In an article on the blog Fluent in Three Months is a claim that listening to hours of a foreign language without really concentrating on it is "barely better than nothing".

The shocking truth is that passive listening is never going to get you to fluency in a language. What’s even worse is that it won’t even help your ability to understand.

I agree that active learning is better than passive learning when it comes to languages but from personal experience, I would say that passive listening has been a non-trivial element of my learning arsenal. In addition, the whole "language immersion" method seems to be a big advocate of it.

Has there been any scientific study regarding passively listening and whether it has any real benefit?

  • 5
    I once met a German whose English grammar and vocabulary was typical (reasonable but with many errors often made by foreign language speakers) but with no obvious accent (perhaps somewhere between British RP and standard American, and definitely not German). It turned out he had been taught English at secondary school but rarely used it, but had always lived next to a NATO base. So from this anecdote, I might suspect that truly passive listening helps more with accent than with language.
    – Henry
    Jul 25, 2011 at 6:03
  • There is a question of causality, but it's can be seen very clear that in countries where you have TV/movies as original w/ subtitles, foreign language (especially English) skills are much higher, than in countries with dubbed TV/movies. As for causality, I think that at this point it's kind of circular.
    – vartec
    Jul 25, 2011 at 8:08
  • Actually this makes sense. If you do not really listen to a converstation then you do not really take in the contents of a converstation you understand. If you do not really pay attention to a converstation in a language you do not understand it seems likely to basically become white noise.
    – Chad
    Jul 26, 2011 at 13:10
  • Passive listening refer to inert or indifferent listening.There is no conscious effort to receive and absorb the message.
    – user6242
    Feb 24, 2012 at 4:45

1 Answer 1


I have done a reasonable amount of searching and was only able to find one experiment that provided solid data on what you were asking.

Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning (Kuhl et al. 2003)

The results indicate limits on phonetic learning; 9-mo-old infants exposed to foreign-language material from DVDs did not reverse the decline in phonetic perception. The AV and A exposure sessions duplicated Experiment 1’s live sessions, yet no learning occurred. The results suggest that phonetic learning from complex language input relies on more than raw auditory sensory information. At this age, learning is influenced by the presence of a live person.


The current results are consistent with a variety of studies on older children (preschool age) exposed to language material, both native and foreign, from children’s TV shows. The results indicate that, although there is evidence that specific vocabulary items can be learned through exposure to television programs, the more complex aspects of language, such as phonetics and grammar, are not acquired from TV exposure.

I have not been able to track down information specifically on adults learning a second language and the effect of passive listening.

Note that passive listening is not putting a language tape in and repeating the words, its sitting in a room full of native speakers and just listening to what they are saying or having a foreign language television on in the background while you go about some other task.

I could sit in a room full of nuclear physicists and listen to them talk all day, but even though I know rudimentary mathematics what I can learn from them is going to be very little if nothing.

I think research would suggest as per the child study that having a live adult engaging with you versus passive listening provides significantly greater benefit.

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    There's lots of research. Perhaps you weren't looking for the right terms. You may want to check this entire PhD on the subject: Wordlikeness judgements, phonotactic probability, accent and repetition in auditory recognition of novel words in a foreign language by Sulzberger, Paul
    – user4686
    Apr 15, 2014 at 15:27

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