Learning a language can sometimes get hard – you fly along, then hit a plateau and your progress slows. Well, Scientific American have a suggestion about how to learn a language quicker, just by listening to it. Their recommendation is to listen to a podcast or radio programme in the language you are learning, while going about your daily life.

Veronique Greenwood for Scientific American called on two pieces of research to make the recommendation that “what you hear can affect your learning and that sometimes listening without speaking works best”
In the first article, from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, linguists found that people who took breaks from learning new sounds performed just as well as those who took no breaks, as long as the sounds continued to play in the background.

The researchers trained two groups of people to make the distinction between 3 similar sounds – one example was learning 3 sounds in Hindi – “p,” “b” and a third sound which sounds like “b” to English speakers. One group practiced telling the 3 sounds apart for an hour a day for two days. The other group practised the task for 10 minutes, then worked on a completely different task while the sounds continued to play in the background.

The researchers found that the group that switched between tasks improved just as much as the one that focused on the distinguishing task the whole time. The authors suggested that there’s something about our brains that “makes it possible to take advantage of the things you’ve already paid attention to and to keep paying attention to them,” even when you are focusing on something else. Talk about effective language multi-tasking!

Backing up this research, another 2016 study published in the Journal of Memory and Language found that it is better to listen to new sounds silently rather than practice saying them yourself at the same time. When Spanish speakers learning to distinguish sounds in the Basque language were asked to repeat a sound they performed more poorly than when they just listened.

The recommendation for la Academia students? The best way to study is to combine focused practice with passive exposure to a language, such as listening to the TV, radio or a podcast. While you’re busy driving, doing your tax or washing up your brain picks up the sounds and this helps you learn a language quicker. Give it a go for a week – and let us know your findings!