Good News: You Can Learn A New Language Without Even Thinking About It

Learning may be as simple as getting distracted.

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It’s no revelation that the key to learning a new language is immersing yourself among native speakers of that language. But what if those native speakers are Dora the Explorer and Diego?

It turns out television and radio might be even better tools for new language learners than previously thought. According to two recent studies summarized by Scientific American, it is possible to further your understanding of a new language without actively practicing or fully paying attention.

For starters, research published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggests that language learners who focus continuously on learning new sounds retain no more information than those who take periodic breaks. While one group of study participants practiced differentiating three tricky Hindi sounds for one hour a day over the course of several days, another group alternated spending 10 minutes on learning and 10 minutes on an intentionally distracting task as the Hindi sounds played in the background. When tested on the sounds, the distracted group performed just as well as the focused group. Score one for the subconscious mind!

But a subsequent study published in the Journal of Memory and Language further validates the power of inactive learning. Researchers found that Spanish students learning the Basque dialect improved less when they were instructed to repeat sounds back during their training; listening to new sounds silently actually resulted in greater retention.

So, is it time to fire your tutor and invest in a box set of Corazón Salvaje? Not quite. While this growing body of research suggests inactive language learning is an awesome tool in your language-learning arsenal, the value of focused practice cannot be discounted. “You need to come to class and pay attention,” says Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist and co-author of one of the studies. “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.”

So get out there and learn… but not too hard. While you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your grammar skills, too.

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