The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Learning with the heardrum

Posted on February 3, 2009 by

eardrum“Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language” – that’s Paul Sulzburger’s main argument . The PhD graduate of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, taught Russian for several years to Kiwi students and watched them consistently drop out. What makes it so hard to learn words in foreign languages when we learn new ones in our own language every day? Sulzbeger wondered. His answer is: “When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words.”

The Victoria University press office speaks of Sulzberger’s work as a “revolutionary approach” – but isn’t being exposed a language and learning it bit by bit the most well known way to learn a language anyhow?


It seems the main point about Dr Sulzberger’s ‘revolutionary approach’ is that he has found evidence to prove spending time listening to a language *without understanding anything* is valuable. This is at odds with accepted classroom approaches where listening is level-specific and the aim is more or less full comprehension, especially at beginner level (meaning real beginners).

In commercial language schools this full-comprehension approach is driven by results-oriented, targeted tactics to make students feel they are getting their money’s worth, and I doubt that Dr Sulzberger’s new evidence will do anything to change that. But it might help convince reluctant students that spending an hour everyday listening to the radio without understanding a word is time well spent.

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