How to Learn Faster with the Best Foreign Language Audiobooks

Want to level up your language skills?

Give your headphones and speakers the workout of their life with foreign language audiobooks!


5 Study Tips to Make Audiobooks Work for You

First, a few general tips to give you a great head start.

1. Take notes. If you hear new words you want to remember, write them down. This will help you retain information and make it easier to reference in the future. It’s much easier to find a word in a notebook or computer document than it is to search through an entire audiobook to find the place you heard it!

2. Get a hard copy. Choose an audio language course with an accompanying hardcopy book, or try to find a hardcopy of the children’s or adult book you are listening to. Even though you shouldn’t get into the habit of reading along every time you listen, having the hardcopy material available is helpful when you come across new words and phrases that you just can’t catch.

3. Listen first. Written material can help you learn and retain information, but it can also be a crutch. One of the advantages of an audiobook is that it forces you to learn by listening, a skill you need in order to communicate that a lot of people underestimate. Use your notes, a hardcopy book and a dictionary as you learn, but try to listen to an entire section or chapter before you start to rely on written material.

4. Repeat again and again. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn. Most audio language courses are designed to repeat material for this reason. If you’re listening to a children’s or adult audiobook entirely in the foreign language you’re studying, you will need to repeat sections for yourself. Listen several times so that you grow comfortable with what you’re hearing.

5. Practice in real life. If you’re taking a class or meeting with a conversation partner, bring along your list of new vocabulary words, and practice using them with a native speaker. Engage your friends in conversation about the audiobooks you’re listening to, and learn more about what they think. When you practice words in different contexts, you help yourself remember them better.

Beginner Level: Audio Language Courses

The best type of audiobook for a beginner is an audio language course. They’re typically tailored for beginners and travelers who need to learn phrases quickly so that they can communicate on a trip. You’ll find that an audio course teaches you useful everyday words and phrases in a pleasant, enjoyable format, while giving you lots of practice listening to native speakers.

You’re probably familiar with audio language courses, since these are the most common and accessible foreign language books available. You’ve probably even impulse-bought an audio phrasebook of some kind before!

How to choose the best audio language course:

  • Check out your favorite library, bookstore or website. It’s easy to find audio language courses for most of the commonly studied foreign languages. Look for titles like “Spanish for Dummies,” Pimsleur, Collins or Earworms.
  • Take advantage of textbook CDs or audio files. Many textbooks offer access to online audio files for practice listening. Investigate this option if you’re already using a textbook to study.

Once you’ve got your audio language course, turn it on and start learning! But before that, here are some more little tips to ease the process.

Make it work for you:

  • Supplement with grammar materials. The everyday words you’ll learn with an audio course will help you ask simple questions and understand the answers. But most audio courses focus on stand-alone phrases and don’t provide detailed grammar instruction. If you find yourself wanting to say not just, “I’m going to the museum,” but, “Yesterday I went to the museum,” you may have to look further than your audio course.  Build on the phrases in your audiobook by supplementing with a grammar book or website that explains grammar rules.
  • Don’t be afraid to skip ahead. If you discover that the material most important to you is in one of the later “chapters” of an audio course, skip right to it! Although most audio language courses build on the material taught in previous chapters, there’s no reason why you need to wait if what you want to learn most is 45 minutes into the audio course. Go ahead and listen to what you’re drawn to!
  • Make an audio course part of your larger language-learning routine—not the entire routine. Most of us retain information best when we get it from a variety of different inputs. Look up new words in a dictionary, use a textbook for additional learning, watch videos online and talk with a conversation partner for a complete picture of how the language is used in different contexts.

    Find programs that incorporate listening as well as other skills at the same time. FluentU, for example, takes short, culturally-relevant videos, and adds interactive subtitles to improve both your reading and listening comprehension skills. The more varied your language inputs, the better chance you have of retaining information and learning how words are used in different situations.

Intermediate Level: Children’s Books

Intermediate-level language learners are ready to move beyond the basics and will probably enjoy the challenge of authentic audio materials—the type of audiobooks native speakers might use themselves.

An adult audiobook in a foreign language can be daunting even to the most confident language student, so it’s best to start with children’s books. You’ll find that they are approachable, fun and remarkably useful for learning.

To choose the best children’s book for you, follow these suggestions:

  • Have fun! Children’s books are meant to be fun. Luckily, most are designed to be engaging, educational, and interesting, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a good one.
  • Ask native speakers which books they like best. What do native speakers read to their children? What books do they remember from childhood? Choosing books that are beloved by native speakers is a good way to ensure you don’t pick a “dud” and may mean that you’ll find an audience interested in discussing it with you.
  • Avoid archaic language. Some of the best children’s stories are folktales, poems and stories passed down for centuries. While these provide wonderful opportunities for cultural learning, it’s best to avoid archaic language when you first start out. Archaic language is likely to be confusing to language learners and will not be as useful if you plan to use phrases you learn to speak with people on an everyday basis (you probably don’t want to tell your friend the equivalent of, “I bequeath you this piece of cake”). Start with more modern stories, and work your way up to stories with more complex language.

Of course, the easiest way to start learning with an audiobook is to simply turn it on and listen. But having a plan and some resources will help you keep on track.

Make it work for you:

  • Focus on the story.  Don’t worry about looking up every single word. Instead, look up a few key words and then listen again to see how much more you can understand. It might be overwhelming if you try to look up every word you don’t know.
  • Emulate the narrator—but not too much. Children’s book narrators are fantastic storytellers. Emulating the narrator is great practice, but just remember that you don’t want to sound like you’re talking to children every time you speak!

Advanced Level: Novels and Non-Fiction for Young Adults and Adults

When you’ve got the hang of children’s audiobooks, it’s time to start listening to novels and non-fiction.

Give a little thought to what you plan to listen to. It will likely be much longer than a children’s book, so it’s important to select something that will hold your attention.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Choose a book native speakers are reading. Look for lists of top-selling books in your target language, and ask native speakers what they like to read. A book that native speakers have appreciated is more likely to be interesting and will offer more opportunities for discussion with native speakers than an obscure book will.
  • Consider starting with a book you’ve read in your native language. You’ll already be familiar with the characters and plot, so you may be able to follow along easier without looking up as many words. If you’ve read a book in translation that was originally written in your target language, this is an ideal book to start with. Reading the book in the language it was written in will provide you with a new and more complete perspective of the story.
  • Take a gander at young adult novels. Young adult novels often have mass appeal and are written in “plainer” language than adult novels. These can be fun to read and a little bit less daunting than starting with an adult audiobook.
  • Avoid classics—at least for a while. Classics are enduring stories and have great cultural value, but they can be difficult to understand, even for native speakers.  Unless you know that a certain classic novel is written in language that’s easy to understand, it’s best to start with books written in more colloquial language. After you’re familiar with the audiobook format, then you might start trying to listen to classics.

After you’ve selected the audiobook you’re going to “read,” it’s time to get started!

Make it work for you:

  • Get a hardcopy in your native language, if possible. Although you shouldn’t rely on the book in your native language, having one to consult may help you feel confident you are following the story correctly and getting all the nuanced information. Just remember not to attempt to translate word-for-word or even sentence-for-sentence because the exact phrasing may be different.
  • Move on! Listening repeatedly improves your comprehension and helps you memorize new words, but a full-length book is too long for you to spend too much time on any one section. While you may be able to listen again and again to a children’s book, an adult book is much more about flow and overall comprehension than it is about the specifics of any single section.
  • Focus on the big picture. Your goal should be to understand the story and learn a few new words in the process—not to look up every single word you hear. You will hear some of the same words repeated again and again and will begin to form an idea of what these words mean and how they’re used in different contexts. Recognize that it’s okay to “get the gist of it” without understanding all the nuances.

Audiobooks—whether language courses, children’s books or adult books—are a great way to learn and practice your language skills. They’re fun, inspirational and may fill a void in your language-learning routine.

As you begin to listen and become more comfortable with the best foreign language audiobooks, consider trying increasingly difficult ones. You may surprise yourself with your level of comprehension and will learn a lot in the process.

Time to level up!

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