Listening to English passively is unnecessary. What you need is to listen actively

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After a long time of not visiting (All Japanese All The Time), one of my favorite blogs ever, I decided to check it out again not so long ago. There, I found an article I've never seen before. The title left me perplexed. The article is called: How to Learn Japanese (Including Kanji) Without Ever Trying, By Literally Sitting on Your Plump Behind, Watching Anime and Being A Couch Potato.

Something that has always characterized Khatz's work, the programmer, Japanese + Mandarin Chinese + Cantonese master, lover of hookers and blow Jelly Beans and author of AJATT, is his emphasis in fun, in doing things that you like and enjoy in order to learn Japanese. Something else that permeates his work is the idea that the "No pain, no gain" belief is damaging – that you can not suffer, not being uncomfortable, and still reach a high level of Japanese, or any language.

Khatz has been a great inspiration and I agree with him in many things, but even with all that characterizes Khatz's work... the title sounded weird. Unreal. I thought, "Naaaah, that title is just an exaggeration... like, to grab the reader's attention. Yup... I'm sure that in the article Khatz explains that you still have to put in some active effort to learn kana, kanji and vocabulary in Japanese."

Khatz is a great defender of fun and pleasure in language learning, but he would still tell you:
  • That you need to use, use and use again your dictionary to find the meaning and pronunciation of words you don't know.
  • That you CAN'T be a three day monk, that you need to invest the time to learn and keep doing it consistently.
  • That you need to use your SRS program frequently, and that you should delete any card that makes you go, "Ughhh, what a pain!".
  • And that mastering the language will take its sweeeet time. That you need to progress each day and that you need to have patience.
In other words, Khatz never tells you that you don't have to make an effort. Subtly, through all AJATT he tells you that you do need to make an effort, that you need to invest the time, but that all that effort should be fun and pleasurable.

Well, I proceeded to read the article, and I agreed with almost everything that Khatz shared there:
  • Anime and manga are good for you if you want to learn Japanese. Yes.
  • The skill of understanding the language precedes being able to express yourself in it. .
  • It doesn't matter what method you use to learn Japanese – what's important is that it works for you. Yes! Absolutely.
But then I found this little "gem" at the end that says...

"And let’s get you there [to Japanese mastery] fast, all by literally — literally — sitting on your relatively plump backside, watching anime and being a couch potato. No studying. Not even kanji studying. No effort. No memorization. No boredom. No pain. All gain."


That made me think...

"I don't understand what you are up to Khatz, but you know better than all of us that that's not how it works.

As you share in your blog, you had to sit down in the mornings in front of your computer, inputting and reviewing kanji in your SRS (I imagine it was SuperMemo back then) while eating Jelly Beans, and that you had to spend hours mining and reviewing sentences after sentences after sentences after many more sentences in Japanese on said SRS, and that your dictionary was practically part of your skin.

And now you are telling me that I can learn Japanese watching anime and reading manga (that's good)... but without studying kanji and without making an effort?!! Dude... that's not how it works, and you know it!"

At the end of the article there was an email subscription box. I put my email, and I was immediately subscribed to an email course created by Khatz called "Couch Potato Japanese". I get the first email. There, our dark-skinned sensei gives us some the following steps to follow:

1. Sit down on the couch.
2. Put some anime on and watch.
3. And that's it for today!

But then he ends the message with this: "Most language acquisition is passive and coincidental"

Now that's where I have to stand up and make an important distinction:

Khatz, if by passive and coincidental you mean that after seeing a word many times, and having looked it up all those times in the dictionary, in a random moment out of your control the word will finally stick in your brain and you will have internalized it... then yes, language acquisition is "passive and coincidental" in that way... but only after having read and listened actively a lot.

BUT, if by passive and coincidental you mean that by watching a lot of anime passively, without active listening, without transforming all that input in comprehensible input we can learn Japanese... then you are wrong sensei.

But I don't think Khatz really believes that. When I received the following emails in the course, Khatz invites you to create an account on his SRS webpage (SuRuSu), and in a subsequent email he says something of the sorts of, "Ok, Japanese is not going to learn itself.", and then shows you how to study kanji and Japanese phrases using SuRuSu and the MXD card format.

So there you go. You DO have to study to learn kanji and vocabulary and everything. Obviously. But whatever, let's get to the main point.

Why listening to English passively is unnecessary

Why? Simple: Remember the golden rule of language learning: We acquire languages in one way, and only one way: When we understand messages. When we obtain comprehensible input. This principle is true for all human beings, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you eat, speak what you speak, whatever the language you want to learn.

If you listen passively to something in English that you don't understand, that will NOT be comprehensible input for you, and you will not be learning anything. And if you listen passively to content in English you already understand, that is not new comprehensible input that helps you progress in English.

Look, listening passively to audio content in English doesn't hurt, but it doesn't help you improve your understanding in any significant way. Sure, you can be listening to songs and other audio content in English while you work on tasks that require almost no concentration, like washing the dishes, or eating, or walking, or taking a shower, or working out, or going to the bathroom, and other things like that.

That way you can "fill" the time doing those tasks and you can enjoy songs in English while you do them. And maybe that way you get a bit used to how those songs and other content sound, so that when you sit down to actually decipher them it will be a bit easier for you.

Note: If you are going to do any tasks that requires high levels of concentration, I don't recommend you listen to music of any kind: Not in English, not in your native language, not in any other language, no lyric-less music, no nothing! For tasks like that it's better to work in silence... unless the work you are doing involves audio of some sort, of course.

But besides that, listening passively to content in English will not give you any significant advantage, and it will not improve your understanding of the language. You DON'T need to listen to any English passively during the day, so if you don't want to, you don't have to. What's important is that you set some time each day to train your English actively using audio and audiovisual content, transcriptions and dictionaries.

In the long run, that's what truly counts: Active learning. If you find any product that says some crap like, "Learn English while you sleep with subliminal messages!", don't believe it. They are sold by rats who make money scamming naive pigeons.

And if you believe that you will become able to understand spoken English by listening to music 24 hours a day, without really paying attention to what you are listening to, and without looking up the meaning of the words you are listening to... take your head out of the sand. That's basically osmosis, and it's not real. It's an illusion. It won't work.

Listening and paying attention maintains your English, but doesn't improve it

Let's say that you get home and you sit down in front of your computer (or you sit down on your couch with your smartphone), you connect your headphones and put them on, and then you intent to give your whole attention to the content you are about to consume. Then you start watching YouTube videos in English, or listening to a podcast, or you put on a movie that you've seen before in your native language, but you watch it in English this time around.

If during this session of full-attention you didn't take out your dictionary to search for words you didn't understand... then that session will have helped you maintain your current understanding skills, but it will NOT have helped you improve them.

This is so because, if you listen to something you don't understand and you don't look up the meaning of what it is, that something stays as incomprehensible input that your brain can't register. Thus, if you didn't understand something while listening and you let it go, you will not have learned anything new in English. And if you understood EVERYTHING of what you listened to in a video or song in particular (congratulations!), listen to another video or song or whatever, and whatever you don't understand, look it up in your transcription, and then in your dictionary.

You know, this reminds me of a .gif I saw in 9gag a while ago titled "Life explained in a few seconds". I eventually found the video where said .gif came from. You can watch the video right here. If we compare the video with the previous principles, listening passively would be to stay idle, listening actively without looking up words would be to walk, and listening actively and searching words you don't know would be to hustle :D

"Immersion" will not make you fluent in English (or any other language)

When I was in university and people asked me, "Santiago, what do I do regarding English?"", I would tell them that the best way to learn it was to travel to a country where English was the native language, so that that person would be "immersed" in English and could only listen and read to things in the language.

Nowadays I know that's terrible advice. First, because learning English can be done anywhere on the planet, as long as you have access to a computer and Internet connection. And second, because being surrounded by all those things and people who only speak English is not what will make you learn English. What makes you learn the language is, once again, comprehensible input and active learning.

When I lived in the US as an exchange student for a year, I didn't improve my English by listening to music and cartoons in the background all day, and I didn't improve it because my host family talked to me in English all day. I improved it, in part, because I read - I read a lot of books in English with my monolingual dictionary in English at hand.

I remember the first book in English I read was Brave New World. I had already read that book in Spanish, so I had that small advantage for reading it again in English. Then I read books that I've never read before (mostly for English class at school), like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy (the first half), and my favorite novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, all with my English-English dictionary by my side.

I admit that during that time in the US I didn't do any active listening as I suggest you do here at Inglesk. I did watch a bunch of crap on, and sometimes on YouTube. If I ever watched a movie in English with my host family I would ask them to put on subtitles in English, and that unfortunately got me used to reading movies instead of watching them!

So, ironically, I didn't work much on my listening when I lived in the US, but as the years have passed, I've improved my English by listening to content in English, and looking up definitions and pronunciations of words I don't understand while listening. And I keep doing it.

Listening passively will NOT compensate for the time you don't invest learning actively

After reading that "Couch Potato Japanese" article I decided to re-read another article by Khatz called "¿Are you a three-day monk?" Almost at the end of the piece, Khatz says:

"What matters is that you make daily, quantifiable progress. And of course, when you’re not actively playing (studying) Japanese, you have your environment backing you up."

I want to remark that your "environment" is not a magical force that will make you learn English. If you are not listening and reading content in English at the very least for an hour a day (preferably more), if you are not deciphering content daily, if you are not learning words and pronunciations and new grammatical structures... no "environment" will save you. Having audio in English playing in the back ground all afternoon and half-listening to it while you do other things is NOTHING if you are not investing time daily to learn English actively.

So don't kid yourself, and don't let anybody fool you: Osmosis doesn't exist. All that exist is attention, training, and dedication.

More information: Shocking truth about passive listening - Fluent in 3 months


Listening English passively (like listening to music while you walk, etc.) doesn't hurt, but it's not necessary, and it will NOT help you understand spoken English. The only thing that will help you is to listen actively and obtain comprehensible input in English that way.

For instance, it will help you to play a piece of audio/audiovisual content in English, give it your full attention, have transcript and dictionaries at hand, and check your transcription and dictionary any time you listen to a word you don't know. Do this everyday for months to improve your understanding in English.

Last updated: July 7 of 2015

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