Audio or text? The dilemma of the beginner language learner

And if we could learn a foreign language like we learnt our mother tongue?

Surely, many of us have thought this while facing the challenge of learning a foreign language. Surely, there is something useful in understanding and analysing how children learn a language without going to a language school.

Now the question I try to address in this post is: what should come before in foreign language acquisition, listening or reading?

Input-output and language acquisition

In the language learning community a common debate focus on whether is better, at the beginner stage of language learning, to concentrate efforts only on input (reading and listening) or if a mix of input and output (writing and speaking) are more effective.

However it is also relevant to ask: what type of input is better at the beginner stage? Listening or reading? And what are the advantages and the disadvantages of focusing on the first or on the second?

While much of the traditional approach to language learning has focused on learning grammar and using texts as major sources of input, now it is also possible to find commercial language learning software and packages that focus mostly on audio input at the beginner stage. The idea behind is to learn a language like children learn their mother tongue. Indeed children learn first to understand and to speak and later to read and write.

Different types of input engage different senses and develop different abilities

If we are learning a language by scratch from a text, disjointed form their pronunciation, we would likely apply the phonetic rules of our native languages to the new target language. In other words, we are reading and learning the target language with a foreign accent. It is important to point out that, when we read a text, our mind spells in our heads the words we are reading.

If we start learning a language by focusing only on audio input we are forced to listen carefully to what we hear, we sharpen our ability to discern different sounds, and we learn new words from their sounds rather than their spelling. The advantage is that we are more likely to develop a better pronunciation. The disadvantage is that much of the input will not be comprehensible which ultimately can slow down the learning process.

A third possibility is to learn the language by listening audio and, at the same time, following on a text in the same language. The listening-reading method that I previously discussed in this blog. This method has the advantage of exposing the learner to a large amount of comprehensible input, which seems to be essential for effective language learning.

A variation of this method is to listen the target language and to follow the story on the text in our native language. This would allow the learner to learn the pronunciation of the new words without being affected by how the word is written. However, there is the risk that this method could make harder to shift to the stage when the learner can think in the target language without translating his thoughts from his native language to the target language.

In the past, I always started to learn languages by using texts and I never realised that there are different strategies with different results that can be applied at the very beginning of the learning journey. I now realised that more emphasis on audio material, when learning a language, can be an important ally to learn the correct pronunciation . I think that any learner should decide what type of input he/she would like to give more emphasis. It is important to be aware of the different possibilities and of the different effects that this choice can have on our learning process.

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