Home Advice Can you Learn a Language by Just Listening? 

Can you Learn a Language by Just Listening? 

by Madeleine Lee

It’s amazing what you can learn by listening to a single podcast episode: how to sear a steak, how to plant a vegetable garden, or how to grow your business. Auditory learning is effective, and provides significant benefits, including the ability to multitask as we absorb new information. 

But do those same benefits carry over to language learning? Can we learn a new language without the hours of speaking, reading, and writing practice? 

The answer is yes—and no. Before you scoff in frustration, hear us out: Even learning by listening in your native language has its limits. You might be able to memorize the technique for baking a cake, but it’ll take several real-life attempts before you’re able to truly master it. To learn anything fully, you need practice in applying what you’ve learned. 

The same rules apply to learning a new language. Listening is an incredibly important aspect of language learning, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Lucky for you, we know exactly what you need to make the most of your listening opportunities. Read on to learn more about the science behind listening and how you can put it into practice. 

What’s the difference between passive listening and active listening? 

To learn a new language by listening, it’s helpful to know what kind of listening works best. There are two types of listening: passive listening and active listening. 

Passive listening is what you might do if you’re distracted, unable to participate, or uninterested in a topic. You’re able to absorb some of what’s being said, but you may not get the full picture—or be able to recall what you’ve learned later on. 

In contrast, active listening is what you do when you’re deeply invested in a friend’s story or a gripping audio book—there’s no way you’re missing a single word. You’re leaning in, asking questions, maybe jotting down the details after. In short: You’re giving the information your full attention. 

When learning a new language, the fastest and most effective way to absorb new material is by actively listening. You’ll be able to engage with what you’re hearing on a deeper level, even if you don’t understand what’s being said. From being able to better emulate accents to learning vocabulary through context, listening can help you in a myriad of ways and remains a key component of language learning. 

What should I listen to if I want to learn a new language? 

What kind of media do you enjoy consuming in your native language? We recommend starting there. Love sports? Following a soccer podcast, for example is a great way to tap into the benefits of listening while also investing time in what you enjoy. 

Learning by listening is also a great opportunity to dive into something new. Languages shape culture and vice versa. Listening opportunities allow you to learn more about history, current events, ongoing traditions and contextualize the nuances of each language. Knowing the why behind those nuances—like the lisp adopted by Spanish speakers in Spain—can help you remember to put them into practice. 

Here’s a list of resources you can lean on in any language: 

MusicAcross cultures, the highs and lows of love are a dominant theme in music. Music is a great way to tap into what’s most important to a particular culture—including key cultural values—while increasing your exposure to more colloquial, slang-based vocabulary. 
PodcastsIf staying motivated in language learning is something you struggle with, podcasts are the perfect way to combine what you love—hobbies, business, or true crime—with the language you’re learning. 
SportsSports commentary is easy to contextualize. If you’re familiar with the sport, you can easily glean what the commenters are describing. While some of the vocabulary you’ll pick up is niche, it’s also useful and often not included in language learning courses or textbooks. 
AudiobooksDid you set a reading goal for yourself this year? Listening to audiobooks in the language you’re learning allows you to work towards two goals at the same time. We recommend reading as you listen to the audio book to boost your active learning. 
Movies and TVWith streaming services, you can easily find movies and television shows in a variety of languages. We recommend putting on subtitles so you can pair your listening and reading skills. 
Social Media From Tiktok to Youtube, social media is a great way to expose yourself to bite-sized content in the language you’re learning. 
NewsKeep up on world events while you learn a language. News segments include a diverse group of speakers, which can help you familiarize yourself with a wide range of accents. The dialogue is also easy to contextualize, which can help you pick up vocabulary quickly. 

What’s the best way to learn a new language by listening?  

Now that you’ve narrowed down the type of listening you should engage in (active listening) and the resources you want to listen to, it’s time to optimize exactly how you’ll approach absorbing that new material. 

We recommend pairing listening with lessons so you have an understanding of basic grammar rules and vocabulary. To build on what you’ve learned, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions when listening: 

  • What’s the topic being discussed? 
  • What vocabulary do I understand right off the bat? 
  • What vocabulary was I able to understand after listening for more context? 
  • Is there anything about their pronunciation that stands out? 
  • Are there any words or phrases that they use frequently? 

Identifying context is the most important step. It will help you infer meaning when encountering words you don’t know and reinforce the words you do understand. You can opt to take mental note of new vocabulary or write it down for later. Listening opportunities are best for picking up more colloquial expressions—phrases you may not find in learning and you’ll be sure to reinforce those as you build your experience. 

In addition to analyzing what you’re taking in, these tips can help you retain even more: 

  • Don’t be afraid to pause and rewind to dig deeper into what’s being said. Repeated exposure to a single clip, news segment, or movie is recommended and can reinforce what you’ve learned! 
  • Adjust playback speeds to fit your learning level. Try switching to .75 to hone in on pronunciation. 
  • Don’t shy away from subtitles if you’re just beginning. Associating written words with what you’re hearing can help boost your pronunciation. 
  • Remember to make listening a regular part of your practice routine—putting on a foreign language film on a Saturday night totally counts! 

When can I start? 

Now’s the time! The best way to learn a language is to jump in head first, and we have a number of guides that help you get there, whether you’re learning on your own, for business, or tackling a new alphabet for the first time. 
We also have a platform that helps you learn through Dynamic Immersion. With 25 languages available, Rosetta Stone enables you to learn naturally—the way you’d learn as a child—and build the skills you need to start speaking from your very first lesson. Start your language learning journey today!

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