Learn vocabulary in your own language

Today we have a guest post from James in Chile:

I came across this website which helps the hungry as you build your word power and have been playing on it. It’s quite fun (I am at the level 45/46 out of 50 levels) and is the sort of thing I would LOVE to see in Spanish (English has all the best resources). But it made me reflect on the idea of learning words. I have had to do this as I try to get my Spanish up to the level of a PhD in an arts subject (which is who I am linguistically in English), but the idea of learning words in your own language is something that as a Brit I find very weird, though my American friends seem not to. I learn words by reading and reading and looking up sometimes, which means you learn the word and it’s use rather than a list with definitions. Any thoughts on learning words in your own language?

The other thing that the freerice website made me think about was guessing words. If you read a lot you tend to do this as looking everything up is slow and boring, and if you are learning a second language then you do it even more. I am a comfortable 45 on their scale of difficulty and frequently go up to 46, though many of these words I don’t “know” but rather intuit their meaning. Often I use my Greek, Latin, etc to help me, but equally there are words I have no recollection of having seen before but have a gut feeling about: this must be a geographical term or an item of clothing. Do you guess what words mean, or do you always turn to the dictionary?

I got up to level 50 today on the freerice site, but the process is really strange. I have never seen most of these words before and after a few minutes I stopped trying to work out what the words mean (I tend to know or be able to work it out about up to level 46, and I would use in speech many of the words at level 44 and 45). Instead I just looked at the word and the options and went with what felt right. Given that I tend not to know about half the words at level 46 it means I have to intuit 10-15 words in a row to get to level 50, which is no mean feat. It set me thinking about the whole idea of passive and active vocabulary. I’m a native English speaker who lives and works in Spanish, and have studied to a fairly high level Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German. I wonder whether the identity of my other languages help with my English vocab. I can read English as far back as Chaucer and my Germanic vocab is increased by my knowledge of German and Dutch, I studied Latin for 6 years and many Spanish words are strongly Latinate and I had reasonably good French (the third main source of English vocabulary).

Has anyone thought about how “passive” vocabulary works?

This entry was posted in English, Language, Language learning.

10 Responses to Learn vocabulary in your own language

  1. David says:

    When you say “passive” vocab, do you mean as in “passive tense”, e.g. instead of ‘She walked down the street.'(active), you could say ‘She “was” walking/She “had” walked down the street.'(passive).

    At my high school, I had a literature class last semester and when I wrote my stories, I always wrote them in passive tense. So my teacher had to make heaps and heaps of corrections so I could convert them into active tense.

    (Remember, I’m still not sure if this is what you mean by “passive” vocab.)


  2. Simon says:

    David – passive vocabulary refers to words you recognise when you hear or read them, but wouldn’t normally use when speaking or writing.

  3. James says:

    Oops.. sorry should have explained passive/active. And also I wrote them as three seperate posts which is why I repeated myself, tautologically, several times (not that it matters it just makes me look rather vain).

    Passive and active voice works like this:

    Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quijote (Active)

    Miguel de Cervantes escribió Don Quijote (active)


    Don Quijote was written by Miguel de Cervantes (Passive).

    Don Quijote fue escrito por Miguel de Cervantes (Passive)

    Some people say that using the passive in English is bad style, but in reality what happens with the passive is that you make the whole thing vaguer. This is often confusing and unclear (hence bad style) but sometimes is exactly what you want (if you WANT to be vague about exactly WHO did something). In Spanish passives are rarely used, with the exception of some written styles.

  4. TJ says:

    Hello guys!
    just wanted to give a little notification here … might be not so important really but I have to make it 🙂

    I just found some mistakes in the UDHR that I’ve provided for omniglot.com. Kind of grammatical mistakes. But anyway, I hope that doesn’t interrupt the main picture of the looks of the language and sounds! 🙂

    Thanks all ! 🙂

  5. Lynn says:

    Thanks for posting this. That vocabulary quiz is highly addictive. I linked to this on my blog and had a few more things to say about the subject.

  6. BG says:

    I averaged around 40 getting up to 43 (I played up to 1310 grains). Some of the words were words we are directly tested on in English in vocab tests, others I knew from Latin and Greek.

    I don’t know exactly how passive vocabulary works but have experienced the differences. In Latin and Greek my passive vocabulary is huge but my active vocabulary is quite small, naturally since we don’t learn these languages to speak them. On the other hand I reme mber when I started German we didn’t know very many words, but could use almost all of them actively and thus achieved a pseudo-fluency within a few weeks that was the envy of other the language classes. Our teacher always said “Sprechen zuerst, dann Grammatik.”

    I think that vocabulary gained from reading is passive unless we see it many times and make some kind of note to ourselves about it (mentally or physically). Then we see it even more and begin to feel comfortable using it as we see it in many contexts. Then it becomes active.

    To use a word actively your mind must pull out of nowhere, whereas passively all you have to do is know the meaning of a word in context which is given to you.

  7. Nadine says:

    Thanks for your views on FreeRice. I referred to it in my own blog, and found from the search stats that many are returning just to play it again 😉 It’s really addictive if you’re interested in words and language, which is good when you are blogging about translation.

    I never went further than Level 50, I think, because then the words become really difficult. But it was a great reality check. Like you, I use my Latin background (I’m French) to make an intelligent guess, but I was also pleased to see that my humanities background (English language and literature) helped me quite a lot.

    So I would say it’s 99% passive as far as I’m concerned, because I hardly ever use the words I already know for sure, and I’m bound to never remember and use the words I’ve come across on FreeRice.

    I see it more as a way to give to people in need.

    As I wrote in one of my posts, FreeRice have found a way to turn this into a win-win situation. But I think it’s also a brilliant demonstration of the power of viral marketing.

  8. Ron Horton says:

    Thanks for posting all the valuable information in your website. Vocabulary quiz is highly addictive encouraging everyone to involve in it. This quiz enables you to improve your knowledge and at the same time helps in preventing the nation’s poverty as much as possible.

  9. Pavel says:

    It’s always easier to understand a language than to speak/write it. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it before. You have never struggled to recall some foreign word, but when someone tried to help you by guessing what are you trying to say, you knew it’s the word you want?

    Also, I’m surprised how many people have no idea what “passive” means…

  10. BG says:

    I doubt anyone will read this, but I made it to 50 today.

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