The best way of learning a foreign language is through regular exposure to its sound patterns - even if you are clueless about the meaning.
"However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don't understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that," said Victoria University doctoral scholar Paul Sulzberger, who made the discovery.
"If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the Internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words," he said.
Sulzberger's research challenges existing language learning theory. His main hypothesis is that simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.
"Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language-which is how babies learn their first language," Sulzberger said.
He was prompted to undertake the research after spending seven years teaching Russian to New Zealand students and observing drop-out patterns.
"I was very conscious of the huge difficulties students have when they tackle another language, especially at the beginning. Many drop out because they feel they are not making progress."
Sulzberger said he was interested in what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. He found the answer in the way the brain develops neural structures when hearing new combinations of sounds.
"When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words."
Sulzberger looked for ways people could develop these structures to make the learning process easier. His finding was simple: extensive exposure to the language, something made easier by globalisation and new technology, said a Victoria release.
"It is easier to learn languages these days because they are so accessible now. You can go home and watch the news in French on the Internet," he said.
He said people trying to learn a foreign language in their home country are at a disadvantage compared to those who travel to another country and immerse themselves in its sounds and culture. For the same reason, he says, we need to rethink the way languages are taught.