What % of vocabulary do you think are Active versus Passive?

So we know that our passive vocabulary is much larger than our active vocabulary but I’m curious as to how much larger. What % of words do you think are active versus passive? Obviously this depends on how you learned the words (listening/reading/speech etc). but I still think that the % will be within a narrow range either way. Is 5-20% a good estimate?

Anyone have research statistics on this topic?


One of my good friends wrote her final linguistics paper on this topic… I remember one of the scholarly sources she sited showed a native speaker’s passive vs. active vocabulary discrepancy to be around 25% more passive words known. (25% MORE though… not a percentage of total words known. So for instance, 60,000 words active, 75,000 words passive.)

With regards to learning foreign language though, I don’t have research statics. I’d be really interested in reading a study on the issue. The key to being able to express oneself clearly and accurately seems to hinge on one’s ability to convert passive vocabulary to active vocabulary. Although, the amount of passive vocabulary will likely always be much larger.

I think 75-80% of my Chinese vocabulary is active, which sounds absolutely crazy but I learned it through school and from a severe lack of input-based learning (ie. what we mainly do on Lingq through reading & listening), I forgot almost all of my supplemental vocabulary - I am only left with a strong foundation of frequently used words & sentence patterns. My French, in contrast is probably 5-10% active.

I wonder what more advanced learners think though because their ideas and experiences would probably be more helpful in this discussion…


We tend to rely on a small number of favourite words in any language we speak, I think. I suspect that my passive vocabulary in most languages is about 3-4 times larger than my active vocabulary.

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Thanks for the info :slight_smile: This is very useful and probably represents the main difference between native and non-native fluency or lack there of (other than perhaps sound/melody/pronunciation factors) . 80% active words is pretty high (60,000/75,000)! I think it’s also interesting that your Chinese is so active with output methods (I suppose activation is the key outcome behind output other than for communication). I’m guessing that your Chinese vocabulary is quite low (not necessarily very low but maybe low relative to 60,000 words)? Do you think this output method held you back in terms of vocabulary recognition and acquisition?

Thanks Steve, I think a lot of people assume that listening and reading are passive activities but it seems that casual repetition in this way is sufficient to activate vocabulary… interesting food for thought :slight_smile:

Right now I’m guessing I actively know 1,500-2000 Chinese words so yes, much lower than 60,000 words! haha
I probably learned 6,000-7,000 words through 4 1/2 years of school but have lost a lot. We did tons of test taking, essay writing, presentations, debates, etc. in class but I haven’t had much contact with native speakers or native resources (news websites, movies, books, etc.) so that really hindered my growth. I wished I had done a more balanced input vs. output approach.

I’ve been trying to find the most efficient way to convert passive → active vocabulary if you are self-studying from the absolute beginner stage in a target language and don’t have access to a class/discussion group, so I find this topic very interesting :slight_smile: What has been your experience? Do you speak with native speakers and write to build up your fluency?

I think that passive vocabulary activates when we have a chance to use it.

Input based learning, listening and reading, is the best way to accumulate vocabulary. The greater your passive vocabulary, the more new words you can learn. The greater your passive vocabulary, the greater will be your active vocabulary, in my view.

Steve´s advice is worth listening to. I think the best way to convert passive vocab to active vocab is to just use it frequently through either speaking or writing once you have built up an amount that can be used. I believe that listening and reading will probably activate vocab as well with enough repetition. I speak a few times per week but I don´t write so much. I´m trying to listen a lot more now in my dead time rather than just reading. I think this will help a lot. I´m still learning what is right and for the moment I am still building good habits so I will write more when I can. Anyway, best of luck, just don´t give up and you will continue learning!

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