How To Passively Learn A Language

Is passive language learning even a thing?
man walking down street wearing headphones

For any task, there are at least a dozen “hacks” circulating around the internet that promise an easier, smarter way to get it done. And while it’s worth questioning the assumption that language learning has to be laborious, we might as well get this out of the way right at the beginning: there is no such thing as truly passive language learning. There’s no way to become conversational without, you know, having conversations — and a willingness to do so clumsily at first. There’s no way to parse meaning in what you’re hearing without actively learning a certain baseline amount of vocabulary. And there’s certainly no way to get better without some amount of intentional practice.

With all of that said, passive language learning can supplement your active learning if you go about it in the right way, so long as you have reasonable expectations of what it can accomplish. At the very least, it can’t hurt to give yourself more language exposure at a time when you wouldn’t otherwise be learning anyway, like when you’re cooking or cleaning.

And for the skeptics among you, there is some scientific backing to the notion that merely listening to your learning language as a supplement to your usual studying can help you make faster progress. At least two studies have supported the ability for listening to reinforce stuff you’ve already learned.

Ultimately, though, what we mean when we talk about passive language learning is building an environment around you that supports your efforts — even if you are, on some level, engaging with the material. When you create the right container, maintaining your study habits doesn’t require a special effort because it’s actually the path of least resistance. This is like stocking your pantry with healthy snacks or parking farther away on purpose when you’re trying to lose weight. Here’s what that could look like from a language-learning perspective.

Background Noise

“Learning through osmosis” is probably the most common passive language learning trope you’ll encounter. By having the language around you, you should be able to lean it. But while passive listening looks a lot, on its surface, like language immersion, it’s not 100 percent the same. Passive listening implies a certain amount of mental disengagement: you’re focused on another task with other sounds in the background. In the case of language immersion, you’re surrounding yourself with the language and actively engaging or paying attention to it.

For the most bang for your buck, we’d advocate for a more immersive style of “passive learning.” Music, films, TV shows and podcasts are all excellent learning mediums and can help you cement vocabulary you’ve already learned. They’re also excellent for familiarizing yourself with the pronunciation and cadence of the language, becoming more culturally adept, and absorbing new words via context clues. You won’t get much out of this if you’re not paying attention to what you’re listening to, however (aside from, maybe, getting a better grasp on your accent).

But just because you’ll need to mentally be there doesn’t mean you can’t multitask in other ways. Listening to the language you’re learning is the perfect way to optimize your commute or any another mindless, mundane activity you perform on a regular basis. And when you decide that “subway time means time for foreign-language podcasts,” you’re building study time into your routine in a way that will eventually feel kind of passive — or, at the very least, like something you won’t have to go out of your way to do.

While we’re here, it’s probably worth mentioning that you’re not going to learn a language in your sleep. While listening to audio tapes in your sleep might be able to help with vocab recall (according to a study), merely recognizing sounds isn’t the same thing as understanding what they mean.

Change Your Language Settings

Another way to put your language learning on autopilot is to change your language settings. Which language settings? Any you can think of. Your phone and computer settings make for low-hanging fruit, but get creative. Be bold. Select a different language when you take out money at the ATM, or when you’re at an information kiosk.

Of course, this isn’t strictly “passive” in the sense that you won’t have to mentally grapple with these adjustments, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, anyway. When you add a new language keyboard to your texting app or Google things in Spanish, you’re turning a mundane, everyday action into another opportunity to strengthen your linguistic muscles. The average person touches their cell phone 2,617 times per day. In a sense, that’s roughly 2,000 extra daily opportunities to engage with your learning language.

The Good Old Post-It Trick

We’ve all probably heard the one about covering your stuff in post-it notes, but have you tried it? It’s almost a language-learning cliche at this point if you’ve spent any amount of time on the language blog circuit, but for what it’s worth, it’s a favorite trick of more than a few seasoned experts.

Once again, it’s not entirely passive if you have to put effort into creating the sticky notes in the first place. But writing things down is a great method for cementing the knowledge, and once they’ve taken over your environment, you’ll be able to passively reinforce the vocabulary while you’re going about your business and form new mental associations with the words that are rooted in your day-to-day activities.

Language lessons also help with the learning.
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