The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

2 Feb 2009


Good news for language learners! Have you ever turned on the BBC News as a kind of ‘background noise’, just for the sake of ‘hacer oido’? If you felt intuitively that get used to the particular sounds of the language that you were learning may enhance your language skills, then you were right! At least, according to recent studies developed in the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, by PhD Paul Sulzberger.
Frequent exposure to the sounds patterns of a language is the best way to learn it, says Dr Sulzberger: “However crazy it may sound, just listening to the language, even though you don’t understand it, is critical.”
Of course, we all may see how frequent listening of conversations or speeches in other languages will help us to discriminate words, but Sulzberger goes further. He considers that such simple activity sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words. It seems that the key is in the way the brain develops neural structures. Dr Sulzberger: “When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation.” So, frequent exposure to the sounds of these new words would create such neural structures.
What immediately come to my mind are two questions: First, if the same hypothesis is applicable to reading texts in a foreign language although you don’t know the words, and second, would the old theory of listen foreign languages recordings while you are sleeping has any sense at all?


  1. I cannot assure anything about the effect of unconscious learning through listening to speech or reading texts that we cannot decipher at all. I think that we must understand part of the oral or written text in order to start assimilating new words that repeatedly may occur with those bits of comprehensible language. Then we could identify them, get used to their sounds or spelling, make hypotheses about their meaning or merely remember them associated with what we already know.

  2. Reading a text in a foreign language (not knowning the words) I suspect, raises a different set of issues. In evolutionary terms, reading was only invented yesterday, learning language(s) via one's ears however has a much longer pedigree... Paul Sulzberger

  3. Although there is no doubt that exposition to oral speech in a language we don’t master is beneficial, I still think that a minimum of understanding or experience regarding its structure are necessary to keep building up knowledge in that language. Besides that, I doubt about the value of passive listening for something more than assimilating intonation patterns.

  4. hi!

    One thing is talk, read is another very different...Babys learn listening, in that is based the theory. So the question about the book and de letters and senses we don't know, have no point. Sorry for the bad english...i talk spanish... Interesantisimo post.. un artículo más extenso lo pueden encontrar en The Times of India. Saludos!

  5. Sulzberger's research is interesting, and he is by no means the first language instructor to come to this conclusion.
    For example, the huge Latinum audio project for teaching Classical Latin through extensive audio exposure ( was set up in response to earlier research into the importance of audio for acquiring grammatical patterns subconsciously, irrespective of meaning.

    This goes back to Chomsky's famous "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" - that grammatical information can be encoded in sentences without meaning.

  6. Sulzberger's research and Sulzberger's conclusion are completely different things.

    Sulzberger investigated whether it was easier for English speakers to learn Russian words that fit the sound patterns of English to those that don't.

    Unsurprisingly, he found this to be the case. He could have come out talking about how most language courses ignore the relative difficulty of words, but he chose not to.

    Instead he took a massive leap in logic. He had proven that it was difficult to learn unfamiliar sounds, so he decided to claim that this meant you needed to make them familiar before you could learn them (non-sequitur A) and that the way to make them familiar was to listen to the radio without having any clue what they were saying (non-sequitur B).

    Why? I can only assume that he figured people would blog about his spurious conclusions and make him famous.

  7. How interesting! Things look a little different when you know the whole story. I´m afraid there are all kind of peculiar theories out there, in linguistics. I myself have a couple of them, but I always thought you need a reputation before launching a new daring theory. Maybe it works better the other way round!
    Juan F.