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Developing Passive Skills In Language Learning

One of the first things we advise language students is to develop passive skills in the language before taking an actual course. That way, they’ll be familiar with general elements of the language before they dive into the nitty-gritty, learning individual phrases and studying grammatical structure.

What Are Passive Skills?

In language learning, passive skills consist of listening and reading, as opposed to the active skills of speaking and writing. It’s, basically, those skills where you don’t need to form sentences yourself. Instead, your work consists of trying to make sense of what’s said or written down.

Why Start With Passive?

According to some theories of language development, passive skills are the first ones we develop in our own language. While you were not expected to read at one year old, you did take a lot of auditory input. All those baby talk all the adults did when communicating with you actually formed the foundation of your language abilities.

Before you even spoke your first word, you likely can already make sense of several things because you heard it used multiple times in your household. As such, when you began to speak, you weren’t learning a new word today and saying it later. Instead, those are words you’ve absorbed passively over months of listening and watching the people around you.

Imagine a child whom no one spoke to. When the mom fed the baby, no words were exchanged. When the adults were talking to each other, they put the baby in the room where she can’t hear. How do you think that child will learn to speak?

What Passive Skills Can You Practice?

1. Music – I am a huge advocate of using music to develop passive skills in a language. The melody makes lines easier to recall and the music itself often makes listening very enjoyable.

While you can’t possibly converse in a language by listening to its music, teens today who live on a steady diet of K-Pop in their iPods will undoubtedly have a decent advantage learning Korean over someone who has no contact with that culture whatsoever. From iTunes to YouTube, there’s a literal plethora of resources where you can listen to music from other countries.

2. Music videos – With the advent of free services like YouTube, VEVO and a whole load of music video services on the web, you can geek out on weeks of fresh music from any country. The added element of visuals should make the process more entertaining. Just be careful not to take what happens in the videos as the meaning of the lyrics — most filmmakers have their own vision of the video and, a lot of the time, it has nothing to do with the song’s lyrics.

3. Podcasts – If you don’t like music because you hate life (just kidding), you can also find podcasts of interest in the target language. Get one of those podcast apps for smartphones and you can literally pig out on endless numbers of people blabbing nonstop.

4. Videos – YouTube isn’t just useful for music videos, there are often tons of other types of video content in whatever language you’re learning. From speeches to tutorials to movie clips to teenage girls ranting about their boring lives while staring at a smartphone camera, there’s literally a plethora of material in nearly every language known to man. Once you exhaust, you can try Vimeo, Dailymotion and all of those other video services.

5. Movies – I, personally, love movies in foreign languages for passive learning. The combination of using slightly exaggerated intonation and the action onscreen makes for a great way to pick up on what’s going on even with the subtitles turned off. Later on, you can verify how well you understood a scene by turning subtitles on and comparing the actual translation to what you thought.

6. Soaps – This is one of my guiltiest pleasures — I just love soaps in all languages. The exaggerated expressions, dramatic dialogue and shamelessly cheesy subjects often make passive learning very entertaining. Only problem is, these materials may not be that easy to find, depending on what language you’re looking to learn. Even going off to the seedier sides of the net for unauthorized downloads or streams isn’t going to be that easy.

7. Written materials – Reading is a lot harder than listening with a new language. When you listen, there’s voice tone, pace and a whole host of other things to clue you in on what’s going on. With reading, not so much, which is why we don’t really recommend people pick up a book or subscribe to a magazine in a foreign language.

What you can do, though, is read bits and pieces of items in the target language. My favorite are print ads, since they’re short and usually have an accompanying picture to clue you in on what’s going on. The Flickr feed of someone who writes in the target language can also be useful, since you get a couple of short lines talking about the image.

Developing A Feel

Passive learning helps a lot in easing you into a language, especially if this is your first time learning a new vernacular. It helps you develop a feel for the language, no matter how shallow it might be.

When you do start your lessons, you’ll notice the benefits almost immediately: you’ll instinctively know how to pronounce certain words, how to pace your talking speed, where to put stress in specific phrases and other important things.

Should Everyone Do This?

Sadly, no. Not everyone has the luxury of time for language learning. A lot of people procrastinate on learning a language, thinking they can learn a language faster than usual, for instance, so by the time they get around to studying, their trip is just two weeks away and all they can really do is memorize survival phrases and the like.

If you have time on your side, though, you should definitely try two weeks or so of passive learning. Aside from being potentially fun, it will make the impact of being presented a new language a lot less drastic and shocking than it would normally be.