Can you learn languages without studying?

This is the dream. You turn on some kind of signal which you then listen to throughout the day, throughout the night, at work and at home. It teaches you how to speak a language. You listen to it every day. After weeks, months, years, suddenly you’re fluent. And you didn’t even notice it.

Unfortunately, this is probably the kind of thing which for the moment is confined to the world of Charlie Brooker. There is no magic switch, or anything you can do to fully replace the time and hard work that you have to commit to any studies you undertake. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in the idea of “subconscious learning”, and in fact I am a great believer in it. I’ve experimented with various methods of language learning away from the books, and I think that there is definitely an extent to which it does work.

I don’t think you can completely replace conscious studying, but there are plenty of things you can do that don’t involve ‘working’ that will help you in your learning journey. In this post I’ve listed a couple that are well worth considering.



This is, as many people will tell you, one of the best ways to learn a language. You’re listening to the language being sung slowly, the words are rhyming, and they’re all thematically related to the title of the song. In any context we generally remember songs far better than just a block of text. By listening to music regularly, you’re exposing yourself to a lot of vocabulary that you might not come across straight away in the course that you’re using. It really doesn’t matter that you don’t understand what’s going on, what you’re doing here is familiarising yourself with the language. Later in your studies when you come across words, you may start to recognise some of them, even if you don’t know what they mean. The likelihood is you’ve heard them in a song, you know how they’re pronounced, and your brain has made a subconscious record of them. If you listen to lots of music particularly in one language, you’ll definitely come across some of the same words more than once. Greek music, for example, is almost always about ‘έρωτας’ (érotas), ‘αγκαλιά’ (ángalia), ‘πόνος’ (pónos) and ‘υποφέρω‘ (ypoféro) – love, embrace, pain and suffering – so these words will definitely enter your vocabulary. They’re actually also a lot more useful than you might think.

Playing tapes while you sleep

This has worked for me in the past as well. When I started learning Afrikaans I found it difficult to really get into the feel for the language, as I kept thinking about Dutch. I started playing the Teach Yourself Afrikaans CDs every night for a few weeks while I slept. At first I didn’t notice anything, thought it was a bit of a waste of time, but kept playing them because listening to Jan, Sannie, Piet and Marie’s plans to have a barbeque on the weekend were particularly good at sending me off to sleep. But then suddenly after about a week, I found myself in the middle of the day starting to think in Afrikaans. I was sprouting words that I couldn’t remember ever having learnt, but that I’d obviously heard so much in my sleep that they’d become lodged in my active memory. My pronounciation improved as well, and then when I returned to sitting down and studying it properly it was a thousand times easier than before when it was all still unfamiliar.

Total immersion

russiabordersignThis is the ideal. With every language it’d be great to just clear a few months and go sit in your target country and absorb everything. This isn’t always practical, but if you can even manage to get a week’s holiday somewhere your language will improve phenomenally. Being in the target country combines so many ‘subconscious’ learning techniques: you’re hearing the language everywhere, you’re reading it on signs, you’re seeing it on the TV, you can’t get away from it. On public transport especially you’re bombarded with the language. Anyone who’s spent time in Germany will know “Zurück bleiben bitte” off by heart, and the fantastic announcement they’d make on the trolleybuses of Yaroslavl, to the “Уважаемые жители и гости нашего города”, the respected residents and guests of our city. Again, when it comes to learning vocabulary the chances are that you may have come across it before in a relevant context, like in an advertisement or you’ve overheard it in a conversation. When you’re abroad you don’t have your native language to fall back on, and regardless of how much effort you intend to make or how good your language was before you go, you will return with a significant improvement.

If you can’t get away for a bit, you can try and recreate this immersion at home. Make signs and put them around the house, on the fridge, next to the TV. Your associative memory will start whirring when you do this, and after a few weeks of seeing them several times a day, you’ll find that you’ve learnt them pretty well.

As I’ve already said, nothing can completely replace studying, but there’s a lot you can do to help yourself. Why not give some of these really easy techniques a go, and then after a few weeks, let me know how you got on!

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