Hey fellow linguophile! Here’s a brief guide to audiobooks for language learning, which is, using audiobooks as a tool to foster language skills.
Audiobooks are awesome for picking up a language from scratch, practising one you’re already conversational in, or reinforcing specific skills.
Much like podcasts, the audiobook phenomenon took the world by storm. 🌩️ It goes way beyond this, but sure as hell it can be hugely beneficial for language learning.
And now the issues begin: 🤔
How can one do it in a productive way? Shall I take notes while listening? What’s the best platform? Any series you’d recommend? Should I do postpone it to an advanced level? ⁉️⁉️
Not all answers are easy, nor are they intuitive. You want to avoid pressing the play button for two months then realizing “OMG, I haven’t learnt anything”.
So, in this post, I poured what I’ve found. If you have an attention span longer than a squirrel on meth, please read on. 🐿️
Let’s begin by the reasons for which you should put audiobooks in your language learning routine, then pass to how to use them and where to find them.
8 reasons for using audiobooks for language learning
For multiple reasons.
You don’t want to spend your whole time bent on books
To learn a language, you’re required to spend a certain amount of time in front of your textbooks, dictionaries, lexicon collections and notes.
But you don’t want to do only that kind of learning. 🙇♀️ Audiobooks provide a relaxing, yet productive break from that.
Audiobooks bring back your storytelling side
Things have changed dramatically over the past few centuries: we used to be an oral culture just as we are a visual one now. 🗣️
Without printed books, TV or the Internet, gathering around the fireplace was the thing: that’s where we were sharing experiences, having an agorà for debate, generational wisdom was passing onto the youth. 🔥
In traditional cultures, the storyteller was kept in high regard, as they were the depositary of knowledge: just to mention an example, think about the epic Kalevala tellers.
Then, it all changed.
Clay tablets from the Babylon, wall inscriptions, papyrus, parchments, paper, printing press, the Internet. 💻
I’m not complaining. Progress has been awesome: we now can register words on books, tapes and magnetic disks. It’s easier than ever to share information, get educated, improve each other.
But… my feeling is that we lost touch with a part of us. 👂
There’s an inner component of listening that is made of deep, full concentration, as there is no (there was no) going back to re-listen to it. As a human and as a language learner, I feel empowered doing it.
Besides, the right book with the right narrator is an orgasm for the ears. 💥 If you’re not a native English speaker (all the same if you are), try to listen to The Hobbit narrated by Andy Serkis, for example:
Narrated by Andy Serkis. When a masterful pen, that of Tolkien, meets a masterful voice.
You have more time off your desk than at it
If you are just as busy as the average human being, I don’t know how you manage to have time for studying and for yourself. 😓
Working, going to the gym, preparing meals, doing groceries 🥕, laundries, ironing, getting to the doctor, paying homage to your elders once or twice a week, sending kids to school 🚸, saying “hi” to your spouse…
Is there any time left for learning languages? Little, I bet.
It makes all the more sense to try to squeeze some return out of your downtimes. Listening to an audiobook is an excellent thing to do when:
- you’re in any waiting room,
- you’re walking your Basset Hound, 🐶
- you’re queueing,
- you’re commuting to the office,
- you’re doing the exercises given to you from your back school, 🚶
- you’re doing housework. 🧹
It may be that you lose yourself along the track, as you’re performing something while you listen to the audiobook. True. Mindless listening is worth nothing, but intermitting listening is better than anything, and life it’s all about doing what you can with the possibilities at your disposal.
If you cannot lay idle to listen to your audiobook, just because you’re too busy, do it while doing your chores: if they’re low in cognitive demand, it is still a valuable exercise.
We all shall accept that getting it perfect is not a plan: getting it done, it’s the plan. 💪
Audiobooks allow you to rest your eyes
If you’re a modern earthling in a modern world, chances are you’re exploiting your eyes above the other four senses.
What about giving them a little rest? 👀
You could very well introduce a bit of entertainment and learning, in your life, entirely oral: you’d discover a new way of having fun and your irises will be grateful for it.
You (also) need to read and listen at the same time in order to learn a language
This is a super-duper trick for a language learner. 🇫🇷 🇮🇹 🇪🇸
It’s not in contrast with the suggestion of letting your eyes rest. Below a B2, listening and reading a text simultaneously is a phenomenal exercise: you need to learn pronunciation and prosody, and that’s the best way to do it.
You can leave behind the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and all of its imitations: it’s better to read a word while listening to it. Every book you complete this way is a stepping stone toward complete fluency. 🎓
Let’s suppose you’re learning French. You encounter the word mouchoir. Now, you are not sure about how to pronounce it: you can go to the dictionary, find out that you should pronounce it \mu.ʃwaʁ\ and… get little from it. 😐
A French audiobook proposal? L’Étranger:
Written by Albert Camus, read by Michael Lonsdale. That’s excellent at a B1-B2, while learning French also through other methods.
Instead, if you read and listen at the same time, you hear that \mu.ʃwaʁ\ pronounced! That word and thousand others. In this day and age, you can ditch the IPA and go straight to a human pronunciation.
My mention of French is not casual. It’s one of the languages with the least phonetic correspondence in the world. 🇫🇷 What does it mean?
It means that what you write (graphemes) have little correspondence to what you hear (phonemes): that’s why there are thirteen different ways of writing the phoneme /o/: eu, eau, eux, eaux, oe, au, o… 🤨
This is the most effective way to:
1. Acquire a proper pronunciation,
2. get acquainted with the prosody of the language, and
3. learn some fundamental orthography. ✍️
Having clarified the usefulness of audiobooks to learn a foreign language, let’s proceed to the next point.
Listening skills are crucial
To a language learner, being able to listen and understand a piece of speech means a lot. A lot.
To begin with, you want to consume comprehensible materials: listen to audiobooks and podcasts in which you understand on the spot 70 to 80% of it. 🎧
Day by day, you build a strong listening muscle, enabling you to go up in complexity, up to measure yourself against materials for native speakers, which are basically everything that’s not educational.
It’s really important to have sharp ears, either if you intend to sit an official exam or if you just want to use your language.
Acquire correct pronunciation and prosody through audiobooks
It’s impossible to be fluent in speaking if you’re not fluent in listening. To speak Arabic like a Damascene, Italian as a Florentine and Spanish as a Madrid-born, you need to listen a lot.
Get familiar with varieties
What an excellent way of becoming acquainted with language varieties! Imagine listening to an audiobook such as:
- La Tregua by Mario Benedetti, read in Rioplatense Spanish, or
- Montedidio by Erri de Luca in Italian with a Neapolitan accent, 💚 or
- La Détresse et l’enchantement by Gabrielle Roy narrated by a Quebec French awesome voice.
In short, although relatively new, there’s already an astounding abundance of audiobooks.
Getting the gist of the audiobook suffices
You can look up every term you’re unsure about, but that may make it eternal. It all boils down to how deep you want to dig: with books is fairly easy; with audiobooks, checking every unknown word is rather impractical. 😖
What matters is to be generative: if you get the big picture, you’re fine even learning a couple of new words per minute rather than twenty. If you have to stop often, you’ve shot too high: pick a lighter audiobook.
Listening twice (or more) is fine
More than fine: it’s recommendable, whether at an A2 in Chinese or a C2 in Italian. There’s always a lot to unpack in an audiobook.
Chose known books too
Just as with hardcopies, listening to an audiobook you already know in another language is 100% helpful: you focus less on the story and more on the language itself. 👍
A Brazilian Portuguese audiobook: Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas
Written by Machado de Assis, read by Gustavo Ottoni.
From comprehension to production
Try to keep in mind vocabulary, expressions and prosody you have absorbed through audiobooks and use them right away.
Make it a daily commitment: if you can’t talk to anyone that day, talk to yourself. 🗣️
8 tips to listen to an audiobook better
One may think: do I really need a strategy? Isn’t just pressing play ▶️ and listening? Well, yes and no. More no than yes, actually. 🤔
There are some points you need to keep in mind.
The 80/20 rule of audiobooks
You have to be familiar with 80% of what you listen so that the unknown remaining 20% represents the territory you have to conquer that day.
If you understand 100% of what you hear, it’s still linguistic practice, which is better than listening to something in your native language; but it’s not quite cognitive linguistic effort.
The soft spot is what you have to aim for: if you understand less than 80%, you’re slowed down and it will be hard to follow it. 😓
Bear in mind that, if it was a written material, understanding a 50% would still be feasible, however painful: but in an audiobook is so not practical.
A German audiobook: Homo Deus
Written by Yuval Noah Harari, read by Jürgen Holdorf.
Focus on your audiobook
One often-overlooked factor is focus.
We say, I included, that you can enjoy an audiobook while doing other things, but there’s an important caveat here: from an audiobook, you only absorb according to the amount of focus you put on it. 😐
Let’s simplify. Ben and Jerry are twins, they have equal IQ and equal language skills. Now, Ben listens to audiobooks for two hours per day while mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, walking the dog. On the other hand, Jerry does it fully focused for the same amount of time.
Jerry learns a huge deal, while Ben grasps something every now and again, but way below his possibilities. Self-evident? 🤨 Hmmm, you’d be surprised to know how much I hear stuff like:
I don’t get it. I have listened to three audiobooks about society, family and human rights in Italian and I still struggle talking about it.
I seem to retain way less than what I put in my ears.
Listening mindlessly to a tonne of audiobooks is different than listening attentively to extract all the language learning available from them. It’s about prioritizing quality over quantity. 🤓
Swedish audiobook here: Harry Potter och De Vises Sten
Written by JK Rowling, read by Björn Kjellman.
To make the most out of an audiobook, you ideally should:
- Free your mind and adopt a relaxed posture,
- tap the play icon,
- be there, trying to absorb as much as possible without taking notes.
That’s easier to do if:
- You have somewhere quiet to withdraw from the world,
- you are fresh from physical exercise or meditation, 🕉️
- you have some interest in the topic of the audiobook.
Meditating 30 minutes per day is an excellent thing to do, whether you’re an audiobook consumer or not. Not only you’ll see an improvement in your attention span, but you’re going to experience a leap in your quality of life if you stick to it long enough.
Listening to audiobooks while you stroll in a quiet area is also good, as long as you manage to plunge into the audiobook flow: countryside, woods, 🌲 your hometown at midday in August, you name it. If it’s not away from civilization, you may get distracted: cars, stray dogs, all sort of things.
Now, one may exhibit a scornful smile and ask me:
Pff, I live a busy life in a crazy town. I can only listen to audiobooks when commuting or training: are you telling me that I better leave it? 🤨
And my answer is: no, you shouldn’t stop listening to audiobooks, but neither you should BS yourself. An audiobook at half focus is only half exploited. Still, it’s better than nothing, so go ahead.
There’s an extra factor to it: listening to an audiobook in your mother tongue does already require more focus than a paper book, and even more focus if in another language. If on top of that you pay little attention, chances are you’ll drop it soon. 😣
A classic Italian audiobook: Il Gattopardo
Written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, read by Toni Servillo.
Watch out audiobooks in the public domain
They aren’t as useful as they told you on countless places, sorry about that.
There are audiobooks available for free on the web: notably, Librivox, the only resource you should consider in that regard. Why aren’t they so useful? 😕
Platforms like Librivox do an awesome job in giving voice to books which copyright isn’t in place any more: one must be grateful to count on them. 🙏
For a language learner, though, it’s not a terrific resource because books from the beginning of the 20th century are normally written in a Spanish, French, Italian which are not those one learns nowadays.
I’m not saying they’re not interesting: they totally are. But they’re just disconnected from contemporary language and, unless you’re already at a C1 and you appreciate humanities, I wouldn’t consider them.
The other issue is amateurism: while I appreciate the effort, some recordings are low-quality. 📉
To solve this, you may want to resort to other platforms: they may offer little for free, but some are worth a few pennies. My favourite is Amazon’s audiobook division. There are several players in this field, but…
- Some platforms are overpriced,
- some have a tiny portfolio in any foreign language,
- and some offer little more than machine-read clips.
Amazon’s Audible is frankly unbeatable, you can find a complete review here:
A different strategy for a different phase
Listening to the right materials is something you should do right from the beginning of your language learning journey.
When you’re at A1, you spend more time on textbooks than audiobooks, or you take a course the like of Pimsleur, or both. 🎧
Then, you introduce graded readers, with texts and audio clips suited for your level (A2, B1, B2): aside from them, some other genres are naturally suited for intermediate learners: anything which is For dummies or 101, young adults…
Then, you eventually land audiobooks for native speakers: as of a C1, you can and you should. Just as at previous phases, there are squarely advanced genres: most fantasy and literature, for example, are daunting before a C1. 😨
The language is complex, archaizing. As you don’t go to the grocer and talk like Chaucer, neither should you do that when learning Russian, German, Amharic.
The Spanish audiobook: Don Quijote de la Mancha
Written by Miguel de Cervantes, read by Eladio and Jesús Ramos.
Audiobooks for language learning: FAQ
Q: What Apps do you recommend to find / store / play audiobooks?
A: I’ve tried several. For a language learner, no App beats Audible, not on any single feature, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Q: I’ve been following a narrator, rather than an author or a genre. Is that normal?
A: More than you can imagine. 😀
Q: I’d like to learn [insert language here]. Does it even exist in the audiobooksphere?
A: Well, certain languages are overrepresented: Hebrew, Swedish, Spanish, Italian. Certain others not so much: European Portuguese, Arabic, Greek.
Still, in most languages you have enough audiobooks to cater for any interest you may have. 📀💿📀
Q: Don’t you listen to audiobooks at 2.5x?
A: For fun, for a minute, I may try. Other than that, I find it quite useless, no matter what the speedreading gurus proclaim.
In conclusion: shall I start devouring audiobooks?
If you hold dear your language fluency, you should.
Here’s a checklist to see how if including audiobooks in your language diet is a sound strategy. If you:
- Are committed to learning a language,
- are a busy person, 🏃♀️
- would like to fit more reading into your daily schedule, because carving out decent time slots to entirely immerse yourself into books is impossible,
- are aware of their limitations,
then audiobooks are a very solid option. 📙▶️
Now I have some questions for you:
Have you already used audiobooks to foster your language skills? Do you have any tip to share? Is there any virtue or shortcoming I might have neglected?
Please share through the comment section below. As usual, thanks for the time taken to read this and enjoy your learning. 😀
Your personal linguistic counsellor,