This is probably going to be the most painful article you read about language learning because it is going to drive home a cruel fact.
There is no such thing as successful passive language learning.
Learning a language simply cannot be done through solely passive means. That would be like saying you can passively learn to ride a bike. If you never get on a bike, there is no way you are going to be able to ride a bike.
It’s a tough truth, but it is better that you face it now rather than believe that you can take the easy route and still become fluent. You can literally waste years trying to do this and have virtually nothing to show for it.
Even if you go to a country where your target language is spoken natively, you cannot learn the language without actively working at it. Simply listening to and reading in a language is not knowing a language, no matter what anyone says.
Understanding Effective Passive Learning
It is true that you cannot passively learn your way into fluency, there are some activities that are passive that can help as long as you are also actively working on learning the language every day.
For example, listening to music in your target language while doing something that requires you to think (like work) is nice, but it is not effective as a learning tool. Your mind is not engaged in the words – you aren’t even trying to understand what the song is about.
Instead of spending time watching a TV show, you will get a lot more out of spending three 10 minute sessions working on writing journal entries, going over vocabulary, or trying a short conversation. If you watch a TV show, don’t make it a daily part of your activities. Make it once a week, and when you watch, spend the entire time focusing on what the people are saying. By actively listening, you are learning.
Passive Listening – The Anti-strategy
If you aren’t actively engaging your mind, you aren’t learning anything. And if you are planning your learning strategy around passive learning, you essentially have no strategy. You are going to have to interact with people at some point to actually become fluent. If your approach involves a lot of non-interaction or only half-listening, you are just fooling yourself into believing that you have a plan toward reaching success.
How to Make Passive Language Exposure Beneficial
The primary purpose of this article is to convince you that you are in for a lot of work to reach your language goals. While a passive strategy isn’t a successful strategy, that does not mean that there is no value in listening to others speaking your chosen language.
In fact, listening is critical at every stage. The point is that it cannot be the basis for all of your studying.
One of the best things about listening to native speakers is being able to start to recognize the words you know. From there, your mind should start to fill in the context and use of the words. The more you do this, the easier it will be to start using the words yourself.
However, notice what the key was in terms of listening – you have to actively engage your mind. You are focused solely on what is going on. Language learning is something that requires your full attention – it isn’t something you do while multitasking.
Listening can actually help you cement the stuff that you have learned up to the current point in time. As you start to hear and understand more words, your mind will automatically start to fill in details about the things you didn’t know.
To get the most out of listening, make it a peripheral activity during the day, if you have time. It should never be considered part of your actual study sessions – during those you need to be actively talking, reading, and writing.
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