Active vs. Passive Language Learning

Published on
December 13, 2019
Updated on
January 28, 2021
min read
Written by
Alastair Budge

The difference between active and passive learning is the difference between successful and unsuccessful English learners. Find out how you can avoid the mistakes of passive learner, and be an active, more successful English learner.

Active vs. Passive Language Learning

Maybe you’ve heard of passive vs. active vocabulary, which is similar, but not quite the same.

Passive vocabulary is the vocabulary that you can understand if you encounter, but you can’t reproduce. It lives somewhere deep in the recesses of your brain, but unless you hear it, you can’t recall the word. You can’t use it in your own conversation. 

Active vocabulary is vocabulary that you can reproduce. If you want to say the word in English, you can reproduce it.

But what do passive and active mean within the context of learning a language? And why and when should you strive to become an ‘active’ learner?

In this article we will cover:

  • What do ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning mean?
  • What are some examples of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ learning?
  • Should I ever do ‘passive learning’ activities?
  • Should I multi-task when learning English?
  • Is it possible to learn English just through ‘absorbing’ it?
  • Don’t babies just absorb language?

What do ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning mean?

OK, so to begin, let’s start with ‘passive’ language learning.

Passive language learning is language learning where you are receiving content, someone else is doing the production, and your brain is just absorbing, letting the information flow over you.

But therein lies the problem. 

If you are just sitting back, waiting to absorb this information, how much is actually being retained by your brain? Well, the answer is ‘not very much at all’. 

Bartosz, from the Universe of Memory, defines passive, in the context of language learning, as meaning ‘you don’t engage with the information you receive’.

We’d even go one step further and say that, even if you are engaging on one level with some of the information, a lot of it just isn’t processed at all by your brain, let alone engaged with.

I’m sure you have been watching a film in English and find yourself just ‘missing’ parts because you’re not concentrating at all.

A few examples of passive learning would be:

  • Watching a film on Netflix / YouTube
  • Listening to a podcast while doing the dishes
  • Flicking through Duolingo or Babbel
  • Joining an ‘English conversation group’ on Messenger or WhatsApp
  • Just ‘being’ in an English speaking country without really engaging with people
using netflix to learn english
This lady isn't on the fast train to fluency land

Although you might not think it, you could also add some ‘speaking’ activities as an example of passive learning.

The kind of speaking that is ‘passive’ is when you don’t really think critically about what you say, and you don’t make an active effort to use new terms, vocabulary, expressions, or modify your pronunciation to make sure that you are pronouncing words in the correct way.

You can call this ‘lazy speaking'.

There are so many English learners who speak ‘passively’ (yes, it is possible), and the result is that no matter how much English they speak in their daily lives, they make the same mistakes, have the same poor pronunciation, and they don’t really make the progress that they want.

The key here is that they are speaking without being critical of themselves - without listening to their errors, without trying to correct their errors, and the result is that they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

So that’s passive learning.

But how about active learning?

Active learning is the complete opposite of passive learning. It means that you are taking control of your language learning, and as opposed to expecting that your English will just improve through absorption, you are taking control of your own destiny and actively forcing your brain to get into gear.

Although anatomically your brain may not be a muscle, you need to flex it, you need to make it do the work that will help you retain the new words, phrases, and grammar structures that you have encountered.

Examples of active learning include:

  • Reading in English (and actively looking up words and phrases you don’t know)
  • Listening to podcasts in English (and doing things like transcribing, shadowing, and generally following the kind of tips we have set out here)
  • Writing in English (and no, chatting on WhatsApp or Facebook groups with other non-natives doesn’t count)
  • Creating your own vocabulary flashcards and vocabulary books (not just using non-contextual, pre-made ones)
  • Speaking in English (and trying to use all of your new expressions)
  • Listening to native speakers in conversations (and listening very carefully to exactly how they use certain expressions)

While passive language learning is the kind of stuff that feels warm, cosy, and familiar, active learning often feels difficult and tiring.

active language learning
Active learning feels tough

Of course it’s more fun to sit on a sofa with a cup of hot chocolate and put on a film in English with subtitles instead of listening to a podcast and transcribing it and then having a conversation about it with a native speaker.

But with the former you are making your brain do relatively little work, and with the latter, your brain is in overdrive.

Without going into the neuroscience behind this, memories are formed most effectively when you force your brain to do something. 

When you write something down, you actively process information, as opposed to when you just let it float over you. You are engaging with what you have heard, meaning that you are far more likely to remember it. 

Not engaging with something new, on the other hand, means that you are far less likely to actually be able to recall it.

Active learning is the sort of stuff that you do for 30 minutes and then feel exhausted. Good! Keep at it! 

If it’s tiring, and it feels like hard work, then this is a sign that you are really pushing yourself, and that’s when learning is really happening.

Passive learning, on the other hand, is the kind of learning that you can do for a long period of time. It’s probably fun or enjoyable, and you don’t feel like it was really ‘work’. 

And that’s when you know that you haven’t learned a huge amount during that time.

Thinking again as the brain as a muscle, if you imagine spending 30 minutes doing a grueling workout at the gym, it’s excellent exercise, but it leaves you feeling very tired.

Going for a gentle stroll for 30 minutes on the other hand isn’t going to tire you out, but it’s not going to do much for your fitness.

It’s just mad to think of your language learning any differently.

Should I ever do ‘passive learning’?

OK, so we have given ‘passive’ learning a bit of a hard time. But does that mean that there is never a place for it?

Should you just switch your behaviour and become an ‘active’ learner, trying to become an Olympic athlete of language learning? 

Well, if only it was that easy. Studies suggest that around 60% of learners are ‘passive’ learners, only 10% are ‘active’ learners, and the remaining 30% are ‘blocked’.

But if you are really serious about improving your English, whether that’s because you have a particular goal in mind, or you just want to be appear more fluent, then you don’t really have a choice but to shift the balance of learning activities from passive to active as much as you possibly can.

That doesn’t mean that all of your English learning activities should be ‘active’, and that you should never do any passive activities just because you are trying to learn English as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Passive learning activities have some inherent advantages.

They can be more fun

Unless you are particularly masochistic, you don’t always need to push yourself into doing activities that are hard. 

Everyone deserves some downtime, and doing something like putting on a film in English at the end of a long day, well, from an English learning point of view it’s better than putting on a film in your mother tongue.

You can do other things at the same time

Not everyone has the time in the day to dedicate hours to active English learning activities. Although you can listen to podcasts actively (as this guide tells you), not everyone has the time every day to do this. 

One of the main advantages of English podcasts is that you can listen to them while doing something else. Whether that’s driving, sitting on the bus or metro, out running, or at home doing things about the house, podcasts in English allow you to learn (passively) while doing something that you would be doing anyway. Win-win.

The mistake that you shouldn’t make through is thinking that passive and active language learning activities have the same value.

Do you really think that watching a YouTube video of someone talking in English while you’re on the bus in the morning is going to help you as much as spending the same amount of time in real conversation with a native speaker or listening ‘actively’ to a podcast?

Of course it won’t. The two activities aren’t equal, and if you think that you can really improve by spending your time on purely passive activities then you are kidding yourself.

There are countless studies that multi-tasking just doesn’t work (see here, here, and here). Whether in a work environment or in a studying environment, if you want to really be efficient with a task, focus 100% of your energy on it, don’t try to do something else at the same time.

This means that having a YouTube video on in the background, or listening to a podcast in English while on the treadmill just doesn’t have the same value as focusing 100% on the activity. 

Effective language learning just doesn’t happen passively. 

But what about babies, don’t they just absorb language passively?

This is a common misconception. 

People assume that babies just pick up language naturally, being in an English speaking environment with parents that are speaking English, they just absorb it and become fluent through a sort of baby osmosis.

Nothing could be more wrong.

Babies are the ultimate active language learners. Look at a baby when it’s just a few months old. 

The entire world is new to them, they have no idea about anything. 

And so they are in a never-ending state of curiosity, of trying to understand how things work, trying to understand what words mean.

learn english with babies
An example of a great language learner

No, of course they’re not keeping a vocabulary book of new words, or transcribing the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast

But babies don’t do things passively. They don’t just let information wash over them, and think they’ll absorb it somehow.

They are constantly trying new sounds, trying new words that they learn. They make mistakes, of course, they’re babies, but instinctively they know that it’s only through trying new words and phrases that they will actually get it right.

They are the polar opposite of the passive language learner.

In fact, there is a huge amount that we can learn from babies about how to be a good language learner.

So, what’s the conclusion here?

It’s that expecting to learn English effectively through passive learning activities is mad. It’s insane.

einstein active language learning
This guy knows a thing or two about learning

Albert Einstein stated that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.

So for those of you reading this that would admit to being passive language learners, remember, continuing the activities that you have been doing, and expecting that your English will improve at a different speed to before is, according to a Nobel prize winner, insane.

Whether to continue to do so is up to you.


If you would like to try some active learning activities, then check out How to use podcasts to learn English like a boss.