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.