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Can You Listen Your Way to Fluency?

January 17, 2019 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Here’s a question I often get in one form or another —

“Can I listen my way to fluency?”

Short fast answer: unlikely.

A while ago I went to a lecture by Roy Lyster.

He’s one of the leading names in immersion education. Learning a language by “immersion” has been popular for decades. It started with lots of ideas in the 60s, 70s and 80s about learning a second language in what was considered a “natural” way. The idea was you’d study, say, history, and get English for free. But as Peter Skehan points out in his book A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning, kids in Immersion schools get really good at understanding. But not much else. They never get that good at speaking.

You see, it turns out we never just “pick up” a language.

And the reason why is, the brain is really good at using whatever information it can to understand…


Many of the things you hear…

… you actually don’t hear.

And so you never learn them. And many of the other things you hear…

… you actually don’t understand them correctly.

But your brain just goes ahead and fills in the gaps. And so you never really learn them.

In order to get better at English, two things have to happen repeatedly:

  1. Learning
  2. Focused use and practice

You’ve gotta learn it, then use it.

And that means taking the time to study English conversation, the phrases, expressions and chunks we use, what they mean, how we use them and importantly ー WHY we use them in the way we do. That is, the intention behind what we say.


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