Economic Growth

An easier way to learn a language? This is what research says

A woman lies in the grass while reading a book, at Columbia University in New York, April 14, 2014. The temperature reached an unseasonably high 77 Fahrenheit (25 Celsius). REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT EDUCATION) - RTR3LA7U

Learning a new language is tough, but not impossible. Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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Learning a new language is hard — especially if you're an adult, especially if you're busy, and especially if the language is based on really different sounds than your native tongue.

Hard, but not impossible. In Scientific American, Veronique Greenwood highlights two recent studies that suggest you can get better at a foreign language simply by listening to it, without speaking it yourself.

In other words: Even if you're busy making dinner for your family, or running errands, or paying your bills, or whatever, you can do it while you're listening to a podcast in the language you're trying to learn.

Greenwood describes the research nicely. She explains that in one study, published in 2015, native English speakers learned to distinguish between three sounds common in Hindi and Thai: "p," "b," and another sound similar to "b."

One group of participants switched between 10 minutes of practice distinguishing the sounds and 10 minutes of a matching task. Another group just practiced distinguishing the sounds for one a hour a day on two days.

 A world of languages
Image: South China Morning Post

Results showed that the group that switched showed just as much improvement as the group that stayed focused on the practice task.

In another study, published in 2016, native Spanish speakers worked on distinguishing sounds in the Basque language. As it turns out, those who practiced speaking the sounds out loud improved less than those who simply listened.

This research backs up something Matthew Youlden — a Language Ambassador for Babbel who speaks over 20 languages — previously told Business Insider. Youlden recommends doing something active and passive in the language — as in, practicing speaking the words and also watching a foreign TV show. The goal is to be surrounded by the language at all times.

Other ways of immersing yourself in the foreign language include reading material written in that language. In fact, there's a free Google Chrome extension that lets you translate everything you read online into the language you're trying to learn.

Of course, none of this is to say that you shouldn't take a language course or hire a tutor to help you. "You need to come to class and pay attention," one of the authors on both studies, Melissa Baese-Berk, told Greenwood. After class, though, you can listen to a foreign-language radio station and not pay full attention. It will still help you.

Bottom line: Even if you don't have all day to devote to concentrated language-learning (and who does these days?) you can still pick up a new lingo if you really want to.

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