How to Learn Another Language: Passive and Active Listening Tips

February 16, 2012


How to Learn Another Language

If you want to know how to learn another language, you need to know how to listen both actively and passively.

I thought that I spoke Portuguese like Tarzan because I had mostly taught myself the language and had only taken two basic classes in adult school. For years, I listened to Rádio Comercial Portuguesa, the Portuguese radio station in San José, California. The radio station served the Portuguese immigrant community from the Azores Islands.

Listen On Your Way To Work

While driving and being stuck in traffic, I listened to their local advertisements for Portuguese companies that ranged from plumbing contractors and construction supply companies to Portuguese padarias (bakeries). I could care less about construction companies and their wonderful supplies, but I listened to the announcers just to get a feeling for the rhythm of Portuguese and to learn vocabulary. Since the community was very religious, the station broadcast Catholic mass in Portuguese. I am not Catholic and was not keen on learning the “Our Father” prayer in Português, so I sometimes paid attention and sometimes was too focused on driving to really focus on the liturgy.

Learning By Listening

The result was that, despite the fact that I had few opportunities to speak Portuguese, I was passively learning it for years. To be honest, when I started with the Luso tongue, I already knew three other Romance languages (French, Spanish and Italian) so I could understand a fair amount without straining myself. However, I did acquire many new words without realizing that I was learning. When people ask me how to learn another language, I tell them they have to start by listening and spend much of their time listening to their target language in order for it to sink in.

Surprise! You Can Speak

In 2006, while living in New York, my Brazilian roommate Carla invited Silvia, her friend from Brazil, to visit during Christmas. Silvia barely spoke English. I had to speak in Portuguese, even though I was embarrassed of what I thought was my Neanderthal-like command of the language. To my and everyone else’s surprise, sophisticated words and long sentences came out of my mouth with ease. Carla and Silvia commented that my accent sounded like it was from Portugal. I found out that I knew much more Portuguese than I thought. All those years of listening to fishermen’s songs and Catholic masses paid off. I spoke Portuguese! I had been reinforcing the vocabulary and sentence structure rules that I had learned by just listening to the radio. The music was inside of me for years.

Try It!

Turn on the music while driving, doing household chores, cooking, gardening, etc. Even if you are just passively listening to the music, the rhythms of the language will become more familiar to you. Exposure is key.

When you first start listening to radio broadcasts, the announcers may sound like they are emitting a stream or storm of sounds and not individual words. In time, you’ll hear familiar words repeated and will learn to distinguish them. The process of listening and figuring out what words mean is a natural process in how to learn another language.

Photo By: Sean MacEntee

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