The question is a bit more specific than title would suggest, but I was not creative enough to put it so specifically into compact form. Let me explain.
When I was a kid I was learning English in elementary school, but I've also watched lot of Cartoon Network which drastically expanded my vocabulary (at least, that's my impression), so in that case it definitively helped. But in that case, for one, I was a kid, second I already had some basic knowledge, which we constantly upgraded.
The present situation is that I want to learn Norwegian. I did acquire some very basic knowledge, like saying "I want something to eat" or "Where is Parliament street?" by listening to Pimsleur Norwegian lectures. But when I watch a Norwegian movie or show I practically don't understand anything.
The question is, should I expect this to change all "by it self", will I, if, for example I watch 1h per day of some Norwegian show, start to understand the language, acquire vocabulary, understand it completely?
I'm sure that listening to a language helps in situations where you have some basic understanding and you understand every third word and your brain then connects the dots and you acquire new words as the time passes.
But does that happen, even if you don't understand a single word in most of the sentences (ok, I understand "are" , "you", "yes", "I"... a very basic set of words)? Is there some threshold of needed vocabulary so you can build on just by listening?

Here is a similar question, but it was asked in context of kids.

EDIT: I would make a distinction of interaction and listening without interaction. For example, if you put me in some Chinese village, we couldn't understand each other a word, but by interacting with people, using hands etc, as time passes I could pick some words and as time passes I'd probably understand the language. This question is in context of passive listening/watching.

  • What do you mean by "for one, I was a kid"? The fact that kids learn better is not a truth. There are theories that say that children and adults learn the same way. The difference is that kids basically do only that (and eating, sleeping, playing) and they are immerged in the language, while adults do other things too. :) Anyway, if someone can help fixin the question, it would be better. Although I'm not sure whether this is better on here or on Languages SE.
    – Alenanno
    Apr 15, 2012 at 17:34
  • @Alenanno, ok, there are hypothesis that people learn the same way no matter what age, but it doesn't make much of a difference as far as the question is concerned. I'd like to know if there are real world examples if adult people can do it this way. Because of time constraint you're talking about I want to know if it's beneficial staring at something for an hour what you don't understand in hope that it will provide results.
    – enedene
    Apr 15, 2012 at 17:57
  • It might help if you can have subtitles on in English/a language you're fluent in when you're watching these programs. Even if you don't have a great understanding yet, it would do you no harm to continue watching these programs, even if you only pick up a few phrases. Apr 15, 2012 at 21:07
  • @DangerFourpence for some things I have English subtitles, for some not. I'm sure it can't hurt, but would like to know if it can be used as a method of learning. :)
    – enedene
    Apr 15, 2012 at 21:52
  • 1
    My personal experience was that, when learning English, watching movie in English with English subtitles was more useful to me than watching a movie with subtitles in my native language.
    – Martin
    Feb 3, 2014 at 13:30

3 Answers 3


Anecdotally, I'd say yes, even after the (hypothetical) critical period for language learning I've experienced passive hearing as very helpful in acquiring a new language.

Empirically, there's a study that says that simply hearing a language is helpful in learning to understand it.

Theoretically, this makes sense. A basic problem involved in language acquisition is the Segmentation Problem: the sounds you hear are physically continuous, but you need to break them into discrete segments (separate sounds) in order for them to be intelligible. Also, as opposed to written language, spoken language doesn't necessarily give a clear signal as to where one word ends and another begins. This is one of the main stumbling blocks to acquiring a new language: you have to learn to segment what you're hearing on two levels. Now, the more you hear a stream of sounds composed of a given set of building blocks (morphemes, themselves composed of phonemes) the more information you have with which to figure out where one of them starts and another begins. Think of it like this: a sound is physically (phonetically) different depending on what sounds it is in between. By hearing it again and again in different environments, your brain can better figure out what exactly makes that sound different from other sounds, and what's just the effect of neighboring sounds.

I'd guess that passive hearing with no instruction is more effective than reading a good language-teaching book but not hearing the language. You might be able to learn how to read and write Norwegian from a book, but unless you know exactly how letters like O and R sound in Norwegian (not always quite like English!) you won't get very far in understanding it when you hear someone speak.

  • 1
    It gives 'page is not found'. Could you please give a link to the study once again?
    – unorsk
    Mar 11, 2014 at 17:01
  • Gah, only saw the comment now, by chance (haven't been here in a while.) Unfortunately by now I can't track down that study anymore and don't remember where I found it... I did find this reference to a 1986 study that also refers to this: Horwitz, E. K. (1986). "Some Language Acquisition Principles and their Implications for Second Language Teaching". Hispania 69 (3): 684–689.
    – Mike Sapp
    Jun 9, 2014 at 6:04

If you want to do this, I'd advise you to watch the same movie over and over again. You may notice that children like their caretakers to read them the same story each night, and modern children like to watch the same movie again and again. My theory for why they like this is that they like hearing the story or watching the movie because they are able to understand what is being said, whereas just listening to ambient conversation of adults much of it goes over their heads. So according to my theory, you can do it, and the way to do it is to watch the Norwegian version of The Little Mermaid, or Sesame Street, every day for one month, and maybe sing along. After a year or so of this you can switch over to slightly more challenging programs which still have clear speech, then go on to films for regular adults.


I've been in the exact opposite situation, being raised in Norway and wanting to learn the English language.

In my belief, the key factor was watching English speaking programs with Norwegian subtitles. After sufficient exposure I gave more attention to the speech and not the text, and you begin to 'draw lines', as you say, between your native language and the one you are trying to learn.

Playing games also proved useful, although a lot harder. It was basically blindly trying, and trying to understand the effect my actions had on the game. As a small child at the time, playing Pokémon can be quite the challenge when you do not speak the language. Another problem I've struggled with is words that I've only read. RETRY was a word I read as Rettry, basically just because I was eleven at the time, and I still pronounce it that way, if I'm not aware of what I'm about to say.

This is all based on personal experience, and I wish you all the best in learning Norwegian. Or; Lykke til med språket !

  • Stian, thanks for posting an answer, but I'd like to see more objectivity in here, if possible. Can you focus more on the general thing rather than in your experience or back up your statements with something?
    – Alenanno
    Jul 9, 2012 at 10:16

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