To Learn a Foreign Language, Listen

If you’re struggling with learning a new language, try listening to native speakers. That’s the conclusion of a new study from Victoria University in New Zealand.

According to the Daily Mail, researchers have discovered that listening to people talk or sing in a foreign language makes learning that language easier, even if you haven’t the foggiest idea what they are saying.

How is this possible? When babies start learning language, their brains develop neural structures that allow them to understand and process the different combinations of sounds in their native language. However, when you learn a new language, you are often confronted with combinations of sounds that you’ve never encountered before. It can be difficult to learn and remember words in a foreign language because your brain doesn’t have the appropriate neural structures to do so.

The good news is that over time, simply hearing a new language spoken will cause your brain to grow new neural tissue to process the new combinations of sound, just as a baby does when learning its first language. As your brain becomes more attuned to the sounds of the new language, it will become easier for you to speak and understand it.

Dr. Paul Sulzberger, the author of the study, summed the results up nicely when he told the Daily Mail, “To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening – songs and movies are great.”

Often, foreign language students wait until they can actually understand the spoken language to start watching television or listening to music in that language. This study suggests that is the wrong approach to take.

If you’re learning a new language, try to find music, movies and television that feature people speaking in that language. Listen to the music on your MP3 player or watch a TV show while you eat dinner. If you keep listening to native speakers and try to learn the language, it won’t be long before what you’re hearing starts to make sense!

4 replies
  1. Brian P. Corcoran
    Brian P. Corcoran says:

    I will vouch for the wisdom of this idea. In my study of Spanish I have found it very useful to watch children´s cartoons and other children`s programs on Spanish televison

  2. Brian P. Corcoran
    Brian P. Corcoran says:

    Another useful tool I have developed in my study of Spanish is to buy a Spanish newspaper and underline all the words and idiomatic phrases that I do not understand. I then look them up in a dictionary and record the word/phrase on the recorder of my MP3 player. I then play them back constantly as a way to build vocabulary by repetition while listening to the sound of my own voice in Spanish.

  3. metrod
    metrod says:

    Sulzberger’s research is interesting, and he is by no means the first language instructor to come to this conclusion.
    For example, the huge Latinum audio project for teaching Classical Latin through extensive audio exposure ( ) was set up in response to earlier research into the importance of audio for acquiring grammatical patterns subconsciously, irrespective of meaning.

    This goes back to Chomsky’s famous “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” – that grammatical information can be encoded in sentences without meaning.


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