The English language has over a million words. How many words does an average native speaker of English know? According to David Chrystal, a well-known professor of linguistics and author, an average native speaker of English knows around 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive words.
Some advanced learners of English are able to understand most of the words they come across in news reports, hear on radio and television and can comprehend the input but they may not use all the words they understood in their speech or writing. In other words, decoding a message is easier for them but encoding a message is rather difficult. Linguists classify a speaker’s vocabulary into two categories: active and passive. Active vocabulary is the words which we use a lot in our communications. Passive vocabulary is the words which we understand but rarely use when we communicate with others on an everyday basis.
About a year ago, I had an opportunity to interact with a group of students who were preparing for TOEFL. I gave them a list of 15 words and checked whether they had known the meanings of all the words. Quite surprisingly, they knew the meanings of the words but they were not able to use most of the words appropriately in sentences. The words they could not use in sentences were passive vocabulary for them. Some of the words were abdication, abhor, allegiance, accolade, accrue, affable and cumbersome.
How to check whether you have a rich active vocabulary? Here is a simple exercise for you. Read a standard newspaper article, a story or an essay written by a good writer. Check whether you know the meanings of all the words in the piece. After reading the piece, try to narrate it to someone or write a summary of it without seeing the text. Check whether you have used only the familiar words or other words too. The words that you came across in the piece but couldn’t remember and use belong in the category of your passive vocabulary.
Here is another test for you. Try to recall 10 words which you can recognise when you read them or hear others use them, and you have a reasonable sense of their meaning, but you would not be able to use in your own writing and speech. These words are your passive vocabulary.
Very often, readers of this column, ask me for tips to master vocabulary. Here are a few useful tips to convert passive to active vocabulary. Learning a word does not mean knowing the meaning of the word alone. In English, there are many words for which there are multiple meanings. Only from the context one can understand the actual meaning of a word. Knowing a word means knowing how to use the word appropriately in a sentence and what the word means in a particular context.
It is not a good strategy to learn words out of context. There are learners who memorise words from a dictionary. Those who practise this will build their passive vocabulary but not active vocabulary. Referring to dictionaries is a good practice but memorising words from the dictionary isn’t a good practice.
Know what your passive vocabulary is. Prepare a list of your passive vocabulary on a regular basis. Try to use them both in your everyday speech and writing. Revise them. This is the best way to convert your passive vocabulary active.