Learning by listening – How we “accidentally” learn languages

When I used to work in a shelter for underage refugees, literally somewhere in the central-German countryside, I made a pretty enlightening observation. The youngsters I was working with were all teenagers from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and various African countries, that arrived in Germany during the events of 2015. Of course, one of their first tasks – “formally “as “informally” – was to somehow learn this damn-hard German language to even have a chance to get around in life. But, as mentioned, they were all put in a small shelter in a place that cannot even be called a village (literally a farm with five small houses next to it). So, how to learn German with nobody around?

I quickly noticed that most of our kids had a huge thing for Bollywood movies. Now in Germany, people are lazy with English (or any other language), and we love – we LOVE! – to dub all foreign movies in a very “standard ” sounding – or should I say “plastical”? – German. This is good if: you are a foreign kid (1) trying to learn German that, besides, (2) loves Bollywood movies and (3) just finds out that there is an entire TV station in Germany that is completely based on nothing but Bollywood! In German! Long story short: These kids probably learned more (and better!) German, from awkwardly dubbed Bollywood-TV than in their actual German classes in school! The human brain is a wondrous thing, and it’s learning more than we actually notice, especially when we are driven by intrinsic motivation.

But that’s not the end of the story: traveling in the Balkan countries, I’ve noticed something very similar. As a German traveling around, it is not too unlikely to meet someone in a foreign country who speaks your language (I wonder how English-natives must feel?). Well, in the last few years, I met quite a lot of people from the Balkans who spoke pretty solid German, telling me that they had it in school for like two years. “Wait! Two years? And you speak so well? I had three years of Russian, and I remember sh*t!” The trick: cartoons they used to watch as kids on German TV!

So the adventures of Son Goku in Dragon Ball, or the latest match of the Kickers and all the other heroes of my childhood in Germany were accessible to others too – and suddenly we share a common experience! Not only that: Several girls from Bosnia I’ve met, for example, told me they learned Spanish with subtitled 90s-telenovelas from Spain when they were young.

Now, it’s not a big secret that you learn much better when you’re still young. But of course, listening to a foreign language on a regular basis also helps with keeping it in mind. I learned Spanish with Manu Chao (like many others) and a lot of Chilean Rap and, due to still listening to it, I don’t lose the “flow “of Spanish even though I live in Germany (and that’s also how I still keep in touch with the Macedonian language). Rap music, in general, is probably the best music for this kind of purpose because it’s focused on the lyrics (but that’s just a matter of taste). That itself might not be great enlightenment. But I am, from time to time, amazed by how well it actually works.

A lot of research has been done about the link between language and mind and how we learn a language. German management-coach and “self-made-woman “Vera F. Birkenbihl once wrote a pretty good book about “brain-friendly “language-learning, where she gives some kind of step-by-step model which goes very roughly like this: First comes listening! Listening, listening, listening, to a native speaker. You are then talking, after some time reading and writing…and then, maybe, grammar – if you are interested and nerdy enough for that part.

Think about how you – and everyone else – learned their native language. Did you do it with a grammar book? I think not. You just picked it up from your environment. This is the way our brains are “geared”. So, why do we still try to teach languages with only “silent “vocabulary lists and confusing grammar tables about conjugation and declination? I won’t say these things aren’t important! But they’re not essential to grab a language and get acquainted with it. First of all: learning needs to stimulate curiosity and be fun – the rest comes by itself. So, maybe it’s time to “loosen up “a little and take a new approach to learn languages – because we learn more [passively] than we think!

Sascha Schlüter

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