Passive Vocabulary: The Last Hurdle to Achieving Fluency

Ever find yourself struggling to recall certain words in the middle of a conversation, even though you have no problem understanding those words when you encounter them elsewhere?

It’s a struggle every language learner faces. And it happens because the words you’re trying to recall are part of your passive vocabulary.

Passive vocabulary refers to the words that you understand but aren’t able to recall quickly without being prompted. Active vocabulary, on the other hand, refers to the words that you can summon at will when you need it.

Our passive vocabulary is generally larger than our active vocabulary, even in the case of our native language. It’s perfectly normal. But problems arise when our passive vocabulary is disproportionately larger than our active vocabulary. We find ourselves constantly struggling to find the right words when we’re writing or speaking. It’s frustrating, especially when you have no trouble digesting relatively advanced materials.

So how do we activate our passive vocabulary?

What the Spaced Repetition Theory Says

If you’re a language learner, you probably know about the spaced repetition theory already. But just in case you don’t, here’s a quick summary of what it is. The spaced repetition system was invented as a solution to what was coined by the German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, as the Forgetting Curve.

Credit: https://www.growthengineering.co.uk/what-is-the-forgetting-curve/

According to his studies, we start forgetting things almost immediately after we learn them. If we go a week without revisiting the information, we stand to lose over 80% of it. There are many flashcard apps that utilise the spaced repetition system, such as Anki and Memrise, which are designed to reinforce our memory of newly acquired information through well-timed prompts for revision.

Is it Enough?

Personally, I find it spaced repetition system to be very useful when it comes to securing words in my passive vocabulary. But when it comes to activating them… Not so much. It definitely helps you recall them a little better, but it doesn’t get your brain to actively use them. This is probably because reviewing flashcards is a relatively passive exercise. You can counter this by challenging yourself to create sentences as you review, but it slows things down a lot, so it’s not very practical if you’re reviewing a huge amount of vocabulary every day.

The only way to activate passive vocabulary is to use them. The fastest, most efficient way to do this is through exercises that allow you to constantly encounter new information (words, expressions, and phrases) and put that information to use right away, repeatedly, until it’s fully activated.

Okay, But What Sort of Exercises?

Technically, any exercise that allows you to put newly acquired information to use immediately will work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Try Text Roleplaying

I always say that there are three things in this world without which I would never have become fluent in English: High School Musical, Neopets and text roleplaying. If it weren’t for those three things I probably wouldn’t even be writing this post right now. I owe most of my writing skills to text roleplaying. If you don’t know what it is, feel free to check out this post (where I explained in detail what text roleplaying is and how it helped me). For me, it was the perfect combination of writing and reading comprehension practice. I was able to observe how native speakers write and imitate them until it became second nature.

When I first started doing it, I had an extremely limited vocabulary, and I could barely string two words together without making a mistake. Within three years, however, I’d mastered all the tenses and was writing with such ease that people would mistake me for a native speaker occasionally.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys creative writing!

Write with References

I used to do this everyday with Korean, before I found the Speed Reading Book Club (if you’re learning Korean, I highly recommend you check out this post).

I would write a short essay (3 paragraphs, each containing 5-6 sentences) on any topic that I felt like writing about that day. Before I began writing, however, I would go on Naver and look for articles and blog posts on that topic. I would read them all and write down sentences that I think would fit in my essay.

I would then tweak those sentences so that they fit what I wanted to express, and then write my essay AROUND those sentences. What I was doing here is essentially the same thing I did when I first started doing text roleplaying – collecting good-quality sentences written by native speakers and using them over and over until they became natural to me.

It doesn’t matter that the sentences are not original. Imitation is the key here, and this is so important because ultimately, we all want to speak and write like the native speakers. They’re the ideal we’re trying to emulate. Some people make the mistake of thinking that they can one day write like a native just by… writing. Writing in your target language on its own doesn’t work – at least not in the way most people want it to. It lets you practice what you already know, but you’ll have no way of knowing if you’ve made any mistakes or if your sentences are natural.

It is important to have references written by the native speakers, so you have an idea of how you’re supposed to word things. Just make sure that the topic you’re writing about is something that you’re actually interested in – something you can see yourself talking about with other people. That way, you’ll be able to use those sentences in conversations as well.

Exchange Letters or Emails with Native Speakers

About a month ago, I found myself two Korean pen-pals, with whom I now correspond regularly via email. I find it to be a rather effective way to practice my writing skills as well as learning new vocabulary. Since we mostly talk about our common interests, the expressions and vocabulary that I learn from them are highly relevant to my daily life. They’re words I can see myself using when I’m writing or speaking to other native speakers.

The format also makes it really easy for me to apply those expressions and vocabulary immediately. When I’m formulating my reply, I make sure to use as many of the words and expressions I see them using their letters. I also have a habit of jotting down their sentences, so I can use it with someone else later on. It’s partly why I like to keep more than one pen-pal at a time. It allows me to use the same sentences over and over again – with different people, of course, so I don’t end up boring them – until they’re seared into my brain.

For those who are learning Korean and would like to get a Korean pen-pal, this is where I found mine!

Translate a Book

This exercise is best suited for advanced learners as it requires a relatively advanced command of one’s target language. To do this, you will need two copies of the same book – one in your native language, and one in your target language. Read a chapter in your native language, then try to translate it into your target language. Take your time to really think through each sentence. Your goal is to come up with a translation that actually sounds natural in your target language.

When you’re done, compare it to the copy that is in your target language. Observe the differences, and look for patterns in how things are worded in the official translation. How does it differ from the way you structure your sentences? Take note of those differences before you move on to the next chapter.

Keep in mind that it’s best to use a book that is originally written in your target language. Since you haven’t mastered the language yet, chances are you’ll have a hard time telling whether or not the translation is a good one. You want to make sure the quality of the writing you’re using as a reference is actually top-notch, so you don’t end up picking up bad habits and unnatural expressions.

To Sum it Up

The only way to activate passive vocabulary is to use it. The more you use it, the easier it is to recall it when the situation requires it. The reason why I called it ‘the last hurdle to achieving fluency’ is because it’s pretty much the only thing that’s keeping you from becoming fluent, especially when you’re at the upper intermediate level. At this point, the only thing that’s separating you from the advanced learners is the ability to discuss complex topics with ease. And to do that, you need to increase the size of your active vocabulary.

It’s no easy task, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while we’re at it. Whatever exercise or method you decide to incorporate into your language learning routine, make sure it is something you enjoy. Our brain learns so much better when we’re enjoying ourselves. You’ll have a much easier time keeping it up, too, which is great because consistency is extremely important when it comes to language learning.

Have fun, and happy learning!