March 1


Background listening – how to speak the foreign language perfectly

By Laura Bacher

March 1, 2021

The background listening exercise is as simple as it is ingenious. If you listen to a text that you already know and understand repeatedly, your brain lays down the neural pathways it needs so that you can speak the text correctly afterward. In doing so, you don’t even have to listen actively; you just let the audio run endlessly in the background. The subconscious mind works for us – it processes what we have already learned.

Listening prepares you for speaking

Humans begin listening attentively in the uterus, before birth. Babies in the womb tend not to distinguish sequences of sounds, but they do listen very carefully to intonations. Just a few seconds after babies see the light of day, they apply their accumulated knowledge: They scream, and they do so in a way that is “normal” in their native language. French babies cry with a rising pitch, German babies with falling pitch. Although babies do not yet understand a single word, they already effortlessly imitate the mother tongue because they have listened to the mother tongue and unconsciously learned the speech melody.

This process also works for children and adults. Listening to the foreign language several times – preferably continuously – gives the brain the time it needs to speak the language correctly later. The subconscious processes the information and creates new synapses in the brain. It independently and naturally builds up the neural pathways necessary for perfect speaking of a foreign language. This approach takes no time because you delegate the learning work to your subconscious – you don’t have to do anything for it actively. The key is to learn by imitation like a small child.

Listen to the foreign language as often as possible!

Background listening also has to do with the all-important repetition of new information. The power of repetition makes you get better and better in all areas of life. That’s why companies send their advertisements not just once but regularly. The goal of advertising is to create the thickest possible neural pathway in your brain.

The more foreign the language, the more critical listening is. For example, Asian or African languages do not sit so quickly on the tongue of Europeans. This makes it more important to familiarize yourself with the language right from the start and surround yourself with it as often as possible.

As a guideline, if you listen to a text of about 300 words over 6 to 9 days and nights, your brain should have enough time to make all the arrangements. But don’t worry about “how often”; you’ll know when you’ve heard enough. After all, from one day to the next, you start to parrot the text with excellent pronunciation – in the car, in the shower, while cooking … That’s the sign: the theoretical process is over.

Now the active practice begins. However, this learning step has become much shorter because the subconscious mind has done an excellent preliminary work job. Practicing now is only about getting rid of the shyness. A perfect and simple exercise for this is choral speaking. As the name suggests, you speak in chorus with the recording. You can find details about choral speaking here: Choral Speaking.

Which audio recordings are suitable for background listening?

  • All recordings spoken by native speakers are suitable.
  • The file should be downloadable as mp3 so that you can play the recording on your smartphone, laptop, etc., to have it handy and playable at any time.
  • It should not be long novels but relatively short texts of no more than 600 words.
  • The content should interest you personally. This will motivate you and keep you enthusiastically on the ball.
  • Songs are excellent because there are always lyrics to them (e.g., on the Internet, search for them in the search engine), and you can listen to them in an endless loop without getting tired

When can I start background listening?

You can start background listening immediately. If you do not yet understand the foreign language, are a beginner, or the text is mostly new to you, you will get to know the speech melody, the speech rhythm, and the sounds and anchor them in your brain, just like a baby in the womb. This learning technique will make the foreign language familiar to you, and it will be easier for you to enter into the active learning process.

Background listening to already known texts (if you understand the text at least 80%) is suitable for learning how to speak with perfect pronunciation. You already know the words and learn to talk subconsciously through background listening. Besides, your brain can rhyme the meaning of the few unknown words (max. 20% of the text) and thus expand your vocabulary.

Either way – background listening makes sense! And the best part is that you don’t have to set aside any time at all for it. The subconscious mind listens for you and does the work. And you can look forward to perfect pronunciation. Have fun!

Laura Bacher

About the author

Laura has been a big fan of foreign languages since her childhood. She grew up bilingual - English and German - and through international vacations, she got a taste of many other languages.

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