Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities


“Repeat after me!”


Repetitio mater studiorum est.


Spending time with my grandfather was always a 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. As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy. But let’s be honest for a second.

How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language? How often does your mind go 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 complicated than we have thought after all. Put on your “learning overalls,” and let’s dig deeper to explain why repetition is not enough.

Let me start with the basics.


Optimize Your Language Learning – Two Kinds Of Repetition


Optimize Your Language Learning


In its most basic form, the repetition can adopt two forms. It can be either:

1) active

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 receive.


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 do passive learning activities 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 a friend of mine. This story might sound familiar to you. Problems of about 90% of 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 the B1 level.

My first reaction? “No, f***ing way.”

She’s been learning systematically for over two 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 real learning. They read some articles together. For an entire hour. Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations. No active learning.

Nada. Null. Nothing.

If at any point while 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 to a local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this. At least you will know what you pay for.


Optimize Your Language Learning – the Pyramid of Effective Learning


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

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

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 it, 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 executing 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 that confirm the effectiveness of active learning. Here are the results of some of the recent findings.


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. Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?


The Effectiveness of Passive Learning


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


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


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

I always 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 do they start listening practice. And the gains always amaze them.

There is also a little known consequence of your potential choice of learning strategy. You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING.



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 to put it into your long-term memory. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)

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 thousand words, reading is a very 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, ten times? Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!

What about other words like tangs, udder, piston, and so on? I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive learning activities would make me an inefficient teacher/coach/interpreter.

So there you have it. L2 Learners are simply at a disadvantage as for the number of repetitions of words. If you want to optimize your language learning, limiting passive learning activities is one of the first things you should do.


Is Incidental Learning Really That Bad?

No. Of course, it is 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 memorize these 5000 words before you run out of motivation!

Read more: The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress.


Optimize Your Language Learning – Final Thoughts


As you can see, passive learning activities are a cardinal sin for most language learners. Limiting them is the first step you should take optimize your language learning. The chance is that if you take a good, hard look at your learning schedule, you will discover that they are the culprit, which makes your progress unsatisfying.

They still play an essential role in the learning process, but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.


Done reading? Time to learn!


Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “effortful recall”, etc. can be really easy!




  • “Passive learning” hit the nail on the head! I’m from the US, and at least back in the 1990s, it felt more like learning ABOUT the language, rather than actually LEARNING the language (I suppose they figured, “Well, everyone will use English, so, here’s the basics for “language and culture appreciation”). For example, first day of class, we’d memorize an 8 line script, but never really expanded on using that sentence. Even if we did, it was only for 5 minutes, then the other 40 minutes (classes were 45 minutes long), we’d just read about grammar. Later on, it would be memorizing 5-7 pronouns for another 5 cases, but never really put it into practice, other than learning 25 to 35 variants of a single verb for that week.

    To this day, I have forgotten almost all of my 3 years of French, and same with the 1/2 year of Spanish in middle school. My German is a bit better (I would say the equivalent to B1 or B2 – took 3 years in highschool, then college makes you start all over again, so 5 more semesters there), but always felt I was lacking in vocabulary. At least I had German family members to practice writing/talking to, and I’m able to think in the language as well.

    My Japanese teacher in college (took 2 years of that, plus a proficiency test, which I did quite well on) was more on the “Active Learning” side, and I still remember most of it 20 years later (I’d say A2 or B1 level).

    I’ve always loved learning languages, and I’m thinking of picking up Polish (My dad’s side is Polish, and I’ve picked up a few words here and there from family gatherings).

  • Great article as always! I progressed fast (3 months B1) via passively reading/listening & actively talking to myself with Italian but this may be due to Spanish being my native language. Arabic is currently taking a Herculean effort to learn (6 months into it)…which is what drove me to your website :).

    • Thanks! Yeah, passive-based learning can work relatively well if you’re learning a language which is similar to the ones you already know 🙂

  • Hej

    Znam około 9 000 słów. Mogę przeczytać w miarę bez problemu “książki odnoszące się do życia” np. jak być pewniejszym siebie, jak zarabiać więcej itp. Jednak nie idzie mi to tak dobrze gdy chcę przeczytać powieści. W sumie to zrozumiałe, bo te drugie bardziej są naszpikowane trudnymi słowami. I teraz moje pytania:

    1. Czy, żeby poprawić czytanie należy po prostu więcej czytać? Niby proste że tak to powinno wyglądać,ale mam wrażenie że jednak aktywne uczenie się nowych słówek z Anki daje lepsze efekty jeśli chodzi o poprawę czytania,słuchania itp. Ten artykuł zdaje się to potwierdzać. A więc co polecasz, żeby poprawić czytanie? Czy jeśli nauczę się jeszcze np. 5 tys nowych zwrotów,słów i wyrażeń to moje czytanie “automatycznie” wejdzie na wyższy poziom?

    2. Chodzi mi o końcówkę tego artykułu Is the incidental learning that bad? Niektórzy poligloci polecają czytanie. Napisałeś, że powyżej 5 tys. słów czytanie ma sens. Ale nie rozwinąłeś tego punktu. Proszę rozwiń to. Czytać czy nie czytać? Czytanie spowalnia uczenie na tym etapie czy rozwija? Czy jednak aktywne uczenie zawsze jest lepsze?

    • Hej!

      1) TO jedno z rozwiazan – zaczynasz duzo czytac i notowac slowka, ktorych nie znasz. Mozesz slowka te wrzucic do ANKI i kodowac aktywnie, na pewno przyspieszy to tempo czytania,
      Jesli ktos jest juz na poziomie co najmniej B2 to jedyna rzecz, ktora moze poprawic czytanie to rozbudowa slownictwa. Mozesz to robic tak jak pisalemto powyzej albo wziac
      slownik kieszonkowy i zaczac wypisywac do ANKI nowe slowa, ktorych nie znales.
      W 1 h na pewno nauczysz sie duzo wiecej slow niz podczas 1 h czytania. Zakladajac, ze chcesz osiagnac wysoki poziom z danego jezyka to ciezko pobic szybkoscia te metode.

      2) Nie rozwinalem bo art nie jest o czytaniu 🙂 Tu wiecej o laczeniu pasynwej i aktywnej nauki :https://www.universeofmemory.com/activevspassivelearning/
      W skrocie – czytaj ile chcesz. Ale plan nauki wyglada tak: nauka aktywna az zaczniesz wymiekac psychicznie – w zaleznosci od dnia i Twojej formy moze byc to 30 min, a moze byc i 6 h.
      Jak skonczysz nauke aktywna to czas na relaks – seriale, czytanie, itd.
      AKtywna nauka jest zawsze lepsza jesli chcesz miec zaktywizowana wiedze. W przypadku nauki jezyka odp brzmi – tak, praktycznie zawsze.

  • 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 🙂

  • 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 🙂

  • 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 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!

  • 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 🙂

  • 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!

  • 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:

    • 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.

  • 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 🙂

  • 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! 🙂

  • 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 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! 🙂

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