Sometimes it seems that modern culture, particularly city culture (or wannabe city culture) has become a fight between an individual person and the noise surrounding him or her. Our daily lives are full of synthetic sounds that we basically block out: the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the hum of the computer, and sounds of traffic on the street.
In the outside world there are sounds of nature that we (or at least I) want to hear. Right now, over the hum of my computer and the sounds of water in our heating pipes, I actually hear songs of many different birds punctuated by the occasional meow of one of our neighborhood's feral cats (perhaps in heat). The huge amount of snowfall we had during the past (gasp) month sometimes made the neighborhood very quiet. Before the roads were plowed the only sound that punctuated the silence was the scraping sound of shovels.
There are assaulting noises in my town: the beeps on my ATM machine are so loud that I fear for my hearing when I use it. When I cross the major street in town I always encounter very loud rhythmic beeps working in concert with an electronically-generated voice that tells me to wait. When it's time to walk, it counts the seconds I have to get across the street. I know that this is helpful for people who are blind, but the fortissimo nature of the beeps and voice, which has to cut through the din of traffic, always moves to the foreground. Since my vision is intact I try as hard as I can to "not hear" those very loud and ugly sounds.
I have trained myself to listen. That's what I do. I wonder how many young people (i.e. college students) have unconsciously trained themselves to block out much of what they hear in their daily lives.
Somehow the idea of reading quickly, without hearing the words in your head as you read, has become an acceptable way of trying to learn. When I don't hear the words in my head as I read, I don't pay attention to what I'm reading. When the words are written in a way that doesn't make sense when I hear them, I can't follow a train of thought. Reading is a pleasure when sentences are written lyrically and musically. Perhaps the speed reading techniques taught to children in elementary school (skimming to find information quickly, for example) are causing some of the lack of listening ability we see in college students.
According to this article silent reading is an auditory experience.
Some people suggest that studying music a young age is a way to improve listening. I think that the very act of listening (to whatever you listen to) improves listening because it is something you have to do in real time. I think that the act of listening is an important part of becoming not only a better reader but a better writer. It also makes you a better musician.
We all experience situations where we don't listen very well. It is possible, as we have all noticed, to have a conversation without really listening to the person you are conversing with, or to have a bunch of "chatter" in your head while you listen to music (or even while you are playing it). It is also possible, when reading, to have other thoughts fly between your ears while you listen to the words in front of you.
Young children, particularly those learning skills like walking and talking, pay close attention to what they do, see, and hear. Children learn a remarkable number of things in a remarkably short period of time because, regardless of what they might look like they are doing, they pay attention. Babies do not need to be taught to listen. They just do it. If those skills are rendered unnecessary, children forget them. If parents don't use appropriate listening skills with their children, their older children might not develop adequate listening skills.