Learning a Second Language Passively

Answer to a post on a forum.

I have being doing this exact experiment with Icelandic for ~2 years– I listen to about 1-2 hours of Icelandic talk shows and podcasts a day while commuting, always new material, I never repeat.

Initially, I was chuffed if I could distinguish words (that I didn’t know) from the buzzing noise. Initially only the grammatical particals pop out (definite articles, suffixes on adverbs, etc) One day, I realized that gjaldProta meant bankrupt, which was a word I’d never looked up in a dictionary. More interestingly, I didn’t really understand the news article where I heard the word. I learned hrigja aftur means “call back” on a call in talk show where the caller had a obviously bad connection. There is more context in a stream on noise than you might imagine, after all, the blind learn English largely on input from a stream of noise with no visual context.

There are now 100s of words I’ve heard the point where I recognize them but still don’t know what they mean. However, next time I see the work krof, I will learn it in one repetition because they talk about it all the time on the radio. (It turns out to mean something like central bank reserves)

I used to be able to listen to Icelandic news and read English at the same time. It is getting to the point where I understand enough that it breaks my concentration. When I didn’t understand, it didn’t bother me that they were reviewing a book on knitting.

I think this has helped my pronunciation– I’ve heard a lot of people’s speaking styles. Young girls, academics, men and journalists trying to act serious all have different qualities to their intonation and you can’t learn that from re-listening the same CD over and over.

I’ve a long ways to go, but I think it’s helped.   (Listening to foreign language music on the other hand, has never helped me. Dunno why.

3 thoughts on “Learning a Second Language Passively


    (heh, I have been learning icelandic for only a few days, I already know the alphabet and have a penpal, and I have a book on its way :) )

  2. I am going to begin taking Norwegian lessons next fall, but before that I have been trying (though not every day) to do something very similar to what you are doing. I listen to the podcast on http://www.klartale.no, which is a simplified Norwegian newspaper. I also occasionally skim the texts.

    I bet that this strategy would not be so productive if you or I were trying to learn a non-Germanic language in which we had no grounding!