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Getting from passive to active

 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies Post Reply
Senior Member
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 Message 1 of 8
03 October 2008 at 8:41am | IP Logged 
I couldn't find anything about this in the archives, so I'll ask all of our experienced members in this new thread. I would like to know what your thoughts are on achieving an active command of a language that has only been used passively - through listening and reading - so far.

My reason for this question is personal; in five months I will move to Germany and I will be living there for the next years or longer. Presently I have quite a good passive grasp of the language. I read books from time to time without using any dictionary and with close to perfect understanding. I also understand most spoken German when listening to the news or watching television on the internet. However, apart from at lessons in high school a long time ago and some phrases in a taxi last year, I have never spoken any German actively.

I would like to hear from anyone who has bridged this gap by themself without living in the country, regardless of language involved. I have limited time for studying, maybe 30 minutes active work a day and another hour for listening while commuting. At the moment I am considering doing the advanced German course from Michel Thomas, wathing German TV in the morning and read magazines and books, but this is probably not the most efficient method. Any tips are most welcome!
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 Message 2 of 8
03 October 2008 at 9:30am | IP Logged 
I've found that the best way to improve your ability to actively use a language is to actually use it - and I say that in all seriousness. For a long while with German, my first foreign language, I thought that if I just kept working on my passive skills, my active skills would "catch up." That wasn't the case at all. I found myself able to understand a great deal, but unable to produce anything of any complexity.

You could get a German pen pal to work on your writing, or sign up at the About German forums ( where you can get a personal (native speaker) tutor for free. There, you can write in German and they'll correct it.

You could also do what Iversen does, which is work on thinking in the language. As you go about your day, try to describe what you're doing, what you're seeing, etc. This isn't "speaking", of course, but I've found my brain gets caught up much more often than my tongue does when it comes to production - I could say it just fine, if only I could figure out how to say it. :)

You could also try and get a Skype language partner, but I'm not sure if that would work particularly well - with only 30 minutes a day, that'd work out to 15 minutes a day of German conversation, if that.
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William Camden
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 Message 3 of 8
05 October 2008 at 12:17pm | IP Logged 
If you can find someone to talk to or a class to go to for the language, that is good. I have quite a large passive knowledge of Russian but I hardly have opportunities to speak it and so my ability to speak it has deteriorated, although I probably read it with more facility than I did when studying it in my university days.

You could try writing in the language you want to "activate", as it were. That would force you to use it and to try and think in it. Maybe keep a journal in it or something like that.
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 Message 4 of 8
05 October 2008 at 2:07pm | IP Logged 
People will probably think you are mad, as people think i am (I probably am!) and talk to yourself.

I spent days on end talking to myself in Cornish, and it really helps! It is almost like one step up from thinking to yourself.

The downside is that if you have bad habits, such as rubbish pronounciation or wrong grammar, you will enforce them.

But, as you are of a high level already, I doubt you will have any problems with Grammar.

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Super Polyglot
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 Message 5 of 8
05 October 2008 at 2:44pm | IP Logged 
When I went to school many years ago all language teachers (except those who taught Latin) wanted us to say something, and for obvious reasons it had to be silly small sentences, and there were heavy restrictions on what our teachers expected us to say. But even then I felt it as an irritating pressure that I had to say something before I felt that I was ready. On the other hand our Latin teacher didn't expect us to learn to speak Latin, and so we didn't. This illustrates the two errors you can make: you can force people to speak too early /i.e. before they know what to say, and then they will use mechanisms like 1) looking stupid and saying nothing, 2) learning sentences by heart to please the teacher. OR you can what for too long, and then you may never learn to use the language. My solutions to this problem has been to start thinking at an early stage and then postpone writing and speaking. In other words: I try to built a solid passive basis, which I then fairly easily can convert to active but 'silent' skills, which then can be converted to active language in the sense that it can be used for travelling and other activites.

It is clear that this way of studying can't easily be combined with ordinary sequential learning where you go through a number of lessons from nr. 1 to the last one under the supervision of a teacher, who controls that you have learnt lesson 1 before you proceed to number two. However I do understand that teachers like the sequential method, because with people like me who prefer learning the stuff before it is made public there is no control whatsoever of your progress.   

To illustrate what I mean by thinking I will quote myself from a recent pm:

"My use of thinking as opposed to speaking is not very scientific: I see a tree, and I think the foreign word for tree: "Tree". Or "Green tree" if I also remember the word for 'green'. Or "This is a XYXYXYXYX tree" if I don't remember the word for 'green', but I can construct the rest of the sentence. At some point I'll look up the word for 'green', or I may just notice it while I read (and I notice it because I felt the need to know it in a concrete situation).

Later on it is just a matter of coupling longer and longer constructions until you can deliberately choose to think about things in your daily life or culture or science in another language. It may be helpful to listen to a lot of talk in that language just to get the other language buzzing in your head before you try to switch, but in my experience you have to be able to understand at least a word here and there before you see an effect. Otherwise reading something may be better.

And you should of course avoid to think complete sentences in your own language and then translate them. Translating is also a valuable skill, but you don't have time to translate when you think or speak.

These are all commonplace observations which I'm sure everybody would accept. It is probably more controversial to say that it doesn't matter whether you think in correct sentences or not. I know that some people are scared of uttering anything faulty because they believe that all errors they commit will stick forever, but this is nonsense. On the contrary you should make the language productive as soon as possible - simply because it is much easier to correct your errors if you don't have to fight like a madman to construct even the most simple sentence.

And why not speak instead? If I had been speaking - especially in a classroom setting - I would have second thoughts about uttering incomplete and malformed sentences, and I might even hesitate to say them while I'm alone, but my thoughts are totally my own and I don't lose face thinking nonsense. But of course you also have to train speaking - achieving the correct mouth positions can be a daunting task in itself. By the way people who spend their lives speaking 24x7 may not have a problem with speaking instead of thinking silently - but we are all different. "

Edited by Iversen on 12 February 2009 at 12:53pm

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 Message 6 of 8
05 October 2008 at 7:11pm | IP Logged 
I don't think there is any reason to make activation more complicated than it is. If you want to be able to speak German, practise speaking German. Übung macht den Meister.

For instance, you can use the "tv method". Find a German tv newscast on the web and listen for a bit, then turn down the volume and comment out loud about the news story, in German. Then listen a bit more, and comment a bit more about your thoughts on the news story. And so forth. This will give you training in listening, thinking and responding conversationally to random input on random subjects.

(Needless to say, if you don't like newscasts etc, find other types of tv material you like better that you can practise responding to.)

The same principle works with writing as well. Read a German newspaper article. Then write a short piece about your views on it, in German. Then do another one, and so on.

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Bilingual Tetraglot
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 Message 7 of 8
05 October 2008 at 11:29pm | IP Logged 
Talking to native speakers is the ideal, but that's not always an option.

You can do what I did with French: using a voice recorder of some sort, record yourself talking (about anything you want) for 10-15 minutes everyday. If you can't remember a specific word, say it in your mother tongue and move on; you can look it up later. The important thing is keep the flow, because that makes you feel pressed to think on the spot. This is also why I find using a recorder works better than just talking out loud to yourself: when you're being recorded, you feel a greater pressure to keep up the flow.

You can talk about anything you want: comments about things going on in your life, your opinions on societal/political issues, etc. The important thing is to do it, and do it everyday. Doing it every other day or a few times a week leaves gaps in your mind.

Edited by maya_star17 on 05 October 2008 at 11:30pm

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 Message 8 of 8
06 October 2008 at 7:49am | IP Logged 
Many thanks for all your suggestions! I guess that active use is the surest way to increase your ability to produce the language and I'll make sure to try and spend my idle time thinking in German, and if possible speaking it aloud. Using a voice recorder as Maya star suggested will prevent me from speaking with too strong an accent. I believe I have had enough exposure of spoken German to be able to tell if my pronunciation is completely off. Recording will also give me a concrete feedback on which words I can't recall actively, and a chance to look these up afterwards.

josht wrote:
For a long while with German, my first foreign language, I thought that if I just kept working on my passive skills, my active skills would "catch up." That wasn't the case at all. I found myself able to understand a great deal, but unable to produce anything of any complexity.

In my experience it is possible to get active skills by passive input. I hadn't produced any significant amounts of English until I was in my early twenties, but I did have a lot of passive exposure, mostly from reading hundreds of books and watching MTV. When I did start speaking English, I was able to speak fluently with a decent pronunciation straight away. However, my passive exposure of German is unfortunately more limited, and I won't be able to plow through tens of books in the next couple of months. Maybe I should have used my time more efficiently when I was younger...

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