The Joys of Receptive Listening: Why We'd Much Rather Listen Than Talk

The Joys of Receptive Listening: Why We'd Much Rather Listen Than Talk

Think about it. Would you really rather talk than listen? Most people think or say they would. Much of the wisdom or humor about oral communication is based on this assumption. And language teaching and learning seems to target “active production” (speaking or writing) as its ultimate goal—as opposed to receptive listening. But which preference—listening or speaking—might the below quotes suggest?

So consider these assertions: 

  • There was a classic language teaching method that prescribed intensive and/or extensive listening long before speaking was even “allowed.”  In the recesses of our academic memory lies a language-acquisition methodology that had second- and foreign-language learners listening for a significant length of time before they were called on to respond orally—by pronouncing words aloud, expressing themselves, or communicating in the target language. We can’t remember what this technique or theory was called or how it worked. (But for us, retrieving lost memories is a major reward of relaxed listening, so please remind us if you can.)  

  • It’s a lot more relaxing and gratifying to take ideas in or to be entertained than it is to be expected to “participate.” Think about how absorbed you got when listening to stimulating talk or viewing engaging video. Compare it to the anxiety you may have felt fearing you were about to be called on to talk—or the energy you spent gathering words for what you were going to say. Which of these two states of mind resulted in positive learning experiences or improvement of your linguistic abilities? True, aural stimulation is likely to trigger thoughts that you’re eager to share—or not. But that stage comes later, and—quite naturally, without the tension of having to come up with clever ideas “on the spot.”

  • Much more than speaking, listening with comprehension produces a sense of confident comfort, accomplishment, and connection. Don’t you feel more accepted or acknowledged when you’re “invited to listen” than when you’re “required to perform?” While you’re listening, you don’t have to win acceptance or approval through your own (tortured) efforts. You have the chance to learn something new. And blog posts, articles, and even visuals about “the joy of listening” tend to emphasize its spiritual benefits. Whether you’re hearing music, nature sounds, soothing speech, or inspiring messages, such activities are likely to contribute to your well-being.

  • At times it’s more fun to be on the receiving end of a verbal relationship than the giving one. Doesn’t it feel better to be able to sit back and enjoy the musings, inspirations, or humor of a stimulating partner, friend, or associate who’s really “into” talking to you—than it does to endure the discomforting silence of someone who expects you to “take the lead.” Of course, moral doctrine tells us that “it’s more blessed to give than receive.” Yet when communicating with language, the opposite may be true. And if your intimate other, classmate, or pal is like you in this regard, eventually you’ll want to reciprocate by contributing what comes to your mind or heart. And when you feel safely approved of or truly liked, talking will be easy to do.

  • Speaking tends to be competitive; listening--inclusive and cooperative. To “get the floor” for any length of time, you’re likely to have to compete for attention or air space. In contrast, when (nearly) everyone is listening, there’s plenty of room for all. More than one observer has noted that “Everybody wants to talk. Nobody wants to listen.” So if everyone is jabbering away about their own wants or needs or political views, it’s a good bet that the exchange will become combative or confrontational rather than supportive or productive. Being allowed or even encouraged to “just listen” changes all that. During the activity, most of us can feel like we’re sharing the same experience.

  • Just as reading is a helpful precursor to good writing, intensive and extensive listening will make you into a better speaker. In language instruction, there are strong parallels between oral and written skills. For instance, when it involves visuals, vocabulary prep, responsive tasking, and/or intuitive prediction, pre-listening corresponds to pre-reading. The processes themselves are also similar: because it detracts from comprehension of main ideas and important info, you’re not supposed to attend to every word you hear or read. And few learners really improve their grasp of phrasing patterns or grammar rules while talking to an audience, struggling to pronounce, or trying to formulate error-free sentences. Finally, it’s possible that you can improve your accent effortlessly by listening to clear-speech models; at least the procedure is more pleasant and natural than pronouncing vocabulary or reading aloud for critical coaches who then tell you what you did wrong.   

Listening without the pressure of performing facilitates the internalization of useful models—of pronunciation, spontaneous commentary, fluent conversational contributions, well-organized stories, and other forms of oral language worth imitating. Most texts or online materials offer lessons in articulation, putting words together in phrases, spoken grammar, and/or organization of thoughts and ideas. How about “using” these for listening practice that rewards effective hearing and understanding? Here are some typical samples of the kinds of segments where the idea might work:

  • After brief grammar templates, the “Substitution Drill” technique (proven effective in ESL) makes sense. These get users to “internalize” grammatical patterns that they hear with different vocabulary in specific “sentence slots.” Even if listeners aren’t called upon to perform dialogs for a class, just listening to the patterns over and over will embed the structures in their mind. Part Three of all ten chapters of WorkLife English Skills Book 1: Life Skills,  “Grammar in Conversation,” is typical of this approach. 

  • Pronunciation lessons often start with listening—to clear articulation of targeted sounds (in contrast) or typical sentence stress and rhythm patterns. Especially when they’re not required to repeat these items aloud, listeners will benefit “internally” from hearing them again and again. Similarly, listening segments that require text users to do something—like circle, match, draw lines, write numbers, fill in words, etc.—will “insert” sounds, words, and structures in their “mind’s ear.” Part Two (“Pronunciation”) & Part Three (“Listening & Speaking Skills”) of all 10 chapters of WorkLife English Skills Listening/Speaking Book 2: English in Everyday Life, illustrate these principles. 

  • Anticipation of what they’re going to hear, perhaps triggered by visuals or blanks in conversations, is likely to improve listeners’ focusand therefore their skill—because it gives them a motivating purpose. Cue phrases from listening material also help. (Later, these can be used for summarizing, a “higher-level” listening skill.) For examples of how these features might work, see Part One (“Cross-Cultural Conversations”) & Part Two (“Practical Listening”) of all 10 chapters of WorkLife English Skills Listening/Speaking Book 4: Cross-Cultural Communication. A page of recorded (Tapescript) material follows.   



The full chapters of these excerpts from Work/Life English Competency-Based Listening/Speaking and the Speaking Series: Beginners’ Before Speaking with Pronunciation Principles; Before Speaking + Pronunciation Practice; and Speaking + Accent Activities  are in these Authors & Editors products at



For monthly email newsletters with free tips, tools, and resources for English language teachers and learners, sign up here!

About Work/Life English
Work/Life English is dedicated to advancing the lives of native English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers by improving their English comprehension and communication skills. Over the past 35 years, we have created a variety of fun, effective English language improvement tools for adults, young adults, older youth, youth in transition, teens, secondary students, new Americans, low-literacy learners, and anyone else who can benefit from improved English! For more information, visit

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.