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How to Use Audiobooks for Language Learning

Audiobooks are a great way to train your ear to become accustomed to the sounds and rhythms of a foreign language. They make an innovative and interesting addition to textbooks, apps, and your weekly catch up with your tutor — whatever your language learning routine is.

First, head to the genre page on Libro.fm. Click on a genre that appeals to you — there’s something for everyone, from romance to young adult to thrillers, politics, and science fiction. Then, on the right hand side of the page if you’re on a computer, or at the top of the page on a phone, filter the results by language.

Listen to children’s books

If you’re not sure where to start, try the kids’ classics. Reading books whose plot we are already familiar with is a helpful thing to do when language learning, because it frees up our brains* to focus on processing new words, sounds, and structures, rather than on focusing on the story itself. 

It’s also comforting and confidence-building for the listener to know where you are in the story even if you’re not catching every word, every sentence, or even every paragraph. 

Kids’ books are often short, too, with short chapters, and it’s best to set yourself an achievable goal. 

*(I’m not a scientist, so any mentions of brains in this article are based on my intuition as an experienced language tutor rather than scientific fact.)

Listen to a genre you are interested in

If you’re a more advanced learner, and you’re wanting to try adult books, go for a genre that you’re naturally drawn to. Sometimes, language learning is tough, so give yourself a break — add some enjoyment to the mix! That makes you more likely to get around to picking up your audiobook. 

Listen slowly 

Libro.fm lets you listen to audiobooks at various speeds, including 0.9, 0.75, and 0.5. This is a great tool for language learning — make use of it!

Do something with your hands to help you concentrate

Many of us are used to multitasking when we listen to audiobooks, and the temptation can be, for example, to mindlessly scroll through our phones as we do so. Before we know it, we aren’t really listening to the audiobook anymore. In our native language, it’s easy enough to tune back in, but the gear shift is harder in a foreign language.

So, here’s an idea: keep your hands busy with a colouring book or an uncomplicated project so that you’re not tempted to reach for Twitter! Here are some other suggestions for activities to do while listening to an audiobook

Ambient language

But maybe you’re not at the stage (or in the mood) where you’re bothered about understanding the arc of the story or even picking out whole sentences. It’s also perfectly valid to have the audiobook on as ambient noise as you go about other tasks. Your brain will be processing things and analyzing patterns without you even realizing it. 

Listen and read at the same time

If you do want to make sure you’re following the story as well as building up your vocabulary, there’s no better way than to listen while following along in the book. When you’re a beginner, it will also help you with pronunciation, as you begin to piece together what each letter sounds like in your new language. At a more advanced level, it’ll help you pick out and become used to the more complex grammar you’ve been studying.

Don’t look up every word

The temptation when you’re taking in any new language — whether by reading, listening, or watching a screen — is to pause and look up every word you don’t know. That quickly becomes discouraging, and makes even reading the shortest novel into a gargantuan task. And it’s not necessary! Even when we read in our native language, we don’t know every word — but we figure it out from context. It gives your brain a good workout to let it do that, and helps you figure out linguistic patterns and build on what you already know.

But do look up some words 

That said, if you are looking to build up your vocabulary and not just get used to the sounds and structures of the language, it is useful to look up some words, especially any recurring ones that seem to be key to understanding the story. If you don’t know that mago means wizard in Spanish, for example, you might have a hard time understanding Harry Potter. Though that’s also the perfect example of a word you’ll probably be able to guess from context. 

And then, pro-tip from a linguist: once you’ve looked up the words, write them down, by hand, in a physical notebook. Write the new word on one side of the paper, and your native word on other. Occasionally read through this list, hiding one side or the other and testing yourself. That way, the words will stick long-term.

And then come back and tell us how you’re doing and what books you’ve found useful for improving your chosen language!

Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

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How to Use Audiobooks for Language Learning

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