How Do You Turn Passive Vocabulary into Active?

February 28, 2016

David, like me, has been learning languages on his own for many years. For most of that time he has studied languages from the comfort of his own home in Canada. He would find instructional materials online and set up conversation practice through online language exchange platforms such as italki.

I am always impressed when I meet people who have the motivation to study a foreign language for years on end, especially without any direct contact with native speakers. David is one of those people. What's more, he manages to develop pretty good speaking skills along with listening and reading comprehension and knowledge of grammar.

The question he asked me was:
How do you deal with passive understanding (TV, overheard conversations, etc.) and how do you turn it into active production, or is it even a part of your method? 
Turning passive vocabulary into active vocabulary efficiently is the whole point of my method. How do we accomplish this?


Talk a lot, study a little


The quick answer is to properly distribute your time and energy. You need the right balance of study and practice. Here is what I have found to be most effective:



For our purposes here, we'll define "study" as any language learning activity other than speaking in the language. "Training" refers to focused pronunciation practice which helps you master the mechanics of speaking well.

In contrast, here's what many language learners do:


Someone who learns a language like this will inevitably develop the problem David alluded to: much more "passive understanding" than "active production." This produces frustration, or what I call "mental friction." Your speaking skills lag significantly behind your comprehension. When you speak, you make mistakes when you should know better. You study material that you are unable to integrate into your speech.

In my book I introduce the idea of a Circle of Familiarity and a Circle of Command. Together these describe the state of your vocabulary development. Your Circle of Familiarity comprises all the words, constructions, grammar, word morphology, etc. with which you have some familiarity. Things you've studied or heard many times go in here. Your Circle of Command is what you are actually able to say when under pressure, i.e. in spontaneous conversation.

If, for a number of years, you spend much more time studying a language than speaking it (such as in the second pie chart above), you eventually end up with a pattern that I call a "pseudo-advanced speaker"*:


What is most important is how different the two circles are in size. The bigger the difference (i.e. you are familiar with far more vocabulary and grammar than you can actually say), the less efficient your learning method and the more time you are wasting.

*There is are two other common ways to become a "pseudo-advanced speaker": 1) learn a language very well and then let it fall into disuse by not speaking it for some years, and 2) take up a language closely related to another one you know very well.

Your Circle of Familiarity will always be larger than your Circle of Command, but it doesn't need to be five times larger! The smaller the difference, the better. After all, you can't speak out of your Circle of Familiarity. Focus on building command, not familiarity. Familiarity either takes care of itself or is easy to augment (listen to podcasts, watch TV, read in the language, etc.).

People with a "pseudo-advanced speaker" pattern of vocabulary development are often entrenched in an unhealthy study habit. Typically (but not always) people in this position study material that is beyond their actual level of mastery while ignoring the little things that they would actually be able to remember and begin using immediately.

What's more, people in this situation often try to study their way out of their speaking difficulties because they're so used to learning things academically. Figuring out challenging vocabulary and grammar in your mind might feel satisfying, but it doesn't translate well into spoken language skills.

If it's a satisfying mental understanding of a language you want, then study as much as possible. If you actually want to be able to speak well, then distribute your efforts as shown on the first pie chart. Spend about 75% of your language learning time communicating with real people.

Distributing your efforts right is not enough


Some language learners follow something close to a 3:1 ratio of practice to study but do not achieve the best results they are capable of. Typically these are people who are living in a country where the language is spoken or who have lots of opportunities to speak the language in their personal or professional lives.

Among these people, what I usually find is that their 25% study is not directly related to what they are saying and hearing on a daily basis. In other words, they'll have their speaking practice where they invest most of their time and effort, and then they'll go home and study a grammar book or attend language classes.

To most readers this will sound like a good idea. But I beg to differ. How are you going to get the material you're studying into your Circle of Command? How many repetitions is it going to take?

Instead of studying material from books that usually don't directly apply to the language practice you are currently getting, why not make study the "slave" of practice? Do this by mainly studying the material that actually comes up in your conversation practice. This is much more efficient: you only study something when you become aware of the need for it.

So how do you become aware of your gaps in vocabulary and only study relevant material? That's what the eight steps of the Frictionless Mastery algorithm are all about.

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.