The Radio in the Background Trick

This post is about listening to the radio, which is a pretty basic activity. So in one sense there’s no “trick” to this.

But there is something specific I do to make listening to the radio more useful–and this has made a big difference in the quality of my exposure to the language.

By Alf van Beem [CC0], Image Source

By Alf van Beem [CC0], Image Source

The Importance of Listening

The four skills, or “competencies,” of language learning are reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

Each of those is important. But I really think that listening is the most vital for language learners, because developing good listening comprehension ability opens the door for other skills to flourish.

I’ve written about this in depth, but basically listening is important because it:

  • Drives language acquisition (that is, subconscious processing of language)
  • Exposes you to words over and over again, at high speed, giving you an organic form of spaced repetition
  • Develops your intuitive sense of a language’s patterns by exposing you to its rhythms, stresses, and sounds
  • Is a vital component of speaking–if for no other reason because you need to be able to understand your conversation partner
  • Builds neural structures to help your brain process your new language

A lot of benefit to be had by simply opening up your ears, right?

The Radio in the Background Trick

In my book, I emphasize “free listening.” I was careful not to call it “passive listening,” because I really think you have to pay at least some attention to the material you’re listening to to get the benefits.

I love having the radio on in the background while I work. I’ll tune it to a station that’s broadcast in whatever language I’m studying. In the past, it’s been German and Spanish. Right now, it’s Tagalog. (FYI, TuneIn is a good place to get foreign-language radio stations.)

But you’re not paying attention to background radio noise. It becomes part of, well, the background. So how does this help?

Here’s the trick:

I keep the radio on all day while I’m working, tuned in to a station that’s broadcast in the language I’m sudying. Then I take frequent mini-breaks to really listen to what’s going on.

For instance, I’ll work for twenty minutes and then take a two-minute break to listen. Then I’ll work for thirty minutes and take another five-minute listening break.

Also, throughout the day, something will catch my attention. Maybe it’s a clearly spoken commercial. Or it’s a song I like. I’ll stop and listen and try to understand.

I don’t treat this like it’s studying. I’m usually curious about what’s being said and I want to hear what’s going on.

Does This Work?

I wish I could tell you how much actual, attentive listening I really get out of this, but I don’t track my time. It’s at least a half hour, and honestly, it’s probably a lot more than that.

Whatever the amount is, it’s more than I would get by not using this trick. The nice thing about this is that it just makes the language readily available, and I can pick out some language input whenever I want it. It’s like living in an orchard; the apples hanging from the trees aren’t satisfying your hunger, but they’re always around you, so you can pick one whenever you want it.

And you don’t have to work in an office to do this. You can do the same thing during your commute, or while you’re working in your garden, or while you’re surfing the Net. (I tried it while working out, but it made my workouts unpleasant. Your experience with that may vary.)

I listen to the radio anyway. I enjoy music, and love having it on while I’m typing away at my keyboard. So it’s not like implementing this has been a huge lifestyle burden for me. All I have to do is make sure I stop every once in a while and really listen to what’s being said.

Any kind of attentive listening will improve your language skills, so if you combine this trick with other strategies–speaking practice, some vocab building, some studying from an app or book–you’ll see continuous, steady progress.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    FYI, RadioSure may be a better choice (tongue firmly in cheek and no software fanaticism on my part).

    BTW, congratulation with Philippines now available on MapCrunch. Now you can read the signs on the street.
    My blog:

    • Ron G.

      LOL, same here–I really don’t have a preference. I’m beginning to be able to anticipate what kinds of questions pop up, so I wanted to mention where I’m getting the radio station from these days. Thanks for the tip!

  • Natalie

    I did this for Russian (I still do it, actually) and it helps SO much. Seriously, if you’re not listening to foreign language radio, you’re missing out!

    • Ron G.

      Right? It helps so much. There have been times when that’s all I do, and it really helps.