Lots of people move to new countries and slowly absorb the local language in their every day lives. Even though this immersive process is different for everyone, many of us are probably wondering: can you learn a language just by listening?
Of course, anybody familiar with immersion programs or self-study language learning will be able to tell you that yes, you can. While it can be difficult to learn a language purely through passive listening, it’s definitely a legitimate (and sometimes effective) way of learning a language. In particular, languages that are similar to each other can be particularly easy to learn if you already know one. A good example would be French speakers learning Spanish through passively listening to Spanish in their every day lives.
Of course, since the written word usually carries a lot of clues and peculiarities about grammar and pronunciation, there will be things you miss out on. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you will not be able to read if you only learn a language through listening. Another thing you will want to be aware of is that it will take you much longer to learn how to speak than it will to learn how to hear. This may seem strange for people who are new to language learning (how can you understand a language if you cannot speak it?), but the reasons and particulars of it will soon become quite clear to you.
In order to give you a kind of crash-course on language learning through passive listening, we’re going to go over a few things here to get you started. We’ll be talking about a few very important linguistic topics, such as active & passive understanding, immersion, childhood language learning, as well as a few other topics that are important for understanding how to learn a language just by listening.
We will also review some pitfalls you probably want to avoid, as well as a few related questions, such as how passive listening affects learning in a classroom setting. So, without further ado, let’s start listening!
How We Learn Language
The first important piece of the puzzle is the art of language learning itself. Learning a language is something that every single person on this earth eventually does. While many people will never learn even their own language to complete fluency and literacy, 99.9% of individuals will go through a period of passive language learning in their childhood.
Children are taught how to speak once they have enough experience babbling that they can begin to learn. That being said, from the time they are born, babies and young children are literally always listening to and learning from the world around them. While they eventually get some tutoring from their parents and teachers, the vast majority of their language learning is done passively, and through listening.
Once we’re in school being taught lessons by teachers, however, this learning process gets extensively overhauled. For most people, it becomes a lot more boring. Although young children will learn language passively by watching movies, hearing songs & radio shows, and observing adults around them, as soon as they begin language education in school, their learning becomes mostly repetitive.
Most of us will have plenty of fond memories of sitting in a classroom, writing out the alphabet hundreds of times until our hands were sore. Even though this is a standby method used by almost every school across the globe, it’s actually a very bad way of teaching from a language learning standpoint.
That is, while repetitive exercises are good for short-term retention of knowledge for tests, research suggests that the boredom and saturation of repetitive exercise can actually make language learning harder. Who can be expected to retain dozens of grammar rules after being lectured on them and having to write out hundreds of sentences demonstrating them? It is much faster to learn through exposure and targeted practice, but this is inefficient for teaching entire classrooms full of children.
This unfortunate reality causes a lot of people to have misgivings about language learning, and to fear it as something repetitive and boring. Of course, there is one thing that many people overlook which has a lot of deep implications for this topic. Immersion programs.
Immersion programs are courses where a student (typically still a young child) is taught in a context where only a foreign language is used. While the child initially will have difficulty understanding the language, within a couple of years, they will be well on their way to speaking it fluently. This method has such a high rate of success due to it taking advantage of the way that we naturally learn language: through passive observation and private practice.
Passive Versus Active Understanding
The key elements at play here are the two ways in which we understand language. Passive understanding is our ability to understand language when we hear or see it in context. Active understanding is the ability to string together grammatically correct (or at least passable) sentences and ideas of your own.
This is how some people can understand perfectly what is being said around them, but they cannot speak the language well to save their own lives. They will have thick accents, and make chronic mistakes with grammar and syntax. The reason for this is that your passive and active understandings are managed by different parts of your brain, which need to be exercised individually.
If you get lots of practice listening to a language, but you never actually speak it, it will take you much longer to become fluent when speaking. Of course, when you do eventually start to practice speaking, you will have a vast library of passive vocabulary and understanding to draw from, which can be a big help.
Obviously, there are some advantages and some disadvantages to focusing on listening before you learn to speak, and in order to not create pitfalls for yourself, there are a few things you will want to keep in mind.
Stuff To Keep In Mind
Basically, if you choose to learn a language through listening, you will have to be aware of a few things in order to not shoot yourself in the foot. The most important thing to remember is that you must be careful about what you listen to.
Although listening to pop music or TV commercials can be a good exercise for vocabulary, using sources like this for learning the entire language can teach you some bad habits, and make it difficult to understand the language when it is spoken properly.
I met a man from an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland when I was attending classes in Tokyo, Japan. This individual had learned Japanese from scratch simply by making native friends and speaking with them all the time. He and I often spoke Japanese to each other, despite both of us knowing English, and regularly impressed each other. His ability to speak fluently was impeccable.
However, his way of speaking was extremely vulgar and informal, and his reading comprehension was almost nonexistent. Because he had learned the language primarily through spending time with friends, he never learned how to speak politely, or to read anything more than a few important symbols here and there.
This is the kind of trap we can fall into if we rely on passive listening to learn a language. Some readers may know a foreigner in their lives who only speaks English at work. These individuals typically learn largely through passive listening, and some of them are eventually able to speak English very well, but it takes a lot of time and practice in order to do so.
More often than not, these individuals only ever obtain a passable ability with English, since they only need to speak it at work. For some of these people, they may not have a household of family members to go home to and practice their native tongue. This means that some foreigners not only never learn English properly, some of them even forget how to speak fluently in their native language.
In order to avoid this fate, it is important that people learning by listening take some time to practice making their own sentences whenever possible, and to make sure they are using sources that will teach them properly balanced vocabulary and grammar. Audio books and podcasts are a good place to start.
So, Can You Learn A Language Just By Listening?
The short answer is yes, and the long answer is maybe. Passively listening to your target language will give you a lot of passive understanding to draw from when you eventually begin actively practicing. It also forms a very effective supplement to full studies once you’ve started really becoming fluent and learning more.
That being said, it can be very easy to convince yourself that you are making progress, when in reality, you are practicing bad habits. The best advice I can give you is to be aware and keep yourself informed.
How important is reading comprehension? When you are just starting out, listening passively will be a huge percentage of what you do. While learning to read is typically unnecessary for speech, being able to use the written language as a reference point is a huge advantage for language learners.
What is the best way to learn a language? Research suggests a combination of immersion and practical exercises is the best way to learn. Children may be able to learn faster, but adults can learn smarter.
How does this topic affect teaching? When teaching languages to children or adults, passive listening can be a very easy way to add relatable or fun content to your curriculum, as long as you are aware of the pitfalls we mentioned above.