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Easy Way to Learn a Foreign Language: The Passive to Active Approach

Updated on April 3, 2013

1. Passive versus Active

One of the most powerful and most misunderstood tools all language learners have at their disposal is the difference between passive knowledge and active knowledge of a language. To know a language passively means that you can understand it in written and/or spoken form, but can barely write or speak it yourself. Active knowledge means you have command of all four essential aspects of a language (understanding, speaking, reading and writing).

Naturally, acquiring passive knowledge of a language is much easier than acquiring active knowledge. With passive knowledge, you don't have to work nearly as hard to memorize vocabulary and grammar rules because passive recognition thereof is much easier to master than the use thereof. For example, grammatical gender is very difficult for a non-native speaker to use correctly, but he or she typically has no trouble recognizing the articles and/or inflections that mark any given gender in passive use of the language. The good news is that people with very strong passive ability in any given foreign language can make a very smooth transition into active ability by beginning to speak and write the words and sentence structures they've become so adept at understanding and reading.

So, my advice would be to "lazily" study the grammar of your target language and expose yourself to as much media in this language as possible (the internet is an excellent resource for foreign film, television, radio, etc.) and read in very often. The point is to let the grammar sink in passively so that you will have more knowledge and confidence when you begin to activate your passive knowledge. I recommend this method under the assumption that the learner does not have immediate access to full immersion.

This method is also excellent for people looking to learn several related languages at one time. It is impossible to learn French without gaining a vague understanding of other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian. Take me for example. I have spent the past four years learning to become fluent in German (I have been living in Germany now for four months) and now I find myself able to read and understand Dutch very well, a skill that improved considerably after only giving Dutch grammar a passing glance to note important differences.

2. Passive to Active

The only way, then, to activate your passive knowledge of a language is to use it. If you do not know anybody who speaks your target language, search for tandem language partners online or in your area. This can often lead to pleasant surprises. I had a German tandem language partner for several years before I decided to study in Germany for a year, and to my surprise, I found myself studying at the same university as my tandem partner! We are going shopping together this weekend, actually.

Anyway, the point is to speak and write as often as you can now that you have a massive reserve of passive knowledge that was relatively simple to absorb. The trick here is to not get strung up on saying and writing everything correctly. If you are not understood, whoever you are communicating with will let you know and then the worst that can happen is that you have to try again. All that matters is that you are understood and that you are communicating. After all, that is what language is all about: communication! You will gradually speak and write more correctly and fluently with practice as your passive knowledge activates itself. You may surprise yourself with how smooth the transition can be. This guideline is crucial. Many people fail to further pursue their target language for their reluctance to speak and write out of fear and/or shyness.

3. Staying Active

After painlessly cultivating your passive knowledge through reading and listening, then activating it through regular speaking and writing (regardless of how well, so long as you're understood), the next step is to remain active until you achieve the level of proficiency you desire.

Of course, the best way to do this would be to fully immerse yourself in the target language, preferably by spending at least several months in a country that speaks this language. If that is not currently a viable option for you, then immerse yourself as best you can. Again, keep your tandem language partners close and see if you can pull together a network of people in your area who speak your target language. Another way to ensure you are regularly using the language is to blog and vlog in it. You may not receive the benefits of direct conversation with someone, but if you develop a strong enough following, your comment boxes will be filled with constructive criticism and tips for improving your language skills. By and large, foreigners are always flattered when a non-native speaker makes an effort to learn their language and they are often more than willing to assist you.

Don't forget to continue the passive exercises of reading and listening as this is the best way to continue increasing your vocabulary and grammar skills throughout the activation process and the road to fluency.


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    • Spongy0llama profile image

      Jake Brannen 5 years ago from Canada

      I am thinking about soon writing entire hubs on these topics. German and French are actually my specialties.

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 5 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Thanks from my heart for your sincere advice!

    • Spongy0llama profile image

      Jake Brannen 5 years ago from Canada

      Well, as a speaker of English, you are at an advantage for learning both. Both have difficult sets of grammar, so as I write in my hub, I recommend starting by cultivating your passive knowledge. English has so much French vocabulary that the effort required to learn to read French is quite minimal. Start learning basic vocabulary and grammar in tandem with reading at varying levels of difficulty in French. You will find yourself picking it up quite easily.

      German and English are actually sister languages. Although they can seem very different, the keen student will be able to benefit from the inherent similarities between these languages. Keep English constantly in mind while studying German grammar and you will frequently notice such things as when the verb "können" (to be able to) is conjugated in the first person "ich kann" (I can), you discover words that have the same origin and have not changed much since the time when English and German were the same language.

      In both cases, and for that matter, with whichever language you choose to learn, start by listening to it! Fill your mp3 player with songs in the target language, listen to online radio in it, watch television shows and movies. The point is to get a sound for it before dipping into the grammar and vocabulary. As children, we learn language the same way, by listening first. Of course, as full grown adults, we have the advantage of speeding up the process with our knowledge of how language works and how to study grammar.

      Just as I say in my hub, go passive first. Listen and read while you are just starting so that you can interact with the complicated grammar without actually having to know, for example, the gender of each noun and other seemingly illogical aspects of foreign languages.

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 5 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      I wish to learn either French or German. Could you please offer some useful and easy method? Thanks for writing the above hub.

    • oisidore profile image

      Omowali Isidore 5 years ago

      This a great hub on language learning. I think most beginners think that they need learn a lot before dive at it. However, trying to speak as fast as possible is the real key. I'm starting to learn my 5th language now with Russian and although difficult, I always believe that the passive method is always best.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is a very useful hub for people who are interested in cultivating their language skills. You are correct in saying that the passive skills of reading and listening are developed first. Writing and speaking are tough active skills to develop, especially for older people. You also need a lot of motivation to develop these skills. My first wife was Taiwanese and couldn't speak English very well while we lived in Taiwan. Needless to say, I learned spoken Taiwanese in a hurry during the 6 years we lived in Taiwan. Voted up and sharing.