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Differences Between Your Active and Passive English Vocabulary

You must have heard the terms ACTIVE and PASSIVE English vocabulary, right?

Chances are, however, that you’re not entirely sure what exactly these terms represent!

I decided to draw up a simple algorithm based on which you’ll be easily able to determine whether a specific word or term is part of your ACTIVE or PASSIVE English vocabulary!

So, just pick a random English word and answer the questions below – I’m absolutely certain that you’ll have a pretty clear picture of what ACTIVE or PASSIVE means in terms of English vocabulary when you’re finished with this ❗

Active vs passive English vocabulary

Active vs passive English vocabulary

So, have you a better idea now what ACTIVE and PASSIVE English vocabularies represent?

Let me just recap it here for you so that you can rest assured you got it right!

PASSIVE ENGLISH VOCABULARY

  • English words, terms, expressions and idiomatic expressions you only RECOGNIZE and know what they mean but you can’t use them automatically when writing or speaking
  • Specific English words whose meaning you can easily GUESS from the context but you wouldn’t be able to use them yourself

ACTIVE ENGLISH VOCABULARY

  • English words, terms, expressions and idiomatic expressions you can easily use when writing or speaking without stopping and FORCING yourself to remember that word or think of whether it is or it isn’t the right word to use

And now let me answer a few questions you may have about your active and passive English vocabularies.

Q: Is READING going to develop my ACTIVE English vocabulary?

A: NO! When you read, you tap into your PASSIVE vocabulary and you grow it over time, but just by reading alone you can’t grow your active vocabulary. Think about it this way – when you read, you RECOGNIZE English words and sentences and make sense of them, but you don’t actively use them yourself!

Q: Is WATCHING TV going to develop my ACTIVE English vocabulary?

A: NO! When you watch TV, you train your listening comprehension which also taps into your passive vocabulary, so again – you don’t USE all the English you hear, you simply consume PASSIVE content which grows your passive vocabulary.

Q: How to develop my ACTIVE English vocabulary?

A: Hands down the best way to develop your active vocabulary is by SPEAKING in English followed by writing. The spontaneous nature of English speech ensures that you’re constantly searching for new ways of expressing various concepts which FORCES you to look up new words and speak them out loud thus adding them onto your active vocabulary.

Q: How to develop my PASSIVE English vocabulary?

A: You have to EXPOSE yourself to English in order to develop your passive vocab! If you read loads of written English content and consume plenty of English audio-visual content, your brain is going to start soaking it all up thus growing your passive vocab. Just bear in mind that input isn’t equal output which means – if you just consume passive content without speaking and writing anything, you won’t be able to produce content of equal quality yourself – basically by growing just your passive vocabulary, you won’t automatically grow your active vocab!

Q: Which one is LARGER – my active or passive English vocabulary?

A: Your PASSIVE vocabulary is WAY larger than your active one! Just think about the fact that all of us can UNDERSTAND way more than we can SAY – and it’s not just about the English language, your native language is no different! We can actively USE just a fraction of our larger, passive vocabulary and it’s completely normal.

Q: If I keep working on my English all the time, does it mean both my active and passive vocabulary are going to GROW?

A: Here’s the deal – your PASSIVE vocabulary is going to grow for sure because the more you expose yourself to English, the more words you’ll eventually learn. The size of your ACTIVE vocabulary, however, is directly linked to the kind of activities you’re involved in. If you speak and write regularly, your active vocab is going to grow. If you only consume passive English content, your active vocab is inevitably going to shrink!

Q: Is it possible to forget words from my PASSIVE vocabulary?

A: It is possible although very rare. Normally if you know what an English word means, it will stick with you for life – unless, of course, it’s some very, very specific term you learned 10 years ago and never saw that word again! In that case – yes, there’s a chance you might struggle to remember what that term actually represents.

Q: Is it possible to forget words from my ACTIVE vocabulary?

A: It’s actually very EASY to lose words from your active vocab! The less frequently you use a specific word in your speech and writing, the more difficult it is going to be for you to use it until one day you won’t be using that word anymore. The good news is that this word now belongs to your PASSIVE vocab – it’s not as if you’ve forgotten it forever! You just have to start using in again thus reactivating it and adding it back to your active vocab.

Q: Is it difficult to reactivate my ACTIVE vocabulary?

A: No, active vocabulary is relatively EASY to reactivate because at some stage you could use those words, so now you’ve just got to start using them again and after a while you’re going to speak and write the way you did before! It takes just a couple of weeks to reactivate your active vocab after a long break.

Q: Is it difficult to reactivate my PASSIVE vocabulary?

A: Well, it’s REALLY difficult because what you’re asking is – is it difficult to re-learn the English language! Remember – words that have dropped out of your passive vocab are the ones you’ve totally forgotten, so if you have to reactivate your passive vocabulary, it would mean you haven’t even been exposed to English for a really long time and you’ve forgotten most of what you learned years ago.

Any more questions?

You’re welcome to use the comment section below to ask anything related to active and passive English vocabulary and English fluency improvement in general!

Cheers,

Robby

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • nheeda

    Hi Robby,

    I have been reading ur blogs for a long time, and I am enjoying and learning about it. Now, I just wanna ask about the term “screw up or screw it up”, Can u give me the meaning of it and if it is possible on how to use it in a sentence. I am so delighted of ur soonest reply. Thanks a lot.

  • Hi Triple H,
    Yes, I get your drift, but please could you provide an example? I mean – can you remember the actual word you came across and then what was the context when you encountered the same word again?
    Thanks,
    Robby

  • Thanks for the article, Robby, its been a big help! My question has to do with understanding passive vocabulary. I have had this problem for as long as I can remember, and haven’t been able to come up with a solution. When I come across a word in a book or in a magazine and don’t recognize it, I underline the word, look it up and it transfers into my passive vocabulary. And when I am reading the same book again and come across that word, I can pretty easily understand it without the need to look at the definition. However, the problem arises when I come across that same word in a different context or in a movie. As hard as I try I can’t make any sense of same word. It makes me doubt whether I even know the word or not. I hope you get the idea.