Passive Vocabulary: Why it Matters in Language Learning

Passive Vocabulary: Why it Matters in Language Learning


This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.

Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ. 




Hi there, Steve here again, Steve Kaufmann to talk about language learning. Again, I remind you, if you enjoy these videos, please subscribe. You can even click on the little bell here to get notifications. And we certainly would be happy to have you join us at LingQ, which is where I learn languages. And, of course, here I like to talk about learning languages.


It’s a little bit hazy outside today because of the forest fires in the U.S. south of us. We’ve had fewer forest fires here in British Columbia because we had a lot of rain in the late spring and early summer so that our forests were wetter. Down south there it’s been a lot drier and so they have these terrible forest fires that have given Vancouver one of the worst air qualities in the world apparently, if you believe what you see on social media, TV and elsewhere.


Today, I want to talk about passive vocabulary. At LingQ, for example, we say a word is known if you can recognize that word in a context. So if I’m working on LingQ, I see a word. I know what it means in the context. I can say I know that word. I can also say I don’t know that word. In other words, I decide if I know that word. But if I understand the word in that context, typically, I will say I know it. It may be that in a subsequent context I don’t know what it means. I may look it up again. I may move it back to Status 3, a word that I’m learning rather than known, but I control that. 



The reason why I move words to known as soon as I can recognize them is I’m not so demanding of myself. I realize that I know this word here. I may recognize it in a context, but I probably can’t use it. I don’t know it well enough to use it. If I have a conversation, as I’ve had in Arabic with Arabic tutors, I won’t be able to produce that word, but it doesn’t matter. 


Passive vocabulary is key to developing good comprehension. If I have good comprehension, this, of course, is my goal in my 90 day challenge with Arabic, if I can understand podcasts in Arabic, even if I can’t use all the words, then I can turn them on in the morning. I’m listening to a new podcast. I’m understanding 80% of it. It’s all washing over my brain and, in time, as I gain more familiarity with the language, I will start to activate some of those words. But my active vocabulary, what I can use, will always be a smaller subset of the words that I understand. In terms of progressing in the language what’s key is comprehension. Even now as I’m having conversations with my Arabic tutors, I don’t worry about what I can’t do.


Anyway, as I was saying, when I speak with my tutors it doesn’t bother me when I fall down. I want to focus on understanding them and all of that is helping my brain to get used to the language. As I struggle to find words and then afterwards I remember the words that I struggled to find, I become more attentive to those words when I see them again in some context. 

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So I see these conversations as, again, promoting better comprehension, promoting more attentiveness to the language. It’s not where I want to perform and oh, I did well or I didn’t do well because, inevitably, I’m going to better sometimes than at other times. I will gradually get better at speaking, but it won’t be a straight line. I might do well for a while and then I might stumble. It might be the vibes that this tutor gives me or whatever it might be, a poor connection on Skype. 


The main thing for me is comprehension. What that does for me is it reduces the level of apprehensiveness, tension. I’m not afraid of my conversation. I’m not going to perform in front of my tutor. It’s just an opportunity to engage with the language. When we focus on comprehension, we’re focusing on engaging with the language. If I have passive vocabulary, then I can understand more movies, I can understand more articles that I read, I can understand podcasts and all of that is sort of building up my base. 


As I start to speak more, I will slowly activate more, but you should definitely give yourself credit for words that you understand in a context. The idea that you’re going to somehow try to use that word in different situations and only when you use it can you claim that you know it, you’re going to end up with such a limited vocabulary you will never achieve that broad base of comprehension that you need in order to move forward in a language.


I think I tweeted out, I said the suggestion that somehow passive vocabulary is less important than active vocabulary is almost as damaging as the idea that you can master the basics of a language in the early stages. You can’t. You can only get a better grasp of correct usage once you have enough experience with the language, once again, passive vocabulary and comprehension.

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