Some people suggest that the best way to learn a language is by listening, similar to the way a child learns a language: listening first, then mimicking and speaking, then reading, and then writing. There are many within the language-learning community who think listening above all is the best method. There are even a few who proffer that when taking on a new language you should do nothing but listen for upwards of 300 hours first, and then start to think about speaking, reading, and writing.
Me? I didn’t start that way, but many of the people I currently study with did and their speaking skills are much better than mine. Our teacher always tells us to “sing a song, sing a song.” I can relate to that notion since I’m a musician, and yet I find myself listening a lot less than analyzing and memorizing.
When I read an article called Learn Any Language By Treating it as Music in which the profiled polyglot — Susanna Zaraysky — suggests that we should put down the word and tone charts and lists and just listen the same way we listen to music, my interest piqued. Can I make more progress by doing less book work and more active listening?
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t provide much more information in relation to language and music, but it does plant a seed around the notion of learning a language by listening as if you were listening to your favorite band. Watching music videos and learning the lyrics to songs, watching TV in the language you are trying to learn… this is the way my classmates have learned, and their vocabulary is way stronger than mine.
However, one thing I have also seen is that the majority of people who learn Thai by this method (that I know personally) are lacking in their ability to discern and correctly use the tones. On one hand I can understand how listening to Thai music can confuse the learner when it comes to tones; at that point you’re listening to the melody and not the actual tone of the syllable. But as much as I see this being a benefit for increasing vocabulary, I also see this being a huge detriment because you simply can’t ignore the importance of the tones in the Thai language.
And so I feel as if I’m at a bit of a crossroads, truth be told. I know that I have a very firm grasp of the consonants, vowels, and tones. I can read Thai very well, but since my vocabulary severely lags behind my abilities in the more “technical” areas of the Thai language, I’m wondering if I need to start spending much more time as an active listener of Thai rather than a bookworm. The music angle is greatly appealing to me as I love Thai bands like Carabao, Silly Fools, Nologo, Big Ass, Bodyslam, and Krungthep Marathon, but I don’t necessarily always listen to the lyrics so much as the music itself. When watching Thai TV with my wife I often find myself looking at the Thai script narrative rather than just watching and listening while trying to associate the visual with the auditory.
I would love to get input from my Thai learning friends and hear your opinions. Of course, there is no one correct way. Everyone has a different path to the same destination. What way works for you and why?