Learning a new language is a formidable task, especially for adults with busy lives, and particularly if the new language features sounds vastly different from one’s native tongue. However, recent scientific studies suggest that there’s a surprisingly effective method for language acquisition: simply listening to the language, without speaking it. In other words, while you’re going about your daily chores or responsibilities, you can improve your language skills by immersing yourself in the sounds of the language you’re trying to learn.

Veronique Greenwood, writing for Scientific American, sheds light on these intriguing findings from two separate studies. The first study, conducted in 2015, involved native English speakers learning to differentiate between three distinct sounds common in Hindi and Thai: “p,” “b,” and another sound similar to “b.” Participants were divided into two groups, one of which alternated between 10 minutes of sound differentiation practice and 10 minutes of a matching task, while the other group focused solely on distinguishing the sounds for one hour each day over two days. Surprisingly, the results showed that the group that alternated between tasks improved just as much as the group that remained focused on the practice task.

In a subsequent study published in 2016, native Spanish speakers attempted to distinguish between sounds in the Basque language. The study revealed that those who practiced speaking the sounds out loud showed less improvement than those who simply listened. These findings align with the advice of Matthew Youlden, a Language Ambassador for Babbel who is fluent in over 20 languages. Youlden recommends a combination of active and passive language learning, involving both speaking the words and immersing oneself in the language through activities like watching foreign TV shows.

The key takeaway from this research is that surrounding yourself with the language at all times can significantly enhance your language-learning journey. Apart from listening, other methods of immersion include reading material in the target language. There’s even a free Google Chrome extension available, which can translate the content you read online into the language you’re trying to learn, making it easier to practice your reading skills.

However, it’s important to note that passive language learning isn’t a substitute for formal language courses or working with a tutor. Melissa Baese-Berk, one of the authors of the studies mentioned earlier, emphasizes the importance of attending classes and being attentive during formal language learning sessions. Yet, after your language classes, you can seamlessly incorporate passive learning by tuning in to foreign-language radio stations or engaging in other activities that expose you to the language without requiring your full concentration.

In summary, the traditional notion that learning a new language requires dedicated, intensive study may need to be revisited. The studies mentioned here demonstrate that even in the hustle and bustle of modern life, individuals can successfully pick up a new language by embracing passive language learning. So, whether you’re making dinner, running errands, or attending to your daily responsibilities, consider immersing yourself in the language you’re eager to learn. With the right approach, becoming bilingual or multilingual might be more achievable than you think.

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