In praise of passive learning

I do not know if all of you also follow my blog. The following was posted on my blog along with a podcast. This sort of covers the underlying philosophy at LingQ. Comments are most welcome.

In praise of passive learning.

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play

  • Heraclitus

Language skills are unlike most of the skills we acquire in life. This is for two reasons. First because language is so important to everything we do, and second, because we learn language largely passively. This is true for our first language, and it is also true for any other language we learn.

Unless we have a physical disability, we all learn to talk. Some of us start talking earlier than others, but all children learn to speak their first language. We do this without any drills or explanations, and largely without correction. We do not need a textbook to learn to speak. We just imitate what we hear, noticing words and phrases and patterns. In fact we learn as we listen passively, and then start talking when we feel like it. Some children, like Einstein, do not start talking until quite late, but they are learning all the time they are listening. How well we learn to use the language will depend on our exposure to the language, not when we start talking.

If we hear people talking about a wide variety of subjects as children, we naturally and passively pick up the words and phrases they use. If we pick up a lot of words, we will have an advantage when we start school. If we read a lot in school, driven by what interests us, we will acquire a larger and larger vocabulary and achieve a high level of literacy. This will give us an advantage in our education, and in our professional life.

If we are exposed to a limited vocabulary as children growing up, and if we do not develop the habit of reading a lot, we will not learn so many words and we will haver fewer phrases and ways of expressing ourselves. We will do less well in school and professionally. In general, remedial reading or grammar instruction will not help the poor reader catch up. What will help is increased exposure to the language, reading and listening to more and more stimulating and challenging content. The earlier this starts the better, but it is never too late.

The same is true when we learn a second language. We mostly need to hear it and read it. We do not need to be taught how to speak. It is something we do naturally. We can even take advantage of our knowledge of a first language to learn words in the new language faster. We do not need to experience everything in life over again. When we notice words, phrases and patterns in the new language, we at first relate them to our own language. Gradually we get used to the strange patterns of the new language, and they start to seem natural. They become natural, not because they were explained to us, but because we have come across them so often in different interesting contexts.

We do not need instruction in pronunciation any more than we need instruction to imitate regional accents our own language. We just need to let ourselves go, observe and imitate. Unfortunately, we are often more self-conscious when pronouncing a new language because we take ourselves too seriously. We often are more relaxed when we try to imitate different accents in our own language, which is only play acting. This is not the case with the child who simply imitates without inhibition.

I have learned 10 languages. I always found passive learning enjoyable. I just listen, read, review and observe. As long as I am exposed to the language, I am learning passively and it does not matter when I start to use the language. I start using it when I feel like it. In fact I study what I want, on my own schedule. I do not need to start anywhere or finish anywhere. I can have several books or audio books going at the same time.

I follow my inclinations. Sometimes I am more motivated to review new words and phrases, sometimes I am more motivated to listen and read. I never know when I will learn a word or language pattern. My brain seems to just learn them on its own schedule, not on a schedule set out by a teacher or a textbook.

Whenever I was asked to answer questions on my reading, questioned on my vocabulary, asked to fill in the blanks, or had to do tests, it disrupted my enjoyment of passive learning. It interrupted my learning. It annoyed me and my learning energy would fizzle.

Learning a language does require effort. But it is the effort of the learner pushing on a slightly open door, pursuing things of interest. It is the pleasant effort of passive learning. To paraphrase Heraclitus, it is the effort of the child at play.

Well, it’s funny that I’m in a moment in which I’m feeling like having a lot of input, but not output. I’m writing much less that I was used to do some months ago, and there is a long time since I had my last event.
But I don’t think my learning activities are passive at all. I’m quite actively reading, importing content, listening to them and studying new words with the flashcards.
I believe some time in near future I’ll have a period of focusing on events and writing, but I feel that what I need now is a lot of input.
I agree that being free to follow this kind of feeling is very motivating and effective.
But on the other side I don’t agree that classes, exercises and examinations are always unmotivating or annoying. If the teacher is reasonable and the students face these things with a proper mind-set, they can be effective too. But if they just sit there and wait for some kind of miracle, of course the whole thing will be an enormous waste of time.
In conclusion, I largely agree with you that most classrooms are ineffective, but I don’t agree with the idea that the teachers have all the guilt for this situation, mainly when talking about adult learning.

Ana,

I rarely really disagree with you. I do work hard at my passive learning. Now I am going to move into a more active phase in my Russian. I started writing and got one mistake every five words, and probably Anna was being kind. I intend to improve.

But these are all things I want to do. To me they are natural and passive. They are not make work activities imposed by someone else.

This idea, especially with respect to adult learning, is a subject that has interested me for a long time and I would like to comment on my own experience. I grew up in Montreal in a Dutch immigrant family and was exposed to French and Dutch from an early age. After a very good start in elementary school, (I skipped grade 5) I did not complete high school, dropping out at the age of 14. The French teachers I had were mostly ineffective using the yelling and intimidation with fear of punishment and humiliation as the primary motivator! The Dutch I learned was only by exposure.

I was introduced to Spanish at a couple of night classes in my late teens and went to Mexico with my brother for 3 weeks as an adventure. We immersed ourselves in the Spanish language by going to working class bars and hanging out with Mexicans who were very interested in our company, and possibly our liberal attitude towards buying drinks for our new amigos. After only 3 weeks, it truly amazed me at how much we could communicate with only the most basic vocabulary, a tiny little pocket dictionary and the willingness to try. We never felt that learning was a chore, it was really just having fun!

After learning a trade, I decided to try to get out of skilled trades as a career and apply to University as a mature student to study the violin. I did not know how to play the violin at the time. To qualify for admission, I studied basic German and basic Spanish for 2 hours a day each, 5 days a week for 6 weeks in a summer semester and received an A grade in both classes, thereby gaining admission to an Ontario institution of higher learning. Although I did not become a concert violinist, starting from scratch at age 23 (no pun intended!) I managed to become a reasonable fiddler in only 3 years using my own method of having fun studying and practicing many hours playing music I enjoyed.

After graduation, I continued to learn Spanish informally for fun, as a volunteer with the YMCA host program for new immigrants to Canada. I also managed to get admitted into an MBA program and did some business research in Mexico using my little Spanish to get around Mexico City. I learned a great deal of Spanish during those trips, again, just by trying my best to communicate and “absorbing” the language naturally. I ended up being hired by the company I did the research for and was eventually transferred from Canada to El Paso Texas to cover the Latin American market for our products.

Now I find that as I get older I have little patience, and even less time, for being “force fed” in formal classes. I try to spend my time doing what I enjoy as much as I can, and I love to read. I continue to travel to Mexico regularly for work and I have become very interested in language study as a hobby (my wife says it’s my obsession). I work for a Japanese company and so I am learning some Japanese, and I have also studied Dutch informally as part of my interest in my ancestral heritage. Today, I can carry out most of my business in Spanish, and my Dutch, which I’ve never studied in a formal class, is far better than my German or French ever was. I have tried a lot of different things in my efforts to acquire some level of skill and just recently read Stephen Krashen’s book on Second Language Acquisition. I think the LingQ philosophy as outlined in the Linguist blog and the lingQ website is very similar to the theory put forth in Krashen’s book and my personal experience certainly supports the theory. I have learned very little from classes that I have ever been able to put into actual practice and most of the Spanish I know has been “picked up” as they say from a lot of exposure over many years.

What worries me is that my memory seems like it is not what it once was and whether or not this matters. Also, does it take longer to learn “passively” in the sense of “acquisition” through exposure to reading and listening rather than actively studying grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary lists? With a busy work and travel schedule, as well as a wife that requires some attention from time to time (heh-heh!) sometimes I feel like life is too short and I am running out of time! I wonder if there have been any studies done since Krashen published his book on the subject over 25 years ago. Aside from personal experiences like what we find on this site, I can’t really find much serious research on the subject although I would think there should be some. Does anybody know of any data driven studies with objective results?

We know that the results of other approaches are often abysmal. However, I would really like to know how effective, in terms of measurable outcomes, the acquisition approach can be. Wouldn’t it be nice to know, more or less on average, what we can expect from a given amount of time or effort spent?

Any feedback?

jbudding

I note that you have saved very few LingQs on our system. I am 62, undoubtedly older than you. I do not rely on my memory. I am also quite busy. My work, wife, grandchildren and sports and other interests (not necessarily in that order) do take up my time. In the last two weeks I have saved 1188 LingQ on our system. I have submitted writing twice in Russian. I listen to audio books, and watch Russian videos of the stories that I am studying on LingQ.

Why not put more effort in LingQ?

It has been about 2 weeks since I signed on to your website. (Actually, I was in Mexico without internet for 4 days so that makes only 10 days.) I am listening to some audio and reading the transcripts and participating in the forums, some English, some Spanish. I am currently listening to an audio book of Angeles y Demonios y Dan Brown (it’s 18 CD’s long). Even before I discovered your website I was doing basically what you suggest, listening, reading, and re-listening, sometimes with or without reading along. Of course, my copy of Angeles y Demonios is not connected to your lingQ system so that is one reason why I don’t make many lingQs. Also, of the 3 audio files I have listened to and read, there were not many words that I didn’t know.

I have made some lingQs and tried the flashcard system here but so far, I have not yet become comfortable with it. I have a pop up Spanish English dictionary that gives me a very good explanation of the words I don’t know instantly with a double click and then I move on. I am spending about an hour a day with flash cards already to learn kanji using a spaced repetition program and so I prefer not to spend much time on Spanish flashcards.

I just recently purchased an audio recording of Juan Rulfo reading his own work and I am planning to read Pedro Paramo in Spanish after I finish the Dan Brown. (Rulfo uses a lot of words I don’t know!) So until I run out of audio I am mostly just becoming more familiar with how your website works. So far, I’m finding the flashcard system here, although very easy to make new cards with, not as nice as the system I use which allows me to paste audio and pictures into the questions and answers along with text and also has a spaced repetition feature. I don’t use the pictures but I like to quiz myself on audio only.

So I like the idea and the method, I’m exploring the content, and I’m not yet sure about the software until I become more familiar with it. What do you with the 1188 lingQs after you’ve made them? Does each lingQ represent a word or meaning that you didn’t know before?

Also, do you have any experience or information about any large numbers of intermediate level students with respect to their vocabulary or writing and communications skills over time using this style or approach toward second language acquisition? The idea has been around for at lest 25 years so I am thinking there should be more than just tangential evidence and personal experience to support it. It’s just curiosity on my part, since I already intuitively feel the idea is right from personal experience as I alluded to above. I’ll probably try using the lingQ system more as I get more familiar with it. Fact is, 2 weeks ago I didn’t even know what a podcast was! Thanks for making the site and putting up all the material you have put together. In any case, I don’t plan to stop having fun!

Hello jbudding,

From the standpoint of someone “in the business” (I’ve been a college professor of German for 20 years), I’m afraid that Steven Krashen’s ideas, while being received initially with some enthusiasm, have been largely ignored (or at best given lip service) both by textbook publishers and writers and by those of us engaged in the classroom. As a foreign language teacher who appreciates these ideas (and uses them - I’m learning Russian with LinqQ and have taught myself other languages, pre-LingQ, following a similar learning philosophy and method - I’ve been deeply impressed at how Steve (Kaufmann) has appropriated these somewhat theoretical ideas into this website to a far greater extent than it has been done in the profession. As a teacher, I am now constantly challenged to remake my classroom in order to do the same. About 7 years ago, I realized that if I were someone wanting to learn German, I’d never take my own class, and since then I’ve been experimenting.

Jim W

Hello JimW,

For some years now I’ve been looking for and experimenting with different methods with high school students (ages 14-19), probably for much the same reasons. Being dissatisfied with predominant so-called communicative methods that actually weren’t anything else but old grammar and translation based drills combined with ineffective dialogues on CDs and not really interesting textbook content, I searched the internet and came up with numerous articles by Greg Thomson on the www.sil.org website, in which I was introduced to Stephen Krashen’s ideas.

Providing students with a lot of comprehensible input was a big challenge, especially for French. The main problem proved to be the “remaking” of the classroom and motivating the students, who actually didn’t expect anything better than what they had been getting so far, to take more responsibility for their learning. Thanks to Steve Kaufmann’s blogposts and my own working with LingQ I’ve become much more efficient in convincing at least part of my students of how effective listening and reading can be at any stage in the learning process.

Previously I had come across “passive learning” in Vera Birkenbihl’s books. She worked out her own methodology of language learning (among other learning fields) in the late 1980s. She actuallY advocates word-for-word translation with active listening (very similar to the LingQ method) as a first step. She calls this “decoding”. She is against formal vocabulary and grammar learning. The next step is “passive listening”(without reading along) and only after full comprehension/acquisition of the material does she suggest production (speaking or writing) according to the learner’s requirements.

Ms Birkenbihl’s method is great as soon as you have the “decoded” texts and recordings. I experimented with this method for some time, but then came across Assimil courses, which were easier to use, because there was no need to do the word-for-word translation myself. On the other hand, I didn’t find the content of Assimil courses so interesting. Stll, I have benefited a lot from both approaches. However, all of this proved to be difficult to use in the classroom.

With the LingQ methodology I have found something like a “missing link”. Interesting content and mp3 files, flashcards (which I had been using on and off in paper form) together with the possibility of communicating with other learners and a tutor.

My latest experiment of learning some Swedish with “the power of the linguist” has been a very rewarding experience. I’m using LingQ mainly for Russian and French, but I’m trying to continue Swedish as well.

There is a lot of interesting comment here.

First of all to jbudding.

You have certainly had an interesting life so far, and have the independence of mind of the successful language learner.

You are on the right track with your listening activities. Spanish is easy to read since we have so many cognates. Still I find that in Spanish there are things that are not yet natural, like some of the verb endings in the past tense, so I tend to use the imperfect because it is easier. If I were doing Spanish at LingQ I would save specific forms of verbs in order to capture a bunch of phrases with those forms. I might also tag some of these. I will describe in the next paragraph what I do in Russian.

Russian has definitely fewer cognates with languages that I know, than Spanish. I am still discovering the root, suffix and prefix relationships in Russian.

I tend to save all forms of word, even when I am fairly sure of the meaning. When I am reading a text in WorkDesk, I have the Vocabulary section open in another tab. I will then copy and paste 3-4 letter parts of words from my LingQ widget search in my Vocab list. This will throw up 20 to 100 words that contain that component. I review them all. I might check a bunch of them and move them to known.

Having a lot of saved LingQs also means that I have a good number of already saved words to review before I start into a new item. Reviewing the yellow highlighted words in new contexts is also a very effective of reviewing and confirming my understanding of words.

I also sometimes go to the Vocab section and review my lists of words in group of 100 at a time. I often select all and move them up one Status level, just checking the few that I want to leave at their present level. I am quite free about moving words around in Status. I often encounter words that I had move to 4 (known) and move them back to 3 because I have since forgotten them.

We have 3 developers working on improving LingQ. We will be adding sound to the LingQ widget and doing other things to make it all better. We appreciate all suggestions, but cannot promise when these improvements will be implemented. There is simply too much to do.

To JimW and Alleray

Thank you for your encouraging remarks. Please give us your suggestions and we will try to make it better for you. Eventually we want to tailor some features for use in the classroom, and for use with a younger group. But again, first things first.

One of our concerns is to make it so easy and enjoyable that a larger and larger group of people will put in the time needed to improve. That is why we emphasize the need for the learner to choose content and to do those activities that each learner enjoys doing.

The most important thing is to spend the time with the language. I know from a few years ago when I attended the Sprachen und Beruf conference in Germany, that most corporate learners spend very little time on their language study outside of the instructional hours that are provided by the employer. I suspect the same is true in schools.

I think that Krashen said that the goal of the teacher is to create autonomous learners. The classroom is more for social interaction, stimulus and encouragement than for actual language learning. The classroom is valuable, expensive time. The question has to be how to leverage the classroom time to take advantage of the potential power of a motivated self-driven learner.

I am sure that the reality of the classroom, with the usual distribution of keeners and uninterested students is a difficult environment.

I am very interested in the classroom since so much money is spent on classrooms, with, at least in the case of Canada, very little to show for it.

We would like to use some of these positive comments on our upcoming testimonials page. I hope there are no objections.