Passive vocabulary is more important than active vocabulary.

Just to be a bit of contrarian, I believe that passive vocabulary is more important than active vocabulary. Passive vocabulary is the focus of most of my active language learning. If I have a large vocabulary, the rest will come.

For me, it is more important to understand, to encounter words often in meaningful, and therefore credible contexts. I find it less useful to produce, with great difficulty, a small number of artificial phrases and sentences using my new words, at a stage when I have little familiarity with the language. This is time I would rather spend reading and listening.

I am only now at the stage in Czech where I can have an intelligent conversation, albeit with gaps and hesitations. But I at least have words, passive words, so I can understand what is said. I am also finding that I am able to retrieve more and more of these passive words and phrases when I want to speak. This is after one year.

When to move on to the next lesson.

This is a perennial question at LingQ and elsewhere. Here is my take on it.

The first rule of language learning is to do what you like to do. This way you are more likely to continue, and put in enough time.

Having said that, I strongly recommend not staying with one lesson until you feel you have mastered it, and can remember all the vocabulary. I find that some words will stick, and others won’t no matter what you do. I find that some, if not most, new patterns in the langue are simply not possible for us to absorb until we have had lots of exposure. Trying to master these things is, in my opinion, very inefficient. It is far better to keep moving on, getting as much exposure as you can. I move on when I understand 70% and sometimes as little as 50%. I review my vocabulary a few times before and after a lesson, especially in the beginning, but I don’t worry about the words that just wont stick. If you keep listening and reading, you will come across them again and eventually they will stick.

I think the desire to nail things down is what holds most people back in language learning. It is simply too difficult to do, and I believe contrary to how the brain learns. The result is that many learners get frustrated at what they cannot remember. I am driven more by the desire to cover more and more content, and by the desire to get to authentic content as soon as I can.

I think there is a balance to be struck between repetition, which the brain needs in order to form new neural connections, and novelty, which the brain needs in order to remain focused and motivated.

I believe that Krashen has even done research to show that deliberate instruction in grammar has little effect on learning. I don’t necessarily agree, but feel that you need a lot of exposure, experience and familiarity with a language before the grammar explanations have much effect, beyond of course the most basic concepts.

Learning two languages, and how long it takes.

I was asked the perennial question about learning two languages, and also about how long it takes to learn a language, at our Forum at LingQ. Here is what I had to say.


Hi Guillermo, 

Your enthusiasm is great, and a guarantee that you will succeed. Each person has to find his or her own way in language learning. Different people enjoy different learning activities. The most important things is to keep at it, and to put in enough time to succeed. 

I find it easier to focus on one new language at a time. Once a language is at an intermediate level I can mix it with other languages. 

If you are most keen to learn German, I would stay with it for now, for at least 6 months. You can always dabble a little in French, here at LingQ for example, since it is much closer to Spanish. But I would keep my main focus on German. Maybe 80% German and 20% French. You will find that you will be naturally more attracted to one or the other. 

I would not worry too much about German grammar right now. I would get myself a small book explaining some of the main grammar issues that you will come across in German. You can also search for German grammar explanations, summaries, as well as verb and noun/adjective tables on the web. Use these to refer to from time to time when you are interested. Don’t expect to remember much. Don’t expect to use the grammar correctly. Focus on listening and reading. Don’t worry if a lot of the text is unclear, even after you have looked up all the words. It takes time for your brain to get used to the language. When you have enough exposure and a larger vocabulary, the grammar rules will become easier to remember. 

As to how long it will take, I cannot say. Try to focus on enjoying your learning rather than on how long it will take. Assume that it will take a long time. I think it might take a year before you can comfortably converse in German, but it could go faster if you have a lot of time to spend on it. 

Good luck.



US Politics. Obamacare. What’s the problem?

What is behind the resistance to a compulsory universal health insurance program in the US? I do not always understand US politics, but I am really lost on the health care issue. The US spends amost twice as much per capita on health as most OECD countries. It has more people without any health insurance at all, and certainly no better health outcomes than these other countries.

While I would not recommend that the US adopt Canada’s ideologically hamstrung “same poor service for all” health system, there are plenty of examples in Europe of countries with public health schemes with more flexibilty than Canada’s, and more private initiative and more choice, and which cost less than both Canada’s and the US system as per this table. They also have shorter waiting periods than in Canada.

Why is a compulsory universal health insurance program a bad thing for most people?

After all, we fund schools publicly. Yes we should allow more private delivery of educational services, allow more choice and dismantle the public quasi monopoly in education. But why not fund it publicly? Society does need some cohesion and some programs where people benefit from helping each other. I fail to see the downside.

Are schools too easy?

A recent survey in the US shows that a high percentage of school kids complain that school is too easy, and therefore boring. At the same time, a high percentage of kids have trouble at school. I don’t know if it is the same kids or not. I suspect that the same number kids would have trouble even if the course of study were made more demanding. 

I can only speak about what I see with my grandchildren who are in French immersion. I find the courses far too easy, and poorly organized. If I look at their homework, a lot of it looks like make work tasks created by teachers, often on poorly presented photocopied hand outs. 

In language instruction, as I have said, there should be far greater emphasis on increasing the passive skills, the vocabulary and the comprehension skills, rather than worrying about teaching correct grammar. Because the kids, other than those in French immersion, are graduating after 10 years of regular French, unable to string a proper sentence together.