On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I’m going to talk about active learning. Active learning is the best way to study and improve your English ability, but most language learners do not learn actively. How can you become an active English learner? Keep listening to find out!
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How do you study English? I want you to take a few seconds to think about all the different ways you have studied English in the past and how you are currently studying today. Did you take classes at school or university? Private English lessons online? Have you bought textbooks? Do you use apps? Do you listen to English podcasts? Do you go to language exchange events? Do you watch English language movies or TV shows?
There are hundreds of different approaches to language learning. My students in the past had tried so many different things and tactics to try to reach the advanced levels of English! And I have also tried all these methods in an effort to improve my Japanese language ability.
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For about three years, I would listen to Japanese language podcasts and watch Japanese TV shows on Netflix with the idea that I was studying. My Japanese language never really improved, but I figured this was just because I wasn’t studying enough. I started listening to more Japanese language content online and would use a few vocabulary learning apps as I walked to work every day. But my language ability was still not improving.
Then, last year I moved to Japan. “Great! I will be able to quickly pick up my language again. Being in the country and hearing Japanese all the time would make it easy to improve.” I remembered the first time I lived in Japan, back in 2016, when my language ability went from completely zero to upper intermediate in under 2 years. I assumed the same would happen again when I moved to Japan… but it didn’t. For the first 6 or so months living in Tokyo my Japanese level barely improved.
What was going wrong? I spent a lot of time watching Japanese Netflix, listening to Japanese podcasts, and even living in Japan. Why was I not improving? I’m sure you all can recognise my story – and maybe you have similar experiences. No matter how many hours I spent “studying” in these ways, I couldn’t improve.
I mentioned that the first time I moved to Japan in 2016, my Japanese level quickly improved from zero to intermediate in a relatively short time. I think comparing my approach to studying back then and now will help explain what was going wrong.
In 2016 I moved to Japan as an English teacher with absolutely no experience of studying Japanese. I dedicated most of my free time to studying and learning Japanese. I bought myself two textbooks which I would use everyday after I finished work. I would learn the vocabulary and grammar, create my own sentences, and then try to use the grammar in real situations.
I attended two or three community Japanese classes a week and would spend around an hour before and after classes talking with my teacher in Japanese. At the beginning it was incredibly difficult – I joined the beginners’ class about 4 months late which meant everyone already had experience with the language. But as I learned more Japanese, from both the class and the textbooks I had bought, I was able to have more detailed conversations with the teachers.
I also worked in a largely Japanese environment. I taught at Junior High Schools and Elementary Schools in the Ehime prefecture of Japan – if you don’t know anything about Japan this is a very rural part of the country. At my main school two teachers could speak English, but other than that every teacher at every school spoke only Japanese. My boss at the City Government’s Board of Education also couldn’t speak any English. What does all this mean? Well, I had to use Japanese. Every single day! And I had the opportunity to use and practice the things I learned in textbooks and classes all the time.
How about now? Since I moved to Tokyo, things have been very different. First, I work in a primarily English language environment. My professors and classmates at the graduate school I attend are all English speakers. I write and work in English. When I first moved to Tokyo it was during the start of a long period of Covid restrictions. It was difficult to go out and make new friends – so the only people I actually met where a few people from the graduate school. And in my spare time I would work on my podcast or teach English.
Even though I was still studying Japanese, watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, and occasionally using textbooks, I wasn’t actually actively using Japanese. I was passively learning – listening, watching, and trying the remember without actually engaging with or trying to use the material!
This is one of the biggest problems facing English learners as well. We often hope that passive learning will help us improve, when in reality active learning is a much more effective and useful approach. Today, I will explain the difference between passive and active language learning, and then give you some tips and advice on how to become a more active successful English learner. And, at the same time, I will also provide some personal anecdotes about my journey towards becoming a more active language learner.
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What is Passive Learning?
Passive learning is a really common approach to language learning. In fact, I will guess that around 90% of you are passive learning right now while you are listening to Thinking in English.
Passive learning can be simply described as receiving information or content. You are not producing English yourself – instead someone else produces content and you simply sit back, listen or watch, and try to absorb the information. I guess this is how many of you listen to Thinking in English, and it is certainly how I have listened and watched Japanese media over the past few years.
Passive learning is probably recognisable for most of us. At school and university, I spent countless hours sitting and listening to my teachers and lecturers. But how much was I really engaging with what they were saying? Probably not that much!
My approach to learning Japanese over the past few years has been incredibly passive. I would watch shows on Netflix while relaxing, listen to podcasts while working, and use language learning apps while daydreaming. I was certainly not engaging with all the content, processing the information, and actively using the language.
We often associate passive learning with listening activities. But you can also be a passive learner in other regards. For the first few months of living in Tokyo, most of my Japanese speaking was relatively passive. I would use the same basic phrases every time I ordered from a restaurant and a café. And when I met Japanese people, I would tend to repeatedly have the same basic conversations… I was not thinking critically about what I was saying.
What is Active Learning?
Active learning is basically the opposite of passive learning. Rather than sitting and letting the content be simply delivered to you, you interact and engage with what you are studying! In other words, you take control of your own learning!
I’m sure most of us enjoy sitting back and watching a movie at night with a cup of tea – and perhaps you put on an English movie with subtitles and tell yourself you are studying. But really your brain isn’t actively working when you passively watch a movie. It’s fun, but it isn’t really studying.
Instead, actively watching a TV show or movie would involve noting down expressions and vocabulary you haven’t heard before, shadowing conversations, and writing summaries of what you have just watched afterwards. This might sound like a lot of work… but remember you are studying English. Of course, it is fine to relax and watch something on Netflix, but you should clearly distinguish between studying English and watching TV for fun.
Our brains make new memories when they do something – it is much easier to remember a word or grammar rule once you have forced yourself to use them in speech or writing. Rather than just copying vocabulary out of a textbook, you should create your own example sentences and vocabulary flash cards. Rather than just speaking in prepared sentences, you should try to use new expressions in every conversation. You should read books and make notes of words you don’t know. And you should write in English – perhaps write a diary or blog in English!
How about listening to a podcast? Listening to Thinking in English is a passive way of learning, right? Well, it depends on you. If you search the words you don’t know, use the vocabulary lists to create your own sentences, and think critically about the content of the episodes you are being an active learner. I always end the episodes on a question – answering these questions gives you the opportunity to use English actively!
So I should Never Use Passive Learning?
You might be thinking right now that you should never use passive learning. But that is not necessarily the case. Passive learning tends to be more enjoyable and less tiring – and you can do other things at the same time. I regularly listen to Japanese language podcasts while writing podcasts or research papers and taking the train in the morning.
There is a time and a place for passive learning. I’m sure many of you listen to Thinking in English while driving, running, cleaning your house, or sitting on the bus. And I hope it is enjoyable to do so!
However, think about it this way. Do you think you would learn more if you listened to Thinking in English while driving to work, or while making notes on expressions and new vocabulary? Do you think you will learn more English by copying words out of a textbook, or by creating your own sentences with new vocabulary? Do you think you will learn more English by watching a YouTube video or having a conversation with a language exchange partner?
If you dedicate your time to studying and using language, and dedicate 100% of your effort, you will notice gradual and steady improvement. Being an active learner will make you a successful English learner. And if you have struggled to improve your abilities in recent years, the problem is likely your passive approach to learning!
How about me?
Am I an active language learner now? I told the story at the beginning of the episode which covered why I wasn’t improving in my Japanese ability. I was far too passive in my approach to learning.
Recently, I decided to take a much more active approach to learning. I currently take 3 different Japanese conversation classes – focusing on personal conversation, debating, and public speaking. Each of these classes have forced me to regularly learn and use new expressions and vocabulary.
For example, two weeks ago I had to prepare a debate about whether 24 hour opening hours for convenience stores should be stopped in Japan. Before the class, I prepared and researched a lot of different arguments. During the first half of the class, I discussed with my partner our different ideas and decided which arguments we would use and which roles we would take. And then during the debate I had to express my opinion clearly and respond to questions asked by my opponents. All of this was using vocabulary I didn’t know last month!
Moreover, I have been visiting my local bar and coffee shop in Tokyo every week for the purpose of practicing Japanese. To be honest, I also like drinking coffee and beer, but a major motivating factor is that I am able to have conversations with real people and discuss a wide variety of different topics with other regular customers. Sometimes I even prepare a topic before I go, and then try to have a conversation using some of the vocabulary I prepared! This is an incredibly active way of learning and practicing Japanese but is also enjoyable.
In summary, active listening requires you to think about, engage with, and process information in an active way. Rather than just listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video, active learners use such content as study materials. Make notes, search words you don’t know, write summaries, answer questions, transcribe podcasts, or shadow movies – all of these are active ways of learning.
Does this mean you should never passively learn? No! When you are driving, or running, and sitting on the train use the opportunity to listen to a podcast. But you should also remember that active learning is far more effective – it might be tiring and require 100% of your effort but is the superior learning method.
Are you an active learner? Tell me how you study English in the comments! Do you have any advice on how to become a more active learner?
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