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By passive and active, I mean understanding language when used vs. using it yourself, like in the terms active/passive vocabulary. My experience learning languages is that active skills are much harder to acquire than passive skills. I'm trying to explain this to someone who is learning a second language for the first time, who wants to focus on active language usage and under-emphasizing passive usage, but I think they are having difficulty because this seems backwards in terms of goals. Are there any good written explanations or academic work on the differences between active vs passive skill acquisition, or on different learning strategies for people who want to focus on one or the other?

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IMHO (from personal learning experience), it's more complex:

An active vocabulary sufficient to express some complex ideas can still by way too limited to understand native speech.

In addition, native speakers of any language I encountered often speak quite fast, use colloquial expressions, sometimes even dialects, making the understanding task difficult.

So, in more than one language, I've experienced some stage where I was able to express my thoughts (even if sometimes clumsy), but had big troubles understanding the replies.

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First of all, I agree with you on the fact that active skills are much harder to acquire than passive skills. Just think of a baby who is exposed to his/her parents’ native language for the first time. It takes some time before he/she is able to create correct sentences, not to mention the complex ones. However, at some point they understand what people are telling them, even if they aren’t able to speak well themselves.

Here it is another example that comes to my mind. If you watch lots of movies or TV series in a foreign language with subtitles on for a long time, at some point you will start to get accustomed to the sounds of the language in question (even without being able to understand what people are saying) and you could also start to recognize some recurring words! This is because you passively listened to people talk in that language for some time.

However, whereas passive language skills could be very useful, acquisition of active skills is on a different level. In fact, it requires an actual effort: the effort that is put into learning about the structure of a language without which speaking it becomes difficult, if not impossible. For example, it is not enough to hear how a word is pronounced by native speakers: you have to try to pronounce it many times so that you’ll memorize it. In the same way, when you encounter new words or grammar structures, you have to try to understand and memorize them first, and then try to use them. This is what it means to make an effort into learning and acquire active skills.

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