Baffling grammar, strange vowels, quirky idioms and so many new words—all of this makes learning a new language hard work. Luckily, researchers have discovered a number of helpful tricks, ranging from exposing your ears to a variety of native speakers to going to sleep soon after a practice session. A pair of recent papers suggests that even when you are not actively studying, what you hear can affect your learning and that sometimes listening without speaking works best.
In one study, published in 2015 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, linguists found that people who took breaks from learning new sounds performed just as well as those who took no breaks, as long as the sounds continued to play in the background. The researchers trained two groups of people to distinguish among trios of similar sounds—for instance, Hindi has “p,” “b” and a third sound English speakers mistake for “b.” One group practiced telling these apart one hour a day for two days. Another group alternated between 10 minutes of the task and 10 minutes of a “distractor” task that involved matching symbols on a worksheet while the sounds continued to play in the background. Remarkably, the group that switched between tasks improved just as much as the one that focused on the distinguishing task the entire time. “There's something about our brains that makes it possible to take advantage of the things you've already paid attention to and to keep paying attention to them,” even when you are focused on something else, suggests Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study.
In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Memory and Language, Baese-Berk and another colleague found that it is better to listen to new sounds silently rather than practice saying them yourself at the same time. Spanish speakers learning to distinguish among sounds in the Basque language performed more poorly when they were asked to repeat one of the sounds during training. The findings square with what many teachers have intuited—that a combination of focused practice and passive exposure to a language is the best approach. “You need to come to class and pay attention,” Baese-Berk says, “but when you go home, turn on the TV or turn on the radio in that language while you're cooking dinner, and even if you're not paying total attention to it, it's going to help you.”