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Passive immersion

March 17, 2023 — Tatsumoto Ren

When we talk about immersion, we usually divide it into active and passive. Active immersion requires full attention to the content and can be practiced through reading and watching content in the target language. Passive immersion means listening to the language while engaging in other activities. When listening passively you're not fully focused on the content, instead you're doing something else while having the speech in your target language play in the background.

What is passive immersion

Passive immersion is a form of immersion which does not require your full attention. It basically means playing audio or video in your target language and listening while actively doing something else.

In terms of attention quality, passive immersion sits at the bottom. It's the most relaxed immersion activity. During intensive immersion you are totally focused, you are looking everything up in a dictionary and making flashcards. During free-flow immersion you are paying attention to the content but don't look anything up and don't make flashcards. And during passive immersion you're only partially engaged, you are just listening to the audio playing in the background.

When to do passive immersion

As pointed out before, active immersion is the primary activity in language acquisition. Under ideal circumstances, all your immersion would be active immersion, and would take up your entire day. However, the reality is that busy people are not able to incorporate a large amount of active immersion into their daily schedules. Nevertheless, most of us still have moments in our day when we can listen to our target language.

We do passive immersion during times in a day when we can't actively engage with the language, such as when cooking, exercising, cleaning, driving or commuting. Various chores and tasks that do not require much mental effort can be done while listening to the target language. Many people may opt to listen to music or to nothing during these times, however, we advise to use those moments to learn your target language. Sometimes your busy schedule may leave little time for language learning, but passive immersion offers a solution. Utilizing passive immersion is an excellent way to fill the gaps in your day with your target language and increase your total amount of immersion time. Although your attention is divided during passive immersion, because at times you don't have a choice to immerse actively, it is still better compared to no immersion at all.

As noted in one of the previous articles, there are countless opportunities to do passive listening throughout the day. The secret to passive immersion is to make it a habit. Every moment of your life has to be spent interacting with your TL. Every time you have an opportunity to listen to something, choose audio in the target language. Since passive listening is easy to do, we suggest dedicating at least 6 hours a day to it. Have headphones or earbuds with you all the time to make it effortless. Those hours can quickly add up, which has the potential to significantly improve the rate of language acquisition, contribute to your listening skills and overall comprehension.

I use MPD as my audio player. By having all my immersion content play all the time in MPD, I can easily accumulate several hours a day of passive listening without any extra effort.

Role of passive immersion

In the beginning passive immersion doesn't contribute much to comprehension gains, instead it helps you start distinguishing sounds and phonemes of your target language. Focus your attention on hearing the sounds. Maybe at first you won't even be able to hear where one word ends and another one starts, but as you progress, expect passive listening to boost your phonetic awareness and eventually start contributing to your comprehension. While you're listening, your brain is subconsciously learning even if it might not feel that way.

It is essential to learn to tolerate the ambiguity and keep listening to build the habit of constant, mass immersion. It will pay out greatly in the end.

Passive immersion doesn't do much without active immersion. You shouldn't neglect either of them.

Remember, all types of immersion will yield more results over time, so don't be discouraged if as a beginner you don't understand much. As your vocabulary and listening skills improve, you will comprehend more of your passive immersion content. At some point, you'll be able to listen to new media, such as podcasts, audiobooks, and talk shows, and understand them the first time, close to 100%, without having to actively study them.

Rules of passive immersion

Passive immersion can lead to very little or no language gains if done wrong. Stick to the following whenever you engage in passive immersion.

  • Re-listen. Focus on listening passively to the content you've already engaged with actively and comprehended via dictionary lookups, attention to scenery and other means of making input more comprehensible. Re-listening creates repetition, and repetition is good for the brain. Repetition gives your brain another chance to notice new sounds and words, and to internalize previously learned knowledge. If you listen to something you haven't previously watched and comprehended, it is essentially going to be white noise, and it won't help you much.
  • Rotate immersion content. Repetition becomes boring if done too many times, and boredom impedes learning. It's important to rotate immersion, in other words regularly add new content and remove the old content from your playlist.

Later you will discover how to extract audio from what you have watched and how to rotate immersion content. The topics are covered in Tech for passive immersion.

Choosing content

The best source of passive immersion is audio from TV shows you've already watched. Another option is to listen to an audiobook of a novel you've previously read. These two options help the most because you already know the story. The material will be more interesting and easier to understand. Moreover, re-listening provides your brain with opportunities to pick up on pieces that you might have missed the first time.

Everything you have consumed must be reused for passive listening. Watched another episode of anime? Extract the audio and add it to your playlist. Read a book? Take the audiobook and add it to your playlist. Watched a YouTube video? Download it, extract the audio and add it to your playlist. 10,000 hours of immersion won't accumulate themselves, so you have to listen all the time.

Listening to podcasts and radio shows is not recommended for beginners. It is difficult to make such content comprehensible because it lacks transcriptions and visual context. Though if you're outside, and you have nothing else to listen to, you must choose something.

If you're an advanced learner, it is okay to use purely audio-based material such as podcasts as one of the primary sources of both passive and active immersion.

Music is the worst content for passive immersion. It contains unnatural speech, and it is difficult to hear the lyrics. We tend to mishear lyrics even when we listen to songs in our native language.

The effects of passive immersion depend on the content and your level of focus. Pay close attention, and you'll gain more from passive listening. Select something that ignites your interest to keep you from becoming bored, as boredom can hinder your learning. If you find yourself losing interest, switch out the material for something more enjoyable.

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