It’s a demanding world out there.
How many times have you heard the following cries for attention?
“You’re just not listening.”
“Everything I say goes in one ear and right out the other.”
“Aren’t you paying attention?”
“What did I just say!?”
Yes, after a while, actively listening can just be exhausting. It’d be nice to get a break.
But you’re a language learner. Don’t you have to keep your ears open and your mind actively engaged when you’re trying to learn a language?
Luckily, there’s another option: There’s a way to use music for passive listening to learn a language.
What Is Passive Listening?
The auditory part of language learning is dominated by active listening—making an effort to hear the sounds of the words, trying to figure out which words you’re hearing and trying to translate less-familiar phrases.
So, what on earth is passive listening? And can it actually be useful?
Sleep learning is probably the ultimate in passive listening, but even having music or television playing in the background can count. Basically, any time you hear media and you’re not directly paying attention to it, that can be considered passive listening.
Somewhat controversial in language learning, passive listening is a learning technique that relies on the subconscious processing of background audio for more natural or effortless language acquisition.
The Universe of Memory cites several reasons that passive listening can help you prime your memory for more active learning.
On the other hand, noted language learner Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months fame did some personal experiments with passive listening and found the results much less than satisfactory.
He describes the chances of mastering another language through passive listening as “not a hope in hell,” and the benefits of passive listening for language learning as “barely better than nothing.”
And Benny’s not alone.
Donovan, an applied linguistics graduate who runs The Mezzofanti Guild for fellow language learners, declares that passive language learning is “nonsense.” There are ongoing debates about it among language learners on Reddit and Quora.
Why Use Music to Passively Learn a Language?
Given all the controversy about learning a language through passive listening, you may be wondering what magic music holds that could help you overcome some of passive listening’s potential weaknesses.
Here are a few of the reasons why music shines as a passive learning delivery system—even if you share in the skepticism about passive learning.
Music catches your attention—on some level.
Have you ever sat at a restaurant in the middle of a conversation with someone and noticed the song playing in the background muzak?
You may be very intensely involved in the exchange with your dining companion. Nonetheless, a familiar tune will catch your ear.
Even if you’re listening passively, music subconsciously gets your attention.
The sound of music lets you hear native pronunciation.
Listening to music in a target language can help you get more familiar with the language’s sounds.
Sure, if you’re just starting out with the language, you probably won’t pick up on specific words or their meanings yet. But, on a more fundamental level—a phonemic level, if you will—your brain will start to familiarize itself with the sounds that make up the language.
Whether it’s the uvular Rs of French or German or the rolled R found in Spanish, Italian, Polish or Russian—or any of these not-so-alien sounds from other languages—the music can expose you to the proper pronunciations of the basic auditory building blocks of a language.
Music is entertaining.
Whether it’s soothing or energizing, music entertains our brains. And, when we’re feeling entertained, we tend to feel happy and relaxed.
According to linguistic expert Dr. Stephen Krashen, language learners have an “affective filter” that can impede language acquisition when the learner is stressed or anxious.
So, doesn’t it make sense to listen to music you enjoy in the language you’re trying to learn, bypassing the affective filter with some groovy tunes and a catchy chorus or two?
Music makes words memorable.
As we listen to the same music repeatedly, becoming more familiar with it, we’re actually activating an important part of our brain that governs the storage of long-term memories.
Deep inside the temporal lobe of your brain, the hippocampus controls both emotions and memory. So, when you make yourself happy by finding enjoyable music in your target language, you’re also stimulating the part of your brain that’ll improve your memory.
Both musicians and non-musicians alike can remember melodies and lyrics. We’ve all had the experience of learning song lyrics from repeatedly hearing a hit song on the radio—even if we’re making no conscious effort to commit the words to memory. The music itself makes the lyrics more memorable.
This may be why advertising jingles stick in your head forever. Although earworms can be annoying, you can use your brain’s natural tendency to remember songs by focusing on songs in other languages… which can passively lead to your learning more of those languages.
In addition to strengthening our long-term memory storage, listening to music also sharpens our ears. It makes us better able to distinguish between different language sounds.
Music travels well.
You can take music wherever you go. And it’s perfect for multitasking!
Fit it into your workout, your chores and your commute. Listen to it as you drift off to sleep.
While you’re otherwise occupied, part of your brain can get funky with your favorite songs.
Music is personal.
Whether it’s techno, adult contemporary, country, hip-hop or opera, there’s music that suits your personal taste.
Listen to whatever styles you enjoy—you’re almost certain to find them in your target languages.
Once you start recognizing tunes and lyrics from passively listening to songs in other languages, they’ll take their rightful place on the personal playlist within your mind. You’ll associate them with times and places in your life, just like you would with music in your native language.
In this way, the sound cultures of the language you’re trying to learn will profoundly become part of you. They won’t seem “foreign” anymore; they’ll be an important part of the soundtrack of your life.
Passive Listening Language Learning with Music
How to Make Passive Music Listening Part of Your Language Learning Routine
Passive listening can become part of your language learning strategy. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it.
Don’t rely on passive listening alone for language learning.
Truth be told, you’re not going to learn a language from the ground up by passively listening to music, radio, podcasts, or television programs in the target language—no matter how much you love the genre or how boring the task you’re performing while listening is.
If you’re serious about learning a language, it’s best to consider passive listening as a supplemental part of a largely active language learning program.
Passive listening, while controversial in language learning, may have a few benefits—especially when paired with the toe-tapping, memory-stimulating power of music. But language learning by passive listening alone is probably little more than a pipe dream. It needs to be integrated into a more active language learning program to really help.
For example, you might try listening to music videos while you’re doing something else… then go back later, watch them carefully and look up words as needed.
Beginners: Try passive listening to help you recognize the sounds of a language.
Fill your ears with the native pronunciations of a language. Then, use a resource like FluentU’s music videos to match the sounds to the written language. (We speak more in-depth about FluentU later in this post so stay tuned to learn more!)
Early on in your language learning, you won’t be familiar with all the sounds of the language. Passively listening to music can help your early language learning by filling your ears with the native pronunciations of a language.
Even if you don’t know what the words mean yet or how they’re spelled, you can get a subconscious grasp of how the language sounds when spoken (or sung).
To leverage this passive listening experience, though, you’ll need to take your language learning to the next level by seeing how the words you’re hearing correspond to the written language… and, in your early learning, how they translate into a language you know well.
How can you match the music to the written word? Captions on YouTube tend to be auto-generated, so they’re not always reliable.
The music videos on FluentU are captioned by language experts, though. And the captions are interactive—so you can select any unknown words on the screen to find out what they mean.
You can also use any of the numerous lyric websites available online to find the words to practically any song!
Intermediate and advanced learners: Supplement your language learning resources with passive listening.
For more experienced learners who want to branch out in their learning with culturally relevant resources, passively listening to music can be a great way to amp up your language learning.
Passive music listening exposes more experienced learners to culturally relevant materials and opens the door for active language study with music.
Once you have a solid grasp of a language, you can recognize many more words and phrases. You’ll be much more likely to learn the words of songs playing in the background, just like you would if you were listening to songs in your native language.
Learners of all levels: Use repetition to reap the benefits of passive listening language learning.
Repetition helps beginners recognize the language’s sounds; more advanced learners can passively learn and retain lyrics, just as they might in their native language.
Create playlists and play them often to give your brain the chance to pick up on lyrics.
Keep yourself guessing by playing the songs in random order. This can prompt your subconscious to pay a little more attention since you won’t know exactly what’s coming next.
Where Can You Find Music for Passive Listening Language Learning?
Spotify: Stream pre-made playlists, provided by other users.
Whether you’re into a particular artist or a set of genres, Spotify has plentiful passive listening resources for your musical language learning.
Once you create a free account and log in, you can access loads of different genres. You can build your own library of playlists, filled with music that interests you.
Similar to Netflix, Spotify will plug your choices into an algorithm, generating a Made for You section that guides you to new musical favorites.
FluentU: Enjoy curated videos with personalized suggestions.
Use your favorite portable device (or browser) to play music videos in your target language as you complete other tasks, letting FluentU supply a steady stream of background music. FluentU will build a list of suggested videos that are based on your target language and learning level, offering you the most useful musical resources.
When you want to switch from passive listening to active language-learning mode, you can take advantage of the exercises and activities associated with the videos.
Capture the subtle nuances of each song—just touch an unfamiliar word or phrase as you’re watching a music video, and FluentU will show you the definition in context, with several real-world examples. Want to save it for later review? Just add it to your flashcard deck with another touch.
YouTube: Find a wide variety of songs to enrich your passive listening language learning.
With a vast supply of music in dozens of languages and styles from many different eras, YouTube can introduce you to a wide variety of songs to enrich your passive listening language learning experience.
YouTube’s search engine is run by its parent company, Google. That means it does a fairly good job of finding similar material to your searches, which it uses to populate an “Up Next” playlist.
When you’ve done multiple searches for music in a particular language and you have Autoplay switched on, you’ll automatically get unending hours of passive listening material.
iTunes: Apple iOS users can take a bite out of the global music scene.
Stream international music in dozens of genres to your iPhone or iPad. Choose from tens of thousands of songs.
iTunes selections are neatly categorized by an extensive range of cultures, styles, and languages, such as Dangdut, K-Pop, Chinese Regional Folk, Guaracha or Thai Country.
Google Play: Music for your favorite Android device.
Unlike the smorgasbord format of iTunes, Google Play tends to localize its offerings to your location… which can get frustrating when you’re trying to open your musical horizons.
A simple hack for finding music in your target language is simply looking for an artist you already know in the Search box at the top of Google Play’s Music section.
Not only will you see a short bio of that artist at the top of the screen, but you’ll also get a selection of similar artists and songs.
Amazon: 50 million songs—and counting.
The online retail giant has a large selection of music from around the world.
Amazon offers streaming music as well as music on physical media like CDs. Some of it comes from 3rd party merchants, though, so the prices and delivery speeds can vary—and you may pay more than you expect on shipping for some items.
If you already have an in-home gizmo like Alexa, you can simply ask her to find you music in your target language(s), in the genres you most enjoy.
Online radio stations: Marconi makes his mark on passive listening.
Some music stations stream their audio online, often for free. Use your browser to stream audio from radio stations across the world.
Radio List is a gateway to streaming radio from around Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. The best selection is for European countries. Find free radio programming in languages such as:
German (from Germany or Austria)
Portuguese (primarily from Portugal)
Spanish (primarily from Spain)
Streema has a generous selection of radio stations in Spanish, originating from such diverse locations as Argentina, Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela and New York City.
Streema also covers Asian languages well. Filter by language or country to find radio stations broadcasting in languages such as:
Your local library: Score international music resources.
For little cost—and frequently for free—you can often find music resources for passive listening language learning through your local library.
Many public libraries have ongoing sales of used CDs. You can wander into almost any public library to purchase cut-rate used CDs, even if you don’t have your library card with you.
If you’re willing to kick it old school and get your music from physical media, you’ll often get the bonus of liner notes with lyrics for more active language study… all while paying a fraction of the cost of a brand-new CD.
Also, many local libraries offer free membership to media-sharing sites like Hoopla.
In Hoopla, you can enter your target language into the search box at the top—it’s usually better to use “français” for French, for example, to avoid getting unexpected results.
You can also filter by language using the checkboxes on the left-hand side of the page, although you may need to complete at least one search before these filters appear.
When you want to take a little break from active listening and employ some passive listening language learning, don’t feel like all your language learning progress will be lost.
Just turn up your speakers, hum a little tune and let the sound of music transport you to another linguistic world.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Keep up with her latest adventures in language and learning on Twitter.
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