Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

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 in speaking or writing.

When learning a language, should we focus more on developing an ability to speak or on building up our understanding of the language? This is a common question language learners ask, especially at the beginning of their language learning journey. Here are my views.


It is Impossible to Be Fluent if You Can’t Understand

The native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you, so your understanding needs to be of a higher level than your speaking. What’s more, in any language, even your own, you usually spend more time listening than you do speaking. You’ve got to understand what people are saying around you.

What do they often do in classrooms? They encourage people to speak, and speak correctly right from the beginning. But beginner learners have no context, no familiarity with the language. It just becomes a matter of rote cramming of information that is relatively meaningless.

I read recently that anything we cram or learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through longer term and enjoyable engagement will stay with us longer. That is why a language-learning method that is based on lots of listening and reading – I know I’m a bit repetitious on this – will ensure longer term retention of the language.

You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages more easily if you leave the language for a while. A couple of weeks of listening and reading, and perhaps speaking a bit,  and it comes back stronger than ever before. It’s in there soundly because it’s built up based on this very large passive vocabulary.

I recently watched the TED talk above by linguist Conor McDonough Quinn. In it he said things that I consider to be simply untrue. He said the biggest obstacle people have in language learning is their fear of not being able to speak. He proposed that the way around that is to learn fewer words, just a few key words and then speak. But if you do that, you won’t understand much, and that’s an even worse situation. To me, the biggest fear I have is not understanding what people are saying to me.

Steve Kaufmann

You are Going to Struggle and Stumble when You Speak

It’s embarrassing, if you can’t say what you want. This is true. If, however, you at least understand what the person is saying, if you have a large passive vocabulary, 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, try to activate, some of your passive vocabulary. This passive vocabulary will be activated once you start to speak more. At some point you have to speak, and speak a lot. However, it is amazing how much you can learn just through a very consistent program of listening and reading. Eventually, however, you have to activate it through lots of speaking.

In the initial stage of your listening and reading program, it’s important to listen to the same limited material over and over because you can’t even, at first, tell where one word ends and the next word begins. You have to allow your brain to get used to the language. However, in my case, after a month or two, I listen less often to the same material. I tend to do more extensive reading and listening, moving on to new material sooner, because I want to cover lots of vocabulary.

In the LingQ reader, which is where I do most of new language reading,  it’s possible to deal with texts that have 30-40% unknown words. This enables me to engage with difficult material, listening and reading, with the goal of building up my passive vocabulary. That’s why at LingQ the easiest and most useful thing to measure is the learner’s passive vocabulary.

How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context? Even if you are helped by the context, it still counts because all of these words you’re going to see again and again. If they matter to you, 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.

You don’t have to nail down a word or phrase the first time you encounter it. When you are ready to speak, and as you speak more and more, the vocabulary will activate naturally. The idea that, as you start into a language, you’re going focus on trying to speak the language, to me is simply nonsense from a language-learning efficiency point of view. It may be what people want to do. Perhaps that is so. But then most people are not that successful at language learning. Maybe it is because the can speak but don’t understand very well. This makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation.


Different Strokes for Different Folks

Some people simply want to be able to say hello and give the impression that they speak the language. If that is the case, then to focus on a few key sentences and phrases is probably quite useful. However, if the goal is to be able to participate comfortably in conversations, or understand what people are saying around you in the workplace, if the goal is to gain that kind of comprehension, then you have to focus on your passive vocabulary.

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 occurrence of the word the way we do at LingQ. It’s arbitrary. I have compared pursuing passive vocabulary to dogs pursuing the mechanical rabbit in dog races. It’s something that you pursue as a measurable goal, in order to build up that familiarity with the language through massive listening and reading.

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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9 comments on “Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning


Very helpful tips. Passive vocabulary is necessery to build fundation for understanding. The more we use passive vocabulary it become active vocabulary through repetition. Passive vocabulary is alway bigger than active.
The better we understand the better we can talk.


Steven – great post, and it really made me understand what frustrated me during my time in South America. I could never understand what anybody was saying to me! And, ironically enough, for all the time I practiced speaking in my apartment and in my dorms, holding imaginary conversations, the complexity of what I could say, correctly, was always very limited.

Once, one of my classmates said, “Ay, ¡ese man no entiende nada!” Strangely enough, I understood that. But I’ll take 70% of the blame. For as wonderful as Colombians claim they speak, the way they speak Spanish is highly convoluted and they use antiquated word, A LOT. But I would have been able to overcome that hurdle had my passive listening skills been up to scratch. I was more impressed with speaking, but clearly, that was only one small part of the puzzle. As I work on French and German, I will be sure not to make this mistake.

Another great post Steve. As a big fan of LingQ, I find it’s especially helpful for my languages where I’m intermediate and advanced. Finnish is the only one where I have used LingQ as an absolute beginner. Here it comes down to motivation more than anything. At the intermediate and advanced levels you can slack off a lot and return the language whenever you’re in the mood without really sliding backwards.

While at the beginner level, you need lots of motivation and consistency in order to reach the intermediate level. So far I just haven’t been motivated enough to get that far in Finnish. We will see if that changes in the future.

Julia Reed

Hi Steve!

What an excellent post on the importance of passive vocabulary! I absolutely agree with you: scamming is the worst way to learn a language. It doesn’t make your speaking skills appear naturally. Through understanding, one is able to achieve much more in terms of mastering the language. Thanks for sharing, Steve!

Hello Steve – I have enjoyed your blogs and particularly this one on passive vocabulary. I also have a blog, whose entire focus is vocabulary, and is aimed at creating a community of educators who can support each other’s efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of word learning in the middle grades. I have referenced you in a blog I wrote: The 90 Minute Challenge…I Dare you! at

I think you would also appreciate my blog: We Don’t KNOW Words from Adam Your ideas were instrumental in my writing of this blog as well. I am new to the blog world and am enjoying it. Best luck to you and your endeavors!
Carla Kessler


Olá Steve! How do you face (or set the maturity) of a quite clear word, which is not part of active vocabulary? Example: I am native Brazilian-Portuguese speaker and while learning German I can see some words like “triumphieren” which in BR-PT would mean “triunfar”. I don’t need to open any dictionary nor think couple of seconds to understand, I just get it, even though I would probably not use it in active (because it would be too obvious, possibly false friends…). Is it a word you would ignore and set as well known?

Viele Grüße da Alemanha 🙂


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