Language learning

Listening in English to help your foreign language

First off today I have a little announcement – I have a guest post up at the Livemocha blog today! I’m very excited about it, so I’d love it if you went to check it out here. If you’re coming here from Livemocha, welcome!

Courtesy of Melvin Gaal on Flickr

Image courtesy of Melvin Gaal on Flickr

I wanted to share a little trick with you today. Hopefully it will help you to sound a little more natural in your second language. It’s all about listening to how native speakers of your target language speak in English.

It sounds a little backwards, but it can be really helpful. I can see two main benefits to doing this.

1. You’ll get to know how they translate things into English, which will give you hints about how to translate from English.

2. You’ll hear what sounds they have trouble with in English and what sounds they use instead.

Let me explain.


I’m sure you’ve all heard a non-native English speaker choose a word that you wouldn’t have chosen. It gets the point across but isn’t the most natural or most fitting word. Have you ever thought about why they chose that word over another? It could be just that that’s the word they learnt. But if you look into it a little you might find another reason.

I used to live with quite a few Spanish people. None of them would ever say ‘tonight’, they’d always ‘this night’. I just thought it was an oddity that they’d been taught or picked up. But when I thought about it I realised they were just directly translating from Spanish. The Spanish term for ‘tonight’ is ‘esta noche’ which does mean ‘this night’. The Spanish people I knew had simply translated word for word and hung onto the structure they were used to.

I also knew a German girl who would never use the word ‘realise’, she’d use ‘recognise’. She’d say ‘…and I recognised the sign said ____’ or ‘did you recognise that guy looked like Robert?’ You understand exactly what she’s saying but a native English speaker would never use that word in that way. I asked her once and she said that the German for ‘realise’ also meant ‘recognise’ and that was just the translation she knew. My German is very basic so I don’t know how true this is but I do think it’s interesting.

By learning to recognise these little things you get to know a little bit more about the language. You can get to see what words we have that they don’t have a simple direct translation for (no one word for ‘tonight’) and they way they express that idea (‘this night’).


The other way this can help is with your pronunciation. When a foreigner is speaking English we can often tell where they’re from by their accent. There’s all sorts of stereotypes about it, like Chinese mixing up /l/ and /r/ and Italians adding vowels to the end of every word. But again, thinking more about this can be of great use to the language learner.

We all know that not every individual sound humans can make appear in every language. When learning a language with sounds that don’t appear in your native language it can be difficult as you’ve lost the ability to make that sound. Babies are born with the ability to make all sounds but lose the ability as we get to know which ones they need to use as we start talking.

When the language you’re learning has different sounds (or phonemes) often we substitute in sounds that are more familiar to us. We don’t do this on purpose – sometimes we don’t hear the difference in two sounds in the target language so we use one sound for both, and sometimes we can hear the sound but just can’t make it happen.

Say you’re learning Italian. Have a listen to an Italian who’s learning English and listen to the mistakes they make. What sounds do they miss? What sounds from their language do they substitute in? Actively listening to this will make you more aware of what you need to focus on. You will realise that the English sound X is probably similar to but not quite the Italian sound Y. You can then focus on separating the two sounds and practice the one you want for Italian.

The little time it takes to have a chat in English can shed some light on other languages if you put in the effort to really listen. I hope this little tip can help you as your learning your new languages.

Have you noticed this before at all? Any anecdotes to share?


4 thoughts on “Listening in English to help your foreign language

  1. I am visiting this sight from the Livemocha sight. I think that your suggestion to listen to how other non-native speakers say words in English should be very helpful in learning Ukrainian. Thanks for the great tip !!!

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