Lazy linguists have never had it better. Scientific American reports on two recent studies which suggest speeding up your language learning may be a lot easier than you think.
For one thing, findings in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America indicate that people who work continuously on learning sounds in a new language performed no better than people who took breaks — paying attention to another task — while those sounds played on in the background.
Granted, this doesn’t mean you can go from a ¿Dónde está el baño?–level of Spanish to impeccable fluency after two hours of napping in the glow of a telenovela, but it’s still pretty encouraging. And according to a study in the Journal of Memory and Language, you’ll learn to distinguish sounds in a foreign language faster through passive listening rather than trying to repeat those sounds yourself at the same time.
“You need to come to class and pay attention,” linguist Melissa Baese-Berk (co-author of both of these studies) told Scientific American. “But when you go home, turn on the TV, or turn on the radio in that language while you’re cooking dinner, and even if you’re not paying total attention to it, it’s going to help you.” So sit back, relax, and enjoy the phonemes for a minute.