Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities

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“Repeat after me!”

Repetitio mater studiorum est

Spending time with my grandfather was always a little bit weird.
He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games.

Oh no.
He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects.
Physics. Math. History.

But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.

Most of them slipped my mind.
But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:

Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying

These four words contain the wealth of wisdom, if you only interpret them in the right way.

On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex, right?

As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy.

But let’s be honest for a second. Like, really honest.

How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language?
How often does your mind goes blank?

You desperately try to recall the word you need but there is nothing there.
Just the depressing nothingness.

Rings true?

There you have it!

So the problem might a bit more complex than we have thought after all.
Put on your “learning overalls” and let’s dig a little bit deeper to explain why repetition is simply not enough.

Let me start with basics.

Two Kinds Of Repetition

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

In its most basic form, the repetition can adapt two forms.

It can be either:

1) active

or

2) passive

But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?

It means that you don’t engage with the information you get.

You don’t do it actively (duh).

That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category.

What terrifies me the most, is that the default style of learning, for most of the people, is passive learning.

“But why does passive learning suck donkey balls?”, you might ask.
Let’s get to it.

Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress

 

Before I get to the science, let me tell you about one friend of mine.
This story might sound familiar for you.
Actually, problems of about 90% people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.

Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.

I haven’t heard her talk for a long time but I thought that her level should be at least decent.
Russian is not that different from Polish after all.

So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago.
She barely scratched B1 level.

My first reaction?
“No f***ing way”.

She’s been learning systematically for over 2 years and she can barely string a sentence together?

After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it.

Yes, her teacher visited her every week.
Yes, they did learn.

Or should I say, “learn”?

Because the process they went through barely resembled any kind of real learning.

They basically read some articles together.
For entire hour.

Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations.
No active learning.

Nada. Null. Nothing.

If at any point of reading this description you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!”, then run.

Run the hell away from your teacher or language school.

A visit at the local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this.
At least you will know what you pay for.

The pyramid of effective learning

 

Science is very clear about passive learning.

It was proven long time ago that passive learning has very little effect on whether information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Many other studies have managed to successfully replicate the results of the aforementioned research.

So how does effective learning look like?

Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.

Effective learning requires , so-called, effortful recall.

This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning.

Without the control, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm.

You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction.

That damn boat needs a captain! You, that is!

Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?

It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or to execute a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel).

Once again, there are a lot of studies which confirm effectiveness of active learning.
Here are results of some of the recent results.

“Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”

Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007)

It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies together.
Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?

How does this information transplant onto your learning ground?

 

First of all, let’s do some simple math.
Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:

1 minute of talking is worth of 5-7 minutes of reading / listening. (read more about benefits of talking to yourself).

I know that reading and listening might feel productive but they are clearly not.
These are so-called feel-good activities.

I constantly shock students of mine by telling them not to listen to anything for the first 8-10 weeks of learning. Instead, I help them concentrate on active learning.

Only after this period of time do they start listening practice.
And the gains always amaze them.

There is also one, very little known fact, about your potential choice of learning strategy.
You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to…

UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING

*gasp*

What Is Unintentional Learning?

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

Picture by: Zack Cannon

Now this is a truly fascinating type of learning.

Unintentional learning takes place when you acquire vocabulary accidentally. it is a by-product of repeating a given piece of information a certain number of times.

It’s worth mentioning that is it also one of the default and (most useless) strategies of almost every language learner.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)

Needless to say, it takes way too much time. And time is the luxury a few of us can afford.

Of course, One might argue that 20-50 repetitions are not that many.
After all, if you read extensively and listen, you should get to this number of repetitions after some time.

Right?

No.

Here comes another plot twist.

Unless you learn three thousands words, reading is a veeery slow and inefficient activity.

And until you reach this number, your odds of learning words contextually are slight.

Sure, you can infer the meaning, but there is a good chance that your guess will be incorrect.

And what about rare words which you might find useful?
What If I need to know the word “thimble” because that was my dog’s name and I feel the need to share it with English speakers?

How many thousands pages must I read to stumble across this word,say, 10 times?
Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!

What about other like: tang, udder, piston and so on?

I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive acquisition would make me a terribly inefficient teacher / coach / interpreter.

So here you have it.
L2 Learners are simply at disadvantage as for number of repetitions of words.

Of course, every problems begs for the solution.

We will get to it later.

Is the incidental learning that bad?

 

No. Of course not.
Incidental vocabulary acquisition makes some sense.

Maybe even a lot.
But only on one condition.

You already know enough words (and grammar) to learn from context.
Typically, that’s about 5000 words for most of the languages.

But the problem is to learn these 5000 words before you run out of motivation…!

Final Thoughts

 

As you can see, the passive learning is a cardinal sin of most language learners.
The chance is that if you take a good, hard look on your learning habits, you will discover why your progress is so unsatisfying.

It still plays important roles in the learning process but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.

What about you?

How heavily do your rely on listening and relying in your language learning routine?

22 comments

  • I have two children and I want them to learn Spanish. I’m learning Spanish myself, I’m probably a B2. My oldest is 3, so I don’t need very complex Spanish to talk to him, so I talk to him only in Spanish. I read children’s books to him in Spanish, talk about what read in Spanish, etc. And I do talk to natives over Skype every day. I think I’m progressing, but it is slow… But my boy is starting to play and sing his own songs on Spanish, so I think I’m getting somewhere…

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you for your comment Jessie! With children things look a lot different. Your children are still in the critical period of language acquisition so simply shower them with as any language related activities as it is only possible. You will find more information about language learning optimization in the next article. Good luck with your learning! 🙂

  • Thank you Bartosz! Every your post is brilliant! I love that you always prove your articles with a science research! I try to do the same.

    I’m in these 90% like your friend 🙂 The reading is much easier, then you are shy or just lazy. Maybe that’s why I have choosed that method of learning 🙂 Now, I change my approach and try to write more and more.

    And what is more powerful for future recall – speaking or writing? Or are they equal?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you for this wonderful comment Alexey! I am introverted myself so I know how it feels!
      Definitely speaking – there are simply more sensory channels involved!

  • I completely agree with you on this one,Bartosz, which is why I’ve focussed extensively on speaking (and to some extent writing) in my language studies during the past year. Ironically, I now find myself somewhat incapable of understanding friends and teachers speaking to me in Japanese, so I’ve decided to switch attention a bit to improve my reading and listening skills.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      I get it. It might be tricky to maintain the fragile balance between passive and active learning. However, I wouldn’t call it a problem. It’s much easier to keep the listening comprehension once your vocabulary is big enough! 🙂 I’m sure you’ll catch up to them in no time! 🙂

  • Bartosz, thank you for your answer!
    And do you have any articles about introvert’s methods for learning a foreign language? You advise a self-talking which I found great. But maybe you have another useful technics?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Alexey, most of the articles about learning, which can be found on my website, refer to self-learning! 🙂 Sorry to disappoint you with my answer but almost all the (effective) language learning is done in an isolation 🙂

  • And yet another reference to the “pyramid of learning”. You have done more research before. There is no scientific basis about this pyramid, no to mention the percentages.
    Read for example:
    http://acrlog.org/2014/01/13/tales-of-the-undead-learning-theories-the-learning-pyramid/
    http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/~/media/researched/red%20files/briefings/learning-pyramid.pdf

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Hi Franck! Thank you for your comment. Yes, I do a lot of research and I have actually read one of the articles (the longer one), you have mentioned.
      It’s certainly true when it comes to percentages, Nobody in his right mind will argue about them and claim that they’re exact.
      However, the pyramid actually shows in quite a precise way what kind of learning activities are more effective – the active ones that is.
      I am sure that you are aware of this fact!
      Once again thank you for your comment. This is an important voice in this discussion.

  • Hi.
    Thank you for your posts..just a friendly notice, this proverb you are referring into (Repetitio mater studiorum est) is an Ancient Greek one, first said by Plato, it goes like this :
    ἡ ἐπανάληψις εἶναι μήτηρ πάσης μαθήσεως
    and means the exact same thing!

  • Nice article, but it’s painful to read because of the one sentence paragraphs.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you! However, I will stick to once sentence paragraphs – it reduces eye strain in comparison with one-block-of-text paragraphs 🙂

  • I had wasted a year of switching from one teacher to another, never seeing any progress until i found “the ONE”. We had exactly 1 hour 2 times a week. Everyday started with reading homework+correcting, new material+explanation+exercises, exercises together, reading together, us conversating but for a short while. But her lessons were diffferent from the “bad” teachers in the following:
    she gave me crazily many exercises for homework
    she explained all the grammar perfectly clear and comprehensively
    every mistake I did she had a story from life or a vivid demonstration of the correct version, which I still remember
    As a result I spent 2/3 of the time needed and passed my exams successfully. I was studying after school, after finishing homework for school, about 4 hours everyday for English, I was learning rhymes and extracts by heart, I was super sleepy, since I never could go to bed earlier than 3 A.M. and would wake up at 8 A.M. But 8 months were enough for giving me all she planned. I adore that teacher. I love her and think that her attitude and talent in teaching changed my whole life and provided me with love for a foreign language, that has been guiding my during my life

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Your example depicts quite vividly that a good teacher makes the world of difference. Thank you for your comment Victoria!

  • Thank you for this. As an ESL teacher, I include memorization in my lessons, despite its current status as an “old fashioned” method of learning. Memorization incorporates some of the principles you put forth here and has the immeasurable effect of instilling confidence.

    • I absolutely agree. it’s still a very useful tool in a wide array of subjects, including languages. Thank you for your comment!

  • I couldn’t agree more you need some deliberate studying especially at the beginning of your language learning journey all those ‘just lie and listening courses are BIG BS.First of all adults learn differently than children but in any case, even children need some /visual sensory etc. etc.(not just blank dumb hearing incomprehensible sounds in other language/simulation to deduce the meaning.After reaching a certain point when learning a language(when you acquire the efficient amount of words and the basic grammar)then we can start to learn unintentionally because we have enough knowledge to figure out the context. but it takes time a lot of time(thousands upon thousands of hours of speaking listening etc.Hey, I don’t want to be annoying but there are a few grammar errors in your text I recommend chrome grammar check it’s free.Great article and keep writing your blog

    • Bartosz Czekala

      True that, Roger! Thank you for your comment! And don’t worry – you’re not annoying. This is just constructive criticism 🙂

  • Hi Bartek, I came across your website today and I’m glad I did! Thanks for the articles. I am an English teacher working in Poland and I have been for most of the last two decades. I’m always interested in improving and recently, I’ve been trying to alter what I do to incorporate mostly feedback opportunities and deliberate practice. I’d be very grateful if you could provide some tips / comments / advice in your guise as an ecellent example of both a. a language learner and b. someone familiar with the concepts of effective practice.

    I’ve also recently started actively (I think) learning Polish but I’m going to go through every one of your articles and take care to start trying to study effectively! Mark S

    • Hi Mark! Thank you for your comment! Please drop me a message so I can provide you with some more detailed advice 🙂

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