Can you learn a language just by listening? As it turns out, the answer is largely yes. This article will show you effective strategies and guide you through the process!
Generally, you do have the ability to learn a language just by listening. You can see evidence for this in children: kids start comprehending language even before they speak it. The good news is that you can apply a similar strategy in your own studies.
There’s a pervasive myth in our culture that children possess superhuman language learning abilities, and adults do not. I focused the start of my TEDx talk around dispelling that myth, as it’s simply false.
When you look at the data, adults consistently learn languages faster than children do – they possess all of a child’s abilities and more. As such, the challenge with adult learning is more a matter of navigating the fact that adults have so much less time to work on their languages when compared with kids.
The important bit here is that your brain picks up languages as an adult in much the same way you picked up your native language as a kid: through a process called ‘Comprehensible Input.’
Basically, when you were a kid, someone showed you a cookie and said, “Do you want a cookie?” You didn’t know many of the words in that sentence, and no-one pulled out a dictionary or grammar book to explain it…but the context was enough to give you everything you needed.
Your brain then went on a feeding spree of its own, picking up words like “want” and “you” at the same time as you chowed down on your very first cookie.
This is how we learn: we listen to something (or we read it), we understand the gist of that thing through context cues, and then our brain does the work of turning that into language that we can use later.
All of the ‘work’ that people put into language learning is only useful to the extent that it speeds up this process, generally by making those context cues more effective (by learning grammar/vocabulary, by providing visual or auditory cues, etc.)
We all learned our first language via listening, which means we can learn a new language by listening as well.
But there are some pitfalls to avoid, and I want to walk through some commonly recommended strategies and why they might not always get the job done in an efficient way.
I often see recommendations to watch foreign movies with translated subtitles, as a way to expose you to the new language. This seems to make sense – you certainly are exposed to a couple of hours of foreign dialogue – but your brain isn’t doing what you think it’s doing.
Your brain is reading a story in English. It’s a story with lots of visual stimuli, and there’s even a fun audio track in a new language, but you are filtering out that audio so that you can focus on the story.
In two hours, it’s unlikely that you will learn more than two words. And because those words are learned as translations, it’s actually quite likely that you will forget those words within a week.
Go ahead and watch movies with subtitles – they’re great entertainment – but don’t expect that to do anything substantial for your ability to learn a language via listening.
There’s an alternative version of this: learning a language by watching movies with subtitles in the target language. This is frankly a fabulous way to learn languages: you’re giving yourself piles of context cues – way more than you’d get by watching a movie on its own.
The only caveat is that this isn’t actually learning a language by listening…it’s learning a language by reading. Your brain will always choose the easiest available route when picking up new words, and listening turns out to be a bit harder than reading.
As such, this strategy is going to give you a ton of new vocab and grammar, and it’s one of my favorite ways to learn a language. But just be aware that it won’t substantially improve your listening comprehension until you turn those subtitles off.
I often run into suggestions that you should start young to learn a language by listening…and I’m not sure who the audience is. By the time you’re reading an article about it, you’re not in the age range that the article is talking about.
And as I mentioned earlier, children don’t actually have any superpowers when it comes to language learning, except for the superpowers of ‘lots of available time’ and ‘lots of adults willing to provide great context cues for free.’ Not. Useful.
There’s a set of strategies often recommended for learning a language by listening that I’d categorize as “strategies for where to put your attention.” They recommend things like taking a minute to identify the overall topic of the audio, picking out a few key words to think about, making clear decisions about when to learn a new word or phrase, etc.
I’m not opposed to any of these, but if you need to consciously lean on them, then it’s likely that the audio you’re listening to is overwhelmingly hard. If you’re generally not able to understand the gist of what you’re hearing, then you’re not really getting comprehensible input…you’re getting a really frustrating experience of making meaning out of gibberish instead.
I don’t want to tell you that you should never be challenged. If you’re specifically trying to build your listening comprehension skills, then it makes sense to listen to challenging audio. But if you’re trying to build your overall ability in a language, you want to fill most of your time with activities that don’t feel overwhelmingly difficult, or else you’re going to give up long before you reach your end goal.
So yes, I think there’s value in trying to pick out the topic, and listening for key words that help you get the gist of what you’re listening to. It can be tempting to try and understand literally every word that comes your way and get frustrated when you can’t, and it’s valuable to have someone give you both permission and guidance to let go of understanding everything, and allow yourself to just pick up the gist.
That’s good advice; it’s just not a comprehensive path to fluency…and if you’re reading an article on ‘How to learn a language by listening,’ you’re looking for something comprehensive, not just a tip or two.
So with that, let’s get into some recommendations.
I think there’s value in mixing audio and text, and I’ll talk about that soon. But if you’re intent on sticking to audio only, I can give you a path there:
Basically, you’re going to need to adjust the difficulty level of your audio to fit your current skill level.
If you’re just starting out, you’re not going to learn a language by jumping into super-high-level podcasts. You need the equivalent of that parent figure asking you “Do you want a cookie?” – something that you can understand from context without getting totally lost.
So start by watching TV programming for kids, and as mentioned above, don’t use subtitles. Do this until you feel comfortable with that level, and then step it up to something a bit more complex.
If you have access to coaches or teachers, then they can talk to you in a similar way and adapt to your level on the fly.
While you’re listening to this stuff, make sure you’re actually paying attention and trying to understand what’s happening. Again, you don’t need to understand every word…but at the same time, you will not successfully learn a language by listening if you’re just zoning out, listening to Spanish language noises while browsing Reddit.
You need to actively listen in order to turn on that Comprehensible Input machine and successfully acquire a language.
Because we learn languages via comprehensible input, you learn fastest when you can maximize the quantity of content that you can comprehend.
If you compare watching a kid’s show in your target language without subtitles to watching that same show with subtitles in your target language, you’ll find that you understand more with subtitles. That’s because the written language provides a lot of clues about the meaning of what you’re looking at.
For that reason, I do like audio, but I like it much more when it’s paired with text. In addition, there are tools out there that will increase your retention of key words by nearly 400%, when compared with just running across those words randomly. They’re called Spaced Repetition Systems and are basically fancy computerized flashcards with audio and pictures.
The key for using these tools properly is in making sure that the process of using them is actually enjoyable. Most of us have had experiences with flashcards that are incredibly boring, which meant not only were they experiences we don’t want to repeat, but also they weren’t all that effective from a learning perspective either. Our brains are actually designed to filter out and forget boring experiences.
So most of my language learning methods revolve around the idea of taking audio and images that you personally find interesting, and learning them while building flashcards. You can get a feel for that method over here.
Start here: I put a free class on listening comprehension on YouTube.
Earlier in 2022, I gave a comprehensive masterclass for folks in our Coaching programs on listening comprehension. That class covered in detail how to scale the difficulty of whatever you’re listening to your current skill level. Watch that if you’re really looking to learn a language by listening, as it goes into a ton of techniques for making things match your level precisely.
News podcasts are some of the most common listening resources available, and often you can find things like ‘News in Slow Spanish,’ where the rate of speech is slow enough to more easily comprehend.
News has the benefit of being constantly new and topical…but it has the downside of involving fairly complex vocabulary and grammar.
I dig audiobooks as a resource, particularly when you can pair it with reading the text of the book itself, in much the same way that I recommend watching TV with subtitles in the target language. They’re long (love this!) and entertaining (love this too).
Music has the benefit of being super catchy and enjoyable. But it’s also quite easy to listen to music passively; you don’t need to understand the lyrics to enjoy it, which means that you’ll often ignore the lyrics while listening. So be careful on this front!
This is one of my favorite resources, particularly long-form TV series. You can have literally hundreds of hours of audio, all about the exact same topic, often with an ability to use target language subtitles, and with video input to boot. They’re pretty ideal as a resource goes.
I like apps as a central tool for keeping your learning organized. It’s hard to build a clear process and path for yourself while randomly listening to audiobooks. But a good-quality app can take what you do in audiobooks or music and integrate that into your learning plan.
If you’d like to get a feel for what we do on the app front, jump into our free trial. It’ll teach you how to be a much better learner permanently in the first 14 days, all while rewiring your ears and bumping up your listening comprehension (also permanently!) in the first few weeks.
The short answer is yes. I think there’s a lot of fighting and gatekeeping across language learning forums around the whole concept of fluency, and it leaves people feeling like their goals aren’t valid or attainable.
Honestly, I think this is a symptom of how online communities work, along with the problem that fluency is ironically one of the most poorly defined words in the English language.
Ultimately, fluency is about comfort. If you feel comfortable in your target language, doing what you want to do in your target language, then you’ve achieved some level of meaningful fluency.
Certainly, if you only listen to a language in order to learn it, then you’re not going to be great at reading or writing in that language. But if you only want to listen to a language, then you can reach a level of fluency that will be enough for your needs.
This turns out to be one of the key focus points of our Coaching programs, and why I built them. Not everyone has the same goals when it comes to learning a language, and if you’re going to interact with a native speaker, then you should use that interaction to customize your goals for yourself, rather than trying to match someone else’s sense of what is fluent.
Why not work with one of our coaches right now to help get you to your version of fluency, fast?