Making your passive vocabulary active

This is a re-post from a recent thread of mine on the LingQ forum (

Many upper intermediate/advanced students have recently expressed their concern to me that they don’t feel like they’ve been making much progress recently, especially as it concerns vocabulary.

In our group discussion ‘Language Learning Experience and Methods’ from last Thursday we talked about possible methods for breaking through these plateaus, and we came up with some different ideas.

One of my suggestions was for students to keep an ‘active vocabulary wishlist’ that is, a notebook with words and phrases they’ve recently learned in their reading and listening that they would like to be able to actively use. Learners can start out with just one new word or phrase per conversation/writing, and gradually increade the number of new ones they try to actively use.

When you use the new word or phrase, you can (a) immediately ask your tutor if you’ve used the expression correctly, or (b) hope that the tutor will have been paying attention and will correct you in the conversation report if you used the word/phrase incorrectly. Personally, I prefer (a).

The great thing about keeping all these words and phrases in one notebook is that every time you have a conversation you can look back and see all the expressions you’ve already used, which is a nice indication of your progress, and it’s also a good review.

Although I know everyone does not agree with me, I also think Spaced Repetition Listening is a great way for advanced learners to improve, as they don’t need as much extensive input as they need to specifically target new words and phrases they would like to make active, and increase the rate at which these words and phrases go from being passive to active, as the ‘activeness’ of a word or expression depends to a great extent on how frequently you’ve heard/read it (hearing the words and phrases in meaningful contexts is, of course, much more important to the beginner), just as how often you hear/read a language determines how active it is in your brain, as we found out in our discussion about active versus passive languages you’ve learned/grown up with.

For more on this subject, confer

I look forward to your feedback and new ideas on the subject:)

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jbudding
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 06:38:01

    There is no doubt that time spent with spaced repetition helps with vocabulary retention. I have read many studies and papers, (Leitner, Waring, Nation, etc., etc.) including the famous “Pimsleur study” so badly abused by the same named audio language course, and they are unanimous in support of the principle. Combined with using example phrases taken from actual readings or real life, and writing out and repeating out loud the phrases like Professor Arguelles recommends on his website “Foreign Language expertise.” I like the idea of adding audio to my spaced repetition studies and have even tried audio with pictures pasted onto both the “question” and “answer” side depending on the card being production (active vocab) or recognition (passive vocab). The trouble is that it takes a huge amount of time to produce the cards this way and although making the cards helps with learning, it can become time consuming, as does the reviewing of the cards after all the time invested in making them! However, it is time well spent in my opinion and can also be a lot of fun if you take some emotional ownership of the process and the material. I like Anki best for its flexibility and reporting, after having tried some others including vocabulearn, supermemory and some others online like the flashcards in lingQ or facebook Luingo.


  2. dolmetscher777
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 08:41:39

    I agree with you, John, both on the point that creating SRS decks can be time-consuming and that they are highly effective when used consistently. I have been experimenting with importing decks into Anki (my preferred SRS program as well) from smartfm using the smartfm Anki importer and I must say it saves a lot of time, though, of course, you can’t always find content of interest. For Chinese and Japanese, however, there’s a wealth of great content – if you’re interested in what I’m using, just let me know:)


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