Making your passive vocabulary active

Many upper intermediate/advanced students have recently expressed their concern to me that they don’t feel like they’ve been making much progress recently, especially as it concerns vocabulary.

In our group discussion ‘Language Learning Experience and Methods’ from last Thursday we talked about possible methods for breaking through these plateaus, and we came up with some different ideas.

One of my suggestions was for students to keep an ‘active vocabulary wishlist’ that is, a notebook with words and phrases they’ve recently learned in their reading and listening that they would like to be able to actively use. Learners can start out with just one new word or phrase per conversation/writing, and gradually increade the number of new ones they try to actively use.

When you use the new word or phrase, you can (a) immediately ask your tutor if you’ve used the expression correctly, or (b) hope that the tutor will have been paying attention and will correct you in the conversation report if you used the word/phrase incorrectly. Personally, I prefer (a).

The great thing about keeping all these words and phrases in one notebook is that every time you have a conversation you can look back and see all the expressions you’ve already used, which is a nice indication of your progress, and it’s also a good review.

Although I know everyone does not agree with me, I also think Spaced Repetition Listening is a great way for advanced learners to improve, as they don’t need as much extensive input as they need to specifically target new words and phrases they would like to make active, and increase the rate at which these words and phrases go from being passive to active, as the ‘activeness’ of a word or expression depends to a great extent on how frequently you’ve heard/read it (hearing the words and phrases in meaningful contexts is, of course, much more important to the beginner), just as how often you hear/read a language determines how active it is in your brain, as we found out in our discussion about active versus passive languages you’ve learned/grown up with.

For more on this subject, confer David Allen Martin II's Blog on Language Learning: 100% OF WINNING IS SHOWING UP

I look forward to your feedback and new ideas on the subject:)

The idea we had with our top 25 Flash Cards that appear on the Home page. There are the words and phrases that you should try to incorporate in your speaking and writing.

I have no trouble with building up a large passive vocabulary, much larger than my active vocabulary. If I am mostly just listening and reading, that is inevitable and we should stop worrying about it. To get the active vocabulary going, you simply have to get more active in using them, writing and speaking. The bigger the passive vocabulary, the more likely you are to find the right word when writing or speaking.

As with a lot of the frustration that is expressed by language learners, it usually comes down to being a little more patient and realistic on the one hand, and putting in the time on the other.

Very interesting post David.

In my view, a prerequisite to get more active vocabulary is, first, to get a lot of passive vocabulary. I think that we can only use 10-20% of our own passive vocabulary while speaking.
Bearing in mind this, I think a good approach is very repetitive listening. For example, you can take an audio and listen to it many times (30, 40, …). Why? Because this way the same structures go deeply into your brain. And it would be more interesting if the audio is a conversation. For example, if you listen to something like this:

“…, therefore,…”
“the more you… the more you…”

many many times, probably it will go very deeply into your brain, and when you need to use that structure, it would likely come to your mouth effortlessly. After listening to that audio many times, you can choose another audio.
I think it’s similar with your native language. When you spend a lot of time with a person that uses some kind of expressions or vocabulary, after some time, without noticing, you start using some of that expressions or vocabulary (swearing is included! ).

However, I agree that this approach could be very boring.

Anyway, I strongly believe input is the key.

When I say listen to an audio many times, I mean listen to it for example 1 or 2 times every day during 2-3 weeks.

I think my passive and my active vocabulary are close together. I think that I can use 80 % of my Vocabulary. This is a high percentage. I listen to a lot of content at my level. I don’t repeat often the same audio but I listen to a lot of different audios about the same subject at my level. So I repeat often. This repetition gives my brain the chance to get used to the new words. I don’t use special repetition systems beside the simple LingQ of the day email that I get from LingQ. I don’t want to learn like I’ve learned at school because at this time I disliked language learning.

Like Steve said, you should be patient. Also you should stay motivated and have fun. To have fun and to put not too much pressure on yourself is a key to succeed.

Actually Steve, watching your video entitled ‘In Praise of Passive Vocabulary’ ( was one of the defining moments in my transition to the LingQ method from the more ‘traditional’ standpoint taken by Cambridge and the people I teacher- trained with. I had always sensed that this ‘spoonfeeding’ of students was somehow wrong, but it wasn’t until I watched that video and the one on Krashen, which led me to then read Krashen’s book which we happened to have on-site, did I say ‘This is what I’ve been looking for!’

This is an interesting excerpt from ‘Vocabulary Instruction for Academic Success’ by Ahley Bishop, Ruth Helen Yopp and Hallie Kay Yopp:

"*Providing Extensive Experiences with Language

Language learning cannot occur without exposure to language. Research shows that most vocabulary is not directly taught; huge numbers of words are learned incidentally—through experiences with language. Thus, it is crucial that teachers establish language-rich environments.

This means that teachers must offer myriad opportunities for students to hear and engage with spoken language and to read, write, and engage with written language in multiple contexts. Indeed, Johnson (2001, 19) stated that “the best way to help schoolchildren expand their vocabularies … is to provide plentiful, interactive oral language experiences throughout the elementary and middle grades.” Nagy agreed that “experiences with rich oral language are critical for vocabulary growth” and noted that wide reading “is the primary engine that drives vocabulary growth” (2005,29). Thus, one essential aspect of vocabulary instruction is exposure to plentiful language in the classroom."

Obviously we know that teachers are not necessary to ‘establish language-rich environments’ or ‘provide plentiful, interactive oral language experiences’ - all you need to do is consistently surround yourself with the language with a system like LingQ and an mp3 player, and regularly use the opportunity to speak with native speakers and use new words and phrases via the LingQ tutor system to promote your active vocabulary.

We should, as Steve says, try to build our passive vocabulary. By adding listening, reading and talking, eventually we will start converting words from passive to active.
After reviewing my flash cards and adding ten new words into my passive vocabulary, I try to listen to different podcasts, specially those that have conversations among two or more people. I noticed that when conversations are funny and make me laugh, those words they say that I have already learned from my flash cards, tend to glue themselves more to my brain and I can recall them back when I need them. Although , Oscar has a point about repetition, I would add variation to it by reading different types of books, listening to conversations and try to incorporate your new vocabulary to your speaking.