How to transform your passive vocabulary into an active one

This long word list locked behind opaque doors

Passive vocabulary are all those words that we understand when we hear or read them, but that we don’t use. It’s logically opposed to active vocabulary that we understand AND use.

When we are beginning to speak in a foreign language, we often find ourselves in the situation of not being able to remember certain words that yet we know we very well know. Someone tells us something in Chinese for example and we understand very well what the person told us. Then, it’s our turn to speak using the same exact vocabulary we’ve just heard, but the words don’t come back up. We stay speechless and the person in front of us smiles indulgently. Reminds you of something ?

When we are speaking in our own first language, it happens less often that a word or another doesn’t come back up. Passive words then are mostly words that we could use but decide not to. It’s especially the case of all those words that we don’t use when speaking because they are too elaborate for a simple discussion and that we don’t use either when writing because we just don’t get the occasion. Let’s take for example the word ‘vehement’. If you’re like me, you don’t use this word that often in your daily life. We would most probably say something like “Oh yeah, she insisted like crazy”, but it would sound awkward to say “Hum, yeah, she was vehement.” And as far as written productions are concerned, unless we’re writing a novel, the use for the word ‘vehement’ doesn’t come up that often either.

Learning a language : how to make your passive vocabulary go on the active list

Having a huge passive vocabulary is a good thing. It means you can understand a lot of speeches and texts, that’s great. When however you don’t have enough words in order to speak fluently, you may want to usher a few hundreds of those idle words into your active list. Here is how to do it.

Advice #1 – You’re doing it already

To start with, just keep on learning the language as you’ve already started to. If you are able to say a few sentences, it’s a clear proof that you’ve already started to build your active vocabulary. You just need to go on. A language is a huge jigsaw puzzle. Don’t think too much and just enjoy finding the right spots for a few more pieces and then a few more. You’re doing good, just go on.

Advice #2 – Translate

In order to speak a language well, you need to be able to speak without first translating the words in your head. However, translating is an intermediate step you need to go through before you’re so used to saying the words that they come up without prior effort.

Having a passive vocabulary in a foreign language is a little like being a German-to-English translator but not an English-to-German one. You need to practice this backward skill. Here are useful tools to do that :
– bilingual books

Another tool at your disposition : subtitled movies and videos. To be used without moderation. It obviously helps to study all the spoken vocabulary and the day-to-day expressions.

Yet another tool at your disposition : TV news. I recommend that you listen to them and try to repeat sentences from time to time. If you’re at an almost-speaking-well stage in your language learning process, you’ll be surprised at the gap between your understanding and your ability to repeat. You understood very well what the anchorman said, but then oh…, you surprisingly end up not remembering how he said it. It’s a fun little exercise. Try it and tell me what you think in the comments.
You can do the same with a movie, but then you may lose the thread of the story you’re watching and you shouldn’t hold me responsible for that !

Advice #3 – Be a zen master

Another main tactic consists in becoming a zen master. Don’t add more hours or resources to your language learning routine, just add an extra amount of consciousness. Be more “here and now” while you learn, listen and read. Be aware as Jean-Claude Van Damme would say. I know it’s not a nice advice to receive, sorry. It requires quite an effort, but it’s also what you need to do to later remember where you put those damned car keys. Did you really pay attention when you put them where they still surely are ? Did you really pay attention when you heard that word ? The difference between nowhere-to-be-found keys and keys in your hand, between passive and active vocabulary is made at THAT moment.

And remember : have fun learning languages !

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