Did you take a foreign language, like Spanish, in high school or college? You might still be able to understand a little Spanish, but you wouldn’t be able to say a whole sentence if your life dependend on it. Even people who study a foreign language intensively experience the frustration of having their understanding outstrip their speaking ability. You can see this especially well in cross-cultural romantic relationships. Listening to your partner’s foreign language isn’t too hard – but when you’re talking, you revert to your own native language as soon as you get mad or impatient. Why doesn’t the knowledge that lets you understand Spanish help you out when you want to speak Spanish?
It turns out that the part of our mind that recognizes speech sounds (like the individual sounds “p”, “o”, “n”, “d” in the word “pond”) is different from the part that produces those sounds. Some brain-damaged patients with language problems can recognize sounds just fine, but have trouble speaking them. Other patients can speak sounds but can’t recognize them properly. If brain damage can knock out one ability while leaving another ability intact, then those two abilities are separate.
Although these parts of the mind are separate, they can sometimes influence each other. People can pick up on new rules about how sounds pattern in a language just by listening to it, without even being aware of the rules (if you’re curious about the details, check out the post “Effortless languag learning: not just for kids”). Under the right conditions, these new rules learned while listening can automatically affect how you speak (Warker, Xu, Dell, & Fisher, 2009). What makes this kind of transfer of knowledge from listening to speaking possible? It might happen whenever you pay very close attention while listening. Or, it might only happen when you’re trying to predict what you’re going to hear next – reserachers are still working out the details.
While these studies have people learning new rules in their native language, this research could eventually answer some questions about foreign language learning. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what kinds of speaking skills we can train just through listening? After all, it’s much easier to find a Spanish-language film to watch than to find a Spanish speaker to practice with. Of course, we’ll always have to learn certain language skills the hard way – by actually talking to someone. One more reason to quit Facebook chat and join the Spanish conversation table at lunch.
Warker JA, Xu Y, Dell GS, & Fisher C (2009). Speech errors reflect the phonotactic constraints in recently spoken syllables, but not in recently heard syllables. Cognition, 112 (1), 81-96 PMID: 19398099