Learning a language is not easy and we all would want to have a magic wand, wave it and “TA-DA” and we acquire all the necessary knowledge to learn this language we’ve been wanting to study for so long. But this is not real. So, we’ve tried to hang on the next big thing: passive learning.

I have voiced out my opinion about passive learning in the past.

“Sometimes, we language teachers, recommend that our students listen to programs, songs and YouTube videos in their target language. Some even recommend them as a background sound in order to mimic immersion.

My question is: Do all this work?

I'm sorry to disappoint you, the answer is a big fat NO.

If you look up in the dictionary the word "Learning" is defined as " the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught".

There is no other way.

You will never be able to pick up a language passively, while on your sleep. Passive exposure, even over a long period, won't allow you to start communicating in your target language. As the definition reveals, learning a language requires a certain amount of effort from you.

Yes, I am so sorry, but you need to learn these new words you encounter and revise them periodically to be able to recall and use them when necessary.

You must get familiar with grammar structures and expressions, and the only way is through constant verbal and written repetitions of these patterns. It is the unique way they will be engraved in your memory.”

Geralde Vincent-Bancroft

24 November 2017

Lots of programs are sold leading you to believe that you can learn a language while you sleep.

If I wrote this 2 year ago, why am I talking about passive language learning again?

Well since then there have been more evidence about the effectiveness of passive language learning.

Jari LO Kurkela recently published an article in Science Direct called “Passive Exposure To Speech Sounds Modifies Change Detection Brain Responses in Adults”.

The results of his study show that passive exposure to foreign speech sound in adulthood can induce plastic changes in the brain which was previously thought to happen only in children during the sensitive period.

What is the sensitive period?

It is said that babies’ brains are programmed to recognise the difference between all the 800 sounds that are part of the world’s languages. In other words, they are primed to learn any given language especially when you are aware that each language only uses about 40 language sounds (phonemes). But this amazing characteristic is lost before their first birthday. After this period, their brains specialise in the mother tongue, rendering them unable to recognise any other language that they are not familiar with.

So, just by listening, on their second birthday, babies can distinguish between different words they listen to in their mother tongue and recognise different grammar patterns, hence their ability to start speaking through mimicking.

Veronique Greenwood published two studies, one in the Journal of Acoustical Society of America, and the other in the Journal of Memory and Language. She suggests that listening to the language you’re studying outside of your normal study time can accelerate the learning process. This happens because your brain becomes more capable of looking for words and phrases that you’ve already studied, and passive listening helps you store better and recall what you’ve learned, and this can still happen even if it’s just a background sound.

In another study by Renée K. Biss, she and her collaborators noticed that older adults who were given a set of new words to learn, easily forgot them However, if the words were repeated in the background when they were performing another activity, they hardly ever forgot the words that had appeared as distractors. They compared these results with a group of younger adults, and the latter forgot words in both categories. They concluded that exposure to distraction boost memory in adult learners.

Passive listening alone won't help you learn a foreign language.

Do all these researches contradict my assertion that passive listening alone won’t help you learn a foreign language?

The answer is no.

You can listen to the radio, or a podcast episode or a film in the foreign language you’re studying as an active listening activity or let them be a background noise. They will serve as a way of immersing yourself in the language and the culture, you will get familiar with the sounds and will speed up the process of storing the words you’ve learned. However, don’t be fooled, you will still need a language course or a tutor to help you master this language.

Take passive listening as a means of relaxation after your language study, as you will not need to pay full attention and it will still be helpful.