How did you learn your first language?
Well, you listened to people talking around you, and it just sort of happened.
Your infant brain gobbled all those words and grammatical structures right up before you even knew what language was, and here you are.
Sadly, those days are over.
No longer will your brain soak up language like a sponge while you chill out and do the things babies do.
So now, you have to coax your brain into learning new languages with tricks like translating, watching language learning videos, using metacognition and so on.
Here’s the thing, though: You can still learn a lot just by listening. You may not be the language learning baby-genius you once were, but your brain is still wired for listening to language. Even if your brain isn’t a language-learning sponge anymore, it’s still a respectably absorbent paper towel.
Understandably, you might be a little skeptical about this idea.
After all, building up listening comprehension can be one of the toughest parts of learning a new language.
It’s one thing to memorize a bunch of vocab words or slog through a translation. But developing the kind of automatic, intuitive fluency you need to decode other people’s speech on the fly is a daunting goal to which there are no sure paths.
Still, I’d suggest that if you approach learning by listening with the right techniques, you’ll be able not just to develop the listening comprehension skills you’re after, but to actually make your ears your most valuable tool for all aspects of language learning.
And heck, I’ll do one better than suggest this—I’ll show you some effective techniques you can use to see for yourself!
Say What? 9 Epic Techniques for Keener Language Listening
1. The Ultimate Lazy Language Learning Technique: Listening in Your Sleep
Let’s start with the easiest way to learn a language by listening: listening in your sleep. This might be the closest you can hope to get to the sort of learning-by-listening-without-trying you did when you were a baby, and it’s probably the only effective language learning technique that requires absolutely no effort on your part.
What the Science Says on Sleep Listening
Now, I’ll admit that the first time I read about this language learning technique, I checked to make sure it wasn’t April 1st. But it turns out that according to published, peer-reviewed research, you really can get better at a language by listening to it in your sleep.
Specifically, Swiss psychologists found that listening to audio playback of foreign vocabulary words while asleep improved people’s ability to later recall those words—as long as the people listening in their sleep had previously been exposed to the words.
So you may not be able to magically absorb entirely new vocab words in your sleep, but if you look over some vocab words and then play them back while you’re asleep, you may learn them much better than if you’d just looked them over and left it at that.
Interestingly, you may also learn them much better than if you’d looked them over and then played them back while awake—the Swiss researchers found that people who were introduced to new vocab words and then listened to playback of them while awake did not get the same benefits as the test subjects who listened in their sleep.
In other words, there seems to be something special about sleep that makes the brain more receptive to passive learning. The Swiss scientists titled their paper on the study “Boosting Vocabulary Learning by Verbal Cueing During Sleep,” but they might as well have just called it “Another Excuse to Have a Nap? Great, I’ll Take It!”
The Sleep Listener’s Toolbox
There are a few ways of looping audio so you can play back the vocab words you’re learning in your sleep.
If you have an iPhone, apps like Audio Loop let you record and loop custom sounds. White Noise Lite lets you do the same thing and doubles as a snazzy white noise machine.
For those who want to use a PC instead of a smartphone, software like Ambiloop will do the trick. Audio looping software for PCs will tend to have way more features than you actually need for language learning purposes, but on the plus side, you can get fancy and mix in some background music or white noise with your vocab words if you want!
The easiest way to pull off this language learning technique is to record the words you want to sleep-learn while you’re reading through them and trying to memorize in advance—that way, the audio will be ready to go when you decide to hit the hay.
You don’t need to record the English translations of the vocab words, just the words themselves, but you do need to study the words the same day you’re going to sleep-learn them for this technique to work!
So take your pick of any of the audio looping tools above, record an audio track next time you’re poring over a list of new vocab words, and before you know it, you’ll be sleeping like a baby and learning language like a baby at the same time!
2. Watching a Movie with Subtitles
Learning by listening can be a tricky balancing act: You want to pick content that stretches the limits of your listening abilities but isn’t totally incomprehensible.
FluentU is an ideal way to learn through listening because it provides the flexibility of optional, interactive subtitles in both English and your target language.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can use FluentU’s “learn” mode to be guided through videos based on what you already know, and you can also use the clips provided to try out many of the listening techniques listed below.
Watching a movie with subtitles is a fun way to work on listening comprehension in a setting that gives you enough context to keep up with what’s going on. Switching it up so you’re listening in your native language and reading in the language you’re trying to learn can also be helpful—although it won’t do much for your listening comprehension, obviously.
The best way to improve listening comprehension with subtitles is to force yourself to listen as much as possible and only resort to reading the subtitles when necessary.
If you find that as you get absorbed in a movie you start relying on subtitles more than you’d like, you can also try switching back and forth by turning off the subtitles to do short bursts of focused listening comprehension, then turning them back on to make sure you’re still following the plot.
3. Context Listening with Audiobooks
Ah, audiobooks. Best friend to language learners everywhere. So many ways to incorporate audiobooks into your language learning, so little time! (Unless you’re listening to “War and Peace,” that is, and then you’ve got over 60 hours of time, as it turns out.)
On the topic of listen-learning from context, though, there’s one way to use audiobooks that’s especially helpful: listening to books whose content you’re already familiar with.
Try finding an audiobook translation of any book you’ve already read (or listened to) in your native language. Then listen-learning becomes less of a struggle to decipher something totally mysterious and unfamiliar and more of an exercise in matching new words with meanings you already know. A great way to improve your listening comprehension and revisit an old favorite at the same time!
4. Context Listening with the News
And when I say listening to the news, I of course mean watching the news—the pictures will give you more context to work with! But do listen as closely as possible. Like audiobooks, newscasts are language learning for all stars—and since you’ll probably have a basic familiarity with the topics coming up in the news, watching it is a great way to listen-learn from context.
For ideas on where to catch the news in different languages, check out our blog posts on Spanish, Japanese, French, Chinese and/or German news sources.
Some of these newscasts are helpfully directed at less-than-totally-fluent listeners. Some of them are the real deal. Of course, if you’re listening to a bona fide foreign language news channel, you might not be able to pick out every word you hear, but you’ll probably be surprised at how much you can understand with the benefit of context. And honestly, if you hit any rough patches, just remind yourself that sometimes you’re better off not knowing what’s going on in the world anyway.
Repetition is essential to learning a new language.
Also, repetition is essential to learning a new language.
One of the best ways to incorporate repetition into your listen-learning toolbox is to do something I’ll call “re-listening”—repeatedly listening to a short audio or video clip all the way through without pause, trying to catch more details on each successive listen.
Pick some audio content short enough that you can listen through it repeatedly but hefty enough that you won’t be able to catch everything the first time around—a YouTube or FluentU clip, news broadcast, audiobook excerpt, etc. Listen through without stopping, writing down everything you understand either as you listen or once you’re done.
Then listen through again, filling in any new details you’re able to pick out. Rinse and repeat until you aren’t getting anything (or much) new. At that point, try looking up any words you still don’t understand that jump out at you or resorting to subtitles if they’re available.
Re-listening lets you pick apart an audio excerpt in depth without becoming dependent on the pause button—that is, without sacrificing a chance to practice thinking on your feet and keeping up with the flow of spoken language.
Of course, it probably goes without saying that there is a limit on how many times you can re-listen to audio clips in one day without sacrificing a bit of your sanity. Re-listening is like lifting a heavy weight: Do it in moderation and you’ll get quick returns, do it to an extreme and you’ll probably hurt yourself!
6. Alternate Listening and Reading
It’s worth keeping in mind that listening comprehension and reading comprehension are two facets of the same thing—general fluency. So even though they need to be practiced individually, the more closely you’re able to tie them together, the more working on your listening comprehension will improve your reading comprehension and vice-versa.
Here’s one way to connect your listening and reading comprehension practice: Once again, start with a clip that has audio and captioning in the language you’re learning. But instead of listening and watching the captioning at once, turn off the captions and listen through, then mute the audio and read through with captions. As with re-listening, you can repeat this several times, looking (or listening) for new details.
The point of this exercise is to strengthen the connection between your external listening comprehension and the little voice in your head that helps you with reading comprehension. By syncing up your reading and listening, you’ll find that you read faster and have an easier time staying on top of spoken language.
7. Passive Listening
Passive language learning for adults—learning language simply by listening and absorbing what you hear the way children do—is like turning lead into gold. If you could find a way to do it, you’d be set for life, but unfortunately, the whole idea is just a little too good to be true.
Still, even if you can’t get fluent by kicking back with a margarita and listening to the language of your choice for a few thousand hours, there are a couple ways you can use passive listening to take your language learning game up a notch.
You can’t turn lead into gold, but you can turn an unattractive hunk of lead into a pretty cool lead sculpture (yeah, different kind of lead, but those things are cool enough that you shouldn’t care).
Rewiring Your Brain to Hear a New Language
Just like you’d want some basic familiarity with the alphabet before learning to read a new language, learning to hear a new language is much easier once you’ve internalized the basic sounds the language uses.
The more familiar you are with a language’s phonetic building blocks, the more receptive your brain is to learning that language and picking out words from speech. Babies understand the importance of starting with a solid grasp of the basic speech sounds a language uses, which is why “babbling”—speaking strings of nonsense syllables—is one of the first stages of language acquisition.
And it turns out passive listening is one of the best ways to get your brain used to these building blocks. Research has shown that listening to speech in a new language trains your brain to recognize the sounds and combinations of sounds that language is built out of, even if you don’t understand the actual content of what you’re listening to. Which ultimately makes it easier to learn words and build up your listening comprehension in that language later on.
Unlike listening for meaning, passive listening to learn sounds is something you can do right from the get-go—you don’t need any knowledge of vocabulary or syntax to do it. In fact, the earlier in your language learning you start, the better.
(Fortunately for all of us, there is no similar research suggesting that babbling, like passive listening, helps build awareness of sounds in adults as well as babies. But you never know. Maybe some future research will force me to write a post titled “Babbling: A Killer New Technique for Your Language Learning Toolkit.”)
Passive Listening with Music
Passive listening may rewire your brain to hear a new language, but there’s still no evidence that you can actually learn new vocabulary or grammatical patterns through passive listening.
Still, there’s a general rule of thumb for life that applies to some extent here: #MusicMakesEverythingBetter
Listening to music activates more parts of your brain than listening to speech. Just think about how much easier it is to get a few catchy lines of a song stuck in your head than a random spoken phrase from a conversation. For the language learner, this “earworm” (or, in German, Ohrwurm) phenomenon is a sign that music can be good for getting new vocab and syntactic patterns stuck in your head.
The trick is to find some songs you really like in the language you’re trying to learn (check out previous blog posts for ideas on Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Japanese songs) and listen to them repeatedly.
As you get to know them, you’ll find you passively learn some of the vocab they use (although you may have to look up words you don’t recognize). Perhaps more importantly, though, because the musical structure of the songs lines up with the grammatical structure of the lyrics, you’ll also find that you internalize the grammatical constructions used in the songs more deeply and develop a better ability to parse the grammar of spoken language on the fly.
8. Slow Listening
Because a lot of the listening material available in a given language tends to already assume advanced listening comprehension skills, getting started working on listening comprehension can be daunting.
For beginning and intermediate listeners, one of the best ways to bridge the gap between where your listening is and where you want it to be (to understand the fast-spoken language most movies, newscasts, etc. use) is to listen to content that uses slower language. You can do this either by finding content in slow-spoken language directed specifically at language learners or, if you’re feeling resourceful, by taking whatever content you want and slowing it down yourself.
News in Slow…
For many languages, there are regular—often weekly—podcasts you can subscribe to that report the news in slower spoken language. Many of these podcasts also include quizzes and other supplements with each episode to test and reinforce your listening.
Perhaps most notably, Linguistica 360 provides a “News in Slow” series for Spanish, French and Italian learners. There’s also News in Slow Japanese and Slow Chinese.
There might be equivalents in other languages I’m not aware of—and if there aren’t, I’m betting there will be soon because these are a godsend for improving listening comprehension.
If you want to create slowed-down versions of other listening material, you can also use the freely available audio editing software Audacity to slow down playback for anything you have an audio file (WAV, MP3, etc.) of. Audacity is very powerful software with many features, but for language learning purposes, creating slowed-down versions of audio files is quick and easy.
Besides being able to slow down any audio file you want, making your own slow listening materials also has the benefit of giving you control over how much you want to slow things down. You can try everything from ridiculously slow to almost imperceptibly slower—heck, you can even make things faster if you want to give yourself a challenge!
Many audio and video players, including YouTube‘s video player, also give you the option of slowing down playback. It’s worth playing around with, but keep in mind that these programs tend to be more heavy-handed in the changes they make and often distort the audio so much that the slowed-down version is harder to understand than the original.
9. Listening and Speaking
Listening and speaking are closely interrelated, and just as linking your listening practice to your reading practice will make you better at both listening and reading, “cross-training” between listening and speaking will make you a more fluent speaker as well as a more effective listener.
This cross-training is relatively easy to do: Just pause and repeat what you’re hearing aloud sometimes when you’re listening to newscasts, audiobooks and so on.
Even better, try recording yourself, too, so you can compare with the content you’re listening to—it’s worth keeping in mind that the sounds we think are coming out of our mouths and the sounds actually coming out of our mouths aren’t always one and the same!
No matter what specific techniques you’re using to improve your listening comprehension, remember to always listen for the big picture. Try to get the gist of whatever you’re hearing, and don’t get too hung up on individual words you can’t understand.
It’s the difference between understanding and translating, and the best way to get better at listening is to aim for the former. You might have noticed that many of the listening exercises described above are ways of getting at the big picture.
For example, re-listening is a way of starting with the big picture and working your way down to the details later, and using context is a way of drawing on your pre-existing knowledge of what the big picture is to make listening simpler.
This “big picture” approach gets at the heart of the difference between learning with the eye and learning with the ear. The eye can look where it wants and focus in on small details. But with the ear, information moves by quickly and you’re limited to what you can remember.
So you’re forced to listen for the big picture and grab onto whatever details you can. It’s a different way of engaging with language, which is why listening comprehension can be so tricky to work on.
But if you make your ears your friends—by using some of the techniques listed here to break the ice—you’ll find that they add an entirely new dimension to your language learning toolbox.
By making listening an integral part of your language practice, you end up with a deeper, more natural grasp on whatever language you’re learning!