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Making Your Foreign Language Study Effective: Active Not Passive Learning

I studied Spanish at school, by which I mean I took classes in Spanish, and I got good marks in all the exams as well, but I never really thought I could speak Spanish well, even after a year or so of taking classes. Amazingly, it took me a few years to figure out why my grades were so high but my ability to use the language was so limited. My experience learning Chinese has been completely different, and not only because I put more time into it. From my experience, I can now explain why I was able to progress more quickly in Chinese: in brief, I turned passive study into active study.

What is passive study?

Passive study is how many people approach self-study in languages. It is the reason why some people study a language for many years but cannot really speak it or use it. The activities below are what I would classify as ‘passive study’:

Passive listening, with no participation – unknown words just pass by you
Passive reading, with no participation – often you end up skip-reading and learning little
Always listening, not practicing speaking – improves your comprehension but hard to speak
Reading through textbooks – doesn’t actually give you any practice and you miss a lot
Reading through lists of vocabulary – you only remember a few words from a long list
Reading through translations – only effective if part of your other learning exercises
Reading subtitles – a good way to relax, but not so effective as a learning method.

What is active study?

This is the key to effective language learning. It means getting more involved in the learning process. It means remaining very curious to everything you see and hear, and not letting areas of confusion pass. I have heard people argue that you can learn a language purely by watching TV or in your sleep, but I don’t think it is either effective or possible. It is the equivalent of a couch potato getting up off the sofa and into action.

So what can we do to make study active?

Active Listening

I always advise people at the beginner and intermediate stage to listen to shorter podcasts or to find dialogues or recordings a maximum of 15 minutes long.

Just listen the first time and try to get the gist, then work through the recording, if there are any words you don’t know, try typing them into your computer into an electronic dictionary, then save the words as flashcards on your computer to review later.

Many people will listen and words just wash over them, or they may remember a few things, and forget it later. It is also a good habit to listen to the same clips several times, to gain more from them.

Active Reading

As with active listening, use computer software to read texts that gives you definitions by moving your mouse over the words or use an electronic dictionary to look up words. The process of looking up words is active, and will help you to remember words more easily and learn vocabulary in context.

Active Vocabulary Learning

Many students will not think it important to note down new vocabulary, or scrawl lists on pieces of paper that they then lose or throw away. Instead of doing this, why not revise your vocabulary lists on a regular basis or use flashcard software such as Anki daily to commit vocabulary to memory. Remember to learn vocabulary in sentence examples, so you know how to use the words. You can also check word usages by typing keywords into a Google or Baidu search, or look up words in a Chinese corpus to see usage examples.

Speak, don’t just listen

ChatMany people who are learning languages on their own tend to listen more and speak less. This is only half of what you need to do to practice the language. It is important to get your mouth moving to practice the language several times a week. Try to find a language exchange partner online and speak every week. Record yourself reading aloud or practicing speaking, ‘shadow’ or repeat after native speakers so you are saying the words yourself. Speak to yourself or native speaker friends. The more you speak, the easier the words will come to you and the more natural you will sound. You should speak as much as you listen.

This kind of study can be intensive, however it is very effective. It is fine to do some more passive activities for part of the time, especially when you are tired or becoming impatient. Extensive reading or listening are acceptable as part of your study plan. Remember to find things to read or listen to that are slightly above your level of ability. If you cannot understand anything, you will face an uphill struggle. You don’t have to worry about there being things you don’t understand, and look up everything, but more active study will be your path to success.