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Passive Language Skills are Worthless?

Passive Language Skills are Worthless? post image

Writing and Reading are Important Too!

One of the biggest criticisms of the JLPT is that it only measures ‘passive’ skills, like reading and listening. And the idea is that in order to know a language, you have to know the whole language. You have to know not just the ‘passive’ skills, but also the ‘active’ skills of speaking and writing.

And in general ‘passive’ skills get a bad rap for a lot of different reasons. For example, it might be the way you learned a language in junior high or high school (that was my experience in the States with Spanish and German). Or it is generally considered a useless skill by itself because you can’t interact with someone if you only have passive skills in a language.

But, passive skills are necessary and can be incredibly useful if you leverage them to enhance your active skills. You can use different skills to master different aspects of a language.

Listening is Linked to Speaking

Generally speaking, if you have pretty good speaking skills you also have pretty good listening skills and vice versa. By practicing both you can learn different things about a particular language.

By doing active listening, where you are actively trying to break up a piece of content, you can learn some phrases, but most importantly you can pick up rhythm and tone of voice. This can pretty critical in a language because by using different tones, you can convey different meanings.

For example, look at this expression here:

“Wow! I’m so happy for you! That’s great!”

This expression in English needs to have a pretty light and bubbly tone and rhythm. If you say it any other way, it will probably come off as sarcastic or just down right mean.

With a lot of active listening, you can pick these things up and be able to speak more naturally and be clearly understood.

Reading is the Best Way to Learn Vocab

Reading is a good way to learn a new vocabulary word because you will be able to see it in context. Hopefully, you can understand the main idea of the passage, so that when you do see the new word, you’ll at least be able to guess at the meaning and be fairly accurate.

If you then look up the word in a dictionary, you pretty much have all you need to know a word: the definition, part of speech, and usage. Of course, one sentence is probably not enough to allow you to have a full understanding of the word, but this is far better than just blindly studying some JLPT list.

Studying JLPT lists are great practice, but only studying the lists will probably not allow you to pass the higher levels of the exam. It’s a bit like only taking vitamins and drinking water and wondering why you aren’t healthy. You need a well-balanced study regimen in order to make it in the big leagues.

Are they really Passive?

In order to really master these skills, you need to take them past being a passive skill and make them more active. You can’t just switch on the TV in the background while you are doing the dishes and hope to absorb a language, you really need to dig your teeth in and try to digest it all.

For listening, this might mean that you are actively watching the TV and reading the subtitles (in Japanese). Or simply just listening to one piece a few times until you understand everything.

For reading, this might mean you circle words you don’t know and actively try to guess their meaning before looking them up in a dictionary. Or simply practicing your skimming skills to help you read faster and comprehend the main idea of the piece faster.

What do you Think of Passive Skills?

Are they useless? Useful? How do you put your passive skills to work for you?

Photo by misawakatsutoshi

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • BlazingFX October 7, 2012, 1:45 am

    There are a ton of people who can read and write perfectly fine, but can not speak at such a level for the life of them. I am such a person: I always get nervous when I actually speak Japanese to others (especially my teacher), and stutter/forget proper grammar a lot. Granted, the reason can be 100% attributed to not speaking on a regular basis; I read and listen a lot, but don’t speak as much.

    • Mac October 8, 2012, 9:42 am

      Yeah, it can be a little difficult to break that barrier of confidence to speak more. I think it is important to speak to someone who is patient enough to try to understand your conversation even if you make mistakes. I would recommend just doing a lot of speaking out loud (even without another person around). This can actually boost your confidence a lot. I go into some more detail in this article:

      JLPT BC 37 | How to Get over the Fear of Speaking

      Good luck with your studies!

    • jerel October 10, 2012, 10:18 am

      I have this problem too. I have something which I would like to say but somehow, I don’t say it or can’t say it at that point in time. It doesn’t help that this always happens in the classroom where everyone is listening. My teacher is forcing me to speak by insisting that I ask her questions in Japanese. She allows the others to ask in English so it is a consolation that she thinks I can do it.

      • Mac October 10, 2012, 3:27 pm

        I feel like this is a good thing and a bad thing about learning a language in classroom with other students. On one hand, there is this pressure to perform and it helps you build your confidence with the language, but on the other hand I feel like if there is anxiety, it inhibits your speaking and in turn either demotivates you or you don’t learn as fast as you normally would.

        If you can, I recommend, writing down (in English) what you couldn’t say at the time, and look it up later. You can either ask your teacher or another native, or try to find a similar phrase at 英辞郎 on the web:


        That’ll work for things you can’t say. For things you don’t say, that’s a mental confidence issue, try the article that I mentioned before about getting over the fear of speaking. It is so simple, but it does actually work. Get out there speak!

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