a lot even if our minds are focused on something else, especially things that differ from what our brains expects to receive. Naturally, the more complex the material, the less likely we are to benefit. For example, I think we can pick up the sounds of a language this way, including tones, stress and syllables, but it’s much less likely that we will learn new words or grammar patterns. I don’t know how big an impact this actually has, but if you’re the sceptical kind, background listening is still a good idea for the other reasons given above. Let’s get started, shall we?

Getting started

Since background listening is about creating an audio source which is supposed to be there all the time, or at least as often as possible, it’s important that you go about creating such an environment in the right way. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make listening the default option (example: web radio on autostart)
  • Eliminate practical problems (example: always have audio ready, buy extra earphones)
  • Have different kinds of audio ready (example: music works better with some tasks)


I think the analogy with the container, the boulders and the water says it all. Background listening is excellent because it allows us to learn more Chinese even if we don’t devote much extra time.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a substitute for more active kinds of listening.Why choose when we can do both? Initially, it might require some effort to get started and fill that container, but it’s well worth it!

When solving a problem, the first step should always be to figure out what the problem is. Simply knowing that we don’t understand spoken Chinese at a certain level isn’t good enough, we need to know more than that if we want to improve. In this article, I discuss various ways of identifying and analysing problems with listening ability.

Listening strategies: Problem analysis

The first step when solving any problem should be analysing the problem we face. If we want to find an efficient method of getting around a problem, defining the problem is not only helpful, it’s absolutely necessary. Without a proper analysis, we risk targeting something else and/or apply inefficient methods. In this article, we’ll look at analysing problems related to listening ability.

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

Articles in this series:
Problem analysis (this article)
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
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)

Problem analysis

Before we can improve anything, we need to know what to improve. Sure, improving in general is a good idea, but focusing on the weakest links in the chain first yields better results. So, what skills are involved in listening comprehension? Or, in other words, what types of problems may we encounter when trying to understand spoken Chinese?

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Five categories of problems

  1. Lack of phonological awareness: The Chinese sound inventory contains many features that aren’t present in most Western languages, including tones. Not being able to distinguish between these sounds and tones will cause problems. This isn’t merely a problem for beginners, because advanced learners also have to cope with regionally accented Chinese, people with different voices and intonations and so on.
    Symptom: Chinese sounds like a stream of gibberish and you can’t figure out where one sound stops and the next starts. Tones are enigmas and you find it very hard to distinguish between minimal pairs such as zh/z, b/p, n/ng. If someone asks you to write down what syllables someone is saying (the pronunciation, not the meaning), you have no clue.
  2. Lack of vocabulary: This is a problem which faces most new learners in everyday conversations and (almost) everyone once we start listening to material produced by natives for natives. Native speakers have a large vocabulary and to fully understand what we hear, we need to know quite a number of those words. Thus, simply not knowing the words is, I think, the most common problem. This problem can of course be alleviated somewhat by guesswork and extrapolation, but if you’re after deeper understanding of something, that won’t be enough.
    Symptom: If you think that you could write down what’s being said in Pinyin, but still don’t understand what’s being said, then your phonological awareness is good enough, but your vocabulary isn’t broad enough. Check this about the importance of knowing many words.
  3. Lack of speed: Listening speed is the pace at which you can understand spoken language, provided that you know the words. Being able to do do this is usually the result of huge volumes of practice (i.e. immersion). There is no substitute. See my article discussing listening speed in more detail.
    Symptom: If you can understand a passage after hearing it many times or at slower speed, it means that you have the necessary phonological awareness and a broad enough vocabulary, but you still lack the listening speed. Immersion is what you need in your case; quantity is king.
  4. Lack of motivation: The first three categories all dealt with listening ability as a skill, but ignoring psychological and emotional factors would be overlooking an important part. If you aren’t motivated to listen, it doesn’t really matter what other methods you choose, simply because you won’t use them.
    Symptom: You know what your problem is, you might even know how to solve it, but you just can’t get around to actually listening to more Chinese. This might be either because you’re using the wrong material (which you find boring) or because you’ve set unrealistic or unproductive goals.
  5. Lack of understanding: If you find that the above four factors aren’t a problem for you but you still find listening hard, then the only remaining explanation is that your understanding of Chinese in general is too weak. This might be because of a lack of cultural understanding, grammar or different ways of thinking and expressing opinions. Even though this is a serious problem for many learners, I don’t consider it to be a part of listening ability, because it could equally well apply to reading ability. I will not discuss this further in this series, but it still deserves mentioning.
    Symptom: None of the four areas above present any serious problems, at least not with the audio you’re currently tackling, but you still don’t understand what’s being said. This means that your problem is not related to listening at all and the solution should therefore be sought elsewhere. Exactly where would depend on what problems you have, but going through the audio with a teacher or helpful friend would be a start.

A more complicated (and complete) picture emerges

The above analysis makes it look like listening comprehension problems are easy to untangle, but that’s of course not the case. It’s likely that all of us have slight problems in all areas and that the situation changes over time. The problems we have are probably the results of our studying background, meaning that if you’ve spent several hours a day watching dramas in Chinese, listening speed won’t be a big problem, but if you never read anything at all, vocabulary will definitely become a huge problem once you approach more advanced Chinese.

Knowing where the problem lies is the first step towards solving it. The rest of this series of articles will be focused on discussing ways of practising listening ability. It won’t be sorted according to the analysis in this article, simply because most methods cover more than one category. I will, however, refer back to this article when pointing out strengths and weaknesses with various strategies.

Here’s a concrete plan of action for anyone who feels that they’re listening ability is not up to par:

  1. Pick some target audio you want to understand. Be realistic here, pick something which is within reach.
  2. Can you write down the syllables in Pinyin? If not, then you need more practice with phonological awareness. Find a native speaker or teacher and practice hearing and producing the differences between tones and sounds. It might also help to ask either a teacher who speaks your native language or an advanced second language learner to explain the differences.
  3. Can you write down the syllables, but still can’t understand what’s being said? Then it’s likely that you’re vocabulary is too weak. Check this article for more about having a broad vocabulary. In essence, knowing many words will boost your performance in every area, so listening ability is perhaps not your main problem.
  4. Can you understand the dialogue, but only after listening several times or at lower speed? Then you probably just need more exposure to Chinese. Put Chinese web radio on autostart, load your phone with podcasts, listen to Chinese music, turn any activity you can into a listening opportunity. Also check this article: Listening ability, a matter of practice?
  5. Do you know all of the above, but can’t get yourself to actually do something? Then your problem is probably in the realm of motivational, social and psychological aspects. You might have set unproductive goals or you might not yet have found audio you enjoy listening to.

These are of course not meant to be complete and thorough discussions of how to solve these problems, but merely an attempt to help you analyse your current situation. In the rest of this series, we will be looking at various methods and strategies to improve listening ability. Stay tuned!

Update: I have added a fifth category which should have been there from the start, but was overlooked. Thanks to Anton and Sara for pointing this out. The analysis is now more complete and therefore hopefully also more helpful.

Listening strategies: An introduction

I’ve been quite interested in improving listening ability recently, which not only means that I’ve thought a lot about it, but also that I’ve been looking around to see what other people are suggesting to improve listening ability, and tried many different approaches. I have also received several requests for more articles regarding listening ability, so I have decided to do this properly. Behold, a series of articles about improving listening ability!

Listening ability is one of the cornerstones of language learning. Not only is it essential if we want to communicate with other people, it’s also necessary if we’re going to expose ourselves to natively produced language and learn from that. Immersion in itself, but the more we understand of what we’re immersed in, the more we will learn.

Since I have a great deal to say about this, this series will consist of quite a few articles. Apart from the introduction you’re currently reading, the first “real” article is now also available. The general idea is to first discuss what problems we might encounter regarding listening ability, and then look at different ways of solving these problems, followed by a discussion about background, passive and active listening. Then I will talk about related topics from various angles. My current plan looks like this:

Articles in this series

Introduction (this article)
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
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)

Publication plan

Most of these articles are already written, but will be published at a steady pace over the coming moths. I typically post one article per week, but since I know that not everyone is interested in reading about listening ability, I will put at least one other article in between each of those in the list above. That means that it will take several months before all of them are published. I will do like this because I think a steady flow of material is much better than publishing a big lump of articles which are too long for people to read anyway. Please be patient!

In the meantime, you can start reading the first article or check  a number of articles I’ve already written about listening ability that might be of interest. These will be referred and linked to in this series, but I will try to avoid repeating myself too much.

Articles directly related to listening ability:
Listening ability, a matter of practice?
Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem
Listening to the listener
How to find more time to practise listening
Triggering quantum leaps in listening ability

Articles indirectly related to listening ability:
The importance of knowing many words
Pros and cons with travelling to learn a language

Diversified learning is smart learning
Benchmarking progress to stay motivated
Reading manga for more than just pleasure
Mapping the terra incognita of vocabulary
Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?
The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Stay tuned!