You Can Be Lazy and Learn a New Language at the Same Time

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Photo: Gary Burchell/Getty Images

Learning a new language, or perhaps reviving a dormant one from your high-school days, is a classic New Year’s resolution, in that plenty of people intend to do it and very few people actually do it. In the end, who has the time?

You do, counters a piece this week in Scientific American, which summarizes two recent studies on language-learning that each come to one happy conclusion: A little laziness helps when you’re learning a new language. By that, writer Veronica Greenwood means that passive studying — as in, simply letting the foreign words float like music around you — is just as important as regular old studying (as in, reading the language and speaking it aloud).

Here’s her summary of one of those studies:

The researchers trained two groups of people to distinguish among trios of similar sounds—for instance, Hindi has “p,” “b” and a third sound English speakers mistake for “b.” One group practiced telling these apart one hour a day for two days. Another group alternated between 10 minutes of the task and 10 minutes of a “distractor” task that involved matching symbols on a worksheet while the sounds continued to play in the background. Remarkably, the group that switched between tasks improved just as much as the one that focused on the distinguishing task the entire time.

And the other:

In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Memory and Language, Baese-Berk and another colleague found that it is better to listen to new sounds silently rather than practice saying them yourself at the same time. Spanish speakers learning to distinguish among sounds in the Basque language performed more poorly when they were asked to repeat one of the sounds during training.

People who teach language surely knew this already; I had a Spanish teacher once who encouraged us to turn on Telemundo or Spanish-speaking radio stations in our downtime. Still, it’s something easily forgotten by those of us who earnestly play round after round of Duolingo, trying to wedge the new words into our brains by sheer force. (By the way, no, I do not want to add the fact that I am “3 percent fluent in French” to my LinkedIn profile, Duolingo, but thank you for asking.) Active learning is important, but equally important is giving the things you’ve learned a little time and space to settle in.

You Can Be Lazy and Learn a New Language at the Same Time