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June 2016

The Importance of Listening

How Listening to a New Language (Even If You Can’t Understand It) Is Necessary

One of the most difficult aspects of learning a new language is becoming familiar enough with the language so that comprehension is more a reflex than a thinking exercise. For new students, listening can be a tiring procedure. They inadvertently focus on individual words and scrutinise their definition and placement, rather than taking in the overall meaning of the message. While frequent exposure to the target language is an obvious solution, the practice may be even more powerful than previously imagined.

For the new student, listening to a news broadcast in a target language can be a daunting feat, one capable of creating much disillusionment when the student finds him or herself incapable of understanding it. However, a study conducted in 2009 by then PhD graduate Paul Sulzberger of Victoria University in New Zealand suggests that exposure to such dialogue (even if said dialogue is not understood by the student) is vital for the language learning progress. In his study, he analysed the importance of the exposure of sound patterns to a student.

"Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language — which is how babies learn their first language… When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words."

This suggests that listening to a radio broadcast in a your target language is akin to toning a necessary muscle for a physical activity. While you may not understand what’s being heard, simply being exposed to the sounds is beneficial.

"Language is a skill, it's not like learning a fact. If you want to be a weightlifter, you've got to develop the muscle - you can't learn weightlifting from a book. To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening — songs and movies are great!"

So even if you think you’re not yet prepared for listening to a news podcast in your target language, do it anyway! Exposing yourself to the sounds of your target language as much as possible will help you in subtle ways.

What is your experience with language podcasts? How do you increase your exposure to your target language? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Picture: (c) Fotolia, bst2012