Passive learning, active learning

What is passive learning? Is active learning better? How can you profit from each method?


Passive learning


Language learners profit from ready-made solutions to achieve their learning goals in a time-efficient manner. They receive valuable feedback from teachers or apps. They study a syllabus based on textbooks, language classes, podcasts, websites, e-books, good old hardcover grammar books… and anything in between. They understand the language variations and dialects because they have studied the core and they can deduce the meaning.


Learners can reach a good level but they won’t move past it; language learning materials are finite but language isn’t. Moreover, learners are often unable to communicate in real-life situations, unless they are flexible enough to move beyond the textbook after they reach a good language level. Passive language learners who want to profit from learning materials in the original language need very clear guidelines on how to use these sources, or else they simply go through them without learning.


Active learning


Language learners become their own teacher and acquire the language through immersion, deduction and constant practice. They can achieve fluency, because they are not afraid of mistakes and they feel comfortable practicing what they have learned.They start speaking immediately and improve by imitating the native speakers. They learn the current expressions and slang and they make immediate contact with native speakers, which results to more fluency.


Learners are expected to decode complex linguistic rules on their own, by instinct. They must process new information using mechanisms of their own mother tongue, which is counter-productive and time-consuming. They constantly need to “unlearn” unclear vocabulary and bad grammar. They use informal language and insults without realising it. If they ever need a language certificate, they may have difficulty passing the technical parts of the exam (grammar, implied word meanings, writing).


Why you shouldn’t make a choice

  • Passive language learners lack the ability to keep learning. Active language learners lack the solid knowledge.
  • Passive language learners depend too much on instructions. Active language learners don’t get adequate feedback.

(It’s a long list.)


How to get the best results:

  • Combine all sorts of learning methods.
  • Strive for a solid foundation by being a passive language learner, then build on it by being an active language learner.
  • Vocabulary is the first half of a map. Grammar is the other. None should be neglected.
  • Ask for reliable feedback and take it seriously.
  • Make a note of language registers (levels of formality) and learn when to use each.
  • Compare your pronunciation and word choices to those of the native speakers. Adjust.
  • Examples are better than rules. Rules are better than guesswork. Combine information from rules and examples to learn correctly.


Final tip

If a language learning method works for you, has long-term value, doesn’t oversimplify things and doesn’t require that you “unlearn” it later, keep using it.

Every language learner is different and likes learning in different ways.