More Exposure, Less Study?

I’m been thinking about exposure to language versus studying language, and I’m curious as to how you all balance it out. In reflecting, I realize that I’ve a tendency to use the vast majority of my language time on studying the language in some way or another, with little time spent on simple exposure.

An example of this is that I’ve spent relatively little time in just listening to German, with no further agenda. I’ve rarely tuned in to German radio stations or listened to podcasts without the intent to make it into a lesson or study session of some sort. If I have the transcript available, as is the case with podcasts from Deutsche Welle, I’ll print it out and read it as I listen, marking words and structures I don’t recognize. If I don’t have such a transcript, I’ll listen with pen and paper in hand, ready to jot down unknown words.

I’ve done the same thing with written material. I’ve never really just read German news articles, I’ve made them into assignments: usually, I’d go through the article, underlining words I don’t know, with a sheet of paper at my side (or a document open on my computer) to put the definitions and notes on.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. It’s obviously beneficial to “work” with articles or other materials in your target language. But I think I’ve gone way too far with it, and need to incorporate more simple exposure – just reading and listening to the languages I want to learn, without placing any burden on myself to go further with the activity.

How do you all balance this out? Do you do a lot of listening and reading without actually “studying” the material? No vocabulary lists, no notes? If you do, how beneficial have you found it?

By |2008-06-02T09:39:45+00:00June 2nd, 2008|All Entries, Language Journal, Language Learning|18 Comments


  1. Dan June 2, 2008 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Fairly beneficial. I still think that vocab lists are vital, and when I was studying German I tried to do about 10 words a day, but just exposing yourself to stuff you enjoy in German (in my case, German videogames, movies, and pop fiction) without trying to analyze it lets you get a better sense of the language as spoken and gives you some great slang to throw out.

    I haven’t studied German in a few years now, but listening to the ARD-aktuell “tageschau” and the Schweizer-Radio DRS “Heutemorgen” podcasts on the way to work seems to (at the very least) maintain my current level of proficiency, and if you keep up on English-language current affairs it’s easy to follow.

  2. Camilla June 2, 2008 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    It definitely helps, to let it sink in without trying too hard. I’m in the habit of reading the front pages of a few foreign papers online, and deliberately chose papers with a fondness for lots of imagery and very short easy-to-read headlines (eg: Sadly it means i’m mostly translating trash, but it’s easy and i tend to learn at least one new word every few days just through reading headlines.
    I also find that the colourful adverts on those kind of papers attract my attention, and often make translation and learning new words more fun for me. When i get confused i send off a quick email to my foreign-language friends, and normally start up a small conversation about some grammatical oddity.

    I also really enjoy watching tv programs in my chosen languages. At my stage i hardly understand anything, but i just love the sound of the words and don’t even bother to translate. I think it all adds together to improve the rate at which you learn the languages when you get back to studying.

    I definitely need to get back to listening to Russian radio. That’s always kinda fun (if way too fast for me).

  3. Jeff June 2, 2008 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    At the very least I try to do reading without actually studying the material. I try to get the jist of what they’re saying in an article if I do not understand certain words.

    Similarly, when watching the local Spanish-language news station, I just sit there and try to ascertain as to what they are reporting. It generally works, but sometimes gets frustrating.

    For the meantime, I try to do reading, listening, and studying every week in some way. I personally think that studying IS exposure to the language, and studying helps me understand more when reading articles and listening to the news/radio stations.

  4. Goddess Carlie June 3, 2008 at 7:56 am - Reply

    I admit I spend a fair amount of time being exposed to my language and not actively studying. I watch a lot of tv shows with English subtitles. I’ve started recording how much time I spend each month (and this total includes eng subs, japn subs and no subs – so I guess there is some “study” but not really) about 20 hours a month doing this.

    Is it beneficial? I would say mostly no. I am not at a stage where I can learn much/get much from this. I am only just reinforcing what I already know. I barely ever learn anything new.

    I am finding that my listening skills are improving a lot.

    I think at my stage in my language learning Journey, the “study” time is more beneficial in that I get more out of it in regards to language learning. However, the “exposure” time is more about pleasure. I like to call it an active rest.

    I agree with Jeff that study is exposure to the language, however, at the very beginning especially, it is not 100% “natural” exposure. After all, there are very few situations in english where I would say “that is a pen” – however that is english none the less. I do think it is a necessary step, I don’t imagine I’d get very far if I jumped into the deep end at the start.

  5. Josh June 5, 2008 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks all, for your input! Helpful and insightful to compare your habits with mine.

    Goddess Carlie, I think you nailed my problem for me:

    I think at my stage in my language learning Journey, the β€œstudy” time is more beneficial in that I get more out of it in regards to language learning. However, the β€œexposure” time is more about pleasure. I like to call it an active rest.

    I tend to focus so much on studying the language, I never step back and just enjoy what I already know. An issue of not seeing the forest for the trees, I suppose. πŸ™‚

  6. flamezen June 7, 2008 at 6:30 pm - Reply

    I have been listening to news reporting and watching random videos in my target language (French). I usually can only understand about 10%. But I think it helps because I hear words and phrases I know. They just jump out at me. I believe this serves to reinforce the vocabulary.

    Also it serves as a gauge of where I am at. So if I can understand more than 10% a month from now, I’ll know I have been learning.

    I usually do the passive TV or radio thing when I’m in a situation where I cannot study actively. To me, it’s better than nothing at all during those moments.

    This is a small part of my language learning routine though. I spend more time actively studying than passively observing. Which I think is important in the beginner level, maybe the intermediate a well.

  7. Rebecka June 9, 2008 at 8:16 am - Reply

    I tend to turn things into tasks as well, and often too big tasks, so that I don’t finish them. I will however try to just enjoy using the language more, in a relaxed manner. With the Jimmy Ruska Firefox application reading stuff online is smooth as can be, I get the translation of the word in a second, but I don’t have to write it down somewhere unless I really want to.

    Of course, this depends on at what level you are, but I feel that I have reached that point with Russian where I can actually use the language without it being OMG SO HARD. I tend to read news on the news site for Samara (they have really nice articles!) or read in any of my Russian magazines that people have sent me from Russia.

  8. David Snopek June 10, 2008 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    I think its very important to have something to do that isn’t like “study.” I have a Polish tutor who sends me lectures each week on Polish history to listen to. They are only around 6 minutes long but I spend several hours on each: relistening to them, writing down and looking up words, researching specific terms, people, groups, etc… This is my study time.

    Then for fun I read/listen to books in the Harry Potter series in Polish (I “studied” the first one but the rest — 2 and 3 — have been casual). Since its such easy material to understand, I only listen to it once, so 30 minutes of listening only takes me 30 minutes. πŸ˜‰

    Its very relieving and enjoyable and I’m always excited to see what happens next — I can’t wait to start the 768 page/18 CD monstrosity that just came in the mail (the 4th book). But that 7th listen to a lecture feels kind of tedious. She has just started sending me 6 minute-ish mp3’s of “Animal Farm” in Polish, but since I’m “studying” it, its already less fun.

    Anyway, I think its important. The purpose of acquiring a language is to be able to understand/enjoy things in it, so you should definitely have healthy amounts of that. Maybe 50% in my opinion.

  9. Ramses June 12, 2008 at 7:22 am - Reply

    I only study actively for tests, my college year has for of those periods per year.

    During the week I normally watch 1 telenovela a day (40 minutes) and listen music about 3 – 4 hours a day. Next to that I do my daily SRS reps (which I DO consider as studying). I know I must invest more time, especially watching more television. So far this input worked for me like a dream, especially the combination television (without subtitles)/music/SRS reps.

    Input is the most important thing in learning a language. Sure, studying is great, especially in the beginner stage. But after that most things most be reached by getiing loads of input.

  10. Karen June 19, 2008 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    I’m reading the Harry Potter books in Spanish – on the second right now. It’s simply for pleasure – enjoying the language and just getting into the story. Other times, I study – doing grammar exercises, listening to podcasts, etc. If I study too much, I lose the joy.

  11. Johanna June 26, 2008 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    When I read texts in my target languages or listen to the news I mostly don’t analyze or “study” what I hear. I only look up core vocabs that I can’t derive from the context and mostly I just don’t bother if I don’t understand 100% of everything.
    I think it depends on how far you’ve already mastered a language and what you’re studying for (written exam, oral proficiency…).
    What I also find helpful is listening to foreign language TV even if you don’t understand a single word! I helped me, when I started studying Japanese, to get accustomed to the sound and rhythm of the language. And later on, I would recognize words that I had previously heard, subconsciously, and once I actually learned them, I could remember them forever!
    I find it also useful to listen to podcasts and the like while doing something else and not actually concentrating on it too much, for example when I’m cleaning up my room. I feel like it still helps improve my listening skills and pronounciation. It’s not important to understand any word spoken and uncover any unknown grammatical sentence structure at any given time to benefit from your learning material. Unless you want to be an expert in linguistics. πŸ˜‰

  12. Josh June 30, 2008 at 8:11 am - Reply

    Thanks all, for your continued input! πŸ™‚ Apparently more exposure and less study is indeed a good strategy for me to use.

  13. Paul Rees July 19, 2008 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    I am starting to think that exposure really is the key. I’ve been learning German since April 2007 and I have put a lot of time into studying it and listening to it.

    However after all that effort I can’t actually say very much in German. I am happy with my level of comprehension relative to the amount of time I have been learning.

    My problem is that my head has gotten so caught up in the complex grammar that speaking now seems to be close to impossible. I mean, when trying to speak, by the time my head has processed the grammar, the moment is lost.

    I am travelling to Germany in September (for a big exposure) and I am seriously considering taking a break from active and formal studying after that trip. This is not giving up, rather an attempt to clear my head and actually learn how to speak. During this break, I would focus on conversing with my German online and offline friends, and attending German speaking social functions.

    Children learn to speak by exposure. As an adult learning by exposure is a much slower process, complicated by a brain that is now wired in English. Time accept this and re-wire πŸ™‚

  14. Exposure « The Lab July 20, 2008 at 12:47 am - Reply

    […] geek”, and through that his interesting blog Language Geek. In particular I found his post More Exposure, Less Study relevant to me. I was prompted to write a comment on my feelings about this dilema. For the record, […]

  15. Jess July 31, 2008 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    My speaking and listening skills in my two strongest languages, Arabic and Japanese, were acquired mostly through passive exposure. When I was in the intermediate stages of learning, I spent three to four hours on Saturday or Sunday, and about 15-30 minutes each weekday actively studying. But I also spent three to four hours a day passively listening in my everyday environment. I strongly feel that this passive absorption was the main catalyst for my easy fluency and good pronunciation.
    Now that I have returned to the US from Japan, and am refreshing my Arabic skills after a 3 year break, I listen to my old Arabic textbook CDs and Arabic newscasts for an hour a day, on the bus while I commute. I only actively study vocabulary, grammar and reading on Saturdays for 2-3 hours. I find that even without pounding the books, I am reactivating what I know without much effort.
    In contrast, I spent years assaulting my brain with Spanish and French reading, grammar and vocabulary exercises, but I was never really motivated to read or listen for pleasure. I still can’t speak either one worth a darn πŸ™‚

  16. Ramses August 7, 2008 at 8:32 am - Reply

    Paul, may I give you an advice? Here it comes: quit the grammar study! Really. As you pointed out, it avoids you producing stuff. Although I prefer input before even thinking about output, you should be able to express yourself well given the amount of time you’ve spent with German so far (more than a year).

    Yes, I’ve been studying grammar but it actually only set me back because I began to think too much about it. Like you said, children don’t worry about grammar (heck, they don’t even know what grammar is!) but learn throught exposure. I’ve tried that approach (i.e. massive input, and I mean massive. Talking about 10 – 15 hours per day of listening/reading, where it could and should be more if you can and if you’re serious about learning language).

    The point is; your brain will figure stuff out in the end. Me for example, I know loads of phrases and can combine those. I don’t know why something works like it works, but I do know how it works and therefore I can speak Spanish quite fluently and with almost no mistakes (I’m still learning, but every day of massive input helps me getting better).

  17. Paul Rees August 7, 2008 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Ramses thank you for your advice and encouragement. Since I wrote the comment above I have decided to stop attending grammar classes for the moment. I wrote about that decison here

    Interestingly all the German native speakers (except my German teacher) I know have encouraged me to drop the classes.

    10-15 hours per day – wow. I am serious, but I simply don’t have that much time in one day. I have to work and that makes me too tired for massive amounts of study. 1-2 hours per day is realistic for me and I know that is way more time than my fellow students at the grammar class put in.

  18. Ramses August 7, 2008 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Interesting, I was planning on writing a post regarding dropping grammar class as well (for me that’s not quite possible, as it’s part of my majoring program so I *have* to attend at least 80% of them. Luckily they’re going to assign a new professor to our grammar class (a native speaker) so I should get some ‘normal’ exposure out of it).

    About the input: I don’t know what kind of job you have, but maybe there are possibilities to squize in some German? Think of podcasts (maybe even those for natives, depending on your level) or just listening tot German music. While being on vacation I found it nice to just listen to audio of movies. When travelling I convert some DVD’s to PSP/iPod format so I can watch/listen them on the go.

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