Steve and Alex – Passive vs. Active Vocabulary (Part 2)

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Alex: You and I both have taken those English vocabulary tests or whatever.

Steve: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Alex: And there are words on there that you recognize that you’ve probably never spoken before.

Steve: Right.

Alex: You see it in a book or whatever, but it’s not something you would just bring up in a conversation with someone, right?

Steve: Right.

And I don’t know how accurate that test was either, because they had some strange words there.

For example, there was a word from rugby – ruck – if I remember correctly.

Mark has played rugby; he knows what it is.

I haven’t played rugby; I don’t know what it is.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I don’t know.

From that small sample they deduce that you have a vocabulary of 22,000.

I don’t know how accurate it is.

Alex: But even then it’s the thing of where do you draw the line, right?

So you’re taking that test and you’ve seen this word, the word ‘gregarious’, and you’ve seen it 50 times and you’ve heard it, but you don’t really say it very much, perhaps.

Steve: No. You know what it means, but you’re unlikely to use it.

Alex: Exactly, and that’s a word you would know.

Steve: Because you would almost feel that it’s a bit pretentious to use that word.

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: But you still know the word, right?

Steve: You might use it in writing.

You might use it in writing, but you would consider it a bit pretentious.

The other question that comes up is okay, well you’re talking about numbers of words that you know.

Should you base this on what they call ‘word families’ or should it be based on sort of every single occurrence of the word?

Of course, it has all kinds of implications because there are languages where the noun has six or seven different forms.

In English we basically just have singular and plural.

In fact, if you consider singular and plural in Czech, there’s 14 forms for each noun, so it’s going to be a lot more words.

The other thing though is so you say okay, we’ll go for word families, but where do you draw the line?

I know that certain forms of the word are more difficult to remember.

Like a lot of people have trouble with a third person singular in the present tense in English, you know?

‘I go, you go, he goes’, not very difficult.

There’s only one of them that changes.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: How many people do you know, non-native speakers, who say ‘he go’?

And I find in Spanish the third person of the past tense is difficult to remember.

It’s just difficult to remember.

So, to some extent, the different forms of the words are different.

Alex: And so then claiming that you know the word.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: So claiming you know the word, I mean what if you don’t know all the different forms.

Steve: That form.

Alex: That’s the thing too, right?

Steve: Well, yeah, but in Korean the different forms of the words actually imply…

Alex: Well, Korean is a bit different because Korean is the word plus a grammar particle.

Steve: Right.

Alex: So you can have countless nouns.

Steve: But, therefore, you have to count all of those.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Although, the grammar particles repeat.

Alex: Yes, exactly.

So, in fact, it’s a bit trickier to count.

Steve: Right.

Alex: But that’s the same problem of even stepping back from that and saying well, how do you really say you know a word.

Steve: Right.

Alex: I think for everyone that’s a different definition.

Steve: Right.

Alex: But having a definition that’s so severe as saying you have to be able, as this guy said, to produce it at-will, even in your own native language there are thousands of words you can’t do that with.

Steve: And getting back to this discussion about word families.

If you take the case of English again — I’m just thinking quickly of an example — you’ve got ‘act’, ‘active’, ‘react’.

Alex: ‘Action.’

Steve: ‘Action’, ‘actually’, ‘activity’.

Now, is that one word family?


Alex: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Steve: I mean ‘acting’ is a form of ‘act’, but it’s also another word.

So I think it becomes, therefore, quite arbitrary.

So I just say, because at LingQ it’s easier to count them as individual words, it’s just the easiest way for us to do it, but it has some validity.

It’s an indication of your progress, for what it’s worth.

It’s nothing you can go brag about.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: It’s there, yeah.

Alex: But that’s the case for all of these.

I mean every word is at a different stage on the known or cloudy or foggy level.

Steve: Well, that’s right.

Alex: I mean even words that you’ve seen a lot, there’s still that subtlety that takes years and years of experience to really like nail that down.

Steve: Plus, different people have different words that they like to use.

That’s another reason why I always think that your passive vocabulary has to be much bigger than your active vocabulary because you have to understand what everybody else says.

Different writers have their favorite vocabulary.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I have to be able to read, whatever it is, Dan Brown.

Isn’t that the guy who wrote… What was that book about…

Alex: The Da Vinci Code?

Steve: The Da Vinci Code, yeah, yeah.

So all these authors, they have their favorite vocabulary, different from mine.

So you can’t have a one-to-one relationship to your passive vocabulary because you’re going to use the words that you’re used to using, but you have to be able to understand everyone else and the words that they like to use, whether in talking to them or listening to the radio or reading a book.

So, yeah, I think people tend to scorn passive vocabulary.

‘Well, that’s just passive vocabulary.’

Passive vocabulary is big, in my opinion.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: And maybe in teaching languages they should put the emphasis more on passive vocabulary and, certainly, that’s how I learn languages.

I want to go in there and just acquire as much passive vocabulary as I can and I know eventually some of it will become active.

That’s my number one goal.

Then I go in later and I worry about grammar and pronunciation and stuff like that, but the first thing I want to do is really just become a glutton for passive vocabulary.

I think it’s a very positive thing, passive vocabulary, and we forget it.

Again, the number of people on my YouTube channel said “Steve thanks, because I was really getting discouraged that I keep on forgetting and stuff.” Yeah, we forget and we ya, ya, ya, forget.

Alex: It’s funny, just a brief example too.

I was going through some of my videos on my computer just trying to clear up some extra space and I saw a video that I recorded of myself two and a half years ago, actually.

Steve: In Korean.

Alex: And it was in Korean, yeah.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: And I used a word in that brief presentation that I actually forgot that I even knew.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: I forgot the word and as soon as I heard it I’m like oh, yeah, I remember that word, but I hadn’t used it in like two years.

Steve: And the other strange this is… Well, I have experienced this.

I don’t know if you have.

Over the two years, of course, your Korean has improved.

You know many more words.

You can read stuff more easily.

You can understand people more easily and, yet, there will be some words that you knew two years ago, very simple words that you’ll forget now.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: You won’t be able to find them when you need them.

Alex: Yeah.

Oh, and that’s totally it.

As soon as I heard the word, I was like oh… I remembered knowing that word, but that was nowhere within the grasp of…

Steve: But even very simple basic words you’re going to forget, which you don’t do in your own language, but you do in other languages.

Alex: Yeah. Well, you do, I think even in your own language.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: Say if you spend a lot of time in a foreign country and working in a different language, then it’s possible to kind of stumble with that for the first little bit as you get caught up again, right?

Steve: Exactly. So, I mean to me the message is always to not get frustrated.

We have a tremendous ability to learn, but we have a tremendous ability to forget.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But I don’t think we ever completely lose it.

So we’re rusty when we start up again and then as we stay with it then we’re able to recoup very well.

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: Anyway, that was a bit of a discussion on vocabulary, passive and active vocabulary and what it all means.

I hope people found it interesting and please send in your comments.

Alex: Yeah. I mean it would be interesting to hear you guys’ experiences as well.

Steve: Exactly.

Alex: Let us know.

Steve: Okay, bye.

Alex: Thanks for listening, bye.

Steve: Thank you. Bye for now.

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