Passive and Active Vocabulary
Passive and Active Vocabulary has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.
Hi there. Steve Kaufmann here, talking to all of you who want to learn languages. I’m very happy to share with you my experience, my views, and I think my views should count for something because I have learned 12 languages to varying degrees, I have another two that I’m working on, yet my views I think are very much in the minority. Okay? I’m going to talk today about active and passive vocabulary and I’m going to say that there is far too much emphasis placed, both in terms of how we teach languages and the things that people worry about when they learn languages.
There’s too much emphasis on active vocabulary. It’s this old question of developing an ability to speak or, rather, focusing on building up your understanding of the language. It is impossible to be fluent if you can’t understand. It is impossible to claim that you are at some level. They have all these numbers B-1, B-2, C-1. Whatever you claim, you can’t claim that you speak at that level if you don’t understand at a much higher level because the native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you do. You have to understand what that person is saying. What’s more, in any language, even our own, we usually spend more time listening than we do speaking. You’ve got to understand what people are saying around you.
What do they do in classrooms? They try to force people to speak correctly. I read something recently about how anything that we cram will only stay in our short-term memory. Anything that we learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through regular and enjoyable repetition are going to stay with us and 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 – is going to stay with you. You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages easily as I have done with my Italian, which I haven’t touched for the longest time. Then a couple of weeks of listening and reading, talking a little bit with our tutors at LingQ 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.
There was a talk at TED that showed up on my YouTube channel, you know how they recommend things for you to watch. Maybe I’ll put a link here, but there was this linguistics person saying things which I considered simply to be untrue. He said the biggest obstacle people have in language learning is their fear of not being able to speak and the way around that is you don’t need so many words, you just need a few key words and then you can speak. But you won’t understand anything, that’s an even worse situation. To me, the biggest fear I have is not understanding what people are saying to me.
I mean there’s no question that when you speak you are going to struggle, stumble. It’s embarrassing. You can’t say what you want. All of those things for sure, but if you at least understand what the person is saying, if you have a large passive vocabulary, you’re going to do better. You’re going to understand better and now you have some time with less pressure to try and use, try to activate, some of your passive vocabulary and the passive vocabulary does get activated as long as you speak. At some point you have to speak. However, it is amazing how much you can learn just through a very consistent program of listening and reading.
Someone asked as well here, do I listen repeatedly or repetitively to the same material or do I read or listen more extensively in order to acquire a large vocabulary? Well, initially, in order to become familiar with the language you have to listen to the same limited material over and over because you can’t even, at first, tell where one word begins and the next word ends. You have to get your brain used to the language, but within a month or two I move on to extensive because I want to cover lots of vocabulary with a system like LingQ.
I hate to always refer to LingQ, but it’s possible to deal with text that has 30-40% unknown words, so I very definitely move in to a more extensive pattern of listening and reading with the goal of building up my passive vocabulary. That’s why at LingQ the number one metric, the easiest thing to measure, is the passive vocabulary. How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context, even helped by the context? It doesn’t matter because all 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 it down the first time you come up against it. When you are ready to speak and when you speak more and more these words will activate naturally as you speak. Language learning takes time. I will do a separate video on the kinds of things you can do to help activate your passive vocabulary to help yourself prepare for speaking. The idea that as you start into a language you’re going to try 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, I have no doubt about that, but most people are quite unsuccessful at language learning. When you, basically, don’t understand what the person is saying you aren’t going to have a very meaningful conversation.
If we look at motivation in language learning, I grant you that people are motivated differently. Some people simply have the motivation to be able to say hello and give the impression that they speak the language, in which case to focus on a few key sentences and phrases to be able to trot them out is probably quite useful. However, if the goal is to be able to participate comfortably in conversations or if you’re in the workplace, again, you have to understand what people are saying. If the goal is to gain that kind of comprehension then you have to focus on your passive vocabulary.
Now, 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 doesn’t matter. It’s arbitrary. Pursuing this passive vocabulary, I compare it to the mechanical rabbit that the dogs chase in dog races. It’s something that you pursue in order to build up that familiarity with the language, to expose yourself to the language to build up your passive vocabulary.
You know I saw a video on how to motivate people because, obviously, motivation in language learning is extremely important. There was a study done that showed that insofar as motivating people to do tasks, for very simple basic tasks the more money you give them, the more motivated they will be to do it. Move this pile of stones over there as quickly as you can and the fastest person will get the most money. Then that will work. However, if you’re dealing with more challenging tasks that involve concepts and thinking and creativity and so forth, the researched showed that giving more money, in fact, is counterproductive.
There are three things that people are looking for in these kinds of challenging tasks and I would include language learning amongst them. Number one is independence in the workplace. People want to have the feeling that they control their workplace and that they do things they want to do, number one. Number two is what’s called mastery, the sense that the challenge is something you can cope with it’s just a little bit difficult for you, that as you’re doing it you’re developing new skills. You’re becoming more powerful in terms of your abilities. You’re achieving this mastery over a set of skills, a task and so forth.
So the first one was independence, the second one was mastery and the third one was purpose. People like to do jobs they think are meaningful that serve a useful purpose. So if you can give an employee the sense that they are independent, that they can achieve mastery over the requirements of the job and that the job that they’re doing is important and useful, then that person will perform better than someone who you just simply reward with money.
Now, how does this relate back to language learning? Typically, people say well you have to learn English because you need it for your job. That’s a bit like giving them money. On the other hand, if you can devise a language-learning approach that allows you to learn from things that are of interest to you. So you’re not forced to study a specific curriculum. You’re not forced to learn parts of speech in the order that the teachers choose to give them to you.
I, personally, don’t like that approach. I like to pursue the language on my own. I learn those aspects of grammar that interest me when they interest me, when I come across them, when I have questions about them. I study things that are of interest to me, so I have that sense of independence in my language learning.
The second thing is mastery. If at a very early stage you are confronted with the task of getting your conjugations right, getting your declensions right and trying to find words and not understanding what the person is saying, all of this is frustrating, unless you’re in a situation where you don’t have that independence and the teacher is just drilling you and you’re just a robot responding to these prompts. But if you want to be independent and then you want to achieve that sense of mastery, it is easier, in fact, to achieve that sense of mastery by doing a lot of listening and reading and watching your comprehension grow.
You’re never confronted with frustration. It’s a little bit foggy at first then, gradually, following things that you have selected that are of interest to you it becomes clearer and you have that sense of achieving a higher and higher degree of comprehension, which is tremendously satisfying. And for most people, who don’t live where the language is spoken, it’s also quite easy to arrange.
The third issue is purpose. Obviously, you have to want to learn that language. If you are not interested in learning the language, again, you won’t have that sense of purpose. But if you are interested in learning the language for whatever reason, which could include for your job, but might be because of a partner, wife, husband, friend, interest in literature, culture, history, whatever it might be. So if you have that purpose, if you have an independent approach to your learning and if you have a sense that you are gradually increasing your mastery, these three things are going to keep you motivated.
So those three elements, I guess for the person who is largely motivated to get into that active vocabulary early, could also apply. I just feel in my experience that you will never be in a situation where your active vocabulary exceeds your passive vocabulary. You will always be in a position where your passive vocabulary exceeds your active vocabulary. Now, there could be situations where you have this passive vocabulary. It’s so passive and your listening skills are so poor that you don’t understand it when someone uses the word in speech; although, you may be able to understand that if you read it.
I mean there are people who read very well and can’t speak, but people who understand very well and not just vaguely what it’s all about, but who genuinely understand clearly what’s being said when the language is spoken, people who understand that well and who have that kind of a passive grasp on the language are going 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.
So, a bit of a long rant here on this whole issue of active and passive vocabulary. Thank you for listening, bye for now.
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