5 August 2013

Passive vocabulary and fluency

Vocabulary

Anthony Lauder, who has a channel at YouTube called FluentCzech, made an excellent presentation at the recent polyglot conference in Budapest. He started a thread about it at our forum on LingQ. This thread has meandered onto a variety of subjects, both relevant and irrelevant, and has now reached four pages in length.

The gist of the discussion revolves around the importance of a large vocabulary in order to achieve fluency in a language we are learning. It has always been my position that one’s vocabulary, and one’s passive vocabulary in particular, is the most important indicator of one’s potential to become fluent. A large passive vocabulary does not guarantee fluency, but it creates the conditions for fluency.

Fluency, to me, is the ability to express oneself comfortably in a variety of situations. This means the ability to comprehend what native speakers are saying in conversations on a wide range of subjects. If we cannot understand them, we cannot converse with them with any degree of comfort or confidence. Our passive vocabulary, therefore, has to be close to the active vocabulary of educated native speakers. Our own active vocabulary is necessarily smaller than our passive vocabulary and smaller than the active vocabulary of the native speaker. However, even with a more limited active vocabulary, we can still express ourselves on quite a variety of subjects.

A large passive vocabulary, acquired for example through massive listening and reading such as at LingQ, still needs to be activated if we are to become fluent. This can only be achieved through a lot of speaking and or writing, but mostly speaking. If we have a large passive vocabulary and good comprehension, our active vocabulary, and therefore our ability to express ourselves, will grow quite quickly.

This assumes, however, that we are prepared to force ourselves through the “sound barrier”, or should I call it the “stupidity barrier”. This is the lengthy period of time when we feel stupid because we cannot express ourselves as well as we would like. At times it feels as if we are not making progress. At times it feels as if we are slipping. But then suddenly we notice signals that in fact we have progressed, and have improved our fluency. This then becomes like fresh wind in our sails. We are now even more motivated to speak. Eventually we do achieve our goal of fluency, not perfection just fluency, if we stay the course.

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