Passive Language Learning Doesn’t Work-Hard Truths You Don’t Want to Hear

My long hiatus is finally over, よかったね。Over the summer I had to take a two month break because I signed up to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, LVL3.  I dedicated a lot of time to studying and improving my skills and fortunately all those hours of studying and preparing has actually paid off. I passed the test with flying colors.

In the midst of sharing my achievements with my friends, I met one man at a barbershop while getting my hair cut. He was showing me the various apps he was using to learn Japanese and wanted to know what exactly he should do to become conversational. The only advice I can really give him and anyone else is just to study and study actively.

There’s a strong misconception about language learning that people won’t seem to let go. If you constantly expose yourself to a language you’ll naturally pick it up. 



No classes, no studying, just simple exposure. You do need constant exposure to pick up a language, after all that’s more or less how babies learn. You can’t simply learn a language through exposure.

Especially, if you’re target language is vastly different from your native one. I.E. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, etc. A lot of those languages have words and phrases that don’t translate easily, so you can’t simply understand without any context.

While the best way to learn a language is to go to a country that speaks it, you won’t be able to passively learn anything because what you’re learning will have no meaning to you.

All of these apps and classes promise the same thing, relevant content, and fast learning.  So usefulness of them is subjective. What matters is how much time and dedication you put into learning language and weather you’re actively learning the material.



Difference Between Active Learning and Passive Learning


It’s strange to think about actively learning as an adult. What does it even mean to actively learn?

It simply means, just to be engaged with whatever you’re studying. Think back on some of the best teachers that you had. I’m going to assume that your favorite teachers made a lot of lessons that encouraged you to engage with the material.

Nobody likes lectures. Nobody wants to sit and listen to some old guy go on about some irrelevant topics. But being invited into that discussion with your classmates, and coming up with your own ideas was more interesting. And you probably, hopefully  learned something.

We live so much of lives passively; listening to music while driving, eating while watching TV, texting while talking to our friends. It’s second nature to split your focus that when your forced to put all your effort into one thing it becomes tiresome.









Examples of Passive Learning


Listening to music while doing something else- such as cleaning, cooking, reading, etc.

Playing video games in the target language- if you’re just button smashing through the game you’re not learning anything.

Watching TV/movies- If you don’t understand what people are saying then what’s the point?

Setting your electronics into your target language- Honestly you don’t use half the settings on your phone in the first place

These are all good ways to engage in language learning if you’re at the appropriate level to really take in that amount of information. But in the beginning stages doing any of these things serve little to no purpose.




How to be Active in Learning a Second Language


How can you make sure you’re actively learning? Simplest answer is be engaged with the content. Textbook learning can only get you so far if you’re looking to be fluent. Find ways to be engaged with learning.  Keep a daily journal or blog of that you only use your target language in. If you’re playing games read the instructions out-loud and make sure you actually understand what the instructions are.

Turn on the subtitles and rewind the movie back to make sure you catch the entirety of the dialogue. In 2018 there are lots of resources at your disposal. So there’s not really an excuse as to why you can’t learn a language.







But Passive Exposure is Still Helpful

Passive learning isn’t all that terrible though. It can still be helpful in some specific contexts.


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For example in Japanese, deru has about 20 different meanings in Japanese. Instead of trying to memorize all of it’s usage a lot of my understanding of deru came from having conversations with people and listening to how it’s used naturally.


Learning a language is hard, but don’t make it harder on yourself by wasting your time. It’s uncomfortable and we want to take as many short cuts as possible but there’s no short cut in learning another language. It only takes time and dedication.

What about you readers? What are some ways you’ve learned a language. Do you have any suggestions on how to stay actively engaged?




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