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Don’t worry about your active vocabulary

Many advanced English learners have a large “passive vocabulary”, but they worry about the size of their “active vocabulary”. They can understand many difficult English words when reading or listening, but they don’t use most of them when speaking or writing in English. They feel this is a problem. They would like to use all the difficult words that they know.

If you are a learner who worries about his active vocabulary, this article may convince you to stop worrying.


People understand many more words than they use in their own conversations. One’s passive vocabulary is much larger than one’s active vocabulary. The total number of words actively used in one’s whole life is much smaller than the total number of words understood in one’s whole life.

This statement has nothing to do with foreign languages. It is about how people use their native language.

We think that in your native language, there are thousands of words that you don’t use (but you understand them all). There are literary words, formal words, scientific terms, slang phrases, etc. which you understand, but you don’t use. If you open a book written in your native language, you will see many such words.

So your own active vocabulary in your native language is much smaller than your passive vocabulary. And we guess that you don’t mind it. We guess that you are not worried about the difference between your active and passive vocabulary in your native language.

But you’re learning English as a foreign language. And you notice all the words that you understand but never use. Your perspective as a learner makes you regret this fact.

You don’t need to worry about using “too few” English words. You will learn to use some number of English words and they will be enough for you! At some point, your English active vocabulary will simply let you express anything you want. Just like your active vocabulary in your native language.

The next time you see a difficult English word, you don’t need to worry “Will I be able to use this word in conversation?”. If you can say anything you want with your active vocabulary, you should be happy with your English. And you don’t need to worry about those thousands of words which you will never use.