Can we learn a new language only by listening?


We all know this situation: we understand a language but are not able (yet) to communicate in it. This passive knowledge of the language, which involves already many levels (phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary etc.) is very helpful and sometimes even crucial when we want to learn and acquire that language. During the passive language learning process we start more or less consciously with understanding some basic rules of it: Does it have words we already know from another language? Is the intonation similar? We will first listen to the sound of it, then understand the meaning of single words, phrases, sentences and we will eventually feel the urge to say something in this language. Passive exposure to a language, if it is over a longer period, is very beneficial to the learning process.

I have several personal experiences with passive language learning and I’m firmly convinced that passive exposure to languages does “plant seeds”. I was exposed to Swissgerman when I was a kid (around age 4 until 7). It was mainly through TV and sporadic visits to the German speaking part of Switzerland. We were living in Italy and we only had the chance to watch this channel for a few years, because at some point they stopped airing it in other countries (it was the pre-satellite and pre-internet era!).

I know that this early passive exposure was the reason why I never had any problem understanding Swissgerman dialects. Never. – When I moved to Northern Switzerland at age 18, I was perfectly able to understand everything and it took me very little time to talk fluently and even recognize and imitate different regional dialects.

I observed the same with my son. During his first 4 years I did talk Italian to him, my husband Swissgerman and my husband and I did talk German to each other. When we decided to change our family language into German only, my son did switch to talking German overnight. – It was amazing!

My husband and I did then decide to use French as a “lingua franca” to communicate among us adults: It took our son less than a year to understand almost everything we were saying. – He recently started having French lessons at school and I was pleasantly surprised about his excellent pronunciation of the nasal sounds and ability to form grammatically correct sentences.

In the early sixties my mother did learn Italian by listening to the local radio and watching Italian television and, of course, by listening to locals. It were the early sixties and this was the only way for her to get to learn this new language. I am very proud of my mother who managed to learn Italian perfectly within a very short time. It surely helped that she was living in the country of the language she was learning: we all know that total immersion is the best way to quickly learn a new language.

I truly believe that regular exposure to a language, even if you don’t speak it, is highly beneficial once you’re going to need to talk it.

But do we really need a person who talks to us or would a simple auditive exposure suffice to learn a new language?

In the study “Word learning in absence of a speaker” (by Jason Scofield, Amie Williams, Douglas A. Behrend, in First Language, vol. 27, issue 3, 2008) mentioned by Galina in her post “Planting a language tree. Does passive language learning work?“. In this experiment on toddlers of average 32-month-olds was made in the absence of any kind of referential context, i.e. the physical speaker was absent. They found out that “referential context is not necessary for successful word learning” (Dr. J. Scofield, director of The Bama Cognitive Development Lab at University of Alabama). A similar study was done by Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D. , director of the BU Child Language Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at Sargent College. “Monolingual toddlers were able to acquire some word’s meanings when were presented with “the novel verbs without visual access to the speakers, child-directed speech, or discourse context”.” (cfr. Galina)

I agree with Galina, that this research would surely also work with bilingual or multilingual children. I would even assume that bilinguals and multilinguals would be faster in this phase of the learning process because of the inherent cues they would have from the other languages they’re exposed to.

Interesting is, that the words those toddlers were learning were words of objects. Not verbs, adjectives etc. And they were out of context. These children were not listening to a speech, but listening to single names of objects and had to point or touch the right one. Of course, this kind of experiment makes sense with this age group and it really analyzes only one single phase in the language acquisition process. But I wonder if older children would be able to learn more abstract words and whole sentences in the absence of a referenctial context too, and, furthermore, would a synthesized voice in future studies give other results? A human voice still can supply a referential context (i.e. by intonation, accentuation etc.)…

The fact that children can acquire new words without any referential cues is surely impressive, but I’m wondering if the children would be able to use these words in the right context. I really doubt that they would re-use them in a daily context and that they would be able to even learn more complex structures (like entire sentences) without a referential context. In order to really memorize new words we need to repeat them, to hear them and experience them in other contextes and we need feedback (cfr. picture below).

I consider visual cues and feedback crucial during the acquisition of a new language. Especially if we want to consolidate our knowledge. Cues help us to make connections between the new words and those we already know, and we need them to fully understand their meaning and use in the new language. I wouldn’t say that they are always indispensable. It surely depends on the age group, the experience, the knowledge of the person and the kind of learner, but they surely facilitate not only to “match words to the meaning more easily” but also to get second meanings, metaphores etc.

To answer the question in the title of this post: “Yes… but”. Yes, we can learn a new language by listening to it, we will probably (only) learn some words, some sounds but we will need cues and feedback to understand their meaning and their use in other contexts which will then allow us to fix and sort them in our memories.

Demonstrates control and feedback in human speech

Demonstrates control and feedback in human speech (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Related posts:

Passive learning

Learn a Language by Listening to the Radio

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30 responses to “Can we learn a new language only by listening?

  1. Great article, thank you for writing it! I am also convinced that “passive” learning (which is actually a very active process in the brain) is immensely beneficial and can be turned into an active use of a language. I heard (didn’t actively listen) when my daughters spoke Punjabi to their father and thereby gained a passive understanding of the language. When I went to visit the family in India and really wanted to talk to my MIL (who didn’t speak English) without anyone else interpreting, I noticed that not only did I understand but could make myself understood – as much a surprise to myself as to the rest of the family.

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    • Thank you, Rita, for sharing your own experience. I’m always fascinated by how much we can actually learn of a language by only listening to it. In the experiment I mentioned the children couldn’t actually “learn” other things than single words, but I know that the intonation of a language is very helpful once you start talking. And, of course, all the other non-verbal cues… I’ll publish something about this tomorrow 😉

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  2. In 1983 I spent a month in Germany with my father, visiting his relatives. Within a few days, I felt like I understood approximately 40% of his conversations with his aunt and uncle, drawing from context and my knowledge of English and Spanish, and the percentage increased as the time went on. I never tried speaking German, but I’m sure that if I had spent enough time there, I would eventually have been able to speak it.

    What makes me sad is adults who cease listening, whose absorption of the language slows or stops after the initial year of language learning. Most of the expats I knew in Latin America who had learned Spanish as adults seemed to have stagnated after that first year. My father was an exception; his Spanish was always excellent and improved with the years. My own Spanish is improving all the time (I use it more than English now that I’m married to a Colombian). I’m constantly aware of my mistakes and the gaps in my vocabulary.

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    • Roadkill Spatula, it’s a very interesting and important point that you mention. Some adults cease to learn at some point. You’re perfectly right: they stop “listening”. They may “hear”, but they don’t process what they’re hearing anymore. And therefore they don’t learn anymore or don’t make any effort to improve their knowledge. I think that if you have a mindset that keeps you interested and open for everything new and different in your life, you’ll never experience this and you’ll always learn. It should be in our human nature to be keen to learn. Children have this innate fascination to discover everything new, to learn. Some people loose it when they’re adult.
      It’s a very important aspect that we, as parents and as role models, should keep in mind. I notice that some say “at my age I can’t do or learn this anymore”. I don’t believe that. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” and if you keep up learning and challenge yourself, you’ll never stop.
      You mention that you’re constantly aware of your mistakes: this is the best thing that you can do. To be autocritical in a positive and self-challenging way is really the best way to constantly refine oneself.

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  3. My initial answer to the title was, “it depends on how we define ‘learn’,” and I had a pretty definite opinion in mind. Then your discussion gave me a few new ideas to consider. Very interesting. Thank you for warming up my brain on this frigid morning!

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    • I’m glad, Julie, I did contribute to the warming up! Of course, it depends on how you define learn and this post is only focussing on the first approach to language learning. I would be really glad if you could share all your thoughts about it 🙂

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  4. Fascinating, thanks for posting this 🙂

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  5. Simonetta Pancaldi

    Ciao Ute,
    Your article is very interesting and stimulating. I have proof of learning passive: my children exposes to italian and spanish only at home…and during the holiday, and myself…..i have learnt spanish like that just by listening to my husband and tv.
    It is true that at some point you have to define the knowledge by learning the correct grammar or writing it but other than that ….you can do it!
    ThAnks for giving us multilingual families your experience in the matter and food for thought!

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    • Ciao Simonetta. Thanks for sharing your experience with this matter. We’re autodidacts, right? Just a question about your children: do you teach them Italian at home? I mean, do you explain Italian to them (grammar, orthography etc.)? I see that many families living abroad and not having the opportunity to send their children to language lessons in their family- or home-languages, either teach them (there are plenty of resources for that) or confide in them learning the language by themselves at some point.

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  6. In Bangladesh, I knew many Santal girls who had grown up watching a limited amount of Indian TV and claimed they had learned to speak Hindi as a result. I didn’t believe it until a friend who was fluent in Hindi started a conversation with them about me just for fun – it worked! I was both wound up that they were laughing about me (all good-natured of course) and impressed that they really had learned to be functionally fluent merely through watching TV. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes…

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    • This is quite impressive, Ken! I know people who did learn a language thanks to TV and reading newspapers and talking to people, of course. But they never did study it the ‘conventional’ or scholastic way.

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  7. It’s definitely a very interesting topic. When I was a kid (in the French-speaking Switzerland) at school we had about twice a year a new kid from abroad, generally not speaking any French and often speaking a language with no common roots. They were all perfectly fluent within a few months – no accent whatsoever. Unfortunately, I was not a bilingual kid, but I was surrounded by many and I wasn’t ever too impressed by that ability 😉 – even if it is quite amazing, indeed.

    What interests me more is how adults learn by immersion/passive learning and how much we can learn “like-a-kid” and how much is actually automatically linked to our knowledge of other languages. I’ve been learning Italian without taking any classes – after learning German and English in a structured manner at school – and I would love to know what’s happening in my brain and unconsciously learning new things. Of course, I do rely on French to help me grasping Italian… but you know how many “faux amis” there can be between these two languages, so I’m always careful 🙂

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    • Thank you, M’dame Jo, for your very interesting comment! Yes, it’s quite impressive that adults can still learn like children, like you say, in a “like a kid” way. I think the linking to our knowledge of other languages takes place. In the article “Brain Research: Implications for Second Language Learning” (Center for Applied Linguistics) (you can download a pdf file) there are some indications how this works neurologically in our brain:

      “”in most higher vertebrates (humans), brain systems interact together as a whole brain with the external world” (Elman et al., 1997, p. 340). Learning by the brain is about making connections within the brain and between the brain and the outside world. (…) there is direct evidence that when learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, and less input is required to activate established connections over time. New evidence also indicates that learning creates connections between not only adjacent neurons but also between distant neurons, and that connections are made from simple circuits to complex ones and from complex circuits to simple ones.

      For example, exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one sound from another. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals. With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits (corresponding to simple sounds and sequences of sounds) are activated at virtually the same time and more easily.

      As connections are formed among adjacent neurons to form circuits, connections also begin to form with neurons in other regions of the brain that are associated with visual, tactile, and even olfactory information related to the sound of the word. These connections give the sound of the word meaning. Some of the brain sites for these other neurons are far from the neural circuits that correspond to the component sounds of the words; they include sites in other areas of the left hemisphere and even sites in the right hemisphere. The whole complex of interconnected neurons that are activated by the word is called a neural network. ”

      It is about learning other languages, now acquiring them (i.e. in a more natural way, like the one you are looking for), but it helps to imagine what is happening when we learn by listening and “arranging” the newly acquired sound-chains (= words) somewhere in our memory.
      I always thought that the “faux amis” trigger like a short circuit in our brain (more our imagination, a short circuit would indicate more an epileptic shock, and this is not what I mean!) because it makes us reflect, consider the “faux amis” from another point of view and we really have to analize them and “learn” them.
      Thank you very much for making me reflect on this process of acquiring a new language. I’m surely going to look for newer articles and studies. If you find some interesting ones, please, come back and share them with me, ok? 😉

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  8. Pingback: Can we learn a language by only listening to it? | English Classes by Skype

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  10. I am learning french and I hear a radio station from France online. I understand a few things from time to time. I should just keep listening while I learn the grammar on the side, right?.

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    • Hi Lana, yes, you can combine both: the listening and learning the grammar. In my experience the more frequent you listen to the new language, the more you’ll understand. You’ll understand more thanks to intonation and because you’ll recognize the words, the sentences and meanings, of course. I wish you all the best and would love to hear how it goes! Bonne chance et à bientôt! – Ute

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  11. Hi Lana, I studied and taught French for several years and may help you too? But you can contact Isabelle Barth from Multilingual Café or Langues sans frontières (http://langues-sans-frontieres.jimdo.com/pr%C3%A9sentation/isabelle-barth-o-neill/).

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  12. I’m glad it is helpful. With the e-muet it’s important not only to learn when not to pronounce (or slightly pronounce it) in one word, but you need to look at the whole sentence, the accentuation of the words in the sentence etc. In the examples you’ll see that once the “e” in “je” is pronounced and once not. But with the explanation it should be clear(er). If not: vous pouvez toujours me demander 😉

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  13. Thanks for writing this great article. It is interesting and stimulating.

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  14. Pingback: 4 tips to learn a new language for adults – Ute's International Lounge

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