How we listen, how we learn

We learn best when we are attending to the world in ‘looking-for-difference’ mode. This is most obvious when we consider the learning of a foreign language.

Today, the purpose of learning a foreign language is to be able to communicate with native speakers for reasons of business or pleasure. We want to be able to speak with and understand other people.

When we listen to a native speaker we need to listen in ‘looking-for-difference’ mode so that we hear everything that is new or different and our brain builds up the complex neural networks that, over time and coupled with reflection and inquiry (from books, from native speakers, from teachers), will allow us to understand effortlessly and respond spontaneously.


Contrast this with ‘listening-for-familiar’ mode. In this mode, we listen to a native speaker and we are on the lookout for sounds and words that are familiar to us (because we have learned lists of them). To do this we must keep checking what we are hearing against what we know – which already blunts our listening, it is no longer 100% focused on the speaker.

When we do recognise a word or phrase we call on memory to find out what its translation is and this call on memory leads our brain to suppress our hearing for the time that the memory call is taking place. During this moment, we miss what is being said, but our brains are quick, we fill in the gaps and we make up some sense of what we are hearing from connecting the words that we recognise and can translate.

Understanding will always be an effort. Speaking will come from constructing a sentence in our minds from memory, which lacks spontaneity.

Four-year-olds can learn languages effortlessly and fluently, the typical eighteen-year-old cannot as they have been encouraged systematically over time to use ‘listening-for-familiar’ mode in every aspect of their school lives, rather than the natural ‘listening-for-difference’ mode.

We need to stop doing this to them, we need to stop doing it to ourselves.

John Corrigan is an expert in helping individuals to bring their whole of mind to their daily life and increase their effectiveness and the effectiveness of those around them. This expertise scales from the individual to the team to the organisation. At the core of this work is the practice of encounter.

John Corrigan