The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Passive Language Learning Is Nonsense And Here’s Why…


You can’t learn a language passively.

That is to say that there’s no chance you’ll ever pick up the ability to use a language just by having passive exposure to it – even if it’s over a long period of time.

This idea or belief that languages can be acquired (or at least partially acquired) through many hours of listening and/or reading is still popular with a lot of people.

And it’s nonsense.

We’re talking about passive exposure here.

In other words just being around (“immersed” in) the language minus the work on your part.

I’ve explained before why language ‘immersion’ is such a misunderstood concept because people erroneously view it as a passive process.

Just having language around you – whether you’re in the country or not – does not equate to being immersed.

Passive activities that are still often touted as conducive to learning include:

  • Sleeping (!) while listening to foreign language material
  • Playing video games set to other languages
  • Having foreign language music playing in the background while doing other activities
  • Watching films or TV in a target language without subs even though you understand nothing
  • Setting all your gadgets and operating systems to the target language

Language learning – whether they’re our first, second or eighth – is the result of active use and engagement.

We learn and refine spoken language through an active back-and-forth process called negotiation (I explain what this is here).

 

Differentiate between effective passive learning strategies and time-wasting nonsense

Simply put, time-wasting nonsense is anything that makes your life unnecessarily more complicated than it needs to be.

An example of this is switching your computer or gadgets’ language settings.

This is often touted as a good strategy for at-home immersion (forcing you to learn a handful of operating system terms) but in reality all it’s doing is complicating your life and slowing your productivity down.

It leaves you with the illusion of learning.

The same can be said of time spent on passive listening activities like watching films or listening to music.

If these activities act as a substitute for actual learning or usage then you’re wasting time.

You’ll get more benefit out of a short conversation where you’re using the language than countless hours of listening to music or some other effortless activity.

That being said, leisure activities that challenge you to analyze and improve can be super effective listening strategies (e.g. I like to watch Egyptian talk shows and closely analyze the dialogue).

But this is active listening, not passive listening.

Similarly, the strategy of putting foreign language labels around the house on furniture is beneficial not because you’ll see the labels but moreso through the actual process of translating and creating the labels.

 

Passive listening is not a learning strategy

By all means have target language music playing in the background while you’re busy.

Set your operating system to your target language, sleep with it in your headphones and play video games in other languages if that’s your thing.

But I would consider these things closer to a distraction or even sheer laziness than an actual learning strategy.

It may help you increase familiarity and your ability to notice what you’ve already learned but it’s not a strategy you can depend on for improving fluency.

Ask yourself if your passive listening approach is based on a desire to simply avoid interaction with people and the hard work that goes into studying and using the language.

I believe this is true for many people.

Languages are learned through usage and hard work.

 

Cardinal Mezzofanti’s incidental learning of Greek and Latin and how it differs to passive learning

Cardinal Mezzofanti (the world-famous polyglot who this site is named after) is an amazing icon for the language learning community.

According to his biography, Mezzofanti’s first foreign language feat was picking up Greek and Latin by overhearing seminary classes while he worked as a carpenter across the street.

And this was before he was even able to read his own language:

He was placed, while yet a mere child, in the workshop of his father, to learn the trade of a carpenter. As is usual in the towns of Italy, the elder Mezzofanti, for the most part, plied his craft not with doors, but in the open street.

And it chanced that the bench at which the boy was wont to work was situated directly opposite the window of a school kept by an old priest, who instructed a number of pupils in Latin and Greek.

Although utterly unacquainted, not only with the Greek alphabet, but even with that of his own language, young Mezzofanti, overhearing the lessons which were taught in the school, caught up every Greek and Latin word that was explained in the several classes, without once having seen a Greek or Latin book.

This anecdote from the biography of Cardinal Mezzofanti illustrates what could be used to make the case that passive learning is effective.

But there’s nothing in this story that gives the impression that he learned passively.

It was incidental (in other words, he was in a situation and place that helped his acquisition) but it would appear that he used this opportunity to listen and repeat (active learning) while engaged in another activity.

When we study a foreign language, most of what we learn is intentional – we pick up a book, listen to an audio file, watch a movie, etc. in order to seek out knowledge about something specific.

Incidental learning is unintentional – it’s when you learn new things naturally without seeking it out, e.g. reading a book for leisure and discovering new words along the way.

Mezzofanti picked up Greek and Latin while doing carpentry work in the street and overhearing the languages.

He didn’t pursue Greek and Latin (at least not initially) but he picked it up by being in the right place at the right time.

But even this required active work on his part.

 

How passive language exposure can actually benefit you

I’m not saying that passive exposure is detrimental.

Not at all.

Passive listening and reading are beneficial in that they improve our ability to notice.

The more familiar you become with anything, the more you’re able to pay attention to increasingly smaller details.

So if I only know a few words and expressions in Italian for example, the more I passively hear Italian around me, the more I’m going to start to notice those same words and expressions being used again and again in various contexts.

So passive exposure to Italian is going to help me get used to Italian.

있잖아! (it-jana) and !يا سلام (ya salam) in Korean and Arabic are two example expressions that come to mind where passive exposure over time helped me notice the various contexts in which they’re used by native speakers.

Learned expressions during study get cemented through tonnes of passive exposure.

When I was living in Russia, a lot of the Russian I had studied became properly learned through passively listening to my Russian host family arguing with each other every day. 🙂

So passive listening exposes you to minor variations of already learned expressions which over time increase your familiarity.

Key word here: familiarity.

Consider passive listening as a downtime activity during rest time from study but don’t rely on it as a learning strategy on its own.

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  1. Hi Donovan,

    Nice website. I hope it takes off and I look forward to reading more. 🙂

    Kind regards,

    Ron

    1. Thanks Ron!

      🙂

  2. I normally agree with most of what you write, but I am not too sure about this article. I think at times you do not do a very good job of explaining yourself. Let me give you an example. You write that passive reading is not helpful, but you don’t explain what you mean by passive reading. Is passive reading like taking a book in the target language and just looking at the words without knowing the meanings of the words or nothing about the grammar? I agree that that is not very useful. But if a person is trying to read a book at their level and is trying hard to understand the grammar and meaning, then that is not passive. An A1 reading Goethe is wasting his/her time, but an A1 reading Goethe that has been written for A1 level is learning. A B2-C2 student watching a movie with or without subtitles is learning if they are following the storyline, but if the movie is playing in the background, they are wasting their time.

    Recently, I read your article “You Don’t Need To Study Grammar To Learn A Foreign Language” and can’t get it out of my head. I think I agree with everything you said in that article, but you received a lot of comments that didn’t agree with you. Some readers got stuck on the “Study Grammar” part and didn’t realize that you were not saying that they don’t need to learn grammar. As you mentioned, children don’t study grammar before going to school, but they definitely learn grammar before they ever study it and are fluent. Parents using passive correction to correct a child is still correction and is very effective. The Pimsleur courses are a good example of learning a language without studying grammar, but the learner still learns grammar. Learners do not need to know the meta-language of nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc. to learn a language. I think too much emphasize it placed on learning grammar and not enough on actually using the grammar in oral conversations. About 90% of my ESL students can not carry a conversation, but they can get high grades on grammar tests.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. He didn’t actually use the phrase “passive reading”, which of course is an oxymoron, but he came close by construction. Most people who advocate a reading approach to L2 acquisition mean an exceptionally active procedure in the reading, far beyond what we would associate with reading, say, War and Peace in English, which would already be quite the un-passive activity.

  3. To be a yes man: of course. It can be compared to comprehending the Australian accent (wink wink): yes, you can listen all day long but you’ll have no progress until you actively try to make out the words.
    On the other hand, while having YouTube in Bulgarian may add nothing, it reminds me about this language.

  4. I totally disagree with playing games in foreign language as a waste of time. As a kid there were no ways to learn english in my country. Luckily I had computer at home (Amiga, then PC) and I really enjoyed playing games. But my playing was always with a dictionary and paper. Playing took much longer due to all those searches but it gave me great start with english. Frankly – it taught me many words, grammar, idioms etc. And funny part is I did not even want to learn english – I just wanted to play and enjoy games.

    So I can say this is great way to learn (I am currently learning german this way and it kicks ass). It makes you so proud if you can understand unknown words, pieces of sentences and then whole sections of text. It is really a long process (especially when you write those words to Anki afterwards) but I can say it is worth it 🙂

  5. I think it would be interesting to see your take on Krashen’s work.

  6. Passive listening, as you mention, helps when you are at that early stage in language learning where you are just starting to recognise the sounds of the language and pluck out the few words that you know. As you get better at a language, material in your target language is great to have in the background. You can listen to the news, podcasts, stories, dialogues, or whatever interests you in your target language and reinforce learning the language’s idiomatic expressions, tone, humour, vocabulary and so forth.

    1. The problem is that not all that was mentioned is really “passive”, in fact, given the lack of references, I don’t even know if we are talking about the same thing when we refer to “passive listening”. This is a very unscientific article.

      Nevertheless from what you are saying gin your post:

      “You can listen to the news, podcasts, stories, dialogues, or whatever interests you in your target language and reinforce learning the language’s idiomatic expressions, tone, humour, vocabulary and so forth.”

      The activities described are not passive as in “made to be consumed by the unconscious mind” such as sleeping with the sound on or listening to music in the background.

  7. Thanks for the article. I am really glad that I came across it. I want to be sure that you understand what you really saying here. Is passive listening the most effective on reinforcing what I have already took the time to study and learn? Can I expect to receive a lot of benefits from passive listening with the material that I have already actively learned?
    Thanks.

  8. Just curious, I understand that you can’t automatically speak a foreign language with passive listening, but if we’re talking about pronunciation problems, can passive listening fix them?

  9. Is all of this based on your observation? I cannot find the sources of your article. Is there a bibliography somewhere? In fact the problem of most articles on passive exposure and incidental learning seems to be that they do not cite their sources..

    1. And I should have added that some studies prove the opposite: the combination of task performances and stimulus exposures (i.e. passive learning) would lead to more improvement in visual-orientation tasks (Szpiro et al., 2014), frequency-discrimination tasks (Wright et al) and more general speech-learning tasks (Wrighta et al., 2015; Mueller et al., 2016) than task performance learning or stimulus exposure (without learning) on their own.

  10. Ok, from the little I read about Cognitive processes, here are my hypotheses below:

    “Sleeping (!) while listening to foreign language material” – any inputs (sounds) are captured by the sensory memory and are discarded as useless garble by the brain without even making to short term memory

    “Playing video games set to other languages” – most is lost to sensory memory but some is retained by short term memory and might make to long term memory for a limited range of words and phrases the gamer actively recalls in other gaming and real situations. For example, in this day and age, you don’t need to be born in an English-speaking environment to know the meaning and the pronunciation of words such as “play”, “game over”, “ko”. In my opinion, this is not passive as long as the gamer is making an effort to match the commands and phrases with the actions required to play the game. Needless to say that this is a very limited way of learning a language unless you already have some knowledge of the language and you are building upon that knowledge.

    “Having foreign language music playing in the background while doing other activities” – once again sensory memory fodder that will not even make to the short term memory. Nevertheless, music in the background might serve as a memory trigger if you are studying something else if the next time you try to remember it you play (the same ?) music.

    “Watching films or TV in a target language without subs even though you understand nothing” – that might not be true if the Albanian case is true:

    “Italian
    Italian is by far the best-known foreign language in Albania and used to have official status when the country was a protectorate of Italy.[1] Most Italian-speakers have not learnt the language in classrooms or from books, but rather by watching Italian television.[16] During the late communist regime, Albanians living in the towns along the Adriatic Sea coast had access to Italian television.[18] Many Albanians “grew skilled at rewiring their TVs to overcome [the] Albanian government’s attempt to block Italian channels”.[19] A large number of middle-aged and younger people grew up with the language and know it very well.[1]

    Among the elderly, Italian is also common as the language was used in the educational system in the 1930s, after King Zog released a decree requiring all Albanian schools to teach Italian in 1933.[20]

    Albania also is home to 19,000 ethnic Italians, who have aided the growth of the language in the country.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Albania

    “Setting all your gadgets and operating systems to the target language” – Not passive at all as there is feedback from the system teaching the user what happens when they use a certain set of words. It can make to long term memory, see the case of former U.S.S.R countries using Russian-written technology and the case of English pervasiveness in global technology. People do learn to read without necessarily learning how to speak.

    (everything written above are my understanding of what I read in scientific papers, it might be incomplete or wrong)

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