The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress
Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, “How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?”
This question is extremely important because the way you combine passive and active learning is actually the key to learning a language fluently.
The purpose of passive learning – it helps to memorize
One of the most frequent claims in the language learning community is that passive learning (i.e. reading and listening) is very helpful with memorizing new vocabulary.
Is it true?
The answer is, surprisingly, yes and no. It simply depends on your current language level.
When is Passive learning useful for memorization?
If we take a look at the scientific literature, we can learn that there are two important milestones concerning your ability to learn from the context:
When is passive learning useful for memorization?
1) 3000 words (B1/B2 level)
3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It seems like a lot.
Sure, on this level, you will be able to hold a decent conversation. You will also be able to get the general ideas and concepts of most of the articles.
This milestone is also important because it’s so-called the minimal threshold for passive learning. It means that reading and listening start making sense only at this level (read more about how many words you need to know for every language level).
2) 5000 words (B2, B2/C1 level)
5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.
What’s more, 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 (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort).
As a sidenote, my personal experience is this – even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.
The conclusion from the above is simple.
Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn’t mean that reading or listening is useless before that.
The purpose of passive learning – it complements active learning
In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source – the simple model of memorization.
The simple model of memorization:
- Retention intention
This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.
Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?
Of course not!
That’s the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.
However, the problem with active learning is that it’s tiring as hell even though it doesn’t take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.
It’s not pretty.
Ok, so you already know that active learning is:
- more effective
What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.
What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.
active learning + passive learning = optimal learning
If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.
Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.
Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of reading and listening.
The purpose of passive learning – it primes your memory
What is priming?
Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.
Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.
Linguistic priming is one of the main factors that influence the accessibility of information in memory (read more about why it is difficult to recall words and how to fix it). The activation of stored knowledge through experiences in the immediate context can make prime-relevant information more accessible in memory, and such recent construct activation can influence inferences, evaluations, and decisions on subsequent tasks. – The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student Edition
In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.
So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.
One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (…) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)
Now that you know what priming is, it’s time to take a look how it affects our memory.
How does priming affect our memory?
There is one main effect of priming on our memory.
We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.
In other words, it’s much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It’s much easier to process a sentence like “I am cutting an onion with a knife” than “I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd”.
How is it possible?
Because our memories are organized into something called “schemas”.
“Schema” is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.
It means that with every new collocation e.g. “cut with a knife”, “a sharp knife”, “stab with a knife”, your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.
If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it’s mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more about how we process speech here).
What’s fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)
What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?
I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.
Fun fact about priming
Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.
Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.
Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person’s idiolect (or that you will adapt it).
Idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.
The extent of priming
Referring to their earlier (1981) work, Ratcliff and McKoon (1988: 389) point out that “they have shown that priming can be obtained between concepts that are much more than four words apart.”
They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.
De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge
As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.
What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.
Here is an example of this phenomenon: “I wanted to cook a dinner so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife”
How long can priming last?
Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).
What does it mean that they are long-lasting?
It’s speculated that these effects can last months or even years.
Practical consequences of priming
Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.
Because you have to combine two things. First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.
That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won’t be able to recall them fast.
Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?
Sure, it will work, but it’s too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.
Even though, you won’t feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.
From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.
If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you’re missing one of these puzzle pieces.
Problems with comprehension
Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.
Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.
Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it’s often touted as a great tool for memorization, it’s actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.