A language is a system used to communicate, and every language has its specific sounds, words and grammar structure. When we’re learning a language, what we first hear is it sounds and rhythm. This ability is very important. Listening to this new language will provide all the necessary contextual cues such as intonation, stress and rhythm all of which are paramount if we want to understand what the other person is saying.
Scientists and linguists have issued various theories about how people learn a language, but the most accepted ones are Krashen’s Theory of Second language acquisition and Dr. Pimsleur’s language learning method.
Krashen has described various hypothesis.
Input (listening and reading) leads to language acquisition
The first one is the Acquisition learning hypothesis where he states that languages are not learned via conscious effort but are acquired subconsciously by meaningful interaction with the language.
He also talked about the input hypothesis where input (listening and reading) leads to language acquisition.
The natural order hypothesis states that language learners, regardless of their age and background learn grammatical structures in a natural order.
He mentions the Affective filter as well and points out that several variables affect a person’s ability to learn a language, and these can be motivation, confidence and anxiety.
Of these, the most accepted are the Acquisition hypothesis and the input hypothesis.
According to him, you have to get used to the language first, and you do this by exposing yourself to it, in one word: input (listening and reading).
On the other hand, Dr Pimsleur’s learning method talks about four main principles for learning a language:
You’re given a sentence in your mother tongue and you ought to translate in your target language.
Vocabulary should be reviewed at increasingly longer intervals (spaced-repetition).
You should focus your attention to the most common 2000 words used in the language.
You should learn like children do, by listening to the language. Thus, you learn not only the vocabulary but the use of grammar structures as well.
Both linguists insist on developing the listening skills because “our brains are wired to use auditory cues to process the massive amount of information in language: We learn, process and use language by hearing its sound”. (Ron Gullekson).
Our brain’s language centre is the same area which processes music and helps us identify the locations of sounds in space.
If we want to learn a language, it makes sense to focus first in developing our listening skill.
It is important to get used to the new language rhythm (the time pattern between syllables), stress (emphasis on certain syllable, words or phrases), intonation (pitch used to add emotion or to signal intent to what is being said), so that we can interpret the cues of this language.
We need sound to learn a new language.
Sound helps us identify words, understand the grammar being used, figure out meaning, process information instantly, and create neural pathways to help us learn new words without much effort.
So, how to optimise our chance of success when learning a language?
Exposure to the language is paramount. The listening activities will build up your capacity to learn the language by creating neural pathways and giving you a sense of the language’s rhythm, intonation, and grammar.
Spend 45 min to 1 hour a day every day, if possible, listening in your target language. Listen to the radio, watch a movie or a YouTube video, listen to music, watch the news. The aim of this exercise is to try to understand what’s being said whilst having fun.
Easy programs will help you review words and grammar you already know and will allow you to recognise them by their sound.
Medium difficulty spoken text will give you the opportunity to learn new words and grammar structures.
Hard spoken texts will help you create neural tissue for the new information that you are processing and will allow you to develop your intuition as well.
The second activity you should include in your routine is Active listening.
Active listening will allow you to pay more attention to the spoken text.
An active listening activity can be transcription, listening with a dictionary, reading spoken text.
Free listening alone won’t help you learn a language, hence the need of active listening. But before you start engaging in this activity make sure that you know the language basic sounds, you know the letters and which sounds they correspond to, and you have a basic idea of how to spell in your target language.
The transcription exercise is easy, you just write down on paper what you hear. It’s better if you find a text with transcript so that you can check your answer at the end. You can use a language course with a spoken component, songs with lyrics, or children read along books. Make sure that the text is in your level.
First, listen to the text you intend to transcribe once. Try to get a general idea of what it’s about. Then listen to it again and begin transcription. Go word by word, sentence to sentence. Try to do 30 seconds to 1 minute of audio per session. Write down what you hear. Check your answers. Review your mistakes, were they spelling errors, grammar misunderstanding? Take note of them and plan to work on your weaknesses.
Listening with a dictionary
This is like free listening, but the only difference is the use of a dictionary for words and expressions you don’t know. It is a fabulous way to build vocabulary. Listen to the spoken text, pay attention to the unfamiliar words and phrases look them up in the dictionary and write them down in your language journal for revision later.
Listening to a foreign language text and reading it at the same time.
Listen first to the audio, then read the transcription and at last, read the transcription trying to follow along with the speaker. This is called shadowing and it helps with improving your pronunciation, it reduces your foreign accent and with time listening to the natives becomes easier.
Sound plays an important role in second language acquisition, but you should not forget that this is only one part of the learning process. Improving listening skills, help you better understand your interlocutor in a conversation, but you should also find ways to practice your speaking ability if you want to master your new language. We will talk about this in the next article.