Active or Passive vocabulary?


What is active and passive vocabulary?

Passive vocabulary refers to words that learners understand but are not yet able to use. Active vocabulary, on the other hand, is the words that learners understand and use consistently in speaking or writing.

When learning a language, is it more important to focus more on developing an ability to speak or on building up our understanding of the language? This is an important question for language learners, especially at the beginning of their language learning journey.

Is it possible to be fluent if you can’t understand?

Naturally, a native speaker is always going to have a larger vocabulary than you, therefore, your level of understanding must be much higher than your level of speaking. It is also important to note that in any language you will spend much more time listening than you will spend speaking. Becuase of this, it is important that you have an understanding of what is going on around you.

In classrooms, you are always encouraged to speak and speak correctly. This creates a very good basis for your language learning and will allow you to understand the basics of a language, which is extremely important. However, as I have progressed in my language learning, it has become clear to me that it is important to focus more on vocabulary building than using the language directly. That is why I believe after you have gained a basic grasp on a language you should switch your focus to a language learning method based on lots of listening and reading which will ensure long-term retention of any language.

Recently, I watched TED talk by linguist Dr Conor Quinn. In it, he said many things that I agree with but his philosophy is something that I find very different to the way I now learn my languages.

In short, he believes that we require very few words to be able to speak a language. On one hand, I agree strongly with this statement. You don’t require a large active vocabulary in order to speak a language because we have the ability to work around the words we do not understand to get our point across. However, on the other hand. it is also important to have a large passive vocabulary so we are able to understand what is being said to us and around us. My greatest fear is not being able to understand what I am being asked, not the sentences I am unable to create.

His philosophy is to learn a few basic words and then speak, but if you do that, you won’t understand a lot of the context, and that’s an even worse situation to be in.

Speaking will always be a struggle

Being unable to get your point across is frustrating and embarrassing. However, if you understand what the person is saying, you’re going to feel more comfortable and more confident. This gives you more time to think and reduces the pressure on you so that you can try to use coherent sentences. Therefore, it is at times like these when your passive vocabulary can be used to help you understand the situation and you can use your active vocabulary, which is often very limited, to get your point across in a coherent manner.

At some point, you have to speak and speak a lot. But as long as you have an understanding of the context, you only have to use very few words in order to convey your point. This is why listening and reading are so important. They help you gather an understanding of a large number of words, even if you don’t use them as part of your active vocabulary.

If the words matter to you and if they’re important, they’ll come up again and again. If you are listening and reading in an extensive way, they’ll keep coming up. You’ll see them in different contexts and you’ll gradually get a better sense of what they mean. And eventually, they will move from your passive to your active vocabulary.

You don’t have to understand a word or phrase completely the first time you encounter it. When you are ready to speak, and as you speak more and more, the vocabulary will activate naturally. Therefore, from a language learnign effiency point of view, building a passive vocabulary is extremely important.

Everyone is different

If it is your goal to simply say hello and ask for directions, rote learning a few phrases for your trip abroad is the best way to go about it. However, if your goal, like me, is fluency and having the ability to comfortably participate in conversations then passive vocabulary should be your goal.

Your passive vocabulary allows you to understand what is happening around you and that can be built through consistent listening a reading. I’m not saying you have to know every word in the dictionary, but you need a substantial vocabulary, and it doesn’t matter whether you only count words as word families or whether you count every word seperatly.

It’s arbitrary, yes. But aslong as you create an achievable goal, in order to build up that familiarity with the language, you will be able to feel more comfortable when you eventually have to speak with natives.

There are people who read very well and can’t speak well. But people who read well and understand well when listening are eventually going to be able to speak well. If they don’t speak well yet, it’s because they haven’t spoken enough. But if they decide to go and speak with that kind of a grasp of the language based on passive vocabulary, they will very quickly become good active users of the language.


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