3 reasons listening is the most important skill to tackle first | Natural Language Institute

How to Master a Language for Life


3 reasons listening is the most important skill to tackle first

… and why it’s also the easiest to practice

By Victor - 15/mar/2021 #Language and Education

You should work on the four language skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—synergistically, but never neglect to make listening a top priority, especially in the early stages of language acquisition. Here’s why.


1) Human brains evolved to acquire oral comprehension first

Your brain is hard-wired to learn languages.

Complex language developed in tandem with the evolution of the homo sapiens species, beginning a few hundred thousand years ago.[1]

Though various theories about specific timeframes and causal relationships abound, it is evident that the modern brain and spoken language co-evolved.[2]

By contrast, the first written language developed just five thousand years ago.[3]

It is not a coincidence that infants learn to understand spoken language much more naturally, and years earlier, than they learn to read, since our human ancestors communicated orally for thousands of years before they began communicating in writing.

While it is incontestable that the first language skill humans develop in their mother tongue is listening, one could still question whether that applies to second-language acquisition.

Yet we know that early humans migrated, and undoubtedly tribes speaking different languages came into contact with each other. It is logical, therefore, that the ability to acquire a second language has always been an evolutionary advantage,[4] and that the first skill pre-historic adults would acquire in a second language was also oral comprehension.


2) Listening skills allow social interaction to begin

Recent neuroscience research suggests that social interaction is necessary for language acquisition.[5]

This supports the widespread empirical observation that semester-abroad students who engage in bar hopping, dating, and other social interactions with native speakers learn far more quickly than the socially timid or those who focus exclusively on their studies.

The takeaway is that you need to interact socially in a second language in order to acquire it effectively.

You can be engaged in conversations among native speakers even when your speaking skills are minimal, but if you cannot understand what they are saying, you will inevitably tune out and feel isolated. Thus, developing your listening skills allows you to interact socially, which is key to effective overall language acquisition.


3) You need to acquire the correct “mental pronunciation” early on

Reading and listening are the two passive or receptive skills through which you can easily absorb the huge quantity and variety of input needed to allow your brain to naturally acquire the lexical and grammatical breadth that underpins language mastery.

If you focus exclusively on reading in the beginning, however, you will run into a serious problem that will be difficult, if not impossible, to correct later on. For evolutionary and neurological reasons alluded to above, we tend to mentally verbalize what we read. Much of our high-level cognitive thinking is expressed through inner speech.[6] Therefore, you “pronounce” words in your mind—that is, you have a mental phonetic representation of the words. Your mental pronunciation habits, whether accurate or not, will impact your listening and speaking skills.

For this reason, you will save a lot of time and ensure the ability to eventually obtain good pronunciation in your target language by practicing listening before or in conjunction with reading. By doing so, when you do read, your brain will mentally reproduce the language with accurate pronunciation, reinforcing good phonetic representations and habits.

You do not need to always listen to a topic before reading about it.

By including enough listening in your language diet, you will hear all the phonemes and important words before incorrect pronunciation becomes a hardened mental habit.

Just do not try to learn the written language to the exclusion of listening. If you do, you will mentally pronounce words according to the phonetics, orthographic patterns, and intonation of your native language, and this will become a tremendous hindrance to your future ability to speak well in your target language.


Listening is the easiest skill to practice

All four language skills are incredibly important and present their unique challenges.

When I say that listening is easiest, I do not mean that it requires less time or commitment than reading, writing, or speaking. What I do mean is that, for practical reasons, listening is the easiest skill to practice often and extensively.

Writing requires significant effort and motivation. Similarly, one does not always feel like talking—this is especially challenging for introverts—and, in any case, you may not always have somebody to speak to in your target language. Reading is easier for some people, but others become quickly become tired after a certain amount of reading.

By contrast, most people can listen effortlessly, all day long, especially if they are watching entertaining movies, series, or YouTube videos.

In other words, to listen in your target language, no special conditions or effort are required.

You don’t need other people and you don’t need to feel particularly motivated or energized. Who doesn’t like to sit back and relax to music, enjoy an entertaining movie, or binge-watch a great Netflix series?

Endless listening content is available in most commonly studied languages. You will never run out of engaging material on Netflix, YouTube, or Radio Garden.

Follow the same principle I outlined in the first post about reading, and listen up on your passions, interests, and goals.

As an example, I recently came across this YouTube video that I absolutely loved in French—the language I’m currently working on—about a topic that greatly interests me (near-death experiences). After watching it, I discovered there are several other similar videos by the same producers, and so now I have dozens of hours of engaging listening practice to look forward to.


The takeaway

Your brain evolved to acquire listening skills first, and doing so will allow you to interact socially in the language and begin reading with the correct mental pronunciation.

Fortunately, listening is easier than practicing any other skill, since endless content is available, and no special conditions or motivation are needed to spend hours on end listening to your target language.

So, get started with increased listening practice right away as a key ingredient to attaining language mastery for life.

Since you seem to enjoy the topic of language acquisition, check out the videos that accompany each of these posts. If you would like to improve your English or Portuguese, listening to my videos in these languages will boost your listening skills, since I speak them as a native. And if you are a native or advanced speaker of Spanish or French, let me know what you think about my fluency in those languages. It would be great to get your feedback.

Stay tuned for the next few posts, in which I will discuss the best listening sources, how to listen at each level of proficiency, and frequently asked questions about listening for language mastery.         


[1] See Scerri, Eleanor M. L.; Thomas, Mark G.; Manica, Andrea; Gunz, Philipp; Stock, Jay T.; Stringer, Chris; Grove, Matt; Groucutt, Huw S.; Timmermann, Axel; Rightmire, G. Philip; d’Errico, Francesco (1 August 2018). "Did Our Species Evolve in Subdivided Populations across Africa, and Why Does It Matter?". Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 33 (8): 582–594. Available at https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(18)30117-4.

[2] “Language adapted to the human brain (cultural evolution), while the human brain adapted to better subserve language (biological evolution). This coevolutionary process resulted in language and brain evolving to suit each other” Schoenemann, P. Thomas. “Evolution of Brain and Language”. Indiana University, 2009. Available at: https://brainevo.sitehost.iu.edu/publications/evol-brain+lang_lang-learning.pdf.

[3] See article on the Sumerian language in Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sumerian-language.

[4] A fascinating scenario is presented in the fictional Earth’s Children series, by Jean M. Auel, in which Ayla, an orphaned modern human raised by Neanderthals in Europe 30,000 years ago, interacts as an adult with various tribes of homo sapiens.

[5] Kuhl PK. Brain mechanisms in early language acquisition. Neuron. 2010;67(5):713-727. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.038. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2947444/

[6] For an interesting introduction to the topic of the relationship between language and the ability to think, check out this article: https://mcgovern.mit.edu/2019/05/02/ask-the-brain-can-we-think-without-language/.

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