Steve and Alex – Passive vs. Active Vocabulary (Part 1)

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Steve: Hi Alex.

Alex: Good afternoon Steve.

Steve: So, here we are.

It’s a sunny day in Vancouver, which has come as a bit of a surprise because we’ve had so much rain the last month.

Alex: We have, absolutely.

Steve: But you know, historically, I notice that the rainiest months here are November and January and that, historically, February is actually drier than March.

Alex: Oh, really?

Steve: Yeah, I saw that. So we may have a dry month here and then March it will rain again.

Alex: Oh, okay.

Steve: You know one subject that I think is of interest to people who study languages, and I mentioned it in my recent YouTube video, is this whole question of vocabulary and passive versus active.

In other words, passive vocabulary obviously means words that you can recognize, but you can’t use.

Well, you may be able to use them, but not necessarily.

Active vocabulary are words that you use every day when you’re speaking in the language.

So, I was surprised at the number of people who when they learn a word, they feel like they want to learn it until they can use it, which in my experience is actually very difficult to do.

You can look at this list of words over and over again, you may even use it, but the words seem to get learned when they want to be learned.

I mean, yeah, obviously if you use it and see it more often you’re more likely to learn it, but it seems to beyond our control and yet some things, you might learn the word for ‘umbrella’ or something, and for some reason that word sticks.

Or the word for some abstract concept like ‘abstract’, the word ‘abstract’ in a foreign language, that might stick, but the word for a plate that you eat off every day, that won’t stick.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I don’t know. What’s been your experience with Korean?

And, of course, with Korean it’s difficult to learn vocabulary because there’s very little common vocabulary with European languages and with English and, of course, you’re dealing with another writing system, which always makes it more difficult.

Alex: I know.

Steve: I don’t care how familiar you are with that non-familiar writing system; it’s another level of strain, another level of difficulty.

So what’s been your experience with learning vocabulary in Korean?

Alex: I’ll say to start off with, a different script.

I had a friend in university, she was in her fourth year, she was Korean, from Korea, but she had moved to Canada about 10 years before.

So I asked her one day.

She was reading a research paper or something like that in English and I said “What is your English level compared to your Korean level as far as reading goes?” She says “Well, I would say probably my English is about the same now; like I’m able to read English as easily now as I am able to read Korean.” She was like 24 and had been in Canada for 10 years attending school, high school, everything, university for four years and it took her that long until she said “Well, they’re probably about the same.”

Steve: Yeah. I mean I’m not surprised. Even with the same script, I would say that.

Even though I studied in France for three years and I’m quite comfortable in French, it’s easier to read in English.

You end up doing a little more sub-vocalizing, but that’s even in the same script.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: And I must say that I am finding Czech much easier than Russian because it’s in the same writing system.

These are all things that just…it’s like running with weights.

You know what I mean?

It’s just stuff that weights you down, that makes it less efficient.

It’s sand in the gears, you know?

But leaving that aside, yeah, how do you find learning vocabulary in Korean?

Alex: One thing that’s really interesting that came to mind as you were actually mentioning that earlier is for me there are some really difficult words that as soon as I heard them they stuck.

Steve: Right.

Alex: There is one that’s… I guess the best way to put it is like ‘legendary’ or, in a sense… I don’t even know how to describe it that well in English, but I know the word in Korean.

Steve: Right.

Alex: And I saw the word once and it stuck.

Steve: Right.

Alex: And I don’t think I’ve ever used the word and I’ve barely seen the word.

I’ve maybe seen it once or twice since then.

Steve: Right.

Alex: It’s not a very common word, but I know the word.

Steve: Right.

Alex: And at the same time the word for ‘teapot’ was a word that took me forever to get down, forever.

Steve: And don’t you find things like colors are difficult to remember?

Colors are remarkably difficult to remember and numbers.

Alex: I still don’t know some of the colors.

Steve: Colors and numbers and parts of the body and these are very often the first things that are introduced – colors.

Colors are very difficult to remember.

I’m not sure why.

I think the things that we use all the time are so hardwired in our own language that it’s very difficult to get our brains to say no, that green, actually, it’s this other word; whereas, words that we don’t use so often, yeah, it can be this word, it can be that word.

You know I don’t know.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I mean, obviously, it seems that a lot of the…

And the other interesting thing is that in a lot of languages the way you say very basic things like ‘My name is’, ‘How old are you?’

What’s the time?’

that the very structure of these is actually quite different.

They tend to be quite, you know, idiosyncratic, right, quite peculiar to that language and therefore they’re very difficult to learn; whereas, if you’re reading something more formal, if you’re reading a news item or something.

But, anyway, we’re straying a bit from the subject.

In English, for example, what would you say is the ratio between your passive vocabulary that enables you to read a whole bunch of stuff and the vocabulary that you actually use in English, just a guess?

Alex: Yeah.

I mean I would say for myself, I typically don’t use a lot of big words in everyday conversation.

So when I was in university and I was reading these various different books and essays written I could understand them, but it’s not at all how I would talk.

Steve: Okay, but if you were to write a paper on the subject you would use them.

Alex: That’s the thing though.

I mean maybe I would, but I probably would kind of like think ah, maybe use a thesaurus to find a more academic word for it.

They’re definitely words that I know but, as you say, they’re not words that I naturally would use in a conversation.

Steve: Because you’re not so confident using them.

Alex: Exactly.

Steve: And you’re not experienced using them.

Alex: So probably as far as the ratio goes, I would say three to one.

Steve: Yeah, and what about in Korean?

Alex: Korean… This is funny, because this is something that in my Korean studies has come up more recently where I’m doing a lot more reading and a lot more listening and understanding more and more and then when I sit down with a friend to discuss something I find myself just hunting and searching for these words that I’ve heard 50 times and I’m still not quite sure if that’s the right word.

Steve: Right.

Alex: So, easily, eight, ten, fifteen to one probably.

Steve: Yeah. Well, I mean I find the same and, obviously, the better I speak a language; like probably French is where I would be closest. I study there.

I mean I was writing term papers and stuff in French.

Japanese and Mandarin I’m quite fluent, but the ratio of words I have… It’s just practical if you can get by with fewer words.

And, of course, I have no obligation in Japanese to write.

I have never written term papers in Japanese.

I don’t write essays in Japanese.

I just use it to talk about business, to talk with friends over a beer.

I mean I have very specific applications; to discuss politics, to discuss economics.

So it’s more practical to rely on those words that you are sure of, words and phrases that you know what they mean, you know they work.

It’s all about this credibility, right?

Some of these other words you’re not entirely sure.

And it’s not only what the words mean.

It’s, as we know, this term ‘collocation’, right, which words are normally used with which other words in which context.

And the minute you feel not totally sure, you back away from using that word and you’ll go with a word that you know works, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So I agree with you.

I think that in English it’s probably three to one and if I’m writing a formal essay on something I’ll probably use words, again, that I’m comfortable using and in these other languages it’s ten to one.

Now that I’m just starting to speak in Czech, I mean I know a lot of words in Czech.

Like I just downloaded a whole series of podcasts on history; wonderful, spoken slowly, clearly, so well done.

Unfortunately, there’s no transcript, but I know a lot of what they’re talking about, lots.

When I go to speak and now I’m starting to speak, I’ve spoken maybe five or six times, I mean my usable vocabulary is very small, very small, and it will gradually improve.

So, obviously, the more you speak, the more you experiment, the more comfortable you become.

So, to my mind, it’s normal that it should be that much larger.

I’m quite comfortable in Japanese and Mandarin and Spanish and Swedish and yet the ratio of passive to active is like ten to one.

It doesn’t bother me.

Some people get very upset.

They learn 10 words today; they want to be able to use 10 words today.

The response to my video was from a number of people who sort of suggested that “Yeah, you say you know all these words; well, in fact, you don’t.” One of them said “Until you can use them at-will.” And I was saying I think if you put the effort into it you can learn 100 words a day, on average.

Not in a one-week period, but over say six months because the words start to accumulate almost by magic.

Incidentally, if you do enough reading and listening all of a sudden they start to stick.

You look back and say oh, I’ve been at it for six months and I know all these words.

Maybe it’s 50, maybe it’s 100 words a day, depending on how many hours you put in and this guy said “No

No way I could learn even 10 a day, because to me to know a word you’ve got to be able to use it at-will.” I just felt that was an unrealistic expectation, which can only slow you down in your learning.

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