If you wanted to train your muscles to be stronger, what would you do?
Would you practice lifting a 1kg weight or a 5kg weight?
The 5 kg weight, right?
What if you wanted to be a faster runner?
Would you sprint for one second, or 30 seconds?
30 seconds, of course!
You likely knew the answers to these without thinking. Not because you’re a world-class athlete—although maybe you are—but more likely because you understand that the way you practice something dictates the results you get from that practice.
That’s not to say you need to always do the hardest thing every time. If you want to gain muscle, you’d be well-served by lifting 5kg weights, but you wouldn’t get much benefit from trying to lift your entire house.
Different types of engagement are appropriate for different circumstances.
Your brain works the same way. The way you engage in a mental skill has a profound impact on how your proficiency in that skill develops over time.
That’s why I divide my language learning activities between three levels of engagement. passive, active, and proactive.
These three engagement levels can be applied to each of the four major language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Let’s consider reading first. When you read passively, you are just reading, as you normally would in your mother tongue. Just you and the book, reading continuously until you stop.
When you read actively, you read like normal, but as you read, you take notes. You engage with the text in a measured, thoughtful way. Maybe you read out loud, or scribble useful vocabulary words in the margins of every page.
When you read proactively (affiliate), you do all of the above, but take it to the next level—you prioritize active reading, and make it happen regularly. You schedule time in your day to get reading done, you have a special notebook dedicated to all of your favorite and most useful words and phrases. You not only read with intent, but you review what you read with intent, as well.
Passive listening is what you’d probably do with a podcast in your target language during your commute, or while washing the dishes. You have it on in the background, and your attention fades in and out. It’s just there, and it’s not even what you’re mainly focused on. You definitely absorb some of it, but not most of it, let alone all of it.
Active listening is listening with your full focus. Maybe you’re seated at your desk with your headphones in, or you’re outside on a park bench, enjoying the breeze. Whatever you’re doing, your main goal is to process the speech that’s currently being piped into your ears. That means the dialogue of a movie, the conversation in a TV talk show, or the lyrics of a song.
When you listen proactively, you do all of the above, but, again, you take it to the next level—you don’t just listen to audio, you follow along with a printed transcript that you have in front of you. You have a pencil close at hand, so you can write down any interesting new phrases you hear. Maybe you take a few minutes to practice shadowing, which is a process where you mimic a native speaker’s speech patterns as you listen. Or maybe you’re trying to write the transcript yourself, by transcribing what you hear as you hear it. However you’re processing the audio, you’re fully attuned to what you’re hearing. Your attention is focused, and so your ability to retain detail skyrockets.
When you speak passively—well, you just speak. You don’t try to analyze what you’re saying, nor do you wonder how you can actively improve your fluency. Your main focus in communication, and you could care less about what mistakes you’re making, so long as your speaking partner understands you. You also stay rooted firmly in your comfort zone, and avoid taking risks by using words and phrases you’ve never attempted before.
When you speak actively, you have the additional goal of trying to process what you’re saying so that you can build upon it for the future. Perhaps you’re in a tutoring session, and your tutor is taking notes of your mistakes, for later discussion. Perhaps you’re recording a monologue on your phone, so you can listen back later and judge your performance. Speaking actively means pushing your boundaries, as well as filling in gaps. This goes double for conversing actively, which requires asking questions, making comments, and listening intently to what your speaking partner is saying.
When you speak proactively, yet again, you bring things up to the next level. For example, you might have a recurring weekly session scheduled with your favorite online tutor, so that you can give a prepared speech on a wide variety of topics. Or, you might start a monthly language meetup with native speakers and other enthusiasts, so you can practice conversing with two or more people on the fly. You could even join a local Toastmasters group dedicated to making public speeches in your target language. Proactive speaking requires forethought, and continually challenging yourself to speak clearly and eloquently in a wide variety of situations.
Passive writing is writing with no constructive goal in mind. It’s like the kind of writing you might do in a journal, or in a quick email to a close friend. You write with purpose, but you don’t worry about getting feedback, or reviewing your work. You just simply write something in your target language as if you were doing it in your native tongue.
As for active writing, you would write something with the specific aim of improving, of getting out of your comfort zone. For example, writing a short essay, or a short story on a subject is close to your heart. Or even making a summary of an article you recently read in your target language.
Any writing activity (even your passive ones) can be made active through the inclusion of a review and correction phase. Show your writing to a native speaker, and ask them to correct any mistakes you have made in your text.
Proactive writing is writing actively, but with the goal of repeatedly refining your work. Once you get corrections, for example, you can actually rewrite the text, implementing all you’ve learned. Or you can even write a new text, making a specific effort to include some of the structures or words you recently were corrected on.
All Proactive, All The Time?
After all that, you might think that being proactive is the way to go, all day, every day.
Not so fast!
If only things were so easy.
I agree that the proactive mode is indeed the most powerful way to learn, but...there is a catch. A BIG catch.
You, like me, and most people around you, are terribly lazy.
No, I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m talking about a biological fact, rooted in the history of our species.
Once upon a time, our ancestors had to fight to survive. Every day, they had to eat, and if they wanted to eat, they had to hunt and kill...or be hunted and killed themselves.
If they weren’t out engaging in the ever-important task of finding food, our ancestors were resting. Maybe even relaxing.
Why? Not because they were chronic procrastinators, but because they needed to save their energy. Any ounce of energy wasted at home was an ounce of energy that could have been better used chasing down dinner...or avoiding being something else’s dinner.
Now, here in the modern day we may not need to save our energy to find food, but we’re still hard-wired to preserve energy when not in life-or-death situations.
And considering there aren’t any apex predators between you and your refrigerator, that means you’re preserving energy (or, in other words, being lazy) most of the time.
This is why a LOT of people choose the “path of least resistance” when it comes to language learning. People love passive, short activities that don’t require them to step outside their comfort zone and take any serious risks.
A couple of minutes on Duolingo here and there, a few messages sent on WhatsApp or HelloTalk, and maybe a target-language song or two played on their iPhone. That stuff, in and of itself, won’t take you very far.
As always in language learning, the question is not one of absolutes. I’m not saying that you should only do proactive learning, or that you should pick just one of the three to stick with forever.
In reality, the question is inclusive. You shouldn’t favor just one of the three types of language learning, but rather incorporate all three into your life, in different places and scenarios. You need to find a balance between active, proactive, and passive learning that is dependent on your energy, attention span, motivation, and attitude, which can all vary from day to day (and even within a single day).
Integrating The 3 Modes of Language Learning Into Your Life
To get you started, here is what I propose: make a list of all the activities you like doing in your target language. Divide them into 3 main categories according to each language learning mode (passive, active, and proactive). Then, dedicate your freshest, most alert hours of the day to proactive learning.
In my experience, this will be roughly 20% of your day. The remaining 80% of your day, when you’re tired, you’re commuting, or otherwise busy with something else, you can take part in both active and passive activities, as appropriate.
Integrating these activities in your life will help you always find a way to fit your language learning into your schedule—even when you’re tired and lazy. And if you can learn a language even then, then you can accomplish anything!