How to effectively use audiobooks when studying foreign languages

There are many engaging activities that you can do to make the best of audio files and text files, but before we start let’s discuss a few language learning concepts. I’m going to compare and contrast how children acquire language through listening and speaking and how adults acquire foreign languages through reading.

Listen first
As a father of a 1 year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe how my children are acquiring languages in a trilingual environment. They hear and listen to languages all day long. Before they learn to speak, they first learn to understand what they hear. They also receive visual cues when listening in order to make a connection between sound and physical objects. For example, if I ask them to hand me a toy or turn on the light, they make a connection between the oral command and the object that I refer to. When I read stories to my children, they look at the drawings and pictures in the books and associate the spoken words with the images.

Listening and speaking before reading
When my son first started to speak, he received lots of feedback and positive encouragement to reaffirm what he was already familiar with in terms of his active and passive listening. Now he is very communicative and understands what he hears and speaks in full sentences. His pronunciation still needs some correction, but that will gradually improve over time. He is also starting to discover letters, and will eventually learn to read, but this next stage comes after his accumulated experience in both listening and speaking.

How do many adults approach audiobooks in their native language?
If you listen to an audiobook in your native language, perhaps you put the audio on in the background and passively listen to it while you drive or commute to work or do some chores at home. It is not likely that you sit down and actively read the book while actively listening to the recording. Why? Well, as a native speaker, your listening skills and reading skills are most likely sufficient enough for you to either listen and understand or read and understand without needing to do both at the same time, and forcing yourself to actively do both at the same time may feel unnatural.

How do many adults approach books in a foreign language?
Many adults unfortunately get frustrated when trying to read literature in a foreign language because they may not easily and immediately understand the content or the difficulty level of the text is too challenging because the vocabulary and grammar may be too far above their current reading level or too far below their current reading level, which may be perceived as boring and too easy. Also, some adults disengage if they are not interested in the topic. Many books that adults read contain very few pictures or visual aids to reaffirm understanding of the text. The key then is to find reading content that you enjoy reading, easily understand and that is at or slightly above your current reading level so that you feel challenged, but not easily discouraged. You can take a free reading comprehension test at Engaging English to find out your current reading level and find a selection of reading material at your level and according to your interests during the free trial.

Remove the comprehension obstacle from the equation
The following table can help you visualize the different situations that may arise when reading a book in your native language compared to in a foreign language.

Familiar content Unfamiliar content
Familiar language 1 2
Unfamiliar language 3 4

As I mentioned above, if you read a book in your native language, there are two situations that happen. If you read a story that you have already read or are familiar with in your native language, the experience is most likely very easy and not challenging because you have already gained comprehension of the content. That is situation 1. If you read a new story in your native language, your familiarity with your native language is enough for you to focus on understanding the new, unfamiliar content. Depending on the topic or difficulty level of the vocabulary, this may be a challenge. That is situation 2.

When reading books in a foreign language, many adults end up choosing books that they have not read before or that are about unfamiliar subject matter. This unfortunately creates a very difficult situation in terms of trying to learn an unfamiliar language and trying to understand unfamiliar content at the same time. That is situation 4. However, the ideal situation (3) is to find familiar content in a foreign language so that focus can be maintained on learning and acquiring the language and less effort is spent on trying to understand the content. One way to accomplish this is to find familiar topics such as children’s stories, biographies, tourism, and historical accounts.

Another option, which I do, to accelerate this process is to find and read translations into my native language of what I would like to read in a foreign language. This converts situation 4 into situation 2 and eliminates the initial language barrier when trying to understand new, unfamiliar content. By using a translation into my native language, I can focus on just the understanding. Then having read the content in my native language, the new, unfamiliar content becomes familiar and by removing the comprehension barrier, I can now focus on observing and acquiring the foreign language, which is the ideal learning environment of situation 3.

Similar to my children’s language acquisition process, I focus on repeatedly listening to the audiobook in situation. When I feel comfortable, I try to imitate the pronunciation of words that I understand and can pronounce. Then I try to pronounce sentences and imitate the intonation, pausing, and phrasing of the recording. When I have gained confidence with my pronunciation, then I begin to read the text and associate the familiar sounds with the written words. Eventually, I try to read along out loud with paragraphs and entire passages so that my pronunciation flows smoothly, and I can focus on improving my speaking without having to worry about generating my own new content.

By breaking down the reading process into isolated steps or phases, we can focus on easily gaining comprehension before focusing on acquiring the foreign language. Remember to repeatedly listen as much as possible, followed by imitating and speaking to reinforce listening, and finally move on to reading the text as soon as listening comprehension and speaking are strong enough.

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