Hearing vs Listening in Language Learning: What are the Differences?

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Hearing vs. Listening

According to Ohio University research, the average adult spends over 70% of their waking hours socializing in one form or another.

9% of that time is spent writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking, and 45 % listening.

With listening accounting for 45 % of our communication time, we must learn how to listen well to receive the full benefits.

Most people believe that, unlike the learned abilities of reading, writing, and speaking, listening is a natural action that requires no conscious effort from anyone without physical impairment.

However, it’s not that easy because listening is a complex process of both emotional and physical skills.


Hearing is an involuntary, sensory mechanism that allows us to perceive sounds. It is a physiological reaction involving our perception of sound. It does not involve focused attention.

For example, if you’re watching television, you are still hearing the noise of traffic outside, your neighbor’s dog barking and people laughing.


Listening is a deliberate, and intentional process that involves making sense of the words you hear; it needs your thoughtful attention.

As a result, you may generate an emotional reaction to what you hear. Listening with the intention to understand is referred to as active listening.

For example, if you’re listening to someone talk about a bad day, you’re paying close attention to them. As they speak, you will gain a better sense of their experience.

This will help you make thoughtful comments and ask relevant questions to have a better understanding of their perspective.

To summarize:

  • Requires no effort;
  • Involuntary;
  • Physiological perception of sound.
  • Requires efforts;
  • Voluntary;
  • Intentional interpretation of sound.

According to clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, the distinction between hearing and listening is like night and day.

Hearing is a simple and fundamental act. Listening, on the other hand, is a three-dimensional experience. “People who excel at their job, marriage, or friendship have trained their ability to listen,” adds Gilliland.

Active and passive listeners: what are the differences?

We can take it a step further when it comes to the definition of listening. In the field of communication, there are two terms that specialists frequently use: active and passive listening.

An active listener can be summed up in a single word: curious. Active listening is defined by the United States Institute of Peace as “a way of listening and responding to another person that increases mutual understanding.”

In other words, this is the way you want to listen if you’re trying to understand another person or you’re looking for a solution.

On the opposite end is passive listening.

According to Gilliland, a passive listener does not strive to contribute to the conversation, especially in work or school. It’s not an effective way to communicate with others.

hearing vs listening

Why is listening so crucial while learning a language?

Many language learners place a high value on speaking. They don’t put as much effort into listening.

But, to the surprise of many new learners, listening to a foreign language is challenging. If you’ve ever taken a second language exam, you’ll know that the listening process is usually always the most difficult.

Listening is an essential ability for language development.

As mentioned before, we spend about half the time listening.

The question is: do you invest half of your learning time in listening activities?

Spending more time listening is the solution. It is, however, essential that you learn to be a good listener.

Let’s find out how we can improve our foreign language listening abilities.

Find out more about how to learn languages and how to learn them fast.

Listening is an active process

If you’ve ever sat in a group of people speaking a foreign language, you’ll understand the unpleasant feeling that you should be joining in.

You have the impression that if you don’t say anything, you’re not truly participating in the conversation.

But in this way, you’re confusing a silent process with a passive process. Getting over the feeling that we are “doing nothing” is a key step toward listening effectively.

One solution is to employ active listening techniques to remind yourself and others that you’re involved in effective communication, even if you don’t speak.

Such as:

  • Make eye contact
  • Lean forward a little to show interest;
  • If you agree with something, make agreeing sounds and nod your head;
  • Don’t look distracted by fidgeting, playing with your phone, or staring off into the distance.

The silent phase is golden

Children who learn a second language frequently go through a “silent period” in which they do not speak. Most adults don’t go into any silent period at all.

But a period of silent listening can be really useful.

Speaking can be a terrifying experience. As a new learner, you are so concerned with what you should say next that you fail to truly appreciate what the other person has said.

Allowing yourself to be silent lets you get the most out of listening.

Speak if you can, but don’t force it.

The brain acts as a foreign language goldfish

Would it surprise you to find that your short-term memory in a foreign language is even shorter?

It makes sense when you think about it. How frequently do you forget what someone said to you in your target language?

Listening is a critical step in resolving this issue.

But why is this happening?

When we hear someone speak, our brain begins to analyze the information by “segmenting” it into small bits to store in our short-term memory.

In a foreign language, we aren’t comfortable with the “segmentation rules” for how the language is spoken. Our short-term memory has to store all the words separately.

One of the reasons why hearing is so crucial in a foreign language is that it allows us to become comfortable with the segmentation rules.

Not only will it increase your comprehension, but it will also help you speak the language better.

Because learning segmentation rules is usually an unconscious process, getting lots of good listening practice is the best way to learn them.

Our listening strategies are inverted

If you did learn a language in school, what listening approach were you taught?

I recall taking a listening exam in which we had to listen to a recording and then translate what we had heard.

The details made the difference between a pass and a fail. If you spelled a word incorrectly, you’d lose points, for example.

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Bottom-up listening is a term used by language academics to describe this method.

Bottom-up listening is an acceptable classroom method. Unfortunately, it is not a complete listening method to use in everyday situations.

You can’t spend all of your listening efforts focusing on exact grammar as people speak in the real world. They’ll keep talking, and you’ll be completely lost.

Top-down listening, on the other hand, is a good strategy to add more understanding of what’s being said.

Top-down listening methods rely on concepts. It simply implies that you learn a little about the spoken topic in advance.

Here are some ideas:

  • If you’re going to see a foreign language movie or play, read the story first;
  • Before attending a lecture, do some research on the subject;
  • Before you listen to an audio passage, try reading about it or predicting what it will say.

This will train your brain to focus on concepts rather than specific words.

The general idea is only half the story

Finally, one thing we often underestimate when listening in another language is checking how much we have understood.

We often “get the idea” of what was said. However, we don’t always understand as much as we think we do.

Try these short, simple tasks to show yourself that you understood what was said:

  • Make a drawing;
  • Ask yourself some questions and attempt to answer them;
  • Give a recap;
  • Suggest what might happen next in the “story.”
  • “Talkback” to the narrator to engage in an imaginary conversation.

The Takeaway

As you can see, active listening is a lifelong skill. Are you ready to improve your listening skills in your target language?

Just remember to use active listening strategies, and you’ll be amazed at the difference when you complete the exercises to see how much you’ve grasped!

If you are interested in learning the best tips from language experts, read our article.

Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!

FAQs on Hearing vs Listening in Language Learning: What are the Differences?


I was born in Italy but after graduating from University I decided to travel around the world. I loved Asia and that’s why I decided to move, first to South Korea and then to China where I am currently working as a teacher.

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One Response

  1. Great topic! I’ve always wondered about the distinctions between hearing and listening in language learning. Can’t wait to read more about it!

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