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Luca on Active Learning vs Passive Learning

Luca Lampariello

Active Learning vs Passive Learning…

I’ve been learning languages by myself since I was 13. As an experienced self-learner, I came to the conclusion that there is no one best method, but there are some universal principles one can stick to and which I think should be shared for the benefit of those who really want to learn foreign languages the proper way.

To start off on the wrong foot can lead to disaster, that is, frustration and giving up the pursuit. It is mandatory to know how to get started. The first phase, which can last 6 months to 1 year (depending on the complexity of the target language and your previous experience) is definitely the most delicate one.

Craving for a quick proficiency is dangerous, because it keeps you from concentrating on your studies. It is like a runner who constantly thinks about still having 15 kilometers to go, instead of staying focused on the track, step by step. Thinking that he’s got such a long distance to cover could get him mentally tired from the very beginning.

 Luca LamparielloI’m sure that many of you eager learners have taken a moment off your language studies and had some “reverie” (fantasized) about yourselves being fluent speakers and communicating flawlessly in the language you are learning. I did that numerous times.

When I was learning German I thought “how incredible would that be to speak it fluently”. That thought made me doubt about my future success and I had doubts often around 6-7 months after starting that language. I was a bit frustrated because I wasn’t fluent yet. How could I be fluent after 6 months? At that time I had no real experience at learning languages, and the worry easily frustrated me. I want to explain to you now why it doesn’t disturb me anymore, even when I’m learning difficult languages such Chinese (as I’m doing now).

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you do a quality work, the results will be terrific in the long run. By “long run” I mean that you have to be positive about the fact that there will come a point where the knowledge that you’ve been accumulating will “explode” (in a good sense), take off. According to some unofficial literature, this threshold is called “epiphany point”. After that point, you find yourself speaking much much better than you had done before. You don’t know why, but you’re happy about it. I’m sure some of you know what I mean. This epiphany point, as I told you, is going to happen at some point of your path, and the more quality you put into building a core in your head, the more brilliant this epiphany point will be.

 Luca Lampariello What is quality work? The quality of your work is absolutely essential to learning a language well. Quality work is steady, efficient and not too heavy, and you impose it on yourself according to your schedule. The aim is that of “building a core” in your head. Knowing how to schedule your work keeps you from being a passive learner. I’ve described some of what I do on YouTube, but I want to share with you the reasons why it is so efficient for me.

During the first year, I focus on listening to that language, but I almost immediately start writing and speaking it. I don’t listen to a huge amount of material. I think it is much more efficient to listen to some material very attentively rather than flooding your brain with hours and hours. I start writing that language after a couple of weeks after the very first start (mostly using Microsoft Word). By retranslating the texts into the target language and then confronting what you’ve done with the texts after a week puts your brain in the position of elaborating phrases directly in that language. It is also a very powerful form of auto-correction and helps you to absorb grammar effortlessly.

Somebody says that grammar is not important and that you can learn a language well without a grammar book. In answer to this: grammar IS important. The whole point is not whether grammar is important or not, but HOW one can absorb it without effort, that is, with a study that doesn’t foresee any heavy and horrible grammar book (which I generally try to avoid as much as I can). So with this simple “retranslating” operation your brain fixes the structures of that language and also provides a script that your brain will use when speaking that language.

I have been wondering for a long time why I see (literally) written subtitles in my head when speaking languages, and I found out that this is due to my way of learning. Having a script in your head links sound to letters and words, and it is of great advantage.

 Luca LamparielloAfter 3 months, I start elaborating phrases in my head and I start doing the most important thing: I talk, even if I don’t have a native speaker. I imagine having one in front of me and try to think of what to say. Introducing yourself, talking about the weather, family and so on.

There are some “language gurus” who enforce the idea that speaking to yourself is not useful at all, cause nobody is there to correct your pronunciation and your grammar mistakes. I think (but this is just my humble opinion), that this is not sound advice to give. Speaking to yourself might not better your pronunciation, but gets you fluent in a language. A language is also a matter of automatism. If kids don’t speak that language, it is simply because they haven’t developed the physical capacity of doing so. But as soon as they do, you can tell that they literally “crave” words (like when they try to utter the word “mama” after a few months).

As adults, we have the advantage of a fully developed apparatus which we are ready to immediately create new sounds with. My advice is: listen to audio material for a couple of months, start writing and translating texts from your language to the target language, and after another month start having conversations, even to yourself. Of course this has to be a progressive work.

After a year (but it can be much less) you are ready to add quantity to your work. At this point your brain is able to absorb and enjoy a huge amount of input (movies, books and newspapers) much more efficiently and even produce outcome better (both oral and written conversations with native speakers).

If you wonder why people immersed in some language (living in-country) get to speak it fast the answer is extremely simple. It’s because they are FORCED to speak that language on a daily basis. Whereas living in your country makes you lazy because you don’t necessarily need to speak it. If you create your own environment where you are immersed in that target language, even if you still live in your own country, you will learn that language very well anyway.

Which leads to the final point. How to create that environment? I’ve been speaking with some Americans who asked me “Luca, how can you speak English like that if you’ve never been to the US before?” For those who praise the mp3 as an incredible learning resource, think one better: Skype is the real deal. Audio-material (although a tapes’ sound quality was much worse) has been around for over 40 years, but skype has been around for much less. Skype is tailor-made for language learning, and with this wonderful software application you’ll have no more excuses for not getting proficient in languages. A conversation with a native is an invaluable asset.

Luca Lampariello
Web: thepolyglotdream
Facebook: Luca Lampariello
YouTube: poliglotta80

WLT: An Easy Way to Learn Foreign Languages: Part One
WLT: An Easy Way to Learn Foreign Languages: Part Two

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  1. Lucas, you have an excellent way of putting things. Living in America right now and trying to learn Thai has been a lot tougher than when in country and being surrounded by it.

    Great tip about staying focused on the small parts that make the whole…just hoping I have that explosive moment in the future when it all comes together for me.

  2. Dear Talen, first of all, let me thank you for the kind words. The “explosive moment” will happen. If you do the right things and work every day, the so-called “epiphany point” will definitely take place in your head. Without a doubt, living in-country is an enormous advantage for language learners and renders the whole process quicker and more natural: if you live in a foreign country, your oral and written producation, as well as your comprehension become a necessity, whereas it is often seen as a mere “hobby” by the learners themselves if no visible and concrete need of it is in sight (and that is the case of people learning languages in the comfort of their houses, for their own pleasure). The most difficult phase of language learning is the beginning: you are still climbing the steep slope, and the top seems so damn far away. It is the moment when 70% of people see no results and give up. Don’t. I can guarantee you that once you are on the top, you’ll see things from a different perspective. Just keep learning (EVERY DAY)and try to vary your activies: listen but also speak (to yourself if your level is still too low to hold a conversaion or to people on skype), read but also write. Don’t learn 3 hours nonstop, try to choose “small chunks” of information. The brain (everybody’s brain :-)) retains information better when it can easily identify a beginning and an end. If you have any specific question, I am here. Have a good day :-) Luca
    .-= Luca Lampariello´s last blog ..Luca spreekt in het Nederlands Luca speaks Dutch =-.

  3. I agree about the value of Skype. I am taking lessons with a Thai lady who lives in Bangkok, while I am still in the UK. We use Skype, with video, and the chat window makes a great whiteboard. After the lesson I save everything she has written for me and look up the meaning of any words I have forgotten, and also check that I have correctly identified the tone.
    I cannot learn a language without being able to read it, so my first step as a beginner has been to learn the alphabet and the tone rules, which I did on my own, but for learning pronunciation and conversational skills you can’t beat face-to-face time with a Thai person who is an experienced language teacher.

  4. Roberta, who are you using for Skype lessons? I’m writing several posts on using Skype for learning Thai so any tips and advice you can share would be helpful.

  5. Luke Cassady-Dorion

    July 4, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Good points, especially about talking to yourself … when learning languages, I practice describing my situations all the time. For example, I may be on the train and say things like this to myself (in the language that I am studying)

    “That man is wearing blue. The woman in the pink is talking way too loudly. Five kids in school uniforms just got on the train” … etc.

    Basically say anything, just try to say a variety of things.

  6. Catherine, sorry for the slow reply. The name of my teacher is Ladawan Mamak. I found her through a post she made on one of the forums at thai-language.com. She was a teacher at a language school, doing evening and weekend work with private clients. She has since been so successful with the latter that she has been able to quit the language school job. She is completely fluent in English, and an enthusiastic and experienced teacher, whom I would strongly recommend. She is also a sweet and charming person, with a great sense of humor, so the lessons are very enjoyable.

    She types many of the words and sentences arising during the lesson, and at the end of the lesson I have what amounts to a full transcript in the Skype text window, which I copy to a word processor and save. Then I read through every sentence, making sure I can read and pronounce every word, and look up anything I am unsure of. Words which are new to me I highlight, then figure out the tones and write a transliteration, which I then check using the dictionary look-up on thai-language.com, where I also listen to the audio and practice my pronunciation. The first half of every lesson is revision and testing, so I make an effort to learn all the new material for next time.

    I have had about a dozen 1-hour lessons over the past 3 weeks, and I feel I have made remarkable progress in that short time, which would not have been possible on my own.

  7. Hi Roberta. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your Skype lesson experience! Being in the UK, finding a teacher online must have been a godsend for you. And the method Ladawan is using sounds interesting. I especially like that you get the transcripts to the lessons, as typing everything out takes ages. Because to look things up online, they need to be typed out. And to create any further learning materials to practice, they need to be either typed or written as well.

  8. sidney leonard

    July 6, 2010 at 11:46 pm


    I am intrigued by the idea of learning Thai via Skype. How can I contact your teacher, Ladawan Mamak, and how much does she charge per hour/lesson. It seems that it would be easy to pay her via PayPal – how do you do so from the UK?

    Sid Leonard

  9. Sidney,

    Yes, I use PayPal to pay her. It works from anywhere, and in almost any currency. I am not comfortable with posting her rates on a public site, but I can tell you they are surprisingly reasonable. I do not like to post email addresses, either mine or hers, where spambots can find them either. But if you search in Skype for Roberta in United Kingdom, city Lechlade that will find me and you can send me a message, to which I shall be happy to reply with the information you seek.


  10. sidney leonard

    March 28, 2011 at 3:50 am


    I am presently learning the King’s Anthem from a lesson I believe I took from the Learning Thai the Easy Way website. It is an excellent presentation, giving a line-by-line translation as well as the singing in Thai which allows me to stop the music and repeat any line as often as I wish – a great way to learn the song. However, I don’t find this lesson in the Learning Thai the Easy Way menu. Since I already have it on my laptop, I don’t need to find it, but I was hoping that a similar lesson was available for the Thai National Anthem and the Loi Kratong song. Do you know where I can find such lessons. Thanks.

    Sid Leonard

  11. Sidney, you are right, Learning Thai the Easy Way’s nav doesn’t always follow what they have on offer. But I did find both by googling.

    The Loy Krathong song isn’t set up the same way as the National Anthem so you’ll need to fiddle a bit (get it into Audacity and then play it line by line).

  12. Catherine,

    Where did the 65 phrases you will never find in a phrase book (or something like that) go? I have practicing them daily; it was my goal to learn them all eventually. Are they available (with sound) somewhere? Thank you for your wonderful website.

  13. Hi Sid :)

    In the top nav: Archives >> Sitemap >> Learn Thai (scroll down).

    65 Useful Thai Phrases You Won’t Find in a Travel Phrasebook

    Also, in the side column there’s ‘New to WLT? Please start HERE‘.

    That page give tips on how to get around the site. Now that it’s going on eight years old there’s a heap of posts so help is needed sometimes.

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