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The 8 best sources for listening in a foreign language

By Victor - 01/apr/2021 #Language and Education

In the previous post, I gave you some great news: listening is the highest priority language skill to master first, and it also happens to be the easiest to practice. Here are 8 great types of sources for listening in your target language.

 

1. Songs to Sing Along to

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Brandt et al claim that “musical hearing and ability is essential to language acquisition.”[1]

This approach has helped my girlfriend go from zero beginner to an intermediate level of English in less than a year—accompanied by the likes of Janis Joplin, Lana del Rey, and Bon Jovi.[2]

I would argue that the two most useful aspects of music for language acquisition are that it makes repetition enjoyable and it makes the transition from comprehension to speech a seamless experience.

Practically speaking, that means you can listen to a song again and again, enjoy it more and more as time goes by, eventually start singing along to it, and finally sing it on your own. This process makes music an extremely useful way to get started with a language and, even at advanced levels, to effectively acquire and incorporate new vocabulary and expressions into your listening and speaking repertoire.

For these reasons, my recommendations on how to use songs for language acquisition differ from the recommendations I give for other sources. While I normally advocate extensive and constantly varied exposure to language, without translating or even looking up definitions, with music I recommend the opposite, intensive approach.

You should study the lyrics to songs, being sure you understand every word and expression, even using translations when needed. However, once you have assimilated the meaning of a song, set aside the lyrics and just listen to it over and over. After a while, begin memorizing the words to the song, whether spontaneously or through deliberate effort, and sing along with it out loud or mentally every time you hear it.

Finally, practice singing the song on your own. Through this method, you will not only boost your listening comprehension; you will also deeply ingrain the vocabulary, grammatical structures, and cadence of the language in your mind, and gain the ability to use them in your own speech.

 

2. Great cinema

Like devouring great literature , becoming a cinephile in the language you are studying is a sure and extremely enjoyable way to boost your language acquisition and open windows into the associated culture, which is tightly linked to the language itself.

Because of this linkage, the more you can appreciate films originally produced in your target language, the better.

However, there is nothing wrong with watching dubbed movies. While I personally tend to dislike dubbed films, an exception are Disney animations (which are always “dubbed”), in which each language version is made with incredibly quality.

A potential advantage to dubbed movies is that, at a lower level of proficiency, watching your all-time favorites again in your target language can greatly assist comprehension.

I’ll get more into the to-subtitle-or-not-to-subtitle debate in the Frequently Asked Questions post on listening, but the short version is that you should watch movies without subtitles to improve your listening skills, although it can be valuable at an intermediate level of proficiency to watch first with subtitles in the target language and then again without the subtitles.

 

3. Addictive series

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix and the proliferation of high-quality, original series in various countries produced by Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and local television producers, series have become one of the most popular ways to improve one’s listening comprehension naturally and dramatically.

And that makes a lot of sense. Everyone needs downtime and entertainment, so alongside movies, why not use the addictiveness of series to your (linguistic) advantage?

As with cinema and literature, I would always advocate series that provide insights into the culture of the language that you are studying. If it also speaks to interests and goals that you have besides language acquisition, so much the better.

As an example, I’m currently watching Un Village Français with my girlfriend. It’s critically acclaimed, definitely addictive (we always feel like getting our daily dose), very authentically French, and gives me real historical insight into what it was like to live in France during the Second World War. So I am getting multiple benefits from the experience, in addition to the French language exposure.

By the way, I’ll be happy to provide recommendations of other series in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

 

4. Endless YouTube videos

With 500 hours of new content uploaded to YouTube each minute, you can find videos on just about any topic in the language you are studying. YouTube is clearly the easiest platform for you to kill two birds with one stone, just as I advocated you do with reading—practicing listening skills in your target language while delving into your interests, passions, and topics you need to learn about anyway.

You can also let the YouTube algorithm work its magic for you. As I mentioned in the last post, it has recently helped me discover endless hours of documentaries in French about topics I’m incredibly interested in anyway—in addition to the documentaries on topics like near-death experiences, it also keeps recommending wonderful videos from a series called Secrets d’Histoire, which not only improve my French listening skills, but entertain me and give me deep dives into historical topics I previously knew little about.

 

5. News radio and television

I previously recommended you become a news junkie in your target language. In that post, I was recommending you read up on the news in foreign languages, but you can just as productively watch or listen to the news in the language you are studying.

The most convincing case I can make for this approach is to provide more personal testimony.

I learned French when I was 12 years old, and with few exceptions, have not used it for most of the subsequent 30 years. About 15 years ago, my French proficiency was probably at its lowest points. I could barely put a few words together for basic communication. Then I discovered Radio France Internationale (RFI).

The 10-minute RFI international news broadcasts were, to my taste, far-and-away the best summary of current news I had ever come across, in any language, from any source.

I have listened on-and-off ever since, on average a total of about 30 minutes per week. That has been enough to, almost single-handedly, keep my French from deteriorating further and perhaps even make a little progress. When I took up French more seriously seven months ago, my proficiency was probably at least as good as in 2006, and RFI is still my favorite, go-to news source, helping me as I work toward true mastery of the French language.

You can find a vast array of streaming radio sources in your target language, included news radio, on this site or have a blast exploring Radio Garden. If you prefer watching news on television, this article provides a fairly extensive list, which you can order by country or language.

 

6. Podcasts about Your Passions

We are in the golden era of podcasts. There is an enormous amount of content to match every interest and pursuit.

Find one or two podcasts about topics you enjoy in your target language, make a habit of listening to them, and you will be well on your way to language mastery for life.

You can easily find lists of great podcasts in various languages, such as these in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Better yet, just search on Google using terms from your target language, including the word “podcast” and your topic of interest. You will most likely find podcasts you can enjoy or even fall in love with.  

And if you are learning English, be sure to check out the Natural English Podcast, which will provide motivation, insights into various careers, and additional language-learning resources to go along with each episode.

 

7. Audiobooks for Immersion

As I mentioned in a post on reading your way to language mastery, if I had to recommend a single specific language-learning approach, it would undoubtedly be to read and listen to great literature, in addition to writing and talking about it.

Whether you enjoy fiction or nonfiction, audiobooks are a priceless resource to immerse yourself in your target language.

At the beginner and intermediate levels, you can use them in conjunction with texts, but once you’re advanced, you can go straight to the audiobook, listening as you drive, walk, run, or just lie down to relax. I find audiobooks highly immersive, relaxing, and enjoyable.

Here’s a quick tip, in case you didn’t know: while you can purchase audiobooks from services on the Internet, you can listen to an even greater variety of audiobooks for free on YouTube, recorded by professionals or amateurs. I’m currently listening to an amateur audio recording of a book in French on YouTube for which no audiobook is available for sale.

In addition, most of the audiobooks I recommend for my English through Classic Children’s Literature series are from YouTube.

 

8. Integrated Natural homework assignments

On our website, we have a growing selection of homework assignments put together by a group of talented native teachers. You can use them to choose curated listening sources on a variety of topics that are combined with reading selections and writing prompts.

Currently available in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, they are organized by language and level and can be accessed here. If you don’t find something that meets your needs, you can use the form below to ask for a homework in one of our languages on a specific topic and suited to your level. We will be happy to find something to help you.

 

In the next post, I will explain how to use these various types of listening sources at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of proficiency.

 



[1] They describe music “as a special type of music in which referential discourse is bootstrapped onto a musical framework”, emphasizing that music is natural vehicle for linguistic communication, which helps explain why it is so helpful in language acquisition. Citation: Brandt A, Gebrian M, Slevc LR. Music and early language acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology. 2012; 3:327. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00327. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00327/full.

[2] While musically I prefer Janis Joplin and Lana del Rey, Bon Jovi is much better for learning English, for reasons I will detail in the next post.

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