Learning a language through listening

Theoretically, would it be possible for someone with a basic understanding of a language to learn solely through listening to native content? Babies do not know how to read, write, or fully speak and they end up reaching fluency, yet acquiring vocabulary this way seems urealistic. Would the connections still be made unconsciously, even if the meaning of each word is not made blatantly obvious?


I think so. The 2 main barriers to this, from what I can tell, are time and advanced words.

Time is a problem because babies spend a LOT of time listening to their native language. They start talking with meaning at about age 1.5-2, and they’ve spent all that time listening. Plus, their brains are more receptive to nuanced language tones than ours are. If you listen enough you will probably learn to distinguish, but that adds to the necessary time you would need to learn a language solely through listening.

Advanced words are a problem because of how much content you will need to listen to. Everything is interesting to babies. Not so for adults, even if you don’t understand the language. Do you want to sit through kid’s tv shows in your target language where they spend half an hour counting to ten? Probably not. Also, it can be difficult to find that kind of content if you aren’t already immersed in the culture. This makes advanced words much more relevant. Especially, since when adults talk to each other, they don’t include the tonal and contextual cues nearly as much as when they’re talking to babies, so it’s harder to tell if the words are meant to indicate something good or bad. This is where watching TV shows becomes much more helpful. Often, they will include more tonal variety and give visual context, but this will vary based on the culture(s) associated with your target language.

This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about since Swahili isn’t on LingQ yet. I’ve been studying Hebrew, Russian, and Swahili for about a month+. Hebrew I was already at an intermediate level, but my learning has accelerated like crazy since starting using LingQ. Russian I had heard a fair amount of, enough to be mostly acclimated to the sounds, and now I’m actually starting to learn a few words ( I’ve done the first 40 mini stories and listened to a few episodes of the Russian language version of a YouTube news show I like).

Since Swahili isn’t on LingQ, the progress is different. It is also the only one of the 3 that uses the Latin alphabet, and pronunciation is true to what is written for someone familiar with the sounds of the language. I’ve been listening to a lot of news because of how little I can understand and because it’s easy to find. I also watch a show sometimes but it doesn’t always offer much visual context. I’ve also been using ReadLang ( it helps a lot with reading a website in a foreign language, it translates right on the page instead of copying and pasting into some translation tool), and Language Crush (supports many languages, especially African ones, has audio + text + translation like LingQ, but is so much worse). With Swahili I’m mostly listening because of how infuriating Language Crush is, and I’m sprinkling in some ReadLang. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll just import a Wikipedia page (no length limit) into ReadLang and read it there. That way it gives content and meaning in a natural way.

With Swahili, I’m hoping that the lots of listening with ReadLang reading will get me enough meaning on my own, but I don’t think that the Swahili content I’m able to find and listen to (without visual aid) will help me enough on its own. I don’t want to get bored and stop, so I have to find ways to keep it interesting.


Here is my story.
“Let’s Talk in English” is a very famous language learning monthly magazine (with audio CD) in Taiwan.

When I was in the elementary school, my school had a regulation that every students must complete one “Let’s Talk in English” every 2 months, and there will be an final exam awaiting for us (a listening test).
So every morning 7:30 when we got to school, the teacher played “Let’s Talk in English” for 40 mins, and yes…there is another exam after it.

With the stress of exams, and the stories in “Let’s Talk in English” are very boring, all the kids in the classroom hated it so much. This routine lasted for 6 years in my whole elementary school life.

Guess what? Did we “unconsciously” assimilate Eng as our native language? After all we spent so many hours on it?
Well…we did develop the skill of getting high score in the exams, I usually got 70/100 or more by just analyzing the words on the papers, but I almost can’t understand any words people speaking in the “Let’s Talk in English”.

In the same time, kids in my class loved Japanese anime so much, they always talked about their favorite plots and characters.
I love Japanese anime too, in order to participating the discussion with kids in the school, I watched Japanese animes and imitating the way they speaking.
I never thought “I am learning Japanese language”, and I never had any Japanese language lesson, but after 6 years elementary school, I can understand 70%~ words in Japanese anime without subtitle.

My experience is:
If the context is Interesting to me, then I can unconsciously learn a lot by just listening to it.
But if the context is boring and irrelevant to my interest, I can’t unconsciously learn anything, no matter how much time spending on it.


I don’t really know. Some people anecdotally say they’ve learned a language from watching this or that. So…maybe, but I’m not sure I buy it.

  1. Babies and kids are spoken to as if they are babies or kids. So much of their interaction is at a suitable level. Native content is going to be at high school or college level, except for children’s programs. Would a baby learn anything by watching high school or college level content (even if it had cartoons and funny things going on on the screen?). Don’t know. I’ve been watching 1-2 hrs of native German tv for the past couple of years. Non documentaries I still find it very difficult to understand and I believe the only reason I do understand anything is from doing READING and LISTENING. The content is much to hard to gleam anything just by listening in my opinion.

  2. As adilavi points out It takes a LONG time to learn. Think about how much listening they are doing. Whether it’s tv programs or listening to adults jabber at them. It’s many hours a day, every day…as he points out, nearly 2 years worth to get to some basic talking.

  3. Think about how many years you’ve been learning your own language (you never stop). Think about how much time you’ve spent getting even to a high school or college level in your language. ANd that has likely included reading in it. Not just listening. The people who don’t know how to read or who don’t read aren’t particularly advanced in the language and likely make a lot more mistakes than those who read and write.

In summary. Maybe you could. You would have to start with child level material and continue to find stuff that is at your level. It is also going to take many many years if you want to do anything beyond basics. I think your progress will be much slower than someone who includes reading/translation through LingQ or similar…google translate, kindle translate, or whatever along with listening. Although babies and kids sole learning is through listening, they do start reading and writing at a young age too. It’s not solely listening.


And additionally, a child doesn’t learn just by watching and listening. There is usually a parent who is teaching and correcting the child continuously from birth. And when they get older, they will have constant dialog with family, friends, and teachers.

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