Sunday, October 3, 2010

Passive vs active listening

I have tried to explain some communication theory terms that concern listening with a particular focus on language learning. These definitions are not set in stone and they often refer to native face-to-face conversation. A brief mention of TV watching as a passive language learning activity.

Attention is a prerequisite of learning. We cannot understand, learn or remember something unless we pay attention. Attention may be active or passive. Active attention is a conscious, voluntary mental effort that involves the ability to selectively focus on what is deemed important and ignore what is deemed unimportant while exploring or suffocating a range of other actions and thoughts. Open attention focuses on the whole instead of the parts and gives you an overall impression of what you're observing. Focused attention requires active filtering of excess information. Both are varieties of active attention. Active attention is facilitated by factors such as alertness, concentration or interest. The main characteristic of active attention is conscious effort.

Passive attention is involuntary and dependant on external factors (sudden loud noise). Passive attention is often exemplified by the activities such as listening to radio, watching television or reading for pleasure. Information may be acquired, even if not intentionally. Any learning is incidental. New learning acquired in this way is in no way inferior to that acquired through active effort. As far as language learning is concerned, one may argue that passive learning would favor natural acquisition of forms and structures and in a natural order (assuming Krashen's theory is correct) vs. arbitrary, forced decisions concerning what is important and what should be learned first.

Some recent research blurs this traditional separation between active and passive attention. The studies suggest that "the active-passive divide splits the processes that bias attention, rather than attention itself (Reynolds & Desimone, 2003; Carrasco et al., 2004)". link

In order to understand better the passive/active listening divide it is good to first look at the active/passive reading definitions:

Active reading - a manner of reading in which the reader is mentally engaged with a text and reads for comprehension and criticism as well as reads selectively and with a purpose. Active reading includes applying prior knowledge, critical reading ("interacting" with the author), summarizing, problem solving etc.

Passive reading may be defined as reading from start to finish, for recreation purposes or reading with little mental effort.


Hearing is passive; listening is active. Hearing is a passive physiological process that occurs without any attention or effort. Listening involves some kind of attention. Listening involves hearing, attending, understanding, remembering, evaluating and responding to spoken messages. In foreign language learning a disproportionate amount of effort is expended on deciphering and learning. The native speakers spend more time listening than reading, writing, or speaking combined. Currently there is no clear, commonly accepted differentiation between different modes of listening. In the real world they blur together and we shift from one mode to another or stay somewhere in between.

Passive listening – listening that may be attentive and supportive but occurs without any further conscious engagement from the listener (no talking, responding or nonverbal cues directed to the speaker). It is nearly effortless or it feels as such. The listener assumes that he has heard and understood correctly and does not interact or seek verification. The term is problematic because it is also used disparagingly to refer to inattentive and uninvolved listening. Passive listening is the natural process of listening without reacting. The speaker is likely not available for normal interaction. Passive listening does not have to involve doing something else (multitasking). If the person is half-listening while being focused on something else or if the TV is playing in the "background", we're observing passive, inattentive, or semi-attentive listening. Even the most passive listening experience in order to be termed listening requires a minimum of attention.

Empathic listening – listening that warrants that you feel and see what speaker feels and sees.

Inattentive listening: into one ear and out the other. Listening to one's wife while reading a newspaper and watching TV (who gets least attention?). Little or no attempt to comprehend the entire message or respond. Anyone counting thousands of hours of "study time" performing this form of listening should divide by ten. It should be noted that some repetitive, non cognitive tasks may be performed while listening without jeopardizing the communication (or learning).

Pretend listening— inattentive listening where a person maintains an interested facial expression but is paying little attention. The listener is fooling the speaker. I would use it also in such cases where language learners are fooling themselves into thinking they're actually studying when in fact they are using language material as background noise.

Active or Reflective listening is engaged empathic listening that also involves techniques such as prompting, paraphrasing, verbalizing emotions, asking, clarifying, encouraging, summarizing. The listener is active in checking out his understanding before responding. Used for both face-to-face communication and for engaged passive listening (e.g. to an audio recording). Active listening involves an effort and active mental participation. In conversation it is often accompanied by inadvertent non-verbal cues like nodding, making eye contact etc. These non-verbal cues should happen naturally. If the listener uses these cues consciously he is partially pretending to listen and is in effect practicing bad passive listening disguised as active listening. Examples of this behavior abound in schools, consultancies, courtrooms etc.

A few other types of listening that I will mention only briefly:

Conversational listening - the roles of talker and listener alternate frequently. The speaker is often interrupted etc.

Argumentative listening— the listener is looking for flaws in the speakers's arguments.

Informational listening - information gathering

Following Krashen's theories in language teaching and learning it is possible to speak of intensive and extensive listening and narrow listening.

Extensive listening - listening for pleasure TO a wide variety of native content.

Intensive listening - in classroom setting, repeated, engaged listening to a short audio or audiovisual piece. In self-directed learning it means the same, with the difference that the learner chooses his own material.

Narrow listening - listening to a variety of content or material from a specific field or topic. In classroom setting this could involve listening to a number of clips about a similar topic. An independent learner could listen to food podcasts, watch science documentaries etc. Certain types of material are naturally full of specialized vocabulary while others are not.

TV watching is a passive activity in the sense that it is a passive sedentary activity. It is also passive in the sense that it does not involve a two-way interaction. For the majority of viewers TV is mostly a passive receptive experience. As a language learner you can’t have a conversation with your TV and you're at a clear disadvantage vs. someone studying abroad. TV on the other hand is also the best source of spoken native language content most language learners could ever hope to find. Under ideal circumstances watching a foreign TV program should involve some intensive activity. Due to the nature of the medium the majority of the experience will likely remain passive (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Watching an interesting show is a passive viewing experience which often puts people into a much-maligned passive, trance-like state (observe anyone engrossed in a TV show). The viewer's mind is on autopilot but he is paying full attention and participating emotionally. Or rather, his attention and emotions are seized by the program. The redundant visual information present in TV images makes native speakers lazier listeners - the benefit for language learners is that this information may help decipher meaning.

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