Can we learn a language by only listening to it?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You place headphones over your ears, turn up the volume, and push play. In the meantime, you work on your crossword puzzle, cook dinner, nap, or sit on your back porch sipping margaritas. After a few months of this, you notice you are getting fluent in your chosen second language without ever having to study, practice, or attend a class.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? While very few promote total passive listening (where you simply listen to a language to learn it), there is an ongoing debate among language teachers and linguists over its effectiveness and the amount it should be used.

Benny Lewis, a.k.a. Benny the Irish Polyglot on his blog Fluent in 3 Months believes learning a language simply through passive listening is “absolute rubbish” and “rarely produces any useful results.” Benny speaks 11 languages and tested his theory by passively listening to Hungarian (a language he was unfamiliar with), with unsatisfactory results.

Yet, Ute Limacher-Riebold, blogger for Expatsincebirth feels that “passive exposure to a language, if it is over a longer period, is very beneficial to the learning process” and “passive exposure to languages does ‘plant seeds.’”

While Khatzumoto, blogger for Alljapaneseallthetime believes you should keep listening even if you don’t understand. Khatzumoto advocates listening to “hundreds and thousands of hours.”

In fact, an entire website, Sleep Learning, is dedicated to learning while you sleep by tapping into your subconscious.

Educators and neuroscientists have known for a long time that the more parts of the brain that are engaged while learning (such as sight, sound, touch, even smell), the more likely the subject will be retained. A person needs to learn actively to make it stick. Assigning sounds to objects, actions, people, etc. makes associations. What’s more, the learner must comprehend what is being spoken; otherwise it is nothing more than sounds like musical notes, or a dog barking.

Listening to another language does help with pronunciation and rhythm. When listening, don’t be passive. Give it your full attention and utilize content that you know. Find a combination of audio, reading, or engagement with native speakers, so you are participating. Check out these approaches:

WikiHow provides a 10-step list on How to Learn a Language by Listening to the Radio. It stresses using contextual clues, looking up words you don’t understand, setting aside time to listen and not engaging in other activities while you do it.

Gabriel Wyner of LifeHacker.com learned to speak four languages in four years by perfecting his active method of listening, reading, and writing.

Author of Language is Music, Susanna Zaraysky, speaks seven languages and believes that you can use music to learn a foreign language.

As for learning in your sleep, Joseph Stromberg wrote a provocative article titled, “Experiments Show We Really Can Learn While We Sleep” for the Smithsonian that explains how deep sleep is a key time for memory processing and it may be used for maximizing memory potential especially for tasks such as acquiring a new language.

Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype

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