Sound Rehab: A 5-Point Program for Kicking Your Visual-Addiction

Sound Rehab Cover Image

It’s time for another post from Fi3M’s most regular guest contributor, Idahosa Ness! In today’s post, he tackles this “I’m a visual learner” claim that many, including myself, have made and gives some great ideas to make the switch and embrace the beautiful audio-based aspect of language learning and helping us break our “addiction” to visual learning :)

He also includes another fantastically edited fun music video, with incredible synchronization between various versions of himself, showing that he definitely does have flow! Check that out, at the end of the post.

Over to you Idahosa!

If you’ve read any of my previous guest posts on this blog, you’ll know that I advocate learning language with your ears instead of your eyes.

But I often get pushback for this view:

“You can’t just assume that everyone is an auditory learner like you. Personally, I’m a visual learner so I can’t learn a language unless I can see it.”

This seems like a reasonable thing to say in light of the fact that we all have different “learning styles,” but the flawed logic becomes apparent once you apply it to a different context, such as learning to paint.

Imagine someone interrupting an artist’s oil-painting demonstration with this nonsense:

“You can’t just assume that everyone is a visual learner like you. Personally, I’m an auditory learner so I can’t learn painting unless I can hear it!.

We know this statement to be comically absurd because, regardless if your preferred sensory strategy is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or tasting, painting is a visual skill and thus requires a visual learning environment.

Likewise, oral communication is an auditory skill and thus requires an auditory-learning environment.

There is a reason so many of us are afraid of learning through hearing – our education system taught us to rely on learning through seeing. What’s the first thing we do when we want to learn a new skill? We find a book or article on the subject and get to consuming those little black squiggles we call “scripts” with our eyeballs.

After doing this for so many years, we have all developed a dependency for visual-learning. In fact, some of us are full-blown visual-addicts.

Can you read better than you can hear? Can you write better than you can speak? If so, you are visually addicted, and this is your intervention.

Welcome to Sound Rehab…

What the Script-Centric Paradigm to Language-Acquisition Looks Like

In your language studies, are new words and expressions presented to you in writing? If so, then you are learning language within the Script-Centric Paradigm.

Here’s the basic model for acquiring and utilizing language in the script-centric paradigm:

Foundation: The very first thing you do is memorize the target language’s orthographical conventions (i.e. spelling rules) in order to develop a mental model for converting visual script to auditory sound.

Image #1

Acquisition: With this foundation, new words/expressions must come to you through your eyes in order for you to memorize them. If they come to you through your ears first, you have to plug them into your script-sound converter so that you inner-eye can see it, otherwise you will NOT remember them.

Image #2

Utilization: To recall these words/expressions for speech, you have to visualize their spelling with your inner eye, plug the spelling into your script-sound converter, hear the resulting sound with your inner-ear, then finally re-create that sound with your mouth.

Image #3

There is A LOT of potential for error in this model. I write in detail about the pitfalls of learning language through reading in my post “The Virtues of Illiteracy,” but for now I just wanted to mention the most important ones:

  • The Sounds Can Get Altered: Your native reading habits are deeply ingrained after reading billions of words in your lifetime, so there is huge potential for your native language to mess up your “script-sound converter. In fact, more than half of people’s pronunciation errors come from saying foreign words according to native orthographical conventions.
  • Hearing and Speaking Can Become Inflexible: This model assumes things are always written the way they are spoken, but this is most certainly NOT the case. In normal-speed, connected speech, words get chopped, altered and fused into one another all the time. If your concept of the language is limited to its existence on paper, you’ll have a hard time adapting to the realities of oral communication.
  • A Meta-Thinking Habit Can Develop: “Meta-Think” refers to “thinking about the language” while you’re speaking it. For example, going through conjugation tables in your head is a form of meta-think. In this case, you can develop a bad habit of meta-thinking about spelling rules. Meta-thinking siphons away the already limited mental resources you need to formulate and express your ideas in the target language. In other words, more meta-thinking = less fluency.

I use the word “can” because the extent to which these negatives will affect you will depend on the severity of your visual-addiction. Some people can balance the sound and script in their head well enough to avoid most complications, which is why it’s still possible for someone to achieve foreign language fluency in this model.

In my experience as a language-teacher and accent-coacher for over 1,000 people now, however, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of people CANNOT achieve this balance so easily.

That’s why I suggest an alternative paradigm – the Sound Centric paradigm.

What the Sound-Centric Paradigm for Language-Acquisition Looks Sounds Like

When you think about it, the act of oral communication is pretty straightforward.

  • Speaker has a thought
  • Speaker encodes the thought into a series of mouth movements.
  • The movements disturb the air particles to create sound waves
  • Listener picks up these sounds waves with his ear.
  • Listener decodes these soundwaves back to speaker’s intended meaning.

Image #4

What allows for the listener to decode the speakers intended meaning is a shared set of conventions for linking meaning to sound, or in simpler terms – a common language.

Therefore, the model for learning the common language of another group should only have two elements to it – sound and meaning. Here’s what the sound-centric model sounds like:

Foundation: The very first thing you do is train your ear to hear the all the foreign sounds as well as train your mouth to produce them (In The Mimic Method, we call this Flow-Training).

Image #5

Acquisition: New words/expressions have to come through your ears for you to memorize them.

Image #6

Utilization: To recall words/expressions for speech, you simply have to recall the associated sounds in your inner ear and then re-produce them with your mouth.

Image #7

You should notice right away that the sound-centric model is much simpler than the script-centric one (I guess that’s why it’s the preferred language learning model for babies ;) )

The ease with which you can acquire and utilize sounds, however, depends on the strength of your foundation.

Developing a sound foundation for a foreign language can be challenging for us adults, since we have allowed our auditory skills to atrophy while we fed our visual addictions.

On top of that, the Foreign Language Education industry has done nothing but nurture our visual addiction. They know people won’t buy their products unless they pump them full of eye-ball crack. In big-business, the goal of “produce as many fluent speakers as possible” will always be trumped by the goal of “produce as much revenue as possible.”

As a result, there are very few resources for people to learn language within the sound-centric paradigm.

That’s why I decided to develop The Flow 101 projectto provide people with the resources they need to develop their sound-mastery and learn a foreign language without having to see it.

Are you motivated to get yourself off the sight-wagon and into Sound Rehab? Well here’s your 5 point program.

Point #1: Know Thy Mouth

Literacy trains us to conceptualize speech sounds as letters, which is problematic since our writing systems never completely or consistently represent the reality of speech.

For example, an English speaker would probably visually conceptualize the sounds in the recording below as “sh” as in “shy” and “oo” as in “goo.”

  • Idahosa

    Any “visual learners” have a counter-argument they want to put forth???

  • Idahosa

    Any “visual learners” have a counter-argument they want to put forth???

    • Andrew

      I wonder if anyone has taken the visual approach with learning CHINESE(Mandarin or Cantonese), lol.

      • Idahosa

        Ironically enough, it was when I was learning Chinese that this whole idea of sound vs script learning occurred to me. I was doing a study abroad program in Beijing and hated the fact that I had to spend so many hours every day copying characters like a sucker instead of taking advantage of my time in the city. Then one day it occurred to me:

        In the time it took me to learn to write one Chinese word, I could have learned to hear and speak ten.

        So I decided at that point to give up on characters all together and focus exclusively on my communication skills. For the rest of that summer, I skipped class and spent every day out in the streets (talking to girls mostly) while my classmates copied characters in their dorm rooms until they’re fingers cramped.

        By the end of the summer, I had the worst grade in the class, but every single student and teacher outwardly acknowledged that I spoke the best Chinese by far.

        So if you’re studying any Chinese language, I strongly advise going illiterate and focusing on flow (especially tonal flow) and oral communication, or else you’ll end up like most Chinese learners I know, who after years in the country, can read Chinese newspapers with their vast character knowledge but still can’t be understood by natives because their tones are so off.

        • Andrew

          Why of course, the auditory method is buy far the best way to learn, I’m also not completely sold on this idea of “tones” in the Chinese language either. I mostly learned by listening and repeating(as I am Chinese, lol). In fact, I wasn’t even aware the language had “tones” until I got to high school, go figure?

          I personally wouldn’t focus on tones, as speaking as if you are trying to “pass a kidney stone” seriously hinders communication.

          • Idahosa

            I agree 100%. Like you said, I found that for most people the actual of thinking about tones hinders communications and disrupts your overall flow. You know when someone is like”Wooooo……shiiiii….meeeiiii….guoooo….reeeen”, with super exaggerated tones and akward pauses in between.

            This falls into the category of “Meta-think” I mentioned in the post. I don’t think about tones when I speak normally, and the vast majority of Chinese people I know never had any idea what tone they were speaking.

            At the end of the day, mandarin and the “tonal languages” (sarcastic quotation marks) is learned the exact same way as any other language – by simply mimicking the rhythm, consonants, vowels AND intonation patterns.

            I actually beta tested a Mandarin course that focused completely on training the ability of “Tonal Flow” and mimicry. We never once mentioned the name of tones, I just had students listen to short phrases and record themselves mimicking, then I would use cloud-tutoring to point out the exact moments in their recordings when their intonation was off. Then they would go back to the recording, listen closely to the nuance, then try again.

            It was VERY successful. Any Mandarin learners should stay up to date with the blog, as I plan on doing a second round of beta testing for this course later this summer

    • Thomas

      I just saw this article and I’d like to respond.

      The problem here is that visual learners are really visual storers of information. We may have some difficulty at paying attention to oral instructions and such, but we store our information visually.
      From personal experience, I can memorize up to 12 decimal digits in about 2 minutes visually without much trouble. Then I can recite them forwards and backwards. But, if I try to learn my words by hearing them, it rarely if ever sticks and when it does, it takes a huge amount of effort for the gain.

      What I have to do is I have to stare at a word until I get a vision of it in my head with a meaning. Usually I’ll have it written in colors and weirdly shaped letters. Then I have to translate the image in my head into sounds. Trying to do it backwards, going from sound to word, rarely sticks very well and requires a ton of effort.

      On paper, your ideas look fine, but you’ve neglected to take note of the fact that there are two places where long term memory can be stored. Auditory or visual and trying to use the wrong one rarely works out well.

      • Idahosa

        Hi Thomas,

        This mistake in your argument is that you are viewing language communication as an activity of pure memorization and recall.

        Unlike recalling digits after a decimal point, language communication is a “Complex Skill.” When we communicate with each other, there is A LOT more going on then just picking out words from our memory banks.

        The point I make in this article is that language-communication is inarguably rooted in sound and thus can only be acquired through sound. Whether the learner finds it “easier” to memorize images than sounds is irrelevant.

        Unfortunately, most visual-addicts choose to take the “easy route” despite the fact that it doesn’t get them to the end destination of fluent communication.

        It’s like the parable of the drunk person who searches for his car keys under a streetlamp because it’s easier to search where he can see, even though he KNOWS for a fact that he lost the keys somewhere in the dark.

        The other point I make is that no matter how bad a person is at perceiving and storing sound, he can develop the ability with training.

        In sum:

        1) Language is about sound

        2) You can’t learn language without learning sound

        3) Sound is trainable

        So instead of hiding in books, why not suck it up and master sound?

        • Thomas

          I’d recommend you do some more research because this is wrong.

          It’s not a matter of being bad at perceiving sounds. It’s a matter of perceiving them in a different way. My ears are better than most people I meet. I can sing astonishingly well by memorizing recordings, but I don’t reproduce sounds, I reproduce shapes, textures and pictures. Because that’s how I’ve stored the information. It may sound odd to you, but that’s how the information is stored and retrieved.

          It’s kind of arrogant the way you write off visual memory users as being lesser because our world view doesn’t correspond with yours. Words are ultimately not sounds, words are units of meaning. Whether they’re primarily perceived as visual or auditory is ultimately not important. After all, people probably want to know all 4 or 5 domains of language, right? I’m not sure how putting oneself at a severe disadvantage in all of them is somehow better than putting myself at an advantage in 2 of them and then using the words you’ve used to master the others.

          As for pure memorization and recall, how do you learn a language without memorizing and recalling information? How far would you get learning a language if the material wasn’t sticking?

          And that’s the point, you need words in order to speak, read, write or listen, Prioritizing speaking and listening over reading and writing is arbitrary and primarily based upon the majority of students storing information as sounds.

          I failed miserably to learn any languages until I stopped using the methods that everybody else was using and let myself see the words as they are. Now, you might not understand that, but it works just fine, and when done correctly is incredibly efficient.

          It’s just a shame that we let teachers give the impression to visual learners that we’re stupid, lazy or unmotivated rather than encouraging methods that are more likely to work for them.

  • Luca Deon

    Great post! It inspired me to think about my technique!
    Off topic question- any tips for learning conjugations of irregular verbs?

  • Matteo Cheri

    Hi, I just want to do a small critic to this method.
    Actually I can call myself a Audio-Visual learner; meanwhile I try to catch up with accent and “flow” of the language I write down / read in order to:

    1) Take accent from hearing to natives

    2) Learning to read properly / learn foreign alphabet / Chinese characters (for Zhong1wen2 xue2xsheng1 (中文 学生) like me xD)

    3) I keep my brain alive, because only reading or only hearing would:
    1a) make me hate the language I’m learning
    2a) completely de-motivate me.

    So, I have to say, while this method is very good (for me) it has to be made line by line with writing and reading exercise.

    • Idahosa

      Hey Matteo thanks for the comment!

      Just to comment on point #2 (learning ro read properly) – literacy is indeed a very useful skill to have when learning a language, but one must be aware of its potential pitfalls for second language learners (as I describe in this post).

      Personally, when I learn a new language I try to avoid all contact with the written language until I’ve mastered the Flow and have a basic conversational ability, THEN I teach myself to read.

      This sequential approach (learn to speak, then learn to read) not only avoids the problems of native language interference, but it’s also actually MUCH FASTER than the simultaneous approach (learn to speak and read at the same time).

      The fact is, literacy and oral fluency are two separate skills, and just like with any other set of complex skills, you’re much better off focusing on one at a time.

      And the plot thickens when you consider the fact that when you read, you hear a voice in your head.

      For your native language, that voice is fluent- so reading is easy and streamlined. For a second language, that voice will be slow and awkward if you don’t already have the flow down.

      I’ll be writing about this in more detail soon on my blog so make sure to subscribe!

      • Matteo Cheri

        Thanks for the answer Idahosa ^^
        I’m just amazed you really answered to my comment ^^.
        I have to say that I love changes, and today I just re-started my Korean study.
        I’m not confident nor with the accent nor with the way of reading and pronouncing words in Korean, so I’ll give a try to your method, I have plenty of time to do, and I’ll be sure I do it correctly ^^.
        However I still think that the language learning method depends on how an individual thinks and how he grew up with languages.
        Personally I have an eidetic memory [I have a very strong photographic memory (in common words everything in my mind is thought as an image, even dialogues)]; and I have time-space synesthesia, a thing (I don’t know how to call it in none of my 2 first languages nor in English) which gives words, things, images, a place around me (I know it seems strange, but for me is completely natural).
        My learning method is completely biased by this way of thinking and assimilating information, and for that I’m dubious for the outcome of the experiment, that could be successful for someone else.

        Sorry for some discrepancies, but I horribly suck at writing [both in Italian, Sardinian (my two first languages) and English).
        I hope you’ll reach what you want to reach with your Mimic Method.
        Best Regards,
        A fellow language learner

        • Idahosa

          Hey Matteo,
          Cool stuff about your eidetic memory. I’ve always found synesthesia to be so bad ass.

          A couple points I’d like to tack on here:

          When people say “learning method” – they are typically referring to the way they absorb and retain “information”. So in your case, you absorb and retain information eidetically, and you are 100% right that you absorb and retain information differently than the next person.

          But language is not purely an exercise of gathering and re-using information – it’s a complex skill that involves various auditory skills (ear), motor skills (mouth), and cognitive processes (brain).

          Different “learning methods” is more relevant in the context of information-activties like medical knowledge or historical facts.

          Language, on the other hand, is more similar to complex cognitive-motor skills like gymnastics, swimming or playing guitar.

          In the context of learning any of those skills, ones “learning style” isn’t really relevant. Whether you’re an audio-guy or visual guy, the steps to learning to do a backflip are pretty much the same for everyone.

          Which is why, EVERYONE goes through the same process to learn their native language(s) in infancy – listen and mimic.
          Anyway, best of luck to you for your Korean experiment. I’ll tell you right now that it’s NOT gonna be easy for the reasons I outline in my response below to Colin Johnstone.

          But stay up to date with the Mimic Method and hopefully you’ll find some good resources to help you through it.


          • Matteo Cheri

            Thank you for your clarifications Idahosa!
            As I said I’m giving a try to your method, that after a day it seems fun and even catchy!
            For now I’m recommending it to everyone. I give it absolutely 10/10.

      • Colin Johnstone

        Interesting post. I try to read as much as possible as early as
        possible because I find this to be a great way to learn vocabulary.
        Therefore, I have the following question: if you learn to speak first,
        how do you learn vocabulary?

        • Idahosa

          Hey Colin,

          So here’s how you’re learning vocab in the “Script-Centric Model”

          1. Look at foreign word
          2. Look at native language translation

          The “Sound-Centric model” is the exact same, except you change the word “look” for the word “hear”.

          1. Hear the foreign word
          2. Hear the native language translation

          I already describe the problems with the script-centric model in this post, but here are the main challenges for the sound-centric model:

          A) Without the Flow of the language down, it’s extremely difficult to hear, reproduce and ultimately remember the vocab for later purposes.

          B) There are VERY few resources for you to learn new vocab purely with sound.

          Point number (B) is the whole point of my starting Flow 101 – I want people to be able to conveniently learn new “meaning” in a purely “sound” context.

          I avoid reading in the languages I’m learning by constantly asking native speakers in conversation “how do I say “, then mimicking whatever comes out their mouths.

          But this takes a long time. It would be nice to have deep decks of audio flashcards and vocab lists, but this doesn’t exist in the world of second language education.

          At least not yet… ;)

          • Colin Johnstone

            It is great that you produce such detailed responses to comments. Thanks for the response. I should say that I might have been a bit misleading in my first comment. In fact, as a beginner in Russian, I do not just read to learn words. Everything that I read, I listen to as well, and generally I listen many many times. I feel like it is the reading that is the main part of my learning the vocabulary, but certainly hearing the words over and over is a massive help. I certainly could not learn only by reading.

            It is a shame that there is not so much of the sort of audio resources that you mentioned. I have not found so much of that either. I recently stumbled across a CD that teaches Russian vocabulary by going through large lists of words and for each one simply speaking the word in German (I live in Austria) and then the translation in Russian with some cool music in the background. It only does the main 600 words, but I expect it to be very useful. Is this the kind of material that you like to learn from? Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever find something like this that will go beyond the basic vocabulary into maybe the main 10,000 words or so.

          • Idahosa

            Yeah that is the kind of resources I look for – as long as the background music isn’t too corny haha.

            I also believe that we too often think of vocab like Pokemon (gotta catch ‘em all!), and spend too much time reviewing lists and flash cards and not enough time clocking time actually conversing with native speakers.

            It’s one thing to memorize a word and its translation; it’s another thing to actually “know” a word so that it comes to you naturally when the right context arises.

            You don’t really “know” vocab until you’ve used them in conversation, and though we learned all the big words in our native language through reading and academics, the core 10,000 words of fluency we learned just by having lots of real conversations – once again in a purely auditory context

          • Colin Johnstone

            The music is very corny and I love it!!!

            I would not try to learn vocabulary out of context but using a bit of this kind of stuff, and flashcards too, is helpful. When I do learn vocabulary, it is only really my aim to learn to understand the words when they are used since I think this is the most important thing (I can generally use other words when speaking, but I need to understand these words when they are spoken to me). Whether or not that is really knowing the vocabulary is not something I worry about.

            One of the problems I find with trying to learn vocabulary through listening is that it is too hard to learn words in context when listening. In context, to me, means in sentences. As a beginner in a language, I cannot understand the sentences when spoken, and need to use text instead since I can go through it much slower and more naturally than audio. This has been my experience at least. Other people might have had other experiences. I subscribed to your newsletter, and am interested to see if I can improve my ability to learn vocabulary from audio using your advice.

          • Idahosa

            Exactly. So the problem isn’t really in the audio itself, it’s just that in normal conversation you don’t have a chance to go slowly and review it several times.

            But technology has solved that problem. We can record audio, slow it down and play it over and over again.

            In the future, I plan on developing apps for people to take sounds of these real life contexts and easily slow them down, chop them up and learn using just their smartphone!


          • Amy

            Yet it does exist! On memrise you can do that, and I have in the past with Thai and I plan on doing it with Mandarin later. You can set it to present the English (written, or you could make audio) and then you choose the right foreign language audio with multiple choice or you can have it play the sound and you can write the English (or multiple choice select the English audio if you like).

            Then the only problem is finding the audio, much easier for more ‘common’ languages!

          • Idahosa

            Oh yeah the technology is certainly there. I’m most excited about this mobile revolution – as it gives us unlimited access to audio listening AND recording.

            It’s just a question of realizing the importance of audio-only training and making the resources. That’s part of my Flow 101 project – making audio only materials to share on platforms like Anki and Memrise

  • Andrew

    This seems pretty straightforward, because when you communicate in a language you mainly use your ears for listening and that “hole in your face” for talking, your eyes don’t really come into play, lol. Personally, I’m more of a Kinesthetic learner anyway.

  • Andrew

    This is probably why I don’t use phrasebooks, they don’t teach you proper pronounciation

    • Idahosa

      Yeah but like I said – it’s a problem of lack of audio resources. These phrasebooks might be really useful if they were digitized into phone apps where all the written phrases were replaced by audio recordings from native speakers

  • Gavin

    Enjoyed reading this post! I think you make a lot of great points here. I was wondering how the idea of the negotiation of meaning fits into your thinking on language learning, I think this might fit well into point #4 if you elaborated on it a bit more. For your focus as an accent coach, maybe this isn’t such a big deal, but at least as far as face-to-face human interaction goes, I think emphasizing the idea that meaning isn’t transmitted like a radio signal so much as it is ‘negotiated’ in on-the-fly communication is worth mentioning, and perhaps you might even work that into your picture-diagrams of the ‘act of communication.’ Then again, if you’re having loads of success with this approach in coaching people, perhaps you don’t need to bother. Just some suggestions:-)

    • Idahosa

      Hey Gavin,

      I focus on accent-coaching for two reasons:

      1) I still need to do a lot of convincing of people that they need to shore up their sound mastery before they start to learn meaning. We’ve been trained to think of language purely as a quest of reading and meaning, so it’s really hard to get people to see the value of sitting down and mastering the perception/articulation of meaningless sounds. So that’s always about 95% of my rhetoric.

      2) I’m also running a solo-business, and there is too much competition for me to be any significant player in the “meaning-learning space,” but with my techniques and programs I’m positioned to potentially dominate the “sound-learning space”- so that’s where I have to focus my energies for now.

      That being said, once enough people start to appreciate this “sound before meaning” philosophy, I will start developing products and resources to help people “negotiate meaning” as you say (which I 100% agree with by the way).

      Actually, Flow 101 is sort of a pre-cursor to my larger program for aiding people across the entire journey of attaining fluency in a foreign language.

  • a666

    I wouldn’t consider myself a specifically audio or visual learner, but one problem I encounter that means I find having a visual representation of a language important, is sounds that I can’t hear the difference between. I’ve learnt German for 7 years and am occasionally mistaken for a native speaker, but, although I can pronounce the difference (because it’s simply one of tongue position), I still cannot reliably hear the difference between ‘u’ and ‘ü’ (IPA: [ʊ]/[u:] and [ʏ]/[y:]) despite my best efforts (both just sound like English ‘oo’ (IPA: [ʊ]/[u:]) to me), and have a similar problem with ‘ś’ and ‘sz’ (IPA: [ɕ] and [ʂ]) in Polish (both sound like English ‘sh’ (IPA: [ʃ])). I feel like if I were to decide tomorrow to learn French only with audio input for a couple of months there would be a lot of words in my head that I wouldn’t know for sure if they had the vowel of ‘tu’ or the one of ‘vous’, whereas any ambiguity would be solved by having seen them written down and producing the difference will make me more intelligible even if my comprehension will be the same either way.

    (I know your post says the Flow-method includes learning IPA, but other than as a reference tool for learning the sound-spelling rules for the language I’m trying to learn’s own orthography, I rarely find it more useful than just starting off with whatever system the language itself uses because all the potential errors you mention in this post are equally applicable to reading a representation of a language in IPA and it brings in other problems of its own.)

    To be honest, I’m not convinced that anyone focussing exclusively on one type of learning is making the best use of their resources, because unless you are completely unable to absorb audio or visual information (i.e., are deaf and/or blind) there’s always the ability to learn through that stimulus. Of course the inspiring article by Julie Ferguson on this very blog demonstrates not being able to use one or more of your senses isn’t an inherent limit on language learning, but for those who do have full function in their eyes and ears it seems stupid not to try and maximise their usefulness. Especially as reading and writing are important functions of language as well. If you’re learning the language just for fun, and solely want to use the language you’re learning to chat to people you know the physical location or phone number of, or who you already share a different language with, then you’ll be fine. But if you’re learning out of necessity, e.g., you’ve moved to a country where the language is spoken, then basic literacy is important, even if it’s just sound-spelling rules (e.g., to recognise placenames that you’ve seen written down but not heard aloud before and vice versa when catching a train or something). Furthermore, if you’re engaged in a verbal conversation and you want to use a word you can read/spell but not say/pronounce, you can always convey it to another speaker by spelling it out letter by letter, or writing it down (the reverse is less often true).

    I’m also not convinced that the market’s oh so empty for people who want to learn solely/mainly by audio input either. Things like the Pimsleur CDs, Earworms – Musical Brain Trainer CDs, and all the “learn while you’re stuck in traffic” type stuff, seem aimed specifically at people who won’t read as part of the learning process.

    • Idahosa


      Wanted to address two things here.

      First, there is a reason you cannot hear the difference between certain sounds in foreign languages. It’s a well-studied subject in speech cognition science. This is actually a topic of a blog post I’m writing.

      To summarize, phonemes develop as sorts of “magnets” in your head. Each time you hear a sound from your native language(s), the magnet strengthens. So as an adult, you have much stronger magnets for each of the phonemes and phonemic distinctions in your native language(s) than when you were a child.

      So as an adult, when you are exposed to new phonemes/phonemic distinctions in a foreign language, the new sounds are “magnetized” to the most phonologically similar sounds in your native language, since those magnets are so strong. You literally do NOT hear the sound in your head, and scans of the auditory cortex have shown this.


      I know this for a fact, because this is what people pay me to do, and I’ve seen countless examples of people going from NOT being able to distinguish between two sounds to eventually being able to do so easily.

      It’s a simple question of paying attention and repeated practice with the audio. I had the exact same problem as you had in differentiating the French /y/ and /u/ sounds (as do ALL adult native-English speakers). But by understanding the physiology (which is the purpose of learning IPA) and flow-training with French music, I got over this problem in about 2 weeks – voilá.

      I suggest reading this post to learn more –

      Second thing I want to re-iterate is that reading/writing is indeed an important skill, but that does not negate the fact that it can be highly disruptive in developing THE most important AUDIO skills of oral communication.

      As I wrote to someone else above, it is much faster and more efficient to learn literacy “sequentially” (learn to listen/speak THEN learn to read/write) than it is to learn “simultaneously” (learn both at the same time- which is what almost everyone does due to lack of resources).

      Yours and my ability to express ourselves so eloquently through English text is predicated on our ability to do so in normal English speech. That’s why you can always identify text written by non orally-fluent natives no matter how spot-on their grammar is and how many million dollar words they use – if you don’t have the flow, your writing will always be as awkward as your speaking.

      • a666

        I fully agree that learning to distinguish sounds is something that can be achieved – initially I had the same problem with soft-‘ch’ [ç] vs ‘sch’ [ʃ] in German and ‘ee’ [e:]/[ei] vs ‘ei’ [ɛi] in Dutch (and [e:] vs [ei] in itself), whereas now I can hear those apart easily. With ‘u’ vs ‘ü’ however, I have made little progress, despite various efforts to teach myself consciously, and having lived for over two years in a German language environment which reinforces the difference. (I mean, I haven’t given up hope with it – I still practice and try to learn the difference, I know in theory it should be achievable because I just have to teach my ears/brain that the two sounds aren’t allophones. But my experience so far has been one of little progress.)

        And if I had only had audio exposure, how would I know there were even different sounds that I have to learn the difference between? (Obviously not as applicable for English learners where seeing the orthography might not clear that up at all, but for languages like Spanish or German which have a very reliable sound to spelling relationship.)

        Regarding your second point, that doesn’t match with my experience. There are many people who I find perfectly fluent in emails or on forums, but speaking to them in real life has been a struggle not because of accent or poor grammar or whatever, but through the simple lack of fluidity in their speech (compared to their writing). Similarly there were foreign students on my university course who would get very high grades for written assignments, but again could barely hold a conversation. I wouldn’t consider that any less(/more) of an achievement than people who have good verbal fluency but can’t write well in the language they’re learning.

        • Idahosa

          That’s the whole point of cloud-tutoring and Flow 101. There’s only so much you can do on your own. We need native speakers to help us point out what we are doing wrong, then we need a phonetic knowledge to figure out what exactly is going on in our mouths to make things go wrong, and how we can fix it.

          In my courses, I use song lyrics because it controls the variables. If on Lesson 5 you are supposed to say /y/ but in your recording you say /u/, I can tell you about the error, and you have all the reference materials to know why.

          The sounds of a language can be overwhelming in the real life context, even after living in the country for a long time. But if you’re very precise and identify your personal weaknesses, then spend your time fixing them with speech therapy and flow training, you eventually cross that “sound divide” between you and the native speakers.

  • Samuel Machat

    Excellent post, Idahosa! This is quite possibly the best intro to sound-based language education I’ve seen yet, so I will definitely use this to share with people. I just have a few comments/questions.

    You mention that “more than half of people’s pronunciation errors come from saying foreign words according to native orthographical conventions.” Is this just from your experience as an accent/flow coach, or do you have any hard data on that?

    Also, as amazing as the method presented here is, you place a lot of emphasis on learning the sound system correctly without meaning attached and then speaking with native speakers a lot, but you don’t clearly lay out you recommendations from getting from the former to the latter. I’ve spoken to you previously about the method you use, and think it’s genius, but I still haven’t seen you write much about it. I can see a skeptic think, “Yeah, this is great, but all of my learning materials are written. What am I supposed to do now?”

    • Idahosa

      Hey Samuel,

      Not gonna lie – I always put off writing about how to learn “meaning” through mimicry of “sound,’ for the following reasons:

      1) Not enough people understand the idea of learning through sound-only, since the conventional wisdom runs contrary to this and is deeply ingrained in everyone’s psyche.

      2) The concept of learning meaning through mimicry is even MORE counter-intuitive and contrary to conventional wisdom, AND appreciating it relies on people already appreciating the concept of Sound before meaning!

      3) Given the problems of (1) and (2), it would take A LOT of energy on my part trying to figure out how to present this concept.

      All the being said, however, I am drafting some posts and videos demonstrating this concept, and I plan on releasing them once I hit certain stats in my readership.

      The reason I am waiting is because the LAST thing I want to do is pour my heart and soul into a series of content explaining and demonstrating the concept of learning meaning through mimicry and have only a handful of people actually read it.

      You do make a good point, however, that having a complete solution to the language-learning problem will reduce skepticism and get more people to listen – so maybe you’ll be seeing my first post on this subject coming sooner than later… ;)

      • Samuel Machat

        Hey Idahosa! I definitely agree with the points you’re making here. Even though it is completely intuitive to me, most people I talk to haven’t really been exposed to the idea of learning this way. I guess the more you can get it out there, the better. I think one of the reasons why Benny is so successful despite tons of critics is that he records videos of himself speaking at various stages and is very public about his successes and failures. That’s why I love your flow videos. I mean, I already feel you know what you’re talking about, but each time I see it I get more excited about it. So when you do decide to put out those videos, the more you can put “proof” that this is an authentic approach out there, the more people will believe that you know what you’re talking about. In addition, if you can get other people on board publishing content, I think that would be very helpful. That said, I’ll look forward to it when you do decide to publish :)

        P.S. Every time I write you a message, I have to check to make sure that I’m spelling your name correctly because it’s not spelled like I think it should be :P

  • Nicolás López Zerpa

    “They tried to make go sound rehab, but I said no, no no!” ;)

    This post extremely useful, specially if your target language has a wider sound inventory than your native language, e.g.: A Spanish-speaking person learning English.

    Unfortunately, I was taught English at school with the main focus on reading and writing, that’s why it took me years to be able to understand spoken English although I was already able to write and read with almost no trouble.

    • Idahosa

      Yup. There are enough people with high English literacy yet low spoken fluency to start their own country. And there are two reasons for this (you already stated one):

      1) English has one of the largest sound inventories, which means speakers of many other languages will have relatively more “sound sticking points”

      2) English orthography has very little consistency to it, so the problems associated with “learning through reading” are TWICE AS HARMFUL for English-learners!

      But not to worry – FLOW OF ENGLISH COMING SOON!!!!

  • lingholic

    Hey Idahosa! Man this was an ass-kicking post! You have some really interesting ideas and your videos are super entertaining. I really like your approach to languages and you really seem to know your stuff.

    However I was wondering what you thought of successful polyglots who have learned dozens of languages but who prefer going through a passive phase in the early stages of language acquisition, for example by simply listening and reading as much as possible, and then they speak the language in the so-called “active” phase after a few weeks/months.

    Also, in my interview with Luca Lampariello I was surprised in that Luca told me he sees “subtitles” in his mind whenever he speaks a foreign language. He says this might be due to his translation method, in which he translates back and forth sentences in the target language. Given that polyglots such as Luca are highly successful and have impressive pronunciation, I was wondering what was your take on that.

    Really enjoy your writing and I will definitely sign up for your flow newsletter!


    • Idahosa

      Thanks for the praise and comment!

      I have a confession to make – I sometimes see subtitles too! It’s just that now I see subtitles in IPA, whereas before I might have seen them in the target language orthography.

      But both Luca and I represent a section of the population that are able to easily and efficiently “map” sounds to script with few problems. And our ability to “map script” is still based on our ability organize sounds in our head.

      It’s kind of like a musician who can see notes in his head or tell you exactly what the intervals and underlying music theory elements are while he listens to the song. It’s an advanced skill that is still rooted in a fundamental mastery of the sounds alone.

      In other words, if we didn’t have the sounds mastered, seeing letters in our heads would screw us up, and that is what I’ve found is the case for most people.

      This is all stuff I’ve learned while reading up children’s literacy. One thing they’ve found is that phonological awareness (i.e. the ability to manage speech sounds in one’s head) is the number one correlate with a child’s ability to learn to read.

      I take it a step further and say phonological awareness (which is a fancy name for “Flow”) is the number one correlate with a person’s ability to learn a foreign language.

      Hope that makes sense!

      • Idahosa

        Forgot to answer your first question:

        I think the passive listening phase is addressing the same issue that Flow-training does, though I would argue the Flow-Training is more efficient.

        When you passively listen to a foreign language, your brain starts to familiarize itself with the sound patterns or flow through “statistical learning”.

        Depending on the person’s level of auditory perceptiveness, however, you probably won’t be able to work out all the tiny nuances of the sounds. Polyglots have much higher perception skills as a result of spending so much time learning different languages, so they would get a lot more out of passive listening than someone with average or less than average acoustic perception ability.

        Flow-training, on the other hand, cuts the fat and gets straight to the source. The goal is to pinpoint the exact sounds and patterns that you personally struggle with, then focus all your attention on learning them.

        A common feedback I get from my courses is that, after the second lesson, people return to their passive listening and find themselves understanding a lot more, or if they still don’t know any vocab, they can still appreciate a lot more nuances and more easily mimic the sounds.

        This is because we’re 80/20’ing the process of molding your mind to a new phonology- making it both faster and more thorough.

        As for passive reading, seeing the words and word boundaries on paper certainly has it’s benefits, but the whole point of this post is that it’s negative consequences can be really bad as well.

        My goal is to learn in an environment free of negative influences.

        • lingholic

          Thanks for the detailed reply! I’m surprised to hear you also see subtitles… in IPA! I personally don’t see any subtitles but I’m curious as to how such a process can come into being and the benefits of it. I guess you are right when you say that polyglots have much higher perception skills as a result of spending so much time learning different languages.

          Besides the IPA, though, don’t you think that confidence also plays a huge role in accent formation? You didn’t talk about it so I’m rather curious. Confidence and also a willingness (or unwillingness) to sound like someone outside of your home group. I’m planning to write a post on confidence in the coming weeks, do I’d love to hear your take on that (i.e. the relationship between confidence and accent formation or language learning in general).


  • Davey

    Hey Idahosa, as a student of Japanese, I’m a little nervous to entirely abandon learning characters and how to read them and only focus on listening. Because of my poor vocabulary word bank, right now both my reading AND listening are in a slump and need tons of work. Here’s my issue: if I watch television shows/movies/news, I can’t understand native Japanese speakers because they’re using so many words I don’t know – even if I listen very closely and try to look up what I hear in the dictionary, I’m often so incorrect in my interpretation that I can’t even find it in a dictionary. If I abandon reading and writing characters, how do I go about adding words to my vocabulary and fixing this?

    • Idahosa

      Hey Davey,

      Seems to me that you’re too hung up on understanding everything right away. Even if you memorized every single vocabulary word in Japanese, you still wouldn’t be able to understand if you don’t have the flow.

      To talk briefly about the experience of learning through sound and mimicry: After you develop a strong mastery of the sounds and flow you still don’t know what anything means, but now you’re ear is poised to start recognizing patterns and repeated words.

      Then it’s just a question of having as many real life contexts as possible and gradually attaching those repeated sounds to their meanings. I do this just by asking people “what does blah blah mean”.

      Eventually you hit a critical mass point where you are able to recognize those main words and grammar structures in speech, and the act of comprehending them becomes immediate and takes almost zero brain power.

      From that foundation, it’s a just a game of “fill in the blanks.” As you navigate more Japanese contexts, you start to associate more sounds with their meanings, and the fewer words you don’t understand, the more brain power you have to pick up on the new ones, so your learning speed accelerates.

      This doesn’t happen, however, unless you:
      a) Take the time to master the flow and
      b) Start really investing time in speaking with Japanese people and having real communication experiences, no matter how little you know.

      (B) is all about Benny’s Speak from Day 1 philosophy, so I think that’s what your main sticking point would be.

      Hope that helps!

      • Davey

        Thanks for your advice, Idahosa! I’ve been studying Japanese at the university level for 4 years, and I’m pretty frustrated with how my skills have plateaued. Hopefully this will help!

    • lingholic

      Davey, I think you are trying to jump steps. One thing that is important when learning a foreign language is to deal with material that is suitable to one’s level. If you are a beginner in Japanese and you’re trying to understand movies (without subtitles in your native tongue), you’ll have a hard time. At first you’ll have no choice but to use subtitles. Still, you have to start with a decent textbook and work your way from there, slowly building up your vocabulary base through exposure to simple dialogues and so on. Anyhow, that’s my take on it. Hope it helps!

      • Davey

        Thanks for your advice lingholic! But here’s the REALLY frustrating thing – I’m NOT a beginner in Japanese. In fact, I took four years of the language at the college level (just graduated) and even studied abroad in Tokyo a year ago. I think Idahosa may be right – there’s so much to deal with in terms of learning vocabulary and listening on top of memorizing what Chinese characters get matched up to which vocab words, and I’m trying to learn everything at once. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have experience in either Chinese or Japanese?

        • lingholic

          Well I do have extensive experience with Korean, which is grammatically quite similar to Japanese (albeit with a simpler writing system), and I have also learned Chinese but I didn’t focus very much on the writing part to be honest.

          I think you might simply have a lack of exposure to native content such as movies, the radio, the news, and so on. Have you perhaps too heavily focused on grammar as well as on your reading and writing skills in the past few years? Keep in mind that the written and the spoken language vary drastically, so if you’ve mostly focused on reading and writing thus far, it’s normal you’ll have trouble with your listening skills.

          Another thing to keep in mind is that it is easy to fall in the trap of “I need to understand everything.” What I mean by this is that we often want to understand every single word we hear and this ends up acting like a crutch, because we look at every single word that we don’t know in the dictionary. I think it’s important to “let go,” so to speak, and to try to guess vocabulary through context and only look up those really important words that keep coming back (providing you cannot guess their meaning from context).

          My recommendation is to watch as many movies as possible, for the time being with subtitles in Japanese. Also try watching TV shows and TV series and listen to music as much as you can. Just let you ears get used to the language and don’t force it too much in terms of vocabulary acquisition.


  • Jorge

    Question : your home page says free, but the course page says 75 $.

    Which one is it ?

    • Idahosa

      Hey. I have a free e-course “Flow Theory 101″ which you sign up for on the home page. But the specific language training is a premium course you have to pay for

  • Laura

    This just blew my mind, and I am going to overhaul entirely how I learn languages. Thank you!

  • Vitor Souza

    this text-based learning stuff works pretty well to me in my japanese studies, as there’s almost none differences between the writing as speaking forms of the words, you can go through reading->pronounce easily but the oppose is impossible and kanji makes learning words so easy

    “so let’s see, 生成, hum.., it’s made up of “life” and “become” so I guess it means something like “born” or “creation” and judging by the readings it’s pronounced as せいせい, yep, it’s exactly that”

    now with hearing “so let’s see せいせい…, I don’t now what it is, the dictionary said it means “creation” but the word simply doesn’t remember me of their meaning, and how i am suppose to write it? 世性? 正精? 制々?”

    Of course my hearing skills become more weak than my reading skills, but, in my case, I prefer to have reading skills lv 10 and hearing skills lv 6 than having hearing skills lv10 and reading skills lv0

    • Vitor Souza

      But, after all that time with texts, and already being able to read I really desire better speaking abilities, so I’m focusing or hearing for the moment, the tips on this post will certainly be helpful in this new phase

  • Nadine

    Great article Idahosa, and thank you minimurph for this comment.

    I often try to read the lips too, as my hearing is quite bad, especially in noisy environments (which is usually where I have a chance to talk with native speakers). *Even in my mother tongue.* So this video about the McGurck effect is quite disturbing. :)

    I’m definitely a “visual addict”. And I think you’re right, Idahosa, it probably comes from the way we have been taught. The worst part being that the more I’ve been relying on “paper”, the less I cared about what I heard… and now I can’t memorize much from what I hear.

    I guess I need rehab now. :D Thanks a lot for all the tips and the exciting perspective of better learning!!!

  • Idahosa


    It’s a fact that communication involves a lot more than just sounds. To make out what someone is saying, we also process on body language, visual mouth movements, and context clues.

    The sound, however, is the most important thing to learn.

    Take away everything but sound and we can understand, which is why it’s possible to talk on the telephone.

    Take away sound and rely just on body language and lip reading, then things get a bit tricky.

    So no doubt that an ability to lip-read will enhance comprehension, but I don’t think there is enough return on Investment to justify actively studying lip-reading in a foreign language before you developed some mastery of oral communication

  • donjeta

    My very first experience with ESL English was purely auditory for the first few weeks, we just listened to tapes of natives speaking very simple sentences over and over again and were required to listen and repeat. But I was totally lost for the whole time, I didn’t learn anything. I couldn’t tell which sounds there were supposed to be in whatever they were saying and where the word boundaries were and none of it made any sense. I felt totally desperate and had all but given up on ever learning any English because it felt just like Charlie Brown’s teacher speaking.

    Then, after a few weeks we were given books and suddenly as I could see the words printed on the page and things started making sense and I could recognize patterns and correlate the sounds on the tapes with letters and actually started learning things. So, I’m not convinced that going the purely auditory route is faster for me.

    I am trying out a mostly auditory approach with Hindi now because I’m struggling with the orthographic system and the different romanizations are a pain and my goal is more to understand Bollywood movies than to read anything anyway. But I’m learning things at a much slower rate than when combining reading and listening with some other languages I’ve studied. It takes more effort to acquire vocabulary and I’m getting nowhere trying to understand the grammar without a book.

  • simon shawn andrews

    My french audio comprehension skyrocketed once I started reading french regularly…although I do agree with the idea of learning language by sound first, for some reason regular reading does something with audio comprehension

  • Ken Seeroi

    I learned Japanese to fluency using a method similar to the one you’re describing, and it was a colossal mistake.

    I spent the first few years concentrating on listening and speaking. Rather than devoting time to reading and writing, which would have been time-consuming. Now I regret having done so. Here’s why.

    First of all, Japanese has many words that are the same, but are pronounced differently. An easy example would be “taberu,” “shoku” and “kuu.” Those sound like three very different words, but if you see them written, they’re all represented by 食. This isn’t an exception–most Japanese words are like this. So if you ignore the written language, you won’t be making the necessary connections.

    How many people realize that “tofu,” “edamame,” and “natto” are related? They sound way different, but if you look at the kanji, you’ll see the connection: 豆腐、枝豆, 納豆. Learning a language is all about making connections, and the written language enables you to make them.

    Secondly, being able to read is vitally important for vocabulary-building. To progress beyond the intermediate stages, you need a lotta, lotta words, and being illiterate is a tremendous handicap. Living here in Japan, I can tell you, if you can’t read, you’re going to be forever lost in a sea of mystery. If you can read, you can learn from the environment all around you.

    And precisely because it takes so long to learn the written Japanese language, it’s essential to get started right away. I waited about five years, and had to play catch-up for the next five. Don’t do what I did, is what I’m saying. I write about this on my own site, so I won’t bore you with it here, but I strongly recommend to people wanting to learn Japanese that they start learning kanji right away. I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.

    • Brandon Rivington

      I’ve always thought that learning to write with Chinese and Japanese makes it easier to see root connections with words. However, I think that it’s a far cry from a colossal mistake. Over a million illiterate Japanese and 67 million illiterate Chinese would argue that it’s not necessary to know how to write to speak a language, not to mention many learners of these languages around the world who successfully learn the languages without learning to read or write.

  • Darren X2

    ““You can’t just assume that everyone is a visual learner like you. Personally, I’m an auditory learner so I can’t learn painting unless I can hear it!.”

    This analogy is frankly ridiculous. Paint doesn’t make noise. Language is both visual and auditory, with clear and specific links between the two. These links are called “words”. (I should point out that the irony of reading an essay that asserts that written language is not important is not lost on me).

    A 20 year old who only wants to learn enough of the target language to talk with his new buddies at the youth hostel may have no need for literacy, but those of us who are older and need the language for professional or intellectual reasons most certainly DO need literacy. You also err in asserting that reading is of no assistance for verbal comprehension. This is just… completely wrong, both in my own experience and in the extensive literature on SLA. Obviously, if you ONLY read and write and never practice speaking and listening, you’ll be lousy at conversation, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a word or phrase, only to be delighted a couple of days later to be able to pick it out in conversation, when it would have otherwise been just another collection of syllables I couldn’t recognize.