Friday, September 24, 2010

less pain for language learning gain

Have any of you seen this article?
Less pain for learning gain: Research offers a strategy to increase learning with less effort

This is a pretty good research study because they had 4 different groups, which means they covered several variables to see how the results differ. The study measured the ability of the participants to distinguish between the pitches of different tones.

The Activities

There were 2 different types of activity used. The first type was to listen to a 1,000 Hertz tone and a slightly lower tone. Let's call that 'Activity A'. The second activity type was to listen to the 1,000 Hertz tone repeatedly. We'll call that 'Activity B'.

The Times

There were also 2 different time-length variables. There was a 20-minute time length and a 40-minute time length.

The Groups

The first group did only Activity A for 20 minutes a day. After one week, they showed no improvement.

The second group did Activity A for 20 minutes and Activity B for 20 minutes a day. During Activity B, though, they would work on a puzzle that was unrelated to listening to the tones. Their improvement was similar to that of the third group.

The third group did only Activity A but for 40 minutes a day.

The fourth group did only Activity B while working on an unrelated task for 40 minutes a day. After one week, the fourth group showed no improvement.

Comparison to Language Learning

Next, I would like to put this into a language-learning perspective. It seems to me that Activity B is the same thing as having your target language on in the background whilst doing other things, which is frequently referred to as "worthless passive listening" by a famous 3-months-to-fluency language blogger.

My next observation is that the first group, which did only 20-minutes a day and didn't show an improvement, is like a language learner who simply does not do enough activity. In order to see your improvements sooner, there is a minimum amount of time that needs to be spent.

But then again, there is the fourth group who spent 40 minutes a day on the activity but also didn't show an improvement. So we have the first group who is "too short" and the second group who is "too passive."

The second and third groups both improved to a similar degree. But the third group worked twice as hard while spending the same amount of total time as the second group. The third group spent the whole 40 minutes working hard. The second group only spent half the time working hard and the other half still immersed in the sounds of one of the tones but while doing something else.

Shortcomings of the Study when compared to Language Learning

The most common problem with these research studies is the length of time which the study is conducted. This one is no exception as the experiments only ran for one week. However, this wasn't a study on language learning so we cannot blame them in that regard. But we must remember that findings from a one-week experiment cannot be reliably extrapolated to language learning which takes thousands of hours to complete.

Another variable which does not match language learning is the complexity of the skill. Telling whether two tones are the same or not is not as complex as the conditional-causative-past tense that you need to use under the hot lamp of the interrogation room. The research that was conducted simply does not have as many factors involved as in learning a second language.

My Conclusions

Based on the article (linked to above) about this research, I cannot firmly advise you to spend half your time in passive listening activities.  However, I think it does show that there are potential gains to be made from adding those passive listening activities to your daily routine.

If you do the passive listening following your active sessions, your brain will continue to work on the language.  If you do the passive listening immediately prior to your active sessions, it will get your brain warmed up for the learning.

I think the best advice is to spend 100% of your time (or as close as possible) in the language you are learning. That means, even if you can't focus on the language, having it on in the background will keep your subconscious working on the language puzzle.

You've got nothing to lose from exposure to your target language when it's just background noise. If you don't do it, the only thing you have to lose is the possible gains you might have made.

Your Conclusions?

Do you think the research relates to language learning? If so, do you think it is strongly related or weakly related? What do you think we language learners can learn from this research study? I look forward to reading your comments. Thanks!


  1. Weakly related but interesting.
    There not much to engage the brain in this experiment, it is interesting though that even in those circumstances the mind can do something for you in the background.

    Part of the problem is that the what people think of as passive varies hugely, passive does not need to mean inactive (passive resistance for example). Passive acceptance can just mean accepting without resistance (or analysis) surely there has to be a place for that in learning a language (whatever the percentage).

    Our own language causes confusion, for example ALG says don't analyse however you are supposed to guess from what the teachers are doing. How can you guess without analysis? You have to use the sounds you hear as part of your analysis otherwise you could learn Thai by doing the lessons with earplugs (obviously not). I suppose they mean explicit analysis with grammar and fixed translation mentality.

    My own thought is that the mind will do work for you in the background and can process things for you and make connections as a background process, but you have to do some focused foreground work to convince the subconcious process that the activity and knowledge is important.

  2. I know a lot of people who are learning languages but when I ask them what they listen to in the car they tell me they listen to the radio. When you're alone in the car you can't do anything but listen. It's the perfect time to have your target language playing. I don't understand why people waste that time. I spend at least an hour a day in my car during the week. That's an extra 365 hours of language exposure I'm getting that someone who listens to the radio doesn't. It's just an easy thing to do that a lot of people don't do.

  3. I am not sure how much we can relate this to language learning, but I think too that it can help us at least help us think about language learning. First - we do have to put in the time. No way around that one. Second - we need to immerse ourselves in massive amounts of comprehensible input and not all of that can be active, focused time. Our brains would explode. Language as background music is a great idea - no substitute for dedicated, focused interaction with comprehensible input, but a great idea none the less.


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